Texas is typically seen as a one of the most conservative states in the U.S. A “right-to-work” state, it also has one of the lowest unionization rates. But the history of Texas paints a very different, contradictory picture. Texas was not—and is not—immune from the class struggle.
Several Texas communities were settled in part by European socialists. Under the influence of utopian ideas and often on the run from authorities for participation in the revolutions of 1848, these socialists sought the open land and relative political freedom of the American frontier.
French utopian socialist Étienne Cabet set up an “Icarian Colony,” or utopian socialist commune—one of several across the country—near Denton, TX in 1848. Socialists also settled in Bettina, Boerne, Castell, Cometa, Comfort, Justin, Leningen, La Reunion, and Sisterdale. Although many of these communes never entirely came together, some did last a couple of years. The rest collapsed during the Civil War under ruthless Confederate rule. In Comfort, TX, for example, after the Battle of the Nueces, Confederate soldiers executed utopians for insurrection and draft-dodging. Today Comfort has the only German-language Civil War monument, commemorating those socialists.
Along with the development of industry came the growth of the working class, and with it the ideas of socialism. Workers have been organizing and striking in Texas at least since the days of the Texas Republic (1836–46). In the fall of 1836, the Texas Typographical Association—the first union in the state—went on strike against Houston publishers and won a 25% wage increase. The first large Texas strike concerned the Houston and Texas Central Railway management’s requirement that workers sign a release form agreeing to risk of injury and death with no compensation. Although there wasn’t a union, they organized mass meetings and a strike anyway. Ultimately, they suffered a defeat, but under continued pressure, the rule was ultimately revoked and some strikers were even rehired.
By the middle of the Long Depression (1873–79), in 1877, major strikes hit Galveston and the T&P Railroad. Both strikes were broken with state violence, and in Galveston the company used racism to divide the longshoremen against each other. Over the next period, membership in the Knights of Labor increased from 100,000 to 700,000 nationally, and over 30,000 of them were Texans.
Later, in 1886, a Knights of Labor member in Marshall called another strike against the T&P, where railwaymen occupied switch junctures and decoupled train-cars. To break the strike the company sent scabs and Pinkertons. Governor Ireland also deployed Texas Rangers and the militia to Ft. Worth, where one of the switches had been occupied.
In 1884, 450 coal miners went on strike against wage cuts. They held out for six months but ultimately lost. In Erath county, miners waged a four-year struggle starting in 1888. They too were defeated by the Rangers, who had to be deployed to the county for over a year. And in 1903, the 12,000 Thurber coal miners struck for union recognition and better wages. They won, and as Thurber was a company town, it became for a time the only 100% union town in the world.
Through the workplace struggle for a better life, unionists discovered the need for a political response to the power of the companies. The ranks of the socialist parties grew. In 1888 the Union Labor Party received 8.2% of the Texas vote. Eugene V. Debs got over 1,846 votes from Texas in the 1900 Presidential election on the Socialist Party ticket. In 1904 a convention of Social Democrats was held, and by 1906, this had become the Socialist Party of Texas. They steadily grew, and in the 1912 Presidential elections, garnered more than 25,000 votes. In the 1914 gubernatorial race the SP candidate polled 11.7%. The Socialists replaced the Republicans as number two party in the state, and the Democrats were forced to maneuver to the left in an attempt to capture more votes from workers.
The Rebel, a weekly newspaper of the SP launched in Halletsville in 1911, had a circulation of 17,000 by the following year. This grew to 22,000 in 1914. It had the second-highest readership of any such paper in the country. Frightened by growing support for socialism, in 1917 the government repressed the paper.
In 1915, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, and under pressure from the monopolizing force of major industry rapidly coming down newly-laid railroad tracks, Texas-Mexican ranchers in South Texas declared a revolution “of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie,” calling for an independent state comprised of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. There was to be formed a “Liberating Army of the Races and Peoples,” uniting whites, blacks, indigenous, and ethnic Mexicans on a class basis. Their program included the nationalization of the railroads—and the killing of all white males over the age of 16.
This was an unfortunate policy to say the least. It reinforced the racist dividing line created by the ruling class, dooming the insurrection to a few spectacular raids and running battles with the Texas Rangers in the countryside. The result of this bold insurrectionary movement was a reign of terror. Years of occupation by ruthless Texas Rangers resulted in thousands of Mexicans being threatened, kidnapped, murdered and dumped along country roads as a warning to the rancheros and the rural middle and working classes not to resist.
The number of strikes increased through 1914–16. In November 1917, 10,000 Oil Field, Gas Well, and Refinery Workers went on strike, demanding a pay rise and union recognition. The strike was only partially successful, due to their failure to unite with the other employees in the refineries. In Dallas in 1919 the construction industry experienced a 10,000 strong general strike, and in another strike 1,700 coal miners were out for a month.
In 1919–20, militancy hit a plateau. In 1921, longshoremen in Galveston and along the coast struck in every port, part of a nationwide strike. The company skillfully implemented a policy of “non-discrimination” to play off the racist attitudes of many white strikers by hiring blacks and Mexicans as strikebreakers. The unionists had some limited support in the municipal government, but constant police harassment was augmented by the Texas Rangers, who arrived and declared martial law when a rumor of a potential sympathy strike by the deep-sea longshoremen circulated. They returned to work with a pay rise far below their original demand. Split-up and demoralized, by 1924 the Longshoremen had been replaced by company unions.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article in issue 68 of Socialist Appeal.