By: Ruth A. Allen, George N. Green, and James V. Reese

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: April 28, 2021

Before the United States government began keeping records of work stoppages, no accurate means existed to determine the number of strikes in a state or the extent of participation in the strikes known to have occurred. It is clear, however that strikes occurred in Texas as early as the republic. In September or October 1838 the Texas Typographical Association, the first labor organization in Texas, struck the Houston publishers and secured a 25 percent wage increase. From then on, occasional work stoppages occurred, usually involving only a small number of workers and almost never a labor organization. Not until after the Civil War did bona fide strikes occur. Those of 1870 were typical. In January of that year, Houston telegraphers joined a short, unsuccessful nationwide strike against Western Union; in April, the Austin Typographical Union suffered a disastrous defeat; in May, Galveston brickmasons struck for a raise but returned to work without it; and in November, the engineers and brakemen on the Houston and Texas Central Railway lost their jobs as a result of a walkout over wages. The first work stoppage involving more than a handful of workers occurred in June 1872, when the management of the Houston and Texas Central Railway began requiring all employees to sign an agreement releasing the company from liability for accidents on the job. No union existed, yet almost all employees attended meetings demanding the withdrawal of the liability release, calling it a "death warrant." When the railroad refused, 80 percent of the operating employees walked out and all trains on the line stopped for several days. After supervisory personnel and new employees put most of the trains back into operation, all those remaining on strike were fired. Although the engineers were later rehired and the liability release was withdrawn, the strike was a disastrous failure for most of the workers. The number of strikes increased through the seventies, as the number of unions and labor militancy grew. The peak year until the middle eighties was 1877, when, in addition to numerous small strikes, major work stoppages occurred among dockworkers in Galveston and railway workers on the Texas and Pacific. Both the large strikes were marked by considerable violence. The dockworkers' strike saw the first use of African Americans as strikebreakers in Texas (see SCREWMEN'S BENEVOLENT ASSOCIATION).

The first strike in Texas noted in official records occurred in 1880, when fifty employees of the draying industry stayed out 150 days but were denied an increase in wages. Between 1880 and 1886, 100 strikes occurred, involving 8,124 workers; establishments involved were closed for a total of 450 days; striking workers were out for a total of 708 days each; and the loss due to strikes was estimated at $1 million. These strikes included the Cowboy Strike of 1883, in which more than 300 cowboys in the Tascosa area struck for higher wages and better working conditions, and two strikes in Galveston, one of 280 cotton handlers lasting sixty-four days and the other of 150 longshoremen against the use of black laborers lasting two days. The first failed, the second succeeded. One of the most spectacular strikes was the Capitol Boycott in 1885. The largest number of strikes was called by the building trades unions, but the largest number of workers involved in any one industry was in transportation. The third largest group involved was the West Texas coal miners. The greatest number striking in any one year was 4,154, involved in seven strikes in 1885. Of these, 1,500 were longshoremen in the port of Galveston, and the major part of the others were in transportation. Additional thousands of Texas laborers joined the national strike of telegraphers and sectional strikes against the management of the western and southwestern railroads. In 1885 Texas ranked ninth among forty states in number of workers involved in strikes (4,000); for the six-year period it ranked fifteenth. Seventy-five of the 100 strikes, chiefly interstate strikes of telegraphers and railway workers, occurred in the year 1886; seventy-four of these were called by an organized labor group. Twenty-four of the twenty-five strikes between 1886 and 1894 were called by organized groups. The most significant were in the coal-mining areas, where industrial troubles were almost continuous from 1884 to 1904. In 1884, for six months, 450 coal miners carried on a losing strike against a reduction in wages. Troubles began in the mines in Erath County in 1888 and lasted for four years; Texas Rangers remained in the area for more than a year. The strike was largely unsuccessful.

After 1886 annual figures on the number of strikes are not available, but a summary for the quarter century from 1881 to 1905 shows a total of 341 strikes in Texas involving 37,000 workers. In 1903, which for the nation represents a peak year for strikes, 1,200 coal miners at Thurber remained out a total of 14,400 days and won union recognition and some changes in wages. Another strike of miners in 1910 caused a loss of 108,230 work days. Official reports from 1914 to 1926, covering World War I, include only numbers of strikes. In Texas the number of strikes increased over the three years preceding the actual war years of 1917–18,. The largest number of strikers involved was 10,000, members of the Oil Field, Gas Well, and Refinery Workers, who demanded an increase in wages and union recognition in the Oilfield Strike of 1917. After three months of unsuccessful attempts at mediation, the workers won some wage increases but lost the demand for recognition. Other strikes included twenty-three in the building trades, ten in transportation, eight in metal trades, six among chemical workers, three among miners, and seven in the shipbuilding industry. Among the major strikes of 1919 was a general strike in the building trades in Dallas involving 10,000 workers and a strike of 1,700 coal miners that caused the loss of 52,000 workdays.

Although the years 1919–20 brought a peak of industrial unrest, no significant changes took place in the groups concerned. Strikes included twenty-four in the building trades, eight in printing and publishing, seven of railroad employees, nine of hotel and restaurant employees, and six of street-railway employees. In 1921 the major industrial trouble was the participation of all Texas ports in a national strike of marine workers (see GALVESTON LONGSHOREMEN'S STRIKE OF 1920). In October 1921 a threatened strike of railroad workers on a national scale did not take place save for 600 workers on the International-Great Northern Railroad in Texas. Between 1922 and 1936 the number of strikes recorded annually dropped, but the mere number of strikes is little indication of the extent of industrial unrest. Thirty-eight strikes in 1936 involved 7,058 workers; twenty-two strikes in 1934 involved 8,222 workers. Man-days of labor lost in 1936 totaled 93,641; man-days lost on twenty-four strikes in 1935 totaled 111,707. Between 1927 and 1936, twenty-four strikes in transportation and communication caused a loss of 253,500 work days; thirty-eight in building and construction caused a loss of 37,200 working days; three strikes in agriculture and fishing caused the loss of 50,900 man-days; nine in the textile industry caused the loss of 33,657 man-days. In 1937 shrimp workers at Palacios, under the leadership of United Cannery, Agricultural and Packing House Workers of the CIO, demanded an increase in wages and preferential union hiring. Shrimpboatmen of Sabine, Freeport, Galveston, and Point Isabel, through the Inland Boatmen's Division of the National Maritime Union, also asked for an increase in pay. In September 1938, trouble flared into open violence; one man was killed, and others were injured. Another area of persistent trouble was among garment workers in the Dallas area. Governor James Allred appointed a State Industrial Commission to investigate the Dallas Garment Workers' Strike in 1935 and the millinery workers' situation in 1937. Texas Rangers remained in the Dallas area for some time in 1937, when recurrent acts of violence kept resentment alive. The situation was the subject of a hearing by the National Labor Relations Board early in 1940.

During 1930 the number of workers involved was 538 per strike, the greatest for period between 1927 and 1944. Six strikes involved 3,299 workers, of whom 99 percent were in two strikes in transportation and communication. One was a strike of 3,000 longshoremen against the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company that tied up thirty vessels in West Indies trade for three days. The issue on wage rates was compromised. The second largest average number of workers involved per strike was 433 in 1933. Approximately one-half were involved in two strikes in building and construction, 475 were in textile production, 400 in tobacco manufacture, and 300 in lumber and allied products. In 1934 average workers per strike was 374, the greatest number being 1,500 in the agriculture and fishing industry. The greatest number of man-days lost in any one year of the seventeen-year period from 1927 to 1944 was 156,408 in 1935. In the first four years after 1939 the number of workers involved in strikes in Texas was 1 percent of those involved in the nation, but in 1945 only eleven states exceeded Texas in proportion of workers involved. The strike of the International Typographical Union against the Valley Publishing Company, which published papers in McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville, attracted much attention. Texas Rangers were sent into the area, and for some days the papers did not appear. The dramatic character of the picketing and some violence led to an emergency order by the city of Harlingen limiting the number of pickets. The order was tested on the question of constitutionality. In 1945 several major oil refineries were stopped by members of the Oil Workers' International demanding an increase in wages. The refineries were seized and operated by the United States Navy, the dispute was referred to a fact finding board, and by the end of February 1946 most of the seized plants had been returned to private operation. In the same industry 450 members of a black local of the oil workers at Port Arthur struck against the Texas Company (Texaco) over racial discrimination in wages. Other strikes in 1945 included a stoppage at the Galveston Todd Dry Docks in February, at the Gulf Oil Corporation of Port Arthur in May, and at the Pennsylvania Ship Yards in Beaumont in July. In September a one-day stoppage of 10,000 workers at the Consolidated Steel Corporation shipbuilding division at Orange protested alleged discrimination against union pipefitters.

The vast changes that occurred in Texas during and after World War II are clearly exemplified by labor-management relations. The 2,500,000 man-days lost in the approximately 150 strikes during the eighteen months immediately after the war exceeded the total man-days lost in all previous strikes combined. This greatest outburst of industrial conflict in the state's history included major work stoppages in the oil, railroad, aircraft, chemical, construction, steel, and nonferrous metals industries. Causes of the strikes included the expiration of wartime no-strike pledges, the problems brought by demobilization, the drastic inflation that followed the war, and vigorous organizational drives in several industries. When this surge of labor troubles subsided, however, prewar conditions did not return. In no year of the two decades following the war did the number of strikes or man-days lost fall as low as the previous high of sixty-four strikes with 198,000 man-days lost established in 1937. In each year except 1963 (when only 7,000 workers struck their jobs), the number of Texans involved in labor disputes was more than twice the prewar high of 11,800 established in 1941. The average number of workers involved per strike also reached record levels after the war, with 1,025 men per strike in 1945, 977 per strike in 1946, and more than 400 per strike in nine of the twenty years following the war. During these twenty years, 790,000 strikers lost 14,257,000 man-days in 1,680 work stoppages. Although small strikes, involving relatively few men and scant man-days lost, continued to account for the majority of these work stoppages, approximately 75 percent of the man-days lost resulted from strikes in major industries. More than 100,000 man-days were lost in strikes in the oil and gas industry in each of the years 1945, 1947, 1950, 1952, 1959, 1961, 1962, and 1963; in transportation and communication in 1946, 1947, 1950, 1953, 1963, and 1965; in the chemical industries in 1946, 1949, 1956, 1961, 1962, and 1963; in the iron and steel industry in 1946, 1952, 1956, and 1959; and in construction in 1946, 1947, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1965. Both the industries and unions that developed most rapidly in Texas after World War II were of national or regional character; consequently, major work stoppages were less frequently purely local conflicts. The nationwide steel strikes of 1952, 1956, and 1959 affected large numbers of Texas steelworkers, and longshoremen in the state's ports took part in regional strikes in 1956, 1959, 1961, 1962, and 1965. Often nationwide strikes against particular companies, such as those against Sinclair Oil Corporation in 1945 and 1952, Southwestern Bell in 1953, and Ford Motor Company in 1964 and 1967, involved Texans.

A more mature attitude toward labor relations by the unions, management, and the public characterized the postwar decades. As a result labor disputes were more peaceful, if equally acrimonious (especially in the urban areas of high union membership and activity). Occasional fisticuffs still occurred, from those marking the oil and chemical strikes of 1945 to several fights in the farmworkers' strike of 1966–67 in the Valley. But rare was the kind of violence that marred the Lone Star Steel strike at Daingerfield in 1957, where bombings and shootings occurred and a large force of rangers and highway patrolmen was needed to restore peace.

Profound changes in the role of the strike in labor relations began in the early sixties. The federal Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 strengthened the hand of management in union relations, especially in right-to-work states, of which Texas is one. Prosperity in most of the basic industries led management to move more frequently to trade increased wages and benefits for no-strike provisions in long-term contracts. Organized labor had been successful in moving much of its industrial membership into the middle class, which made them less willing (or able) to support work stoppages. Rapid technological advances rendered the strike a less useful tool for unions. In workplaces like refineries and chemical and printing plants, for example, supervisory and contract workers could maintain operations during a strike, rendering strikes much less effective. Such innovations also reduced the number of workers required in many industries. After several strikes (followed by Taft-Hartley injunctions) in the early sixties, the International Longshoremen's Association, for instance, was forced to accept containerization in Gulf ports in exchange for a guaranteed annual wage for most of its members, as the inevitable virtual disappearance of longshoreman jobs occurred. Similarly, an injunction against a national railway strike in the middle sixties culminated in reduction of the size of train crews in exchange for allowing attrition rather than massive lay-offs to reduce the number of railway workers. These changes were combined with growing anti-union sentiment in business and government and a dramatic change in the make-up of the state's workforce. The result was that in the decade and a half after 1965, while the number of nonagricultural workers almost doubled the number of strikes, the number of workers involved and days idle remained essentially level. On the average, there were about a hundred strikes a year in Texas, which idled 30,000 to 40,000 workers for about a total of a million man-days (or less than .1 percent of total worktime in the state). Though changes in the categories of the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports make precise comparison to earlier periods impossible, it is clear that a vast majority of the strikes in Texas were in the traditionally more highly unionized manufacturing, transportation, and communication and building industries.

Several of the work stoppages in this period were worthy of note. Reclassification of jobs at the American Oil Company's Texas City refinery, a result of automation, led to a year-long strike by 2,000 workers in 1962. Although a compromise ended the walk-out, in time the company was able to reduce its workforce dramatically, a pattern followed by other oil and chemical installations. In 1966 a Texas branch of the California-based United Farm Workers Union began to organize the Mexican-American farmworkers in the Rio Grande valley, a move that had broad repercussions (see STARR COUNTY STRIKE). Though unsuccessful in gaining contracts with corporate growers, the movement highlighted serious social, health, and economic issues that have remained sources of contention. Similarly, in 1972, 2,500 workers at the Farah clothing plants in San Antonio and El Paso, more than 90 percent of whom were Mexican Americans, walked off their jobs. The Farah strike, which lasted twenty-two months, provoked an effective nationwide boycott of Farah products led by the AFL-CIO and other pro-union groups. Increasing activism among Hispanics in South Texas resulted in some growth in union activity there. For example, the United Auto Workers union organized the Eagle Bus Manufacturing plant in Brownsville in 1975, but was unable to secure much beyond union recognition and a grievance procedure until a strike in October 1980. The company tried to replace the 400 mostly Tejano workers with strike breakers from both sides of the Rio Grande, but was unable to secure needed skilled workers. Production before the strike was two buses per day, but at the end of two months the strike breakers had not completed a single vehicle. Under pressure from its customers, Eagle agreed to meaningful raises, a host of improved benefits, and an enhanced role for the union in shop operations. Coca Cola drivers and warehousemen in Laredo joined the Teamsters in 1977. When negotiations for a contract with increased wages and benefits stalled, they struck in March 1978. A complaint to the National Labor Relations Board led to an order for the company to bargain seriously. In January 1979, a contract granting wage increases, improved benefits, and improved job security was signed. Less traditional issues than wages and benefits motivated some work stoppages. A growing practice of contracting out repairs to nonunion workers led the 1,800 organized craft workers at Dow Chemical in Freeport to walk off the job in June 1972. After a bitter and confrontational four-month strike, the company agreed to contract out no more than 25 percent of its maintenance work and to grant a few selected wage increases. In what has been called the first environmental strike in America, in 1973 the 1,800 members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers at Shell Oil's Deer Park plant struck for the right of access to records to help monitor the workplace environment. After four months, the company agreed to share some information, although much less than the union had sought. The strike set a pattern, however, for other agreements on safety and environment in manufacturing industries. A regional collective bargaining arrangement between all contractors and building trade unions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was finalized in 1971, the nation's first such arrangement. For four years this arrangement, which provided for a no-strike-arbitration process, functioned well and was viewed as a potential new pattern with national consequences. But in 1975 the contractors rejected demands for higher wages and benefits, and the largest and longest construction shutdown in the state's history followed. More than 26,000 workers in 28 unions shut down 200 contractors for 113 days. In the end, probably neither side won. By the time a compromise was reached, nonunion contractors had moved into the area; in the eighties they controlled more building jobs than at any time since the 1920s.

Little doubt exists that the relatively low number of strikes in the seventies was related to the extraordinary economic boom in Texas, fueled by soaring oil prices. Unemployment remained low, and in some oil-related jobs wages increased an average of 17 percent a year. But even before the boom turned to bust in 1981, several developments began eroding the influence of organized labor and thus the use of its ultimate weapon. The reorientation of the state's economy from basic to service industries, much foreign immigration, new business practices such as "contracting out" and "downsizing," the influx of women into the work force, increased international trade and competition, the growing migration of jobs overseas, and the increasing conservative political climate all contributed to a stagnation of union membership and, after 1982, to a precipitous decline. Additionally, a body of court decisions and NLRB rulings made it easier for management to replace striking employees, thus introducing new risks for would-be-strikers. The effect of President Ronald Reagan's hugely popular firing of striking air-traffic controllers and decertification of their union in 1981 would be hard to overestimate. The fear of permanent replacement is cited by numerous union leaders as the greatest hindrance to union activism. As a result, collective bargaining in the eighties and nineties has more frequently been characterized by incidents such as that at the General Motors Arlington plant, where UAW members gave up benefits in 1982 and 1992 in exchange for job security for more senior employees, than by strikes. The 400 workers at the Harvey Industries plant in Athens suffered a more drastic fate. There, workers accepted a 25 percent pay cut in 1982 and a wage freeze in 1987 in order to keep their television factory working in the face of foreign competition. They struck when faced with the threat of another wage cut in early 1989, but replacements kept the plant in operation, and after several months most of the strikers gave up and went back to their jobs. Some were never rehired. In January 1991 the plant closed. In a time of massive lay-offs, high unemployment, and stagnant wages, workers and unions became less willing to risk the proverbial bird in the hand.

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in response to budget cuts, ceased reporting work stoppages in individual states in 1980, it is certain that strikes have declined as a factor in labor relations. Since 1982, the number of work stoppages per year in the United States has averaged between 15 and 20 percent of the number in the previous three decades. There is no reason to believe that Texas, the least unionized of the industrial states, has not followed national trends. The best estimate is that in most recent years, there have been about twenty strikes involving a few thousand workers in Texas. More and more frequently, these strikes end as did the 1992 Apple Tree supermarket strike, in which the company declared bankruptcy, a judge invalidated the union's contract, and the new Japanese owners refused to bargain. Labor is occasionally able to gain advantage at a strategic moment, as did the American Airlines flight attendants (see AMR CORPORATION), who struck successfully for five days during the Thanksgiving rush in 1993. But such incidents are infrequent. Until dramatic changes occur in union effectiveness, public opinion, and the writing and administration of labor law, the strike will likely remain an ineffective tool for unions. See also ECONOMY FURNITURE COMPANY STRIKE, GREAT SOUTHWEST STRIKE, PECAN-SHELLERS' STRIKE, and TEXAS STATE INDUSTRIAL UNION COUNCIL.

Ruth Alice Allen, Chapters in the History of Organized Labor in Texas (University of Texas Publication 4143, Austin, 1941). Florence Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 1880–1936 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Bulletin 651, 1938). James V. Reese, The Worker in Texas, 1821–1876 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1964). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Compensation and Working Conditions (1995). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics (1945–1980).

Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ruth A. Allen, George N. Green, and James V. Reese, “Strikes,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 22, 2022,

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April 28, 2021