San Antonio’s workers are among the least unionized in the country, but local organized labor and its sympathizers say the nationwide resurgence of interest in unions is being felt here, too.

More than any potential uptick in workplace petitions — which nationally have ramped up this year — union leaders and workers describe a surge in grassroots energy created by pandemic-era working conditions and long-simmering economic inequality having reached a boiling point. Look no further, they say, than the strike by the symphony musicians union, the new rank-and-file leadership of one of San Antonio’s biggest unions and the political ascendancy of staunchly pro-union leaders like Councilwoman Teri Castillo and Democratic congressional candidate Greg Casar.

“The more I see workers getting on board with organizing their workplaces, the more hopeful I feel,” said CJ Craig, a San Antonio Starbucks worker whose store on Loop 410 and Vance Jackson Road this summer became the first in the city to organize. Two other Starbucks locations in the city have also joined the hundreds of stores nationwide organizing, though the company has only recently entered contract negotiations with a handful.

CJ Craig, works at the Starbucks store, located at Starbucks on Loop 410 and Vance Jackson which became the first in the city to unionize.
CJ Craig works at the Starbucks on Loop 410 at Vance Jackson Road. The store became the first Starbucks in the city to organize. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“It’s insane to me that my co-workers can’t afford to take out a loan to buy a car or have to split a three-bedroom apartment with four roommates,” Craig said. “It just doesn’t make sense, especially as Starbucks continues to brag about their increasing revenue every quarter.”

Craig said he’s been meeting with other employees wanting to unionize, not just from Starbucks stores but other businesses, too.

Leaders of established unions like Alejandra Lopez, the president of the San Antonio Independent School District employees union, also described an emerging network. “Our local is trying to see how we can support other unionization efforts, particularly in areas where we know the demographics of workers is younger and has more people of color,” she said.

New leaders and allies

Lopez, a second grade teacher, was elected in 2020 as part of a caucus within the union called Poder made up of rank-and-file educators who place an emphasis on social justice.

Lopez and others in the Poder caucus have worked alongside activist groups like Texas Organizing Project and MOVE Texas — which themselves have unionized in the past year — to advance a vision that ties bread-and-butter issues like pay with those concerning a broader constituency of parents and students.

“We saw that most clearly under COVID, when we had to organize for safe schools,” she said. Under her tenure the union took center stage in pushing for SAISD to maintain its mask mandate long after other school districts had dropped theirs. It has also sought to gain traction on the school board by running union-backed candidates, and successfully unseated a veteran incumbent.

The teacher’s union, the new Starbucks union and others in town have also found themselves with new allies at City Hall.

“I want to ensure we don’t forget: these are essential workers,” said Castillo (D5), the daughter of a union worker who since her election last year has collaborated closely with local labor unions. “This moment for labor is inspiring and energetic. We’re seeing workers organizing in sectors we haven’t seen before, advocating for their benefits, fighting for their safety standards.”

Castillo, along with District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, was elected with the support of the local Democratic Socialists of America, a progressive political group that last week publicly advocated for baseball players on the San Antonio Missions to join a growing unionization effort within minor league teams.

Local officials’ support has dovetailed with those in higher office, as President Joe Biden has promised to be the “most pro-union president in history.”

‘Incongruent with our city’

But not all are fans of unions or the apparent surge in interest in them. Even while recent polls show labor unions enjoyed their greatest majority of popular support in decades, the same polls also show a majority of nonunion workers are “not interested at all” in joining a union.

“Businesses are doing all they can to hold on to quality employees,” said Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, emphasizing the chamber’s support for Texas’ “right-to-work” laws. The Texas Labor Code allows workers to choose whether to join a union and requires unions to represent employees even if they don’t pay union dues.

Union growth “seems incongruent with our city and our state’s healthy job growth, increases in salaries at all levels and the fact that there are more open positions that exist than individuals to fill them,” he said.

The president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, Emily Williams Knight, also remarked on the unionization efforts she said have occurred recently in movie theaters, restaurants and other hospitality businesses.

“Coming out of the pandemic, it’s never been more important for all businesses to listen to and value their employees,” Knight said in a prepared statement. “The Texas Restaurant Association will continue to help with these efforts by providing best-in-class education, legal compliance resources, and the products and services that restaurants can leverage to provide benefits and opportunities to their team members.”

A history of strikes

Tension between unions and management broke into the open last year at the San Antonio Symphony when musicians went on strike over proposals that would have cut their pay and the number of full-time positions in the orchestra. The symphony’s board argued the cuts were necessary in the wake of the pandemic and resulting funding declines. Following an impasse over contract negotiations with the musician’s union, the symphony’s board in June opted to declare bankruptcy and dissolve the organization. Some of the striking musicians have since formed a new group with a season financed by individual donations.

Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony attended a San Antonio City Council seeking support during their labor strike in March of this year.
Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony attended a San Antonio City Council seeking support during their labor strike in March. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The musicians’ strike has parallels with past episodes in San Antonio’s history of organized labor. In 1938, a young and militant Emma Tenayuca became the public face of a strike by some 12,000 pecan shellers, most of them women, over an attempt by local companies to cut their already low pay. The union won higher pay, but the company soon after replaced most of the workers with machines, ending their union.

More recently in 2011, unionized flour mill workers at Guenther & Son held a picket line for nearly two years over a proposed hike in insurance premiums. The strike ended without a resolution and the company ultimately replaced almost all of the striking workers.

Strikes have won lasting concessions, too. In 1977, a worker strike at Friedrich Air Conditioning and Refrigeration downtown won immediate raises and improved health benefits.

Declining membership

Many of the city’s strikes took place in a time when unions were far larger than they are today. In the 1950s as many as 1 in 3 American workers were represented by a labor union, a figure that is down to 1 in 10 today. In San Antonio, that figure is closer to 1 in 25, according to census figures compiled in part by Trinity University economics Professor David Macpherson. Narrowed to private employers, it’s about 1 in 66.

In San Antonio’s public sector, unions over this period have consistently represented about 1 in 5 workers. Some of San Antonio’s largest unions are those representing its teachers, bus drivers and government workers.

When Toyota chose San Antonio for its plant in the early 2000s, Macpherson said the move likely came at least in part because of its low private sector unionization. (Toyota had also considered sites in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee — all “right-to-work states” with low union participation.) Toyota’s presence has helped turn San Antonio into a hub of auto manufacturing, with numerous Toyota suppliers setting up shop here and a Navistar truck manufacturing facility coming on line earlier this year.

That San Antonio’s private sector unionization rate has declined even faster than the state’s could be attributed to the composition of its industries. San Antonio’s private sector workforce is disproportionately concentrated in industries with historically low unionization rates — such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, banks and hospitals. Meanwhile, private sector industries with high unionization rates — like manufacturing and transportation — have less of a presence in San Antonio than the national average.

‘It’s going to take a lot of work’

However, this workforce composition, and the relative unionization of different industries, may be changing.

The city’s $230 million workforce training program aims to take thousands of workers in low-wage industries and put them into skilled trades in manufacturing, education, construction and transportation, which are among the most unionized industries.

And the service sector has been the site of much of the high-profile organizing seen recently, a precursor for which came locally in 2015 when bartenders, bellhops, cooks, cleaners and housekeepers organized with Unite Here to unionize two Hyatt hotels on the River Walk.

“If labor unions want a resurgence, it’s going to take a lot of work,” Macpherson said. “They’re going to have to invest a lot in organizing, in areas where they haven’t traditionally organized.”

Other economists, like Tom Tunstall at the University of Texas at San Antonio, feel there’s a “significant likelihood” the service sector will see increases in union membership.

And Craig, the Starbucks worker, feels it may come down to the Starbucks contracts that get hammered out.

“We’re in a state of flux,” he said. “A lot of workers are waiting to see how this all pans out before they’re willing to take up this mantle themselves.”

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.