The Galveston Screwmen's Benevolent Association was a trade union of specialized longshoremen who, with the aid of screwjacks, stowed and packed the bulky cotton bales into the holds of ships before the use of the power cotton compress. Their specialized ability insured an increase in the bale capacity of a ship by 10 to 15 percent, a skill critical to the profitable operation of the shipper. On the night of September 11, 1866, twenty-three Galveston cotton screwmen met to establish an association similar to the group in New Orleans, which had been established in 1850. The very nature of the screwmen's work, equality in the five-man gangs directed by a foreman who performed the same tasks, led to the success of the union. A list of the original thirty-four members, who had signed up before the second meeting, shows only five native-born United States citizens; the others came from Ireland, England, the Scandinavian countries, Scotland, and Germany, and the membership was to retain a foreign-born majority. Qualifications for membership emphasized skill, character, and health, and applicants were subject to the vote of the whole membership, with seven black balls sufficient for rejection. Screwmen had to be hardy men to perform the demanding work, and their exceptional physical strength was a source of group pride and a legend in port cities. In the beginning the association's main function was concern for the welfare of the membership, with relief for ill members, death benefits, and financial aid to distressed members, rather than for militant economic activities. Dr. Hamilton W. West was retained as the association's physician from 1878 to 1887. Constant concern with a favorable image kept the group from any political or religious involvement, although it was not averse to taking part in public affairs in Galveston if the association's image or its members' welfare were involved. Social activities of the association included picnics, parades, and balls, and some of the members agitated for uniforms or "regalia" for social events. The Galveston screwmen did not seek any ties with the other screwmen's organizations in Mobile or New Orleans, nor with local labor organizations. They took no part in the Galveston longshoremen's strike in 1885. The association, early on, brought about the standardization of wages at five dollars a day (and later six dollars a day), a working day of nine hours (seven on Sunday or at night), and the enforcement of an earlier ruling that no member could work with or for any person or persons who employed Negroes to work on shipboard. By 1875 most regular screwmen were association members in what amounted to a closed shop, and the association was the largest and strongest labor organization in Galveston. Membership grew from little more than 100 in 1876 to 250 in 1880 and about 325 in 1891.
In 1879 some Black longshoremen established the Cotton Jammer's Association, but in 1882 Norris Wright Cuney, a leading Black businessman, was unable to secure stevedoring contracts for Black longshoremen, although during the peak seasons of fall and winter there was a labor shortage. On November 28, 1882, the Screwmen's Benevolent Association called a general holiday for its members in opposition to the appearance of Negro workers in the cotton-screwing trade. Early the next year, however, Cuney finally broke the White longshoremen's virtual monopoly by bringing a number of Black longshoremen from New Orleans so that he would have the needed workmen, and he gained the stevedoring contract with the Morgan Lines, one of the port's largest cotton shippers. In March 1883 a new Black screwmen's association, the Screwmen's Benevolent Association No. 2, was established, and William L. Moody, president of the Galveston Cotton Exchange, was informed that Cuney had both men and tools to screw the cotton for shipping. The first job, however, on the ship Albion, on April 2, 1883, resulted in the immediate withdrawal of all White workers from the ship. A strike was called by the White association, and a change made in the executive officers from those who were conciliatory to the more militant. In September a close vote within the association brought the men back to work; however, it was not an overwhelming victory for the Blacks, for in the late 1880s only Cuney is known to have hired Black screwmen.
The association introduced an apprenticeship system in 1885 that resulted in an increased White labor force, thereby gaining a virtual monopoly of the work at the port of Galveston. By 1891, when the association celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, its evolution from a benevolent society to a union was complete. During the 1890s certain developments occurred that marked the twilight of the association's quarter-century of successful labor organization. Cotton became an expanding Texas crop and each year a greater number of men was needed for the screwmen work crews; larger and more rapid steel ships began to undermine the actual economic value of cotton screwing. The closed shop went out in 1901, as did, in 1904, the rule limiting to seventy-five the number of bales that could be screwed by a gang in a normal workday; Blacks took over larger and larger portions of the work. It was the introduction in Galveston of the high-density cotton compress in 1910 that ended the need for screwmen, and by World War I the screwmen were no longer a part of the necessary work force. In 1902 the association had affiliated with the national longshoremen's union as Local 307, and by 1924 all semblance of its identity was gone.
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James V. Reese, "Evolution of an Early Texas Union: The Screwmen's Benevolent Association of Galveston, 1866–1891," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 75 (October 1971).
Activism and Social Reform
Civil Rights, Segregation, and Slavery
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Screwmen's Benevolent Association,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 18, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
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February 24, 2021
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