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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1938: Pecan Shellers Strike

Russell, Lee, photographer. Mexican women separating meat from shells. Pecan shelling plant. San Antonio, Texas. 1939. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

On January 31, 1938, about 12,000 pecan shellers—mostly Hispanic women—walked out of their jobs to protest poor working conditions and low pay in what came to be known as the Pecan Shellers Strike in San Antonio, Texas. The strike lasted three months, garnered statewide attention, and caused confrontations between the local government, pecan companies, and sheller workers.

In the 1930s, San Antonio housed 50% of the national pecan industry and its west side was home to Mexican American and Mexican nationals who made up 40% of the city’s population. Thousands living in this area sought employment as pecan shellers, working more than 10 hours a day, seven days a week for $2 to $3 weekly, as the fine brown dust released by pecans exposed them to tuberculosis. At the time, company owners preferred human shellers over mechanized shelling for the sake of profit.

In response to a wage decrease from Southern Pecan Shelling Company and other pecan companies, Emma Tenayuca of the Texas Workers Alliance led a peaceful strike. The local government supported the shelling companies and sent police to arrest strikers and keep them in overcrowded cells. Under Governor James Allerd’s order, the Texas Industrial Commission reviewed related civil rights violations and deemed the police response excessive. After 37 days of protests, both the strikers and the pecan shelling companies agreed to arbitration. The three-person board ruled in favor of the strikers, ordering higher wages and officially acknowledging the International Pecan Shellers Union No. 172.

The Fair Labor Relations Act—passed on October 24, 1938—established a new minimum wage of 25 cents per hour. The Southern Pecan Shelling Company and other local shelling businesses responded by laying off shellers and appealing the minimum wage to no avail. With their petition rejected, they chose mechanization over human shelling, ultimately laying off about 10,000 pecan shellers. The Pecan Shelling Workers Union No. 172 ceased to exist.

Timeline

January 31, 1938 About 12,000 pecan shellers protest poor working conditions and pay cuts.
March 8, 1938 The pecan shellers and the sheller companies agree to submit their dispute to an arbitration panel and pecan shellers return to work.
April 13, 1938 The three-person arbitration board rules in favor of the strikers by ruling for higher wages and acknowledging the International Pecan Shellers Union
October 24, 1938 The Fair Labor Relations Act goes into affect and raises the minimum wage to 25 cents/ hour; pecan shelling companies petition, but the Department of Labor denies their appeal.
1938-1941 Pecan shelling companies resort to mechanization and over 25 cents per hour for 10,000 pecan shellers, ultimately laying shellers off.

Resources

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