Workers of the World, United in Time
UT Lecturer Anne Lewis on her new doc, A Strike and an Uprising (in Texas)
As a documentarian and teacher, Anne Lewis is synonymous with two things: Austin (her adopted home since the Nineties) and films about trade union activism. She concedes that it's a little bit strange that her new film A Strike and an Uprising (in Texas) is the first to explore labor in the Lone Star State. The documentary, which screens this weekend in Austin as part of the Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, is a follow-up of sorts to the UT lecturer's 2007 film, Morristown: In the Air and Sun. In that film, she found commonalities in the experiences of workers in Eastern Tennessee, interior Mexico, and Ciudad Juárez, exploring links that geography cannot erase. Here, she connects two periods of labor activism in Texas: the 1938 San Antonio pecan shellers' strike, and the 1987 Jobs With Justice march in Nacogdoches (plus, as a coda, the 2017 protests against Confederate memorials). Lewis said, "In retrospect, it was random that those two stories were two things I would be interested in ... but there was something in them that just got me."
That the 1938 strike would ever happen was "counterintuitive," she said, as the unions of the time were concentrating on white men for their membership drives. With the San Antonio workers, "they didn't speak English, they were very low-paid, they were transitory, the lot of them were undocumented, they were very young or very old, and they were being organized by a communist." However, she said, what they coordinated was "a beautifully organized strike."
The central organizer was Emma Tenayuca, and much like the protagonist of Lewis' last feature, 2012's Anne Braden: Southern Patriot, she was a charismatic and driven figure who saw beyond her own direct self-interest. "She didn't shell pecans," Lewis said, "but she came out of that community." While Lewis was committed to finding out more about Tenayuca – sadly unstudied, but almost a folklore figure in Texas union circles – this was a story about "masses of people organizing in a very direct way. ... I'm as interested in the followers as the leaders." By visiting retirement and care homes on the west side of San Antonio, she found people who remembered the strike, and even one surviving participant: "This string of incredible human beings."
The other story, even though it was closer in time, "was equally elusive" when it came to finding sources. Fortunately, she knew some of the organizers through her own union work, "so it was easier in that sense, but hard in the sense that the whole thing got started with the civil rights struggle, and those folks were hard to find." That even stretched to Stephen F. Austin State University cleaner Annie Mae Carpenter, whose wrongful dismissal suit against the college was the spark that lit the flame of protest. Lewis said, "I never find a picture of her [and] she's somebody that everyone should know about in Texas. We should know about her the way we know about Rosa Parks."
A lifelong union member (first as a factory worker, now as a state employee), Lewis has seen union participation decline since the highs of the Seventies, and watched the concept of workplace activism slide from the popular dialogue. But, she added, "all of a sudden, you have this uprising of West Virginia teachers. So there's something that's possible."
A Strike and an Uprising (in Texas) is screening as part of Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, Saturday, May 5, 2pm @ AFS Cinema. For more on Cine Las Americas see right, and revisit “Cine Las Americas Explores the Global Faces of Latino and Indigenous Cinema,” April 27.