Working for American rights: black, white and Mexican American dockworkers in Texas during the Great Depression
In the 1930s, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in Texas, a union with black and white members organized into segregated locals, expanded to include Mexican American dockworkers. Though the racially segregated structure of the union reflected the Jim Crow norms of Texas society, and many white members of the union strongly endorsed the concept of white supremacy, the ILA also challenged segregation by acknowledging a common identity for its members across race lines. For all ILA members, the union was first and foremost an organization to defend their rights as worker-citizens. To them, citizenship was a compact; in exchange for loyalty to the country and doing their duty on the job, they were guaranteed protections that would allow them to fulfill their role as breadwinners by earning a decent wage. But different interpretations of worker-citizenship created conflict among dockworkers. While all ILA men and their wives shared the goal of defending their rights as workers, not all workers had the same rights to defend. The most profound differences in workers’ understandings of the labor movement developed because Mexican Americans and African Americans sought to secure many of the rights of citizenship that white longshoremen took for granted. They saw the union as an appropriate vehicle through which to eliminate this incongruity by expanding their access to rights off the docks and actively used their segregated locals to those ends. Along with different interpretations of the union’s purpose, blacks, whites, and Mexican Americans also had different experiences of their class position. For white longshoremen, the experience of class was an isolated one in which they were alienated from whites of other classes. Mexican Americans and African Americans, on the other hand, regularly engaged in cross-class alliances and found positions of respect within their racially defined communities. Though the tension between devotion to white supremacy and multiracial unionism was never resolved, the ILA endured because all members shared a belief in the importance of the labor movement and the ability of unions to improve their lives.