Corpus Christi Longshoremen Strike Against Poor Working Conditions and Benefits, 1935

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Timing
Time Period:  
30 September
1935
to
12 December
1935
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Corpus Christi, Texas
Location Description: 
Major port city on the Gulf of Mexico
Goals: 
To force the recognition of the ILA (International Longshoremen’s Association) in New Orleans and all other eastern Ports.
 

In the 1930s, longshoremen throughout the American South organized protests and strikes to oppose the unfair treatment they felt they endured as a result of the scarcity of jobs and their ultimate replaceability as laborers. In Corpus Christi, Texas, on 20 September 1935, dock workers went on strike in support of strikes being held in New Orleans and other port cities. The official purpose of the Corpus Christi strike was to “force the recognition of the ILA (International Longshoremen’s Association) in New Orleans and all other eastern Ports.” The strikers demanded control over hiring and a coastwide agreement.

Picketing and negotiations occurred in the early stage of this campaign, from 20 September 1935. “The Texas Steamship Men,” a the striking faction, called the first document they put forward for consideration by their fellow strikers a “Final Offer,” but the strikers quickly dismissed it as insufficient.. Many also felt the strike committee did not communicate fully with the strikers at large, an organizational flaw throughout ILA-chartered unions. Shortly, the shipping companies brought in nonunion or “scab” workers to replace the striking dock workers, and the leadership released new sets of demand as negotiations between dockworkers and employers continued.

In October 1935, the ILA organized a walkout of all ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Around 7,500 workers at ports from Pensacola to Corpus Christi participated in this action. In Corpus Christi, as opposed to other locations affected by dock workers’ strikes, the issue became violent very quickly. One man was killed, allegedly by a picketer, who was said to have beat him over the head with a brick. Another picketer was charged with attempted murder after shooting at a non-union worker.

After these violent incidences, Texas Governor James Allred, authorized the Texas Rangers to enter Corpus Christi as a special measure. The Rangers addressed the strikers in a uniformly antagonistic manner, using racial slurs and insults based on socioeconomic status, which exacerbated the ill-will between strikers and law enforcement as well as between union and non-union workers. In fact, relationships became so tense that Corpus Christi Sheriff William Shelly decided to deputize special police officers to protect the interests and safety of the longshoremen against the Texas Rangers . Shelly vowed only to interfere in the strike when the law was explicitly broken. Nevertheless, protesters hesitated to contact the police when their safety was threatened.

African american and hispanic/latino factions of dock workers were engaged in the Corpus Christi strike in a way that they were not in other longshoremen’s strikes of the 1930s. One source claims that because the strikers were segregated, dock workers of color could take more active leadership roles in their own faction than they would have in an integrated environment. In fact, most of the workers of color who participated in the Corpus Christi section of this strike were “warehousemen,” who were part of a different group of workers than the longshoremen. These warehousemen were primarily Mexican or otherwise Latino. As both a separate faction of workers from the longshoremen and a different racial group, warehousemen were initially hesitant to take advantage of food supplies and benefits provided by the strike committee until Gabriel Cruz, a spokesman for the warehousemen, brought their interests before the committee. After his conversations with the strike committee, the warehousemen were welcomed in spaces where strikers’ supplies were available.

In December 1935, the strike committee began negotiations with independent shipping companies in Houston, Texas. The Corpus Christi strikers discovered that the shipping companies were more amenable to their demands if negotiations over western ports included a company of strikebreakers called the Houston Buffaloes, being contracted. However, the longshoremen found this unacceptable because the Buffaloes had always worked outside the union and had not participated in the strike, and thus, they thought, did not deserve to be chartered by the ILA. The Corpus Christi strikers were concerned that if the Buffaloes were chartered, they would not behave like an ILA-chartered union because they had not been trained in unionized labor. They approved of the other points of the agreement: a previous wage offer, which had been introduced in October that would cover Texas ports and Lake Charles.

Ultimately, the strike committee decided that it would be acceptable for the ILA to charter the Buffaloes if the Buffaloes could be trained in union work by West Coast workers. They finally reached terms with the shipping companies on 12 December 1935. Their wages were not improved and they had not achieved a coastwide agreement, but they had reaffirmed the ILA’s presence and power of influence throughout eastern ports. The strike committee sent a telegram back to Corpus Christi to say that all scab workers must leave the docks before union workers would return.

This case is one of many labor union strikes that occurred during America’s Great Depression, and it was influenced a great deal by Longshoremen’s strikes throughout the American South.

Research Notes
Influences: 

This case is one of many labor union strikes that occurred during America’s Great Depression, and it was influenced a great deal by other Longshoremen’s strikes throughout the American South.

Sources: 
Cox, Mike. 2009. Time of the Rangers: Texas Rangers: From 1900 to the Present. New York: Forge.

Mers, Gilbert. 1988. Working the Waterfront: the Ups and Downs of a Rebel Longshoreman. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Minutaglio, Bill. 2003. City on Fire: the Forgotten Disaster That Devastated a Town and Ignited a Landmark Legal Battle. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

South Texas Rabble Rousers. 2014. “1935: Dockworkers Strike at the Port of Corpus Christi.” South Texas Rabble Rousers History Project. Retrieved March 22, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150323161252/https://southtexasrabblerousers.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/1935-dockworkers-strike-at-the-port-of-corpus-christi/).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Beatriz Grace Baker 22/03/2015