Texas State Industrial Union Council

By: George N. Green

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: April 28, 2021

The Texas State Industrial Union Council was the Texas affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations from 1937 to 1956. The National Labor Relations Act (1935) legitimized collective bargaining and encouraged labor to expand its horizons. After the 1935 American Federation of Labor convention, John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers and other union leaders organized a committee of industrial unions to launch a vast organizing campaign. The craft-oriented AFL refused to support it, and Lewis and other industrial unionists broke with the parent body in 1937 and organized the CIO. In Texas the CIO helped establish locals, provided an educational and informational clearinghouse, maintained public relations through community endeavors, lobbied the state legislature for favorable legislation and against unfavorable bills, and campaigned for local, state, and national prolabor candidates for office. More than 100 delegates representing ten organizations met on July 20, 1937, in Beaumont and founded the Texas State Industrial Union Council. During its early years the TSIUC had only a few coastal locals with several thousand members. A pro-Communist minority controlled the organization until the summer of 1941, capitalizing upon a sizable antiwar sentiment. As early as 1938 the TSIUC organized the United Sugar Refinery Workers in Sugar Land. In 1939 it helped the National Maritime Union sign up 1,000 fishermen and boatmen, and in the early 1940s aided in unionizing steel plants and oil refineries. During World War II the TSIUC placed representatives on local and regional boards, e.g., the War Production Board, the War Labor Board, and the Office of Price Administration. It also promoted war-bond drives, blood donations, and Red Cross contributions. In 1944 the TSIUC yielded its organizing activities to the CIO regional director and the international unions.

In the late 1930s the successful Texas unions with CIO ties were those that enforced the federal Labor Relations Act with strikes. During the war, government intervention enabled industrial unions to make notable gains, but prodigious organizing efforts were still necessary. Despite urbanization, industrialization, and the New Deal, Texas leaders generally opposed unions that disturbed politico-economic arrangements. However, an unskilled-labor surplus, particularly among minorities, provided business leaders the opportunity to divert White workers' attention from economic to racial issues. The CIO's first goal in Texas was to unionize the oil refineries. In 1937, with TSIUC help, the Oil Workers International Union had a brief surge in membership, but it dwindled the next year with a downturn in the economy. Gulf Coast newspapers and East Texas congressman Martin Dies and others branded all union activities as Communistic, and oil companies spent tens of thousands of dollars to hire labor spies. However, by 1942 the OWIU became more vigorous. It overcame an AFL counter-drive headed by the Operating Engineers, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and company hostility, especially from Standard Oil, and won victories at the huge Texaco refinery in Port Arthur and the Texas City plants of Pan American (Standard of Indiana) and Southport. In the spring of 1943 the OWIU organized the Gulf refinery employees in Port Arthur into Local 23 and completely unionized the nation's largest refinery center. Local 23 became the second-largest local in the OWIU (United States and Canada). Labor organizers capitalized on a spontaneous walkout at Pasadena Shell in 1943 and called a strike at B. F. Goodrich in 1944 to win union contracts. By 1944 the OWIU was the fastest-growing union in the CIO. The federal government played a major role in union successes. The National War Labor Board, established in 1942 to settle disputes and stabilize wages, encouraged union membership. The WLB became the court of final settlement for disputes in the oil industry. The tight labor market also spurred union growth.

The OWIU met resistance in Texas cities peopled from the deep South when it attempted to recruit minority members. Some locals protested company practices of confining members of minorities to menial jobs, but they often had to negotiate contracts that included company-segregated occupational categories and work areas. The Fair Employment Practices Committee, which monitored race relations during the war, labeled oil refineries the most recalcitrant industry in Texas, especially Humble, Sinclair, and Shell. After the war the OWIU gradually won approval for its racial policies. Shortly after V-J Day in September 1945, the OWIU called strikes at refineries when oil companies nationwide announced a 15 percent cut in take-home pay. Gulf Coast locals led the way. The walkout lasted three months, but it led to pay raises amounting to 25 cents per hour, the highest of the nation's postwar, industrial pay raises. The OWIU headquarters, located in Fort Worth since 1938, soon found itself in an unwelcome environment and in 1951 moved to Denver, Colorado. By 1955 the OWIU had 31,000 members in Texas.

The TSIUC also pushed unionizing in the Texas maritime industry. In the 1930s sailors aboard American vessels suffered cramped, vermin-infested quarters, rotten food, and harsh discipline. In port, shippers provided sailors on duty with no fresh milk, fruit, or vegetables. The AFL's old International Seaman's Union was corrupt and offered no protection. Communists worldwide targeted the maritime industry. In 1936–37 sailors in Texas coastal cities joined the Communists in strikes against shippers and the ISU. Anti-Communists also were active. In Houston in December 1936, ISU business agent Wilbur Dickey shot and killed striker Johnny Kane. That same month, ISU tanker seaman Peter Banfield died after a brawl with strikers in Galveston. On Christmas Eve fifty Houston policemen beat up 150 strikers on the Houston docks. From the 1936 strike, which spread along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the National Maritime Union was born. The Houston local was one of the few not controlled by Communists, but by 1939 the Communists had taken over and purged the non-Communists (including former Industrial Workers of the World). Several went to work for Dies's House Un-American Activities Committee. Communists, although a minority, had more energy and direction and took the lead. The NMU transformed the living and working conditions of the sailors. By 1939 the union had established hiring halls to encourage membership. During World War II, Communist NMU leaders pressured employers and the government to end the Jim Crow hiring practices in Texas ports. Although their rhetoric was radical, in negotiations they conducted themselves like regular CIO officials. The NMU grew prodigiously during the war, but basic wages remained static after substantial raises in 1940 and 1941. There were, however, sizable war-risk bonuses; casualty rates among merchant seamen were higher during early 1943 than in the armed services. The NMU called a successful postwar strike, then in 1950 purged the Communists from its ranks.

CIO organizers also organized smelter workers in the El Paso area. In 1939 Humberto Silex at ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining) and J. B. Chavez at Phelps Dodge pushed employees to join the Mine, Mill, Smelter Workers in El Paso and the Confederación de Trabajadores in neighboring Ciudad Juárez. The 1,100 workers at the two smelters were mostly Tejanos and Mexican nationals restricted to unskilled jobs, a ten-cent hourly wage, and six-day weeks, with no fringe benefits. The workers lived in slums and were victimized by shakedowns, deductions, and company stores. Smelter managers fired known unionists and worked closely with El Paso county sheriff Chris Fox, who deported union workers. Fox labeled all CIO organizers Communists. In fact, Communists often were the only organizers who would work with minorities. The National Labor Relations Board protected union activities and supervised elections in the smelters. Union victories in 1942–43, bolstered by War Labor Board rulings regarding back pay, led to the first labor contracts. At the Non-Ferrous Metals Commission hearings in 1943 the CIO secured an order eliminating discriminatory practices in the smelter industry, effectively ending ethnic wage differences. In March 1946 labor negotiations with ASARCO and Phelps Dodge collapsed, and a three-month strike ensued. As 80 percent of the 1,100 strikers were aliens, federal immigration officials questioned many of the men about their status. They tried to arrest and deport strike organizer Humberto Silex, a Nicaraguan. In June the smelter companies, which paid lower wages in El Paso than in their other United States plants, agreed to minimum hourly wage increase of 18½ cents. This nearly closed the regional wage gap. Later, during the "Red Scare" in the 1950s the CIO expelled the MMSW, because it was Communist-dominated. However, in El Paso and elsewhere in the Southwest the locals retained the loyalty of their rank and file. In 1967 the United Steel Workers of America absorbed the MMSW.

In 1937 the CIO formed the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee to challenge a move by the AFL's Amalgamated Meat Cutters to unionize the meat industry. In Fort Worth more than 3,000 workers at Swift and Company, Armour, and independent companies were paid a subsistence wage, worked at unclassified jobs, and had no paid vacations. The PWOC, in trying to organize employees, saw union members dismissed, heard cries of Communist takeover, and encountered company manipulation of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Whites. In 1942, after the National Defense Mediation Board forced Armour to sign a blanket agreement, the PWOC called brief work stoppages on the kill floors, where the workers were skilled and the product was perishable. In 1943 the PWOC won a contract that allowed members of minorities to move into skilled jobs and closed the eight-cent wage difference between Whites and minorities. In 1943 Swift management distributed back pay for overtime, especially to skilled hands, and mounted a campaign to turn Black workers against the PWOC. The company won by capitalizing on PWOC bickering. During the 1940s at Armour, minority groups, which made up nearly a half of the workforce, were blocked from moving into all-White departments. But during the next decade young Blacks, backed by an international union mandate, pushed into these departments. In 1952 the union forcibly desegregated the company cafeteria, and White workers branded the Black push a Communist conspiracy. Segregationists responded that there was no race issue, while Black and White integrationists denied there was a Communist issue. Both were incorrect. In the backlash the Livestock Handlers local, steadfastly White, separated from the PWOC, and many White workers in the Armour local withdrew from union activities.

In the late 1930s the Texas CIO made an effort to unionize the Ford assembly plant in Dallas, but "outside squads," employed to prevent unionism, roamed the local community, while "inside squads" ferreted out unionism in the factories. In the summer and fall of 1937 the Dallas outside squad committed eighteen documented assaults. One victim died and another was tarred and feathered. An AFL organizer lost an eye. Dallas police had tipped off the squad to his presence in town. None of the victims was trying to unionize the plant, and most were not union members. The police, the Open Shop Association, and the Chamber of Commerce were determined to keep Dallas free of unions. Texas Rangers quelled the violence. NLRB hearings in Dallas in 1940 revealed the ties between the goon squads, the Ford company, and the city police. Similar events occurred elsewhere in the nation, but only in Dallas did violence take place where there was no movement to organize a plant. The workers suffered line speed-up, lay-offs with no reemployment guarantees, a lack of seniority and grievance machinery, and restrictions on break periods. In 1941 the CIO and the company warned workers to join the United Auto Workers to protect their jobs, and a local was promptly organized. In 1943 the UAW sent organizers to unionize the North American Aviation plant at Grand Prairie. They faced resistance from the aircraft company, the Dallas Open Shop Association, and the AFL. The union won a contract that included a seniority system, equal pay for women, and paid vacations. On V-J Day in 1945 the union saw North American close its plant and dismiss all of its 25,000 workers. Soon after, when Temco and Chance Vought moved into the facility, the UAW organized them. In 1951 the local at Temco broke the color line for union officers by appointing a Black steward. Five years later UAW locals in Grand Prairie enrolled nearly 9,000 members and represented more than 2,400 in the bargaining units who had not joined the locals. In 1953–54 the UAW's presence at Dallas Ford, Temco, and Chance Vought enabled them to start locals at the new aircraft and auto plants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, notably Bell Helicopter and General Motors. The UAW was committed to racial equality and expelled a Dallas local when it refused to admit non-White members.

In 1937 the CIO helped the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers to unionize workers in the Texas feed, flour, and cotton mills. A shrimp-peelers' union at Aransas Pass was an early UCAPAWA local. Its 225 workers were paid about two dollars a day during four months' work, scattered through a year. In 1938 the shrimp workers pulled a wildcat (unauthorized) strike for a 50 percent wage increase, and violence erupted. A union official on the picket line shot and killed an assailant. He was convicted and sent to prison. The incident snuffed out the strike and the local. UCAPAWA's most spectacular activity occurred during the pecan-shellers' strike in San Antonio. The average sheller earned about $2.75 for seventy-five hours of work a week. In 1938 more than 10,000 of an estimated 12,000 shellers, mostly women, walked out because of a pay cut. As some of the leaders were Communists, San Antonio police harassed, tear-gassed, and jailed pickets. Governor James Allred persuaded the owners to submit to arbitration, and the CIO gained contracts with pay raises and grievance machinery for some 8,000 workers. The strike galvanized Tejanos and demonstrated the power of unity and assertiveness. The tangible results, however, included the defeat of incumbent congressman F. Maury Maverick, who embraced the workers and supported the Texas State Industrial Union Council. Church, press, and big business rose against him. Moreover, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which took effect later that same year, required a twenty-five-cent hourly minimum wage. The pecan-shelling industry of Texas was the only one in the nation that quickly mechanized. As a result the workforce fell to 2,000 or so workers. The local lasted only a few years. UCAPAWA's main Texas base was Houston. In 1939 the CIO demanded that the workers at the nearby Imperial Sugar Company refinery, organized earlier by the TSIUC, transfer to a UCAPAWA local, but the sugar workers balked. By early 1942 the Houston UCAPAWA had won five contracts covering 600 Black and Tejano compress workers in Houston, and had used the War Labor Board to expand further. However, many of the added workers paid no union dues. In 1950 the Food and Tobacco Workers of America, successor to the UCAPAWA, had only 1,000 members when it was absorbed by the Distributive and Processing Workers of America. The UCAPAWA faded due to shaky finances, the many unskilled jobs in its jurisdiction, Communist domination, and state anti-union laws.

In early 1937 another CIO affiliate, the United Steel Workers of America, sent organizers to Houston. They established a local at the Hughes Tool Company (see BAKER HUGHES), defeating a company union and eight other locals. During the war the USWA also organized Sheffield Steel (Armco), American Can Company, and Continental Can. In 1944 Hughes Tool balked at accepting a standard maintenance of membership agreement, and some 3,000 skilled workers making tools vital to the oil industry went on strike. The federal government sent the United States Army to seize the plant. The War Labor Board approved membership maintenance, but the company resisted and the army enforced the clause. In 1946, after the army pulled out, 1,300 workers decertified their CIO local, and the old independent union came back, complete with separate Black and White locals. The workforce eventually reaffiliated with the USWA. In the early 1950s the union added 4,000 members in East Texas, including employees at the Lone Star Steel plant in Daingerfield.

The CIO also tackled American Telephone and Telegraph, the holding corporation for the regional Bell companies. AT&T had destroyed all vestiges of unionism in the industry in the 1930s, using "company unions, victimization, injunctions, and professional strikebreakers," legal tactics at the time, in this endeavor. There was no seniority, negotiation, or consultation with employees. During the Great Depression AT&T, on short notice, inflicted mass layoffs, shortened the work week, and speeded up the work. The pension plan was financially unsound, but the company increased its dividends to nine dollars a share. In Texas, during the hot summers, women operators sometimes fainted at the switchboards. When the minimum-wage law was passed in 1938, at least eighty-six Texas towns were paying operators a starting wage of nine dollars a week. After the Supreme Court upheld the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, Bell companies in 1937 severed connections with company unions. Many of these unions (employee associations) became truly independent and militant, particularly in the Southwest. Between May and November 1937 the Southwestern Telephone Workers Union, assisted by Southwestern Bell Telephone, increased its membership from eighty to 10,000. In the summer of 1938 the STWU was the first to organize outside the Bell system. The Bell companies, however, ensured that "bargaining" was divided among the companies and their divisions, and among the four departments in each plant: installation and maintenance, accounting (billing and payrolls), commercial (business office, directories), and traffic (switchboard operators). In 1939 the STWU's Dallas local won a dollar increase for operators. The STWU affiliated with the National Federation of Telephone Workers, organized in 1938. NFTW was hampered by the company union heritage, entrenched since 1919, especially the autonomous regions, divisions (four in Texas), and departments. A union of unions, NFTW lacked the machinery to demand collective bargaining or engage in strikes. The STWU and other employee unions faced problems, including tension between the sexes, based on men's apprehension that the more numerous women would dominate the organization. Members also worried that the NFTW would not obtain War Labor Board recognition during World War II. NTFW tried vainly to coordinate fifty-two affiliates in a wage dispute with AT&T in 1946, and dissolved the next year. It was replaced by the centralized Communications Workers of America. In 1947 CWA launched a strike, primarily to gain AT&T recognition. Bitterness appeared when strikers allegedly slashed 250 telephone circuits near Fort Worth. In 1949 CWA joined the CIO. In Texas 5,474 voted for the CIO and 3,658 for continued independence. In the 1950s CWA wildcat strikes flared in different places in Texas. During a heat wave in Dallas, 600 operators walked out to protest inadequate cooling by electric fans blowing over tubs of ice. Elsewhere they protested the lack of maternity leaves and benefits and restrictions on coffee breaks. The union won concessions in every case.

By 1944 the TSIUC had helped organize thirty-eight CIO locals with 30,000 members. Most locals were in Houston, Beaumont-Port Arthur, and Dallas. Through 1948 a majority had no affiliation with the TSIUC, due to lack of finances and apathy. By 1950 the largest unions included oil, steel, auto, and communications. Smaller unions also made inroads. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers unionized several plants, the Brewery Workers established unions in San Antonio and Galveston, and the Transport Workers Union was successful in Houston. By 1954 the TSIUC had ties with 188 locals with 86,000 members, out of some 108,000 CIO members in the state.

The election of W. Lee O'Daniel in 1938 as governor signaled the beginning of twenty years of antilabor politics, the foundation of conservative Democratic hegemony. The primary target was the CIO. In March 1941 O'Daniel addressed a joint session of the state legislature and blasted the "labor leader racketeers" who threatened to take over Texas and were crippling Britain's struggle against the Nazis. The governor proposed and the legislature approved an antiviolence bill, even though not a single man-hour of labor had been lost at any Texas defense job. The legislation forbade the use or threat of force to prevent someone from working, and forbade assemblies in the vicinity of labor disputes. A picket using violence against a strikebreaker entering a plant committed a felony and faced prison up to two years. A strikebreaker's attack on a picket was a misdemeanor. O'Daniel coordinated his antilabor pitch with that of Dallas congressman Hatton W. Sumners, who favored federal legislation that would send strikers to the electric chair. In 1942 the TSIUC, the Texas State Federation of Labor, and the railroad brotherhoods formed a joint committee for political action. They encouraged labor to oppose O'Daniel's election to the United States Senate. In March 1943, to stave off further antiunion legislation, they entered into an agreement with Governor Coke Stevenson to refrain from strikes for the rest of the war. Texas nevertheless enacted the Manford Act in 1943, which required unions to file annual reports with the state, licensed union officers and organizers, prohibited the accumulation of "unreasonable" funds, and forbade contributions to political campaigns. That year R. J. Thomas, UAW president, tested the law while organizing oil workers at Humble Oil's Baytown refinery. In a speech at Baytown, Thomas deliberately solicited union memberships without first obtaining a required license. The case was taken to court, and eventually the Supreme Court ruled that a state could license occupations, but unless justified by a clear and present danger, it could not require a license for making a speech. Free speech was guaranteed by the First Amendment.

In 1944 the TSIUC formed a political action committee to promote the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt. That same year the TSIUC joined the TSFL, the railroad brotherhoods, the Farmers' Union, and old-age pension groups to organize the Texas Social and Legislative Conference. This was the beginning of the liberal-labor-farm coalition in Texas. The TSFL soon pulled out. In 1946 the TSLC urged minority groups to join its ranks.

In 1946 thousands of Texas workers, like CIO members elsewhere, walked out in a quest for higher wages to meet rising living costs. By June the CIO carried unionism to the state's largest industrial plants, and struck the General Tire and Rubber plant at Waco and Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation at Fort Worth. Homer P. Rainey, a gubernatorial candidate that year, defended unionism, a leading campaign issue backed by a coalition of labor and minority groups. Rainey made the runoff, but was trounced by Beauford H. Jester. Labor-backed candidates lost all over Texas, many after bitter campaigns against "left-wing political terrorists of the CIO-PAC." Antiunion sentiment crested in 1947, when the Texas Manufacturers Association, regional chambers of commerce, and extremist groups combined to lobby for regulatory laws. Legislators and Governor Jester approved a right-to-work law, an anti-checkoff act, a law against secondary boycott, a law subjecting unions to antitrust statutes, and a statute against mass picketing. (Mass picketing was defined as more than two pickets within fifty feet of a plant entrance or of any other picket.) These laws had no great effect on industrialization or urban growth, but they demonstrated corporate political dominance in Texas.

From 1941 through 1956 conservative Democrats used labor-baiting as their most dependable tactic against progressive Democrats in primaries for governor and senator. In 1954 Governor Allan Shivers ran for an unprecedented third term. At that time he was in political trouble due to insurance company scandals and dubious real estate deals in the Rio Grande valley. Organized labor endorsed liberal challenger Ralph Yarborough. After a strike was called against twenty-two retail businesses in Port Arthur, Shivers railed that a Communist conspiracy threatened to consume Texas, and claimed that Yarborough was in bed with them. A famous televised film depicted Port Arthur as a ghost town, shut down by Communist picketing; the town looked deserted, but the film was taken at 5 A.M. Shivers beat Yarborough in what became the last campaign where labor-baiting was the decisive issue in a statewide election.

In the 1940s and early 1950s the TSIUC had lobbied in vain for pro-labor legislation. They sought a wage and hour law, unemployment compensation for employers, removal of the ceiling on public-welfare expenditures, replacement of selected sales taxes with levies on the state's natural resources, the abolition of the state poll tax, and amendments to the 1917 workmen's compensation act. Actually, however, the TSIUC had been more successful outside the legislative arena. In factories and workshops around the state, it had educated its members in industrial relations and democracy. And for the first time thousands of White Texans sat down with Black Texans as equals in a CIO hall. It was a transforming experience that opened doors for the civil-rights movement. In 1952 the TSIUC renamed itself the Texas State CIO Council. It concluded a no-raiding agreement with the Texas State Federation of Labor in 1953 and worked toward a merger in 1954, following other state bodies around the nation. The Texas branches of the CIO and AFL held separate conventions in 1956, then merged in 1957. See also LABOR ORGANIZATIONS, STRIKES.

Frank Arnold, "Humberto Silex: CIO Organizer from Nicaragua," Southwest Economy and Society 4 (Fall 1978). Michael Botson, Organized Labor at the Hughes Tool Company, 1918–1942: From Welfare to the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (M.A. thesis, University of Houston, 1994). Thomas Brooks, Communications Workers of America: The Story of a Union (New York: Mason/Charter, 1977). Gary M. Fink and Merl E. Reed, eds., Essays in Southern Labor History (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977). Mario T. Garcia, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930–1960 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). Joseph Goldberg, The Maritime Story: A Study in Labor-Management Relations (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1958). George Green, "Anti-Labor Politics in Texas, 1941–1957," in American Labor in the Southwest, ed. James C. Foster (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982). F. Ray Marshall, Labor in the South (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967). Gilbert Mers, Working the Waterfront: The Ups and Downs of a Rebel Longshoreman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988). Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988). Harvey O'Connor, History of Oil Workers International Union-CIO (Denver: OWIU, 1950). Murray Polakoff, The Development of the Texas State CIO Council (PhD. dissertation, University of Texas, 1955). Emilio Zamora, "The Failed Promise of Wartime Opportunity for Mexicans in the Texas Oil Industry," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 95 (January 1992). Robert H. Zieger, ed., Organized Labor in the Twentieth Century South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991).

Time Periods:
  • Great Depression

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

George N. Green, “Texas State Industrial Union Council,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 05, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-state-industrial-union-council.

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February 1, 1996
April 28, 2021