Coverage of an Early Labor Movement: Using Historical Newspapers to Analyze the Pecan Sheller Strike

This post is by Camryn Blackmon, an intern in the Library of Congress Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program. A previous post that she wrote explored conditions that led the workers to strike.

On January 31, 1938, 12,000 pecan shellers in San Antonio, Texas, walked away from their jobs to protest working conditions and pay. During the three months of the strike, pecan shellers picketed the factories with signs to spread awareness. The local government opposed the efforts of the pecan shellers and sided with the pecan shelling companies. Political leaders claimed that the strike would become violent and disorderly, and they sent police officers to end the protest. Police officers confronted pecan shellers on strike with tear gas, clubs, and riot guns.

After the police violence, the nation became aware of the strike through regional and national newspapers. Newspapers reported on various aspects of the strike including responses from political leaders and involvement with the police during 1938.

Newspaper article on Pecan Shellers Strike

“Violence is Feared by Pecan Shellers,” Evening Star, February 14, 1938.

Image of Police Attacking striking Pecan Shellers.

“Police Rout Pecan Strikers,” Henderson Daily Dispatch, February 18, 1938.

Article describing how pecan shellers asked for help

“Pecan Strikers Appeal to Workers for Help,” Montana Labor News, March 10, 1938.

Encourage your students to read the three articles and compare the articles’ choice of images, content, and descriptive words.

  • What surprises them about the photographs or descriptions of the strike?
  • Pick one newspaper page to look at: Besides the story on the pecan sheller strike, what other stories or information is on the page? Does it relate to the story on the pecan shellers?

Students may learn about each newspaper’s purpose and perspective by reading its “About” statement. The Montana Labor News was first published by a labor council in Butte, Montana, and continued to focus on national labor news and socio-political commentary. The Henderson Daily Dispatch, a community oriented paper in Henderson, North Carolina, reported news daily. The Evening Star was published in Washington, D.C. as a daily newspaper reporting on national topics.

  • Ask students to consider how the perspective and purpose of each newspaper influenced the way the pecan sheller strike was documented.
  • Encourage students to compare how a pro-labor newspaper like the Montana Labor News discussed the event in contrast to the Evening Star or Henderson Daily Dispatch.
  • Ask students to consider the reasons and possible goals for the newspapers documenting the strike.

By March 1938, the pecan shelling companies and pecan shellers agreed to arbitration. The board ruled in favor of the pecan shellers and ordered the companies to increase wages to seven cents. Soon after, Congress passed the Fair Labor Relations Act, establishing a national minimum wage of 25 cents. Shelling companies began replacing pecan shellers with machines, resulting in thousands of pecan shellers losing their jobs permanently. Learn more about the strike and its outcomes with the resources in this guide.