Texas History

This Labor Day, Let's Look at Dallas' Conflicted Labor History

Labor Day, simply by virtue of its being in September, is a farce. International Workers' Day — or May Day, if you're so inclined — is Labor Day, unless you live in North America. President Grover Cleveland moved the holiday to the first Monday of September in 1887 to disassociate the celebration of the United States' workers from the aftermath of 1886's Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Add in that many American blue-collar workers end up spending the day on the job, and the distance between the holiday's origin, intention and celebration is overpowering. Texas, especially, is a place that's never been friendly to organized labor. As we sleep late and binge on Netflix to honor those who fought for the rights of American workers, let's take a look at some of what North Texas' working class has had to put up with and some of its hard-earned victories.

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886
In the late 19th century, the Knights of Labor were far and away the biggest labor organization in Texas. In 1885, The Dallas Morning News estimated their membership at more than 30,000. Many of those workers were employed by industrialist Jay Gould, who owned more than 12 percent of the railroad track in the United States at the time. Knights of Labor's District Assembly No. 101, which represented workers in the southwestern part of Gould's empire, went on strike in 1886 after a Marshall member was fired for attending a union meeting on company time.

Eventually, more than 200,000 workers across the southwest would join the strike, but the Knights' failure to get the support of the Brotherhood of Engineers and the number of willing scabs — attacks by Pinkerton detectives led thousands of employees to go back to work — Gould was able to find to employ would prove fatal to the strike.

The strike eventually fell apart without Gould making any concessions. The Knights were crushed, seeing their membership numbers dip by more than 90 percent by 1890.

Trinity Portland Cement Co. Unionization 1934-1939
Established in Dallas in 1909 as the The Southwestern States Portland Cement Co., the Trinity Portland Cement Co. posed the first big challenge to the New Deal's National Industrial Recovery Act in 1934. Workers at Trinity Portland, many of them Mexican immigrants, wanted to organize, as encouraged by NIRA, and voted 150-2 to name the Portland Cement Workers Union No. 19310 — an affiliate of the AFL — their exclusive bargaining agent. On December 10, 1934, Trinity Portland Cement informed a local panel of the National Labor Relations Board that it would not comply with the board's ruling that the company was required to recognize and bargain with the union.

The company would hold out until 1939. When it finally gave in to workers' tenacious campaign to organize and signed joint labor agreements at all three of the Texas plants, Trinity Portland Cement became the first cement company in the United States to do so.

Ford, The Dallas Open Shop Association and the Dallas Citizens Council 1919-1941
By the late 1930s, workers in the United States' burgeoning auto industry were unionizing in droves. Under the leadership of founder Henry Ford, the Ford Motor Co. was staunchly against unionization, often employing brutal tactics like beatings and corporate espionage to keep workers in line and out of union meetings.

Dallas' Ford plant, located on East Grand Avenue, got all of the beatings, humiliation and spying during the '30s without out any of the union benefits. During the Great Depression, working for Ford in Dallas was brutal. Contemporary accounts tell of workers being laid off immediately when order quotas were met, without the guarantee of rehire when a new model went into production. Plant employees worked through illness and injury, suffering from foreman-issued threats of being replaced by a "one-armed nigger" or "a guy living on a cracker," according to historian George N. Green's account in July 1989's Labor's Heritage.

Still, workers did not push hard for a union, likely because of the strong "open shop" culture that existed in Dallas. The Dallas Open Shop Organization, founded in 1919, was considered one of the strongest in the country. It reportedly threatened its member companies with a $3,000 fine if one of them were to hire a union member and guaranteed members' continued operation and solvency were they ever to be hit with a strike. The Open Shop Association was closely tied to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, which in turn was closely tied to the Dallas Citizens Council, which was born as a sort of all-purpose business oligarchy and advisory board for the city in 1937.

Despite unions' not really having a chance at Ford anyway, even the slightest murmurs were dealt with harshly. On July 10, 1937, W.J. Houston, an attorney retained by the United Auto Workers Union, was hospitalized after being beaten at the corner of Elm and Akard streets downtown during the middle of the day. The culprits were a group of Ford employees known as the outside squad. Reportedly, the ranks of the outside squad were filled by selecting the burliest men from the auto-makers' assembly lines. After his phones were tapped later in July, Houston left Dallas.

The outside squad was also reportedly responsible for a tarring and feathering of a CIO organizer in town to talk to textile workers, beating up a group of California tourists in a Fair Park parking lot because their car had a pro-union bumper sticker and knocking out the teeth and one eye of AFL organizer George Baer when he was in town to talk to the local milliner's union. 

Dale Miller, an associate editor for the Dallas-based conservative paper the Texas Weekly who would later become the Dallas Chamber's lobbyist in Washington, wrote at the time that the beatings were "unrelated incidents" and that unions were "unnatural curtailments" of capitalism. Rather than stopping the beatings, Dallas police were often complicit, abandoning posts before beatings occurred and tipping the outside squad as to the whereabouts of organizers and labor sympathizers.

Dallas' Ford plant would eventually become unionized in 1941, not through its own actions, but through a series of National Labor Relations Board rulings that brought unions in Ford plants nationwide. The plant closed in 1970.

Dallas Morning News Editor Coins the Term "Right to Work" in 1941
The same year Dallas' Ford workers got their union, William Ruggles, a 40-year-old associate editor at the Morning News coined a term that's still toxic to the American labor movement.

Ruggles, who'd joined the paper as a reporter when he was a teenager, was worried that the Newspaper Guild would force him to join up or quit the newsroom. To fight back, he wrote an editorial — which, no joke, ran on Labor Day — urging what would have been the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution at the time, a federally mandated end too closed shops. Ending required union membership, Ruggles argued, would guarantee the "right-to-work" for Americans.

Ruggles' plan, which never became federal law but has been incorporated into state law throughout much of the South and Midwest, cripples unions. Workers don't need to be members to reap the benefits of collective bargaining, so there's no real use in unions making heavy forays into states like Texas, which passed right-to-work legislation in 1947.

"Now this country may wish to become a vast network of union labor. If so, it is within the rights of a democracy to so decide. But the greatest crisis that confronts the nation today is the domestic issue of the right to work as a member of a labor union, if the individual wishes, or without membership in a union if he so elects," Ruggles wrote.

Vance Muse, an oil lobbyist from Houston who'd created an organization called the Christian American Association with backing from Southern oil companies and industrialists from the Northeast, read Ruggles editorial and called him the next day, according to the Morning News. Muse wanted in on Ruggles' idea. Ruggles gave Muse the DMN's blessing and suggested Muse call his suggested amendment the "Right-to-Work Amendment."

In a 1956 speech to the Texas Press Association, Ruggles expressed pride for what he'd helped start.

"I shall be proud indeed to have been the first to urge on the republic that he helped to found the adoption of what I feel in every fiber of my being is the legal heritage of the free citizen, the right to work," he said.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young