The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 72, July 1968 - April, 1969

The Early History of
Labor Organizations in Texas, 1838-1876
JAMES V. REESE*
U NTIL THE DEVELOPMENT OF EFFECTIVE RAILWAY TRANSPORT IN THE
1870's, there was little in the Texas economy or society conducive
to the development of labor organizations. Outside the port towns of
Galveston and Houston, which developed relatively diversified econ-
omies even before the Civil War, the economy of Texas remained one
of self-sufficient agriculture until the railroad broke the frontier pat-
tern of isolated communities seeking to supply most of their own basic
needs. The growth of labor organizations in Texas, like the develop-
ment of the state's economy, lagged far behind the nation. Unioniza-
tion accelerated in the seventies, climaxing in the widespread and
violent strikes of 1877, which apprised Texans, for the first time, of
the confusing problems and conflicts wrought by industrialization. In
that year Texas experienced not only extensive railway strikes and
major work stoppages among the dock workers of Galveston and the
building trades in several cities, but also scores of minor labor trou-
bles. These strikes came as Texas started on the road to a modern,
if still primarily agricultural, economy and marked the arrival of mili-
tant, if still weak, unionism.
Although the history of modern organized labor in Texas really
began with the strikes of 1877, antecedents existed. Where and when the
most rudimentary conditions for labor organizations existed and where
the number of wage earners and the amount of economic specialization
were sufficient, Texas workers, like their eastern counterparts, organ-
ized. These early labor organizations, some dating from the era of the
Texas Republic, did not all take the classic form of unions, nor did
many of them endure more than a few months or years. Yet they were
important as early examples of the Texan worker's attempts to meet
through collective action the particular problems of an isolated agrar-
ian society.
Such action might take a variety of forms, usually spontaneous.
Workers, both craftsmen and common laborers, who were temporarily
*Mr. Reese is associate professor of history at Texas Technological College.

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 72, July 1968 - April, 1969. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117146/. Accessed October 1, 2014.