Point Austin: The Legacy of Solidarity

Film of the 'Austin Chicano Huelga' recounts a city's transformation

Point Austin
Before the 1968-71 Economy Furniture strike, said Peck Young, Austin was essentially "just another Southern Confederate capital." Afterward, said Gon­zalo Barrientos, "This huelga was the catalyst of change in Hispanic politics," beginning with the 1970 election of Richard Moya as county commissioner, the first Hispanic elected official in Austin, and transforming the culture and politics of the entire region. Retired Austin state Sen. Barrientos was introducing the documentary film Economy Furniture Strike, the first to be produced by the Austin Community Col­lege Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, where Young is executive director. The Monday night event took place in the auditorium of the Mexican American Cultural Center – now renamed in honor of Barrientos' late, beloved wife, Emma – in an auditorium filled to capacity with many of the people who were part of the film's story, as well as several current and former Hispanic officials who owed their careers to the changes wrought by that struggle.

The entire 2010 event, much less its setting, would never have been possible had several hundred Mexican-American workers, back in 1968, not had the courage, determination, and solidarity to say to their stiff-necked company bosses that enough is enough.

Unfairness and Disrespect

The film itself, though rough-hewn in parts and a little too heavily influenced by the current Ken-Burns-watch-the-camera-move aesthetic, is an extraordinary historical document and a vital catalog of human information for anyone interested in the history of Austin and most particularly Austin working people. Based on the available records and many hours of interviews with strike participants, it tells the truly remarkable story of a struggle that formally began in 1958, when a first attempt at unionization failed. The company owners made promises to improve working conditions and pay, then reneged – indeed, denied ever having made such assurances at all – when the workers agreed not to form a union. As the film proceeds, it becomes clear that the root causes of the strike were as much the institutional company disrespect for its Hispanic workers as their parlous economic circumstances.

Ten years later, promises no longer worked. When the workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize, the company turned to threats and intimidation, with plenty of official allies. In one of the more revealing memories recounted matter-of-factly by former strikers, after the strike began in November 1968, the Texas Rangers were called in and loaded up picketers on buses and dropped them 10 miles out of town so they could walk home. (That episode was not only abusive but ironic, in that later the City Council would deny the strikers and their supporters a permit to march Downtown; they walked on the sidewalks instead.)

Some other highlights worth recalling:

• Lencho Hernandez recalls earning $1.15 an hour (minimum wage) when he began working at Economy's Burnet Road factory; a co-worker with eight years' experience had risen to the princely sum of $1.18.

• Wages were partly based on the piecework assembly of furniture, with a bonus system for meeting the piecework quota plus 10%; in practice, when workers met the bonus targets, the targets were simply raised another 10% (a practice still widespread in nonunion plants).

• Company owners used legal as well as illegal means in trying to break the strike, repeatedly appealing federal rulings that they recognize the union, and in legal briefs describing their own workers as "uneducated" and "stupid Mexicans" misled by outside agitators.

• The Catholic Church was both succor and bane to the strikers – they were supported by brave priests, while lectured to renounce the union by a company-friendly bishop.

• The strike became a national cause, eventually involving United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez – and transforming local politics.

The More Things Change ...

It took more than three years, much suffering, and an active, broadly supported boycott for the strikers to win – but in the end, nearly all won their jobs back, plus back pay. More importantly, they had transformed their city from the backwater Southern town it had been – patronizingly ruled, as striker Buddy Ruiz recalls, by conservative Democrats like Lyndon Johnson, John Connally, and Ben Barnes – into a much more politically diverse city, in which, thanks to the strikers, the Hispanic community had assumed a major role. "The efforts that the strikers put forth," reiterated former Mayor Gus Garcia after the screening, "galvanized the Mexican-American community," resulting in the beginnings of his own political career, as well as those of many others.

The young filmmakers of Economy Furniture Strike – producer Rudy Malveaux and director Jackie McCardell Jr. (with support from ACC students and faculty) – have done a remarkable job of recording all this history, and the film deserves a wide audience. Several of the full-length interviews are already available on the film's website (www.policyaustin.org/economyfstrike), and the film itself will be posted there as well. This is the first production of ACC's Mayor Jeffrey M. Friedman Austin Video Political History Project, which promises more in the same vein, focusing n the years 1965-2000. The first effort is certainly a worthy one.

To a degree, the film itself reflects the uneasy politics of its historical subject. At odd moments, Dan Rather's narration forcibly notes the philanthropy of the Smith family (owners of Economy Furniture), without quite acknowledging the obvious source of that generosity – direct and fairly ruthless exploitation of their employees. And the film opens with an intrusive, amateurish, and comically lame introduction by former Mayor Bruce Todd, warning the audience not to judge the actions of the past "by the standards of the present" – as if 1968 were 1868; Austin employers, state law, and local media didn't continue to treat unions with contempt, and institutional racism had quietly disappeared, oh, somewhere back in the early Nineties, during the Todd administration. (There must have been some intriguing "academic" discussions that imposed that clumsy, tendentious intro on an otherwise mostly straightforward documentary.)

All this said, the film is an informative and inspiring record of a crucial period of Austin and Texas and union history, worthy to be seen and discussed in local classrooms, in meeting halls, and at organizing events. And while some are still around to appreciate it, we should all remember to thank the heroic members of the Upholsterers International Union Local 456, whose bravery and solidarity did much to give us a better city than the one we had before their historic huelga.

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Economy Furniture Strike, Economy Furniture, Peck Young, Gonzalo Barrientos, Richard Moya, Mexican American Cultural Center, Cesar Chavez, United Farmworkers

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