Jan 31, 2023 - News

On this day in San Antonio history: Pecan shellers strike

Rows of pecan workers, mostly men, sit side-by-side at a plant in 1939.

Pecan shellers working at a plant in San Antonio. Photo: Courtesy of the Library of Congress/Russell Lee

In the 1930s, the West Side was home to half of the nation's pecan industry, but the mostly Mexican American workforce was underpaid, overworked and at risk for disease, according to the Library of Congress.

Why it matters: On this day in 1938, 21-year-old Emma Tenayuca led a strike of 12,000 pecan shellers in response to wage decreases, working more than 10 hours a day for seven days a week for $2 to $3 and exposure to tuberculosis due to the pecan dust.

Flashback: Tenayuca and more than 1,000 workers were jailed throughout the three-month strike.

  • In April, the pecan workers and the companies agreed to arbitration. The three-person arbitration panel ruled in favor of the workers.
  • By October, the minimum wage was raised to 25 cents. This photo was taken by Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee about a year after the strike, as he toured the U.S. during the Great Depression.

Yes, but: The Southern Pecan Shelling Company and other San Antonio companies filed an appeal against the new minimum wage. When they were unsuccessful, companies laid off about 10,000 employees and replaced them with shelling machines, per the Library of Congress.

The bottom line: Eighty-five years later, the strike is remembered as one of the earliest and largest actions for Mexican American civil rights in U.S. history.


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