A New Documentary on Texas Labor History Offers a Much-Needed Infusion of Hope

“A Strike and an Uprising” chronicles two big wins for labor activists facing long odds.

The 1987 Nacogdoches “Jobs with Justice” protest.
The 1987 Nacogdoches “Jobs with Justice” protest. COURTESY/TEXAS STATE EMPLOYEES UNION TSEU-CWA 6186

There’s a scene in A Strike and an Uprising (in Texas), a new documentary on labor history, in which three cafeteria workers sit in an empty classroom at Stephen F. Austin University. They’re watching footage from 1987, when their predecessors unionized and successfully fought the university’s plan to contract out their jobs and eliminate benefits. As a beaming organizer says, “There’s power in numbers,” and triumphant music swells, the women stare at the screen, unblinking and expressionless. They look more exhausted than inspired. Despite the historic victory, the university did eventually outsource many jobs; today these staffers work for Aramark. “It’s like we don’t mean anything to ’em,” one of the current workers says of the campus higher-ups. “We’re just here to feed their students.” Despite having worked there for more than 40 years, another says, she’s making do on a measly $11.46 per hour. Union membership may have spiked in Texas recently, but it’s still nowhere near what it was in the ’80s and earlier. Do labor activists’ past victories offer much more than cold comfort to those struggling today?

Nuanced and careful, the hourlong film — screening August 8 and 12 at Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema — never offers a neatly packaged answer to that question. But A Strike and an Uprising does impress upon viewers just how long the odds were, not unlike the ones activists are facing now. Director Anne Lewis, a longtime Austin filmmaker who has chronicled the environmental movement, coal miner strikes and the plight of fast-food workers, makes the unusual choice to combine two episodes a half-century apart: the 1938 San Antonio pecan-shellers’ strike and the 1987 Nacogdoches “Jobs with Justice” movement by university staff. Both were big, historic wins for labor activists, yet are scarcely mentioned in Texas schools.

The pecan-shellers’ strike is by far the better-known of the two, in part because it had a charismatic hero: 21-year-old Emma “La Pasionara” Tenayuca, an unapologetic communist who climbed up on pecan-dust-coated tables to rally the troops. She spoke eloquently for the more than 10,000 workers, most of them Latinas, who walked out of San Antonio factories in protest of poverty wages (as low as 5 cents per pound) and terrible working conditions, including dust-filled air that led to high rates of tuberculosis. Some of the most memorable scenes are interviews with former pecan shellers. “They’re very good to eat, but very hard to peel,” says one soft-spoken elderly woman, describing how sharp pecan pieces would rub the skin under her fingernails raw. When she recalls living without electricity, relying only on a toxic kerosene lamp, she holds back tears.

The San Antonio Light UTSA Libraries Special Collection
One woman described how sharp pecan pieces would rub the skin under her fingernails raw.
The San Antonio Light UTSA Libraries Special Collection
Emma “La Pasionara” Tenayuca, a 21-year-old unapologetic communist leading a workers rally at San Antonio City Hall.
The San Antonio Light UTSA Libraries Special Collection
More than 700 people were arrested during the 1938 San Antonio pecan-shellers’ strike.

Through archival photos and voiceover, we learn that more than 700 people were arrested and that most city officials, from the mayor to the chief of police, endorsed punishing the strikers. When overflowing jail cells couldn’t hold any more workers, cops simply drove them 20 miles out of town and left them in a field. In the end, both sides agreed to arbitration, pay went up (a little) and the Fair Labor Relations Act of 1938 mandated a federal minimum wage. But more importantly, the predominantly white city leaders had learned they couldn’t ignore the demands of Mexican-American citizens. The strike helped set the stage for the Chicano civil rights movement.

The second half of the film skips ahead to the ’80s and travels east to Nacogdoches. We’re introduced to Annie Mae Carpenter, a former Stephen F. Austin University custodian who sued for race and gender discrimination after she was fired for refusing to clean a bathroom at the end of her shift. When Carpenter lost her case, her colleagues organized. Alongside activist Danny Fetonte and civil rights attorney Larry Daves, workers started a Communications Workers of America (CWA) union chapter. More than 3,000 people marched through the streets of Nacogdoches on their behalf, carrying banners that read “Jobs with Justice.” Their efforts paid off with a contract and back pay.

More than 3,000 people marched through the streets of Nacogdoches in 1987.  Courtesy/Texas State Employees Union TSEU-CWA 6186

Yet when the filmmakers searched the university archives, they could find no mention of Carpenter. We learn this through a third-person voiceover, and that perspective is an odd choice. Lines like “Anne tried to create a chronology of the strike, but it felt contrived,” are jarring and distracting. A Strike and an Uprising also would’ve benefited from a tighter edit; according to the description accompanying the screener link I was sent, Lewis chose an oral history approach, “allowing for considerable drift and humor.” But sometimes these interviews drift too far, as when one former pecan-sheller tells a funny story about her mother’s broken English. It’s a nice anecdote, but not relevant to the topic at hand.

We end at the University of Texas at Austin campus on the day in August 2015 when, after student protests, the Jefferson Davis statue finally came down. As a beeping crane plucks a shrink-wrapped Davis off his plinth, students cheer and someone shouts “Alright, alright, alright!” McConaughey-style. Then a white-haired man with a husky voice and a cowboy hat objects. “This is a work of art. Would you gouge the eyes out of the Mona Lisa?” he shouts. “I don’t think the Mona Lisa represented, like, slavery and the Confederacy,” replies a young woman. The film never explicitly connects the strike, the uprising and the statue — but it doesn’t have to. The message is clear: Change is slow, uneven and hard-fought, but someday those in power will topple.

Rose Cahalan is managing editor at the Observer and also edits the magazine’s arts and culture coverage.

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