In 1966, the Starr County Farm Workers Strike began when the farm workers in Rio Grande City, Texas, demanded a raise in wages. The workers from a farm called “La Casita” went on strike at the height of melon season, because they wanted a minimum wage of $1.25 an hour. The workers earned between forty cents and eighty-five cents an hour, averaging about seventy cents an hour.
According to historian Richard Bailey, the workers struck when Eugene Nelson, an organizer from the National Farm Workers Association, arrived. The NFWA, famous for leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, had previously won California farmworkers their first contract from the Schenley farms in Delano, California after a strike that lasted seven months. Once Nelson arrived in Rio Grande City, a strike in the melon fields began on June 1, 1966. The workers then demanded the raise of minimum wage.
In Rio Grande City, living conditions were far from ideal for the workers. According to James C. Harrington of the Texas Observer, the Rio Grande region is one of the poorest in the nation. The medical care is “terrible”, and there is substandard housing, hunger, inferior education opportunities, economic exploitation, and a lack of political power. Harrington also states that the region is built on segregation, racism, and discrimination, which is reinforced by the Texas Rangers.
According to John Spragens, Jr., the working conditions were also bad. The foremen would drive the workers hard. The climate of Rio Grande City was “hot and dry” and the work was difficult. Conversations were not allowed during work, and those who did not bring their own water had to drink from the irrigation canal. The families of the workers lived in “hot, dirty tin shacks” and would sleep on the floor. If the families had children, they would go to school “irregularly” because some of the parents would follow the crop. The La Casita strike was not only for better wages but also for better living conditions.
As the strike continued for months, the strikers received support from surrounding places. The Catholic Church was a “major supporter.” The Bishop’s Committee sent truckloads of food and clothing. Another group sent three thousand pounds of potatoes, while other individuals and groups sent money, clothing, and food. According to Harrington, in the beginning months of the strike, the workers and their 6,500 supporters rallied in Austin, Texas on Labor Day in 1966 to demand a raise in the minimum wage, from 85 cents an hour to $1.25 an hour. Governor John Connally told them to end the march, but they proceeded toward Austin, despite the Governors remark. Once in the capital, the marchers rallied, and the Texas Rangers were ordered by Captain A.Y. Allee to end the strike.
The strike did not bring the workers higher wages, but seven years later, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court expressed sharp disapproval of Allee and his actions towards the Farm Workers.
Year later, in May of 1975, a “series of wildcat strikes” began to occur in Hidalgo, Starr County, and at La Casita. Growers met the strikers “with violence and retaliation.” Some of the workers who were on strike responded to the growers accordingly. Once the local courts got involved and allowed peaceful striking, tensions cooled down with a march from Hidalgo, Texas to McAllen, Texas.
Many other strikes arose after this including a series of strikes in the Presidio and Pecos in June of 1975, many instances occurred where the growers had workers arrested by local sheriffs. However, according to Harrington, the tactic of having workers arrested backfired when a judge from West Texas ordered unions to hold a representation election. The growers then stopped taking legal action against the strikers.
In addition, some of the strikers formed the Texas Farm Workers Union and held a march to Austin, Texas and then another march to Washington D.C.
The Rio Grande Farm workers went on strike because they wanted fair treatment. According to John Spragens Jr., they wanted “a decent wage for a decent day’s work.” Being a part of a union gave the workers a voice and a place to belong. According to James C. Harrington, the Rio Grande Farm Workers “strike was the first major civil rights event” to take place in Texas in the late 1960’s.
“Farm Workers Start March Toward Elsa,” Corpus Christi Times, July 12, 1966.
Jackson, H. Joaquin, One Ranger Returns (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008).
Norris, Jim, North For the Harvest: Mexican Workers, Growers, and the Sugar Beet Industry (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009)
“Garcia Given Leave to Form Valley Union,” Corpus Christi Times, July 11, 1966.
The Making of Modern Immigration: An Encyclopedia of People and Ideas, Volume 1
United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, “Sons of Zapata: A Brief Photographic History of the Farm Workers Strike in Texas,” 1967.