Starr County, Texas Farm Workers Strike for Higher Pay - 1966

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Timing
Time Period:  
1 June
1966
to
Late September
1967
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Starr County, Texas
Goals: 
Increase of pay to $1.25/hour and "recognition as a bargaining force" among laborers and employers in the Rio Grande Valley
 

On 1 June 1966, growing disputes between farmworkers and the owners of
melon farms in the Rio Grande valley in South Texas culminated in a
strike. Four hundred farm workers had voted in favor of a strike against
their employers at La Casita melon farm. It was the height of melon
season. Eugene Nelson, who had worked as a farm worker and author as
well as an organizer with the National Farm Workers’ Association, led
these workers to strike and organized them into the Independent Workers’
Association. Their organization, based in Rio Grande City in Starr
County, Texas, stated their demands for the strike: they wanted
$1.25/hour and “recognition as a bargaining force” among the laborers
and employers in the Valley.

After 1 June, the workers, who were mostly Mexican-American, picketed
with Nelson, and the Texas Rangers, a particularly forceful and racially
charged sector of the police force, arrested them. The Texas Rangers
are a special sector of the Texas police force, whose original purpose
was to defend Texas, during its time as an independent Republic from
1836 to 1846, from Native American attacks. Bonds for the picketers’
arrests were set at a level the workers considered exorbitant, but law
enforcement held fast to their statement that they were only trying to
enforce the law in Starr County. The cost of the bonds came at the same
time as the financial strain on many families that accompanied the end
of each growing season. The heads-of-household suffered from their
working season ending and losing that source of money. The workers chose
not to picket further at this time.

Nelson and the workers then chose to march from Rio Grande City to
Austin, the capital city of Texas. They marched on 4 July 1966,
America’s Independence Day. After this march, awareness grew in South
Texas of the farm workers’ struggle for living wages and fair treatment.

That August, Nelson and the workers met with Governor John Connally,
Speaker of the House Ben Barnes, and Attorney General Waggoner Carr in
New Braunfels, Texas, before proceeding to a rally in Austin. None of
these actions produced the end result of mandated higher wages for farm
workers, so the group continued as it had done before. They picketed and
were arrested, and allegedly abused by the Texas Rangers, and they paid
their bonds and picketed again. They repeated this cycle as support
grew in religious groups throughout Texas, like the Texas Council of
Churches. At the same time, the United States Commission on Civil
Rights, and the United States Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor
began to direct press attention to the farmworkers’ struggle and strikes
in the Rio Grande Valley.

On 1 June 1967, two members of the union were beaten, allegedly by the
Texas Rangers, marking the most violent point in the strike. The union
continued picketing until the end of the harvest season, at which point
they rested and the Texas Rangers left the area.

On 20 September 1967, Hurricane Beulah devastated the Rio Grande Valley,
and the union shifted its focus to helping to rebuild the economy and
livelihoods of those in the area. At this point, though the union still
existed in Texas, albeit in San Juan and under new leadership, they no
longer employed strikes, picketing, or marches. They focused instead on
providing services for union members rather than participating in
nonviolent direct action, even though they did not achieve their goals
of higher pay for farm workers and recognition in the Valley economy.

This campaign was influenced and in many ways inspired by the Grape
Strike in the Central Valley of California in 1965. It influenced
later campaigns in South Texas with respect to actions involving the
Texas Rangers, who needed to be accommodated in specific ways in order
to protect the safety of those participating in nonviolent resistance.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Bailey, Richard. 2010. “STARR COUNTY STRIKE.” Texas State Historical Association, December 9. Retrieved May 11, 2015. (http://web.archive.org/web/20130915084118/http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/oes03).

Chandler, Bill. 2006. “Texas farm workers La Huelga 40th anniversary reunion to be held.” People Before Profit Network, December 9. Retrieved May 11, 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150401034933/http://peoplesworld.org/texas-farm-workers-la-huelga-40th-anniversary-reunion-to-be-held/)

South Texas Rabble Rousers. 2014. “1966: Farm Workers Strike in Rio Grande City.” South Texas Rabble Rousers History Project, April 27. Retrieved 31 March 2015 (http://web.archive.org/web/20150401035327/https://southtexasrabblerousers.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/1966-farm-workers-strike-in-rio-grande-city/).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Beatriz Grace Baker 29/03/2015