San Antonio’s new Labor Plaza honors its union history

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Union 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 art pieces celebrating 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 that stretches from the corner of Alamo and Market Streets down to the river where the monumental stone Stargazer sculpture awaits visitors.

The walkable, public plaza features a poem and colorful tile paintings by former San Antonio poet Octavio Quintanilla, steel sculptures by Washington DC-based artist Ries Niemi, who have moved from their former home in Hemisfair, and sidewalk etchings commemorating a remember a number of local labor leaders .

History of Labor in San Antonio

When Quintanilla was commissioned to write a poem for the Plaza project, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration. His grandfather worked on the South Texas railroad, and he once worked 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 kind of work championed by unions that’s celebrated in this space,” he said.

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

You are now standing in a city of sunlight called a city
for the kindest saints, where these

that came before you unwind
to meet you…

The words are carved into the concrete pathways that surround the plaza’s central circle, where a sentence was carved into Niemi’s steel sculpture I remember everything sounds a similar reference to story continuity, saying, “If you forget something, does it cease to exist?”

Quintanilla said: “For this place it was absolutely necessary that we remember where we came from”, speaking not only of his own experience but also of well-known union leaders such as Emma Tenayuca, Joan Suarez, Robert Thompson and Shelly Potter, they are among those to whom Labor Plaza is dedicated.

Tenayuca is recalled for leading the 1938 pecan shellers’ strike, which resulted in better working conditions for her and her compatriots. Mario Salas, a former plumber and pipe fitter union member and former city councilor and community activist, will be remembered for his fight against racism and discrimination.

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

Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president emeritus 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 dedication of the Gompers statue in 1983 and was instrumental in leading efforts to replace it with public art focused on organized labor.

At the dedication ceremony, Chavez-Thompson recalled growing up in cotton country West Texas and earning 40 cents for a 10-hour day in the fields. When she discovered the power of unionizing, she said, her path in life as a workers’ advocate was set.

“I found out what the labor movement was, how it protected people… how important it was for workers to actually make good wages,” she said. “I fell in love with the labor movement. That was in 1967 so here we are 55 years later and I’m still in love with the labor movement, I still love continuing to advocate for workers because sometimes they don’t have a chance to speak for themselves.”

solidarity forever

Tom Cummins, president of the AFL-CIO chapter, pointed out that most of the buildings around the plaza were built by union builders.

The Labor Plaza, which tells key moments in the history of organized labor in San Antonio, will bring these buildings into context and help increase understanding of workers’ roles in building the city, Cummins said.

As U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), wearing a United Farm Workers of America T-shirt, posed for photos with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Cummins pointed to Rebecca Flores, former director of the AFL-CIO’s Texas chapter nearby.

Two decades ago, Flores helped in the fight to ban the short heel for rural workers in the Rio Grande Valley, Cummins said, bringing some relief to the back-breaking labor of tilling the fields. Flores is quoted on the pitch as saying: “The list of problems was long and overwhelming. But the workers understood through the merger…there was a way to persevere.”

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

… what power on earth is weaker than the weak power of one,
But the union makes us strong.

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