San Antonio’s new Labor Plaza pays homage to its labor history
Labor and government leaders gathered Monday morning in the shadow of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center to celebrate the grand opening of Labor Plaza, a collection of new and old 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 works of art leading from the corner of Alamo and Market streets to river level, where the monumental stone sculpture Stargazer awaits visitors. 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 DC-based artist Ries Niemi moved from their former home in Hemisfair and sidewalk prints commemorating a number of local union leaders.
San Antonio Labor History
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 railroads in southern Texas, and he 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 type of work championed by unions, which is celebrated in this space,” he said.
For his poem “So that our passage may never be obstructed”, Quintanilla wrote:
You now stand in a city of sunshine, a city named
after the kindest of saints, where those
who came before you unroll
themselves to meet you…
The words are etched into the concrete walkways surrounding the square’s central circle, where a phrase carved into Niemi’s steel sculpture I remember everything sounds a similar note on story continuity, reading “If you forget something, does it cease to exist?”
Quintanilla said: “For this place, it was absolutely necessary that we remember where we come 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, who are among those to whom Labor Plaza is dedicated.
Tenayuca is remembered for leading the 1938 pecan shellers’ strike that led to better working conditions for her and her compatriots. Mario Salas, former member of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union and former city councilor and community activist, is remembered for his fight against racism and discrimination.
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 unveiling of the Gompers statue in 1983 and was instrumental in leading efforts to replace it with public art focused on organized labor.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, Chavez-Thompson recalled growing up in West Texas cotton country, earning 40 cents for a 10-hour day’s work in the fields. Once she discovered the power of union organizing, she said, her life course was defined as an advocate for workers.
“I found out what the labor movement was, how it protected people…how important it was for workers to earn good wages,” she said. “I fell in love with the labor movement. That was 1967, so now we’re here 55 years later and I’m still in love with the labor movement, I’m still in love with continuing to stand up for workers, because sometimes they have no way to speak for themselves .”
Tom Cummins, president of the local AFL-CIO, pointed out that most of the buildings surrounding the plaza were built by unionized construction workers.
Having Labor Plaza to tell important moments in the history of organized labor in San Antonio will bring context to these buildings and help to better understand the role of workers in building the city, Cummins said.
As U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), who wore a United Farm Workers of America t-shirt, posed for photos with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Cummins pointed the finger at Rebecca Flores, former branch director of the Texas State AFL- CIO standing nearby.
Two decades ago, Flores helped in the fight to ban the short hoe for farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley, Cummins said, bringing some relief from the backbreaking work of plowing fields. Flores is quoted on the square saying, “The list of problems was long and overwhelming. Yet the workers understood that by uniting…there was a way to persevere.
Near a bronze plaque commemorating the disused sculpture of national labor leader Samuel Gompers that once stood at the site, the lyrics of the famous labor song “Solidarity Forever” echo Flores’ words:
…what force on Earth is weaker than the weak force of one,
But unity makes us strong.