Labor and government leaders gathered Monday morning in the shadow of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center to celebrate the dedication of Labor Plaza, a collection of new and older public artworks recognizing the history of organized labor in San Antonio.

Labor Plaza is the newest addition to the River Walk Public Art Garden, a collection of permanent and temporary artworks leading from the corner of Alamo and Market Streets down to the river level, where the monumental stone Stargazer sculpture awaits visitors.

The walkable, publicly accessible plaza features a poem and colorful tile paintings by former San Antonio poet laureate Octavio Quintanilla, steel sculptures by Washington D.C.-based artist Ries Niemi relocated from their former home in Hemisfair and sidewalk etchings commemorating a number of local labor leaders.

History of labor in San Antonio

When Quintanilla received the commission to write a poem for the plaza project, he didn’t have to search far for inspiration. His grandfather worked the South Texas railroads, and he once labored in construction and as a migrant worker in the Upper Midwest before becoming a high school teacher.

“A lot of my family comes from the type of labor that is championed by labor unions, that is celebrated in this space,” he said.

For his poem “So that our Crossing May Never be Obstructed,” Quintanilla wrote:

You stand now in a city of sunlight, city named
after the kindest of saints, where those

who came before you unspool
themselves to meet you…

The words are etched in the concrete walkways surrounding the central circle of the plaza, where a phrase cut into Niemi’s steel sculpture I Remember Everything sounds a similar note on the continuity of history, reading “If you forget something, does it cease to exist?”

Quintanilla said, “For this plaza, it was completely necessary for us to remember where we come from,” speaking not only of his own experience, but of noted labor leaders such as Emma Tenayuca, Joan Suarez, Robert Thompson and Shelly Potter, who are among those to whom Labor Plaza is dedicated.

Tenayuca is recalled for leading the 1938 Pecan Shellers’ Strike that led to better working conditions for her and her compatriots. Mario Salas, a former member of the plumbers and pipefitters union, and a former councilman and community activist, is remembered for fighting against racism and discrimination.

People explore the newly opened Labor Plaza located in the River Walk Public Art Garden on Market Street Monday.
People explore the newly opened Labor Plaza located in the River Walk Public Art Garden on Market Street Monday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president emerita of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), is recognized for her pioneering work as a Hispanic labor leader. Thompson was present at the 1983 dedication of the Gompers statue, and was instrumental in leading the effort to replace it with public art focused on organized labor.

At the dedication ceremony, Chavez-Thompson recalled growing up in West Texas cotton country, making 40 cents for a 10-hour day working in the fields. Once she discovered the power of union organizing, she said, her life course was set as an advocate for workers.

“I found out what the labor movement was, how it protected people … how important it was for workers to actually earn good wages,” she said. “I fell in love with the labor movement. That was in 1967, so now we are here 55 years later and I’m still in love with the labor movement, I’m still in love with continuing to do an advocate for workers, because sometimes they have no way to speak for themselves.”

Solidarity forever

Tom Cummins, president of the local chapter of the AFL-CIO, pointed out that most of the buildings surrounding the plaza were built by labor union construction workers.

Having Labor Plaza to recount important moments in the history of organized labor in San Antonio will bring context to those buildings, and help build understanding of the role of workers in constructing the city, Cummins said.

As U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), who was wearing a United Farm workers of America T-shirt, posed for photographs with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Cummins pointed to Rebecca Flores, former director of the Texas state chapter of the AFL-CIO standing nearby.

Two decades ago, Flores helped in the fight to ban the short hoe for Rio Grande Valley farm workers, Cummins said, bringing some relief to the back-breaking work of tilling fields. Flores is quoted on the plaza as saying, “the list of problems was long and overwhelming. Yet workers understood through uniting … there was a way to persevere.”

Near a bronze plaque commemorating the decommissioned sculpture of national labor leader Samuel Gompers that once stood on the site, the words of the famous labor song “Solidarity Forever” echo the words of Flores:

… what force on Earth is weaker than the feeble force of one,
But the union makes us strong.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...