The fight for equal pay has often been intertwined with the labor movement at large, and nowhere was this more evident than in the agricultural strikes of the 1930s, where immigrant men and women stopped working to demand better pay and better working conditions.
In 1938, this fight for better pay and better working conditions came to San Antonio as 21-year-old Emma Tenayuca led the three-month Pecan Shellers’ Strike, one of the largest strikes in the country. This strike was the culmination of Tenayuca’s years of work in the labor movement.
Born in 1916 in San Antonio, Tenayuca was a civil rights activist, labor organizer and educator. Her interest in the plight of the working class, especially Mexican-American women, was encouraged by her grandfather who she lived with during her formative years on San Antonio’s impoverished west side. By the age of 16, Tenayuca had already been arrested for joining a picket line of women on strike against the Finck Cigar Company.
After graduating from high school, she took a job as an elevator operator at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio and began organizing the workers at the hotel while also planning public marches, demonstrations, and sit-ins for a variety of social justice causes.
Her years of activism led her to meet with the pecan shellers who faced sweatshop-like working conditions and extremely low wages. The roughly 12,000 workers, mostly Mexican-American women, walked off the job Jan. 31, 1938, after the Southern Pecan Shelling Company announced it would be cutting wages from roughly 7 cents per pound to as little as 3 cents. Tenayuca was overwhelmingly elected the strike leader, and by the end of the strike, the workers had won a wage increase to roughly 8 cents per pound.
“What started out as an organization for equal wages turned into a mass movement against starvation, for civil rights, for a minimum-wage law, and it changed the character of West Side San Antonio,” Tenayuca said in a 1987 interview with the Institute of Texan Cultures.
This article is part of InHerSight’s month-long coverage of equal pay. Timed with Equal Pay Day, the series looks at how the pay gap affects women of all backgrounds and in all industries.