The Texas Farm Workers Union was established under the leadership of Antonio Orendain in August 1975, almost a decade after he began organizing for the United Farm Workers Union in the Rio Grande valley. When ordered to Chicago by UFW in the late 1960s to help run the union's national grape and lettuce boycotts, Orendain complied, but several years later, after returning to the Valley, he ended his association with UFW in order to devote himself to organizing Texas agricultural workers under a separate banner. One account suggests that UFW hesitated to become involved in Texas because it was preoccupied with union elections in California, where it had just won a major victory. Other accounts of TFWU history indicate that UFW did not generally encourage Orendain's efforts to organize farmworkers in Texas. Indeed, conflicts over this and other issues characterized the relationship between TFWU and UFW throughout the former's life. A confrontation that occurred on May 26, 1975, between union organizers and El Texano Ranch, in Hidalgo, Reynosa, Mexico, propelled the state union effort forward. The event resulted in a spontaneous strike during which a ranch supervisor fired upon the strikers and their supporters. The farmworkers' involvement in the action grew into a strike that lasted throughout the melon season and spread to the Trans-Pecos and Panhandle. Many strikers were arrested. As the strike continued, a core of Valley farmworkers supported the foundation of TFWU because they wanted a local union that would be accountable to them. Other fieldworkers in Texas, however, remained allied with UFW, which was based in Delano, California.
The union had a difficult time from the beginning. Valley growers steadfastly opposed unionization and attained state court injunctions against TFWU pickets in the summer of 1975 on the grounds that the union did not represent a majority of their employees. In addition, TFWU could not count on the important support of the AFL-CIO, which was officially allied with UFW. Working independently, the union resorted to "hit-and-run" strike tactics. It could not pull laborers out of the fields for very long because it had no funds to support them and their families. Still, TFWU carried out nonviolent strikes in the Valley and pressed the farmworker cause in the media throughout its first two years. The union also published its own newspaper, El Cuhamil, to cover its activities. Besides organizing in the Rio Grande valley, TFWU sought to unite farmworkers in West Texas, where it temporarily shut down a packing shed and forced melon growers in Presidio, who feared losing their crops, to raise wages from sixty cents to $1.25 an hour. In 1976 TFWU began campaigning for passage of a state law to establish a Texas Agricultural Board and grant fieldworkers the right to vote on union representation. Senator Carlos Truán (D-Corpus Christi) and Representative Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), among others, sponsored the legislation, which did not make it past subcommittee hearings. The bill may have been introduced during subsequent sessions as well. On February 26, 1977, Orendain led his union members and their supporters on a 420-mile march from San Juan to Austin. The march ended at the Capitol on April 2. A few months later, on June 18, 1977, TFWU started a historic 1,600-mile journey from Austin to Washington to win more public support for agricultural workers and gain an audience with President James E. Carter. The march culminated at the Lincoln Memorial on September 5, 1977. Religious leaders and union officials endorsed the march by the forty people. Carter, however, possibly at the behest of UFW president César Chávez, refused to meet with the marchers.
News coverage of the union's series of "wildcat strikes," in the summer of 1980 in Hereford indicates that TFWU was still active as the new decade began. In addition, in a position paper Orendain discussed his plans to continue the union's work through the 1980s, but no other details of his plans have been located in available TFWU records. One source indicates that TFWU was in existence in 1982, and another cites 1986 as the year of its demise. Because the union's major funding in the 1970s came from small grants and donations, its eventual collapse was likely due to the difficulty of maintaining itself without reliable financial backing. A TFWU proposal to the Catholic Church for a three-year grant of $80,000 was turned down in 1980. The union blamed UFW's influence on church officials for the rejection. Despite its failure, TFWU was credited with regularly lobbying to eliminate antiunion laws in the state. It was also able to garner the aid of local support groups in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, and other cities. Besides raising funds for TFWU, they helped in more basic ways, such as sponsoring a food caravan to farmworker headquarters in San Juan. Although TFWU did not achieve its goal of winning collective-bargaining rights for farmworkers in Texas, it did force public attention on the substandard conditions under which farmworkers lived and argued for state government, agribusiness, and labor unions to remedy the situation.
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María Flores Collection, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin. Texas Farm Workers Union Collection, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Teresa Palomo Acosta,
“Texas Farm Workers Union,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 28, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
January 1, 1996
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: