Saturday, April 15, 2006


40 Years Ago: herestom's grandfather

From the Sunday April 10, 1966 edition of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times:

Labor's New Battlefront Is In Valley
by Bill Walraven
A Corpus Christi labor leader has confirmed that a number of unions are zeroing in for a large-scale effort to organize laborers of all classes in the Rio Grande Valley.

Reports of such a drive have been current in South Texas for some time.

J. Elro Brown of Corpus Christi, international representative of the Oil, Atomic and Chemical Workers in South Texas, is one of the active planners of the campaign. It is being conducted by a number of other unions in cooperation with the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO.

Brown said the Retail-Wholesale-Department Store Union workers probably will be co-operating in the Valley drive in a short time. Organizers have been instructed in the purposes and methods of the Industrial Union Department. Two representatives of the IUD are directing the organizational drive, Brown said.

Other attempts have been made to organize Rio Grande Valley farm laborers, he agreed, but never on such a widespread basis.

Mexican Labor Cooperating
The Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos, the most powerful labor group in Mexico, is cooperating with American labor for the first time to help raise Valley pay scales, Brown said.

Why is a Corpus Christi refinery union official working to organize farm and other unskilled labor?

"There are two reasons," Brown replied. "We are no longer interested in the welfare of union members alone. We are vitally interested in the public welfare in general, and this includes all of our people.

"Secondly, so long as you have this huge reservoir of people willing to work for substandard wages, it will always be a threat to the good wages of oil workers."

In the Valley, he said, work formerly done by oil company employees is being handled on a labor contract basis. "These contract workers receive the minimum of $1.25 an hour instead of the $2.75 an hour paid to yard labor," Brown said.

Brown said, "When you leave Corpus Christi and head south, economically, you're entering a new country. In this area discriminatory wages still prevail and the 'patron system' still exists.

"The only way to break it is to set up an agricultural union and get wages up."

He said the unions and the Industrial Union Department, headed by Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, hope "to install a real liason between Mexican and Texas trade unions. Often in Mexico all organizing has to be done away from the working premises."

Brown said Valley laborers have not earned enough money to pay poll taxes, and added, "Maybe there will be a change with the new voter registration, provided they receive the proper assistance."

Poverty Spreads Like Dye on Water
Like dye on water, he said, poverty of one area spreads to other areas where conditions are not so bad, tending to lower union wages. The young Latin Americans who are educated are inclined to migrate away from the area.

"They could learn the advantages of being union members and stay," he said. "We are teaching the advantages of unionism in this program whether the organizational program succeeds or not."

Brown said "There is a need for the development of the militancy the American Negro has. Then you would see a change in the Valley. The Latin American leaders have the militancy and the talent, but the people do not. What the IUD is doing is backing up the War on Poverty by trying to raise wages."

Leaders of Latin Americans, however, have shown weakness American labor had a few years ago, he said. "The AFL and CIO spent all of their resources and energies fighting each other and had little left to fight for their rights. The Latin American leadership must organize and work together to forge an efficient voice for their people," he said.

Brown believes that the War on Poverty can bring about a "great social good to the country if only something is done to upgrade housing in poverty areas without forcing people living there to move from their home communities."

A member of the executive committee of the local Community on Youth Education and Job Opportunities, Brown said that all of the programs, if used to complement one another, "could make Corpus Christi a model community in the United States. We might again win a beauty and cleanliness award."

The anti-poverty program probably needs a public relations campaign to acquaint everyone with its projects, he said.

"Disease and poverty go hand and hand," he said. "Poverty cannot afford cleanliness, and this includes more than just soap and water.

"Politically, the AFL-CIO always has supported those who are for social progress," he said, "be it for better schools, Medicare or the War on Poverty."

Generally, he thinks President Johnson has achieved the greatest social progress since the Roosevelt era and that there was a compelling emergency from the depression in the FDR times which is not present with the Johnson administration, he said.

"The only thing labor is critical of is the lack of evident action of the administration in working for the repeal of 14-B (the provision permitting states to enact right-to-work laws) and establishment of guidelines for wage increases wihtout guidelines for profits and the cost of living," he said.

There has been administration "footdragging" on federal standards for unemployment compensation, Brown said. Now the amount of workmen's ocmpensation and the length of time it may be drawn varies in different states.

There has also been "footdragging" on a situs bill, Brown said. This would allow picketing at sites where other unions are involved. Encouraging other unions to support a strike has been ruled to constitute a secondary boycott.

Brown said that labor supports the President in his Vietnam policy as well as in his foreign policies in Europe and Africa. Contrary to what many believe, he said, unions have been successful in combatting communism in the labor movement.

Labor unions and particularly the OACW, are particularly concerned today about job security-even more than about wage increases, Brown said.

"We are now at a point in the petroleum industry where, unless you are talking about a new plant, even the workers with low seniority have at least 10 to 15 years of service. And people with that much of their productive life invested with a given company feel insecure.

"We see companies such as Sinclair Pipeline which used to employ 1,500 people in the Texas area. It now is operated by less than 500. The natural attrition from retirement and death with no replacements has kept pace with automation, but workers are still worried about what will happen if automation accelerates. Many in the petroleum industry with a high seniority have been laid off.

"And it's not all automation. There are metals that do not corrode and do not require much maintenance. Computers can pump wells and operate fractionating units. Microwave radio closes valves 500 miles away.

"Unions will continue to ask for wage increases in view of jumps in the cost of living and excessive profits of industry, but our main energy is turned to the problem of displacement by computers."

Brown, 58, is the son of a Baptist minister. He grew up "all over Texas and Louisiana." He finished high school in Beaumont and attended South Park College (now Lamar Tech), spent one summer at Louisiana College, then attended Louisiana State University before going to work for the Texas Company refinery in Port Arthur in 1933, the same year he was married.

He worked in Port Arthur until 1944 when he went to work for the Oil Workers International union. He had been president of Local 4-23 in Port Arthur and had been made the union's fulltime secretary.

In 1944 he became an international union representative for California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona.

He became a district director in 1946 and was transferred to Chicago in 1950 where he spent some time organizing unions in Canada. In 1951 he became district director of the southern half of Texas. In 1962 the number of union districts was cut from 16 to nine, and Brown once more became an international representative. He transferred to Corpus Christi in 1963 when the Hess Oil and Chemical Co. purchased Delhi Taylor Refinery.

Brown has been active in civic affairs in all of the cities where he lived. He has also been a working Democrat.

He was a delegate to two Democratic National Conventions. In 1952 he was a member of the maverick Texas liberal delegation which was not seated in Chicago. There, however, a number of liberal leaders of the Democratic Party worked to seat the delegation.

"As a result I became well acquainted with Estes Kefauver, G. Mennen Williams, Hubert Humphrey, Averell Harriman and returned home a Jack Kennedy man," he said.

Brown served on the California State Employment Commission under Gov. Earl Warren and was a personal friend of Gov. Adlai Stevenson who appointed him to the Illinois Safety Advisory Committee. In Texas, Gov. Price Daniel appointed Brown to the Southern States Manpower Conference in Miami.

"This conference first produced the idea of a Peace Corps and Head Start," Brown said. "Gen. Gavin proposed the Peace Corps idea as a possibility for people of draft age to get credit for service in the armed forces. I don't know whether he got the idea from John F. Kennedy or Kennedy got it from him."

Brown and his wife live at 518 Atlantic. They have two sons, James Elro Brown Jr., who was graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1957 and who also received a law degree from George Washington University, and Lane Baxter Brown, an employee of Standard Oil Co. of Texas who will receive a law degree in August from the University of Houston.

Elro Jr. is a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard and will be executive officer of the cutter Active, a new ship. The Browns have three grandchildren.

That's pretty darn cool...

Where did people get the time and energy to do so much work back then?

I have a feeling your grandfather woke up and did about 500 things before 9:00 AM every day...


You should experiment one day and see what you are capable of accomplishing before 1:00 PM :)
My grandfather was a union organizer in the 20's and 30's and helped found the local silversmith's union. It's nice to have that kind of heritage, isn't it?
yeah, sometimes its overwhelming to think about. i'll never forget my grandfather's 50th wedding anniversary. there were dozens of men from the unions who made it there. how many people from corporate office jobs show up at 50th wedding anniversaries? hey, what happened to all the hard work we put into the team building exercises!!???!!!
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