Manuela Sager

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Manuela Soliz Sager was a Texas activist. She was married to James Sager. Sager helped to organize garment and agricultural workers in Laredo, Texas, during the early 1930s. She became one of the first official organizers of the South Texas Agricultural Workers' Union (STAWU) and worked in the Rio Grande Valley, considered to be one of the most difficult places to organize. Manuela and her husband James played key roles in a labor dispute involving Mexican pecan shellers, most of whom were women. Manuela Solis Sager channeled her conviction for human rights into many activism. Throughout her life, she involved herself with the Chicano Movement, the women's movement, immigrant rights, and opposition to U.S. interventionist foreign policy."[1]

"Workers cause"

The People's Weekly World of May 20 2000, carried a May Day Supplement. On page B, San Antonio activists paid tribute to contributors to the "worker's cause" Emma Tenayuca (1916-1999), John Inman (1896-1996), Manuela Soliz Sager (1911-1996), James Sager (1902-1979), Luisa Moreno (1906-1992).

Background

Mela was born in Dolores, Texas. Her father and mother had both come there from Mexico. At the age of 12, Mela's dad was put to work mining coal in mines worked formerly by Black southern slaves. In that hard environment, he eventually played some role as a union organizer.

Her mother had been a schoolteacher, and she taught Mela in 1st and 2nd grades. But death took her when Mela was 12-13 years old, and Mela was left with her father, an uncle, two sisters, and five brothers. She was the oldest, and was responsible for their care.

The miners suffered severe layoffs. Her dad was laid off in 1928; he sold the family home for $65, the cows for $5 each, and the bee hives for 50 cents. He moved the family to Laredo. Mela and her family worked in harvesting vegetables and cotton at unbelievably low wages.

"It was hardship hardship hardship. We had to go to the carrot fields and work for 1 1/2 cents for a dozen bunches. We had to dig them up, tie them up, and wash them for a cent and a half. For the onions, they used to pay us $1.25 for the whole day, sun up to sunset. If you cut the little roots, they paid us by the box, 2 and 3 cents, a box, a big box of about a hundred. And then to take the dirt off. This is incredible. My father was a tall man. I was a short girl. He used to get together with those big things for the corn, a big sack where they pick the corn for selling. We used to hold it so the dirt would shake off. For that they used to pay us 3 cents a box. It was cheap, cheap labor. It was against the child labor laws."

At one point, Mela provided the sole income for her family as a clerk in a Laredo store.[2]

Radicalization

From the beginning of her working life, Mela learned about class struggle in the hard way. She recounts, "We had a strike in Laredo in the onion fields. We had an onion strike, and at that time, they called the National Guard to protect the progress of the company. So we got in the middle of the road, we didn't let them pass. We did take a lot of pressure from the law. We didn't win the strike, everybody said they sold the strike." On other occasions, the young Mela became a negotiator for the farm workers, because she was the only one who spoke English.

Racism was also a regular companion to Mela's activities. She remembers her father and uncle being driven from a restaurant at gunpoint because they wanted to stay and drink the beer they had just purchased there. She remembers being driven from a park area, even though it was in the 1950s, by a racist with a rifle.

While working in the needle trades in Laredo, Mela organized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union which was a pioneer CIO union in Texas. She served as its Laredo Chairperson for two years while still a very young woman. The union members collected a small donation for her when she received an opportunity to attend, on scholarship from the Mexican government of Lazaro Cardenas, the University of Mexico. She studied law there, while also being active in progressive workers' movements and the Mexican union, CTM. One strike she remembered well had to do with workers who made bottle caps for Coca Cola.[3]

Marriage

About this same time that she married James Sager, a Bostonian who had come to the Valley to organize for one of the most aggressive CIO unions - the United Cannery and Agricultural Workers. For the first three years, she saw her husband very little.

Perhaps the best known of all the struggles that the pair worked on was the pecan sheller's strike in San Antonio in 1937. Mela, 4 months pregnant, played a big role in motivating the striking women. Both she and James were eventually pulled out of strike leadership, along with the more famous Emma Tenayuca, because of red baiting.[4]

Texas Workers Alliance

A group, named the Texas Workers Alliance, led by labor activists and communists Emma Tenayuca and Manuela Sager, formed in 1934 to foster communism in San Antonio. In 1938, the young Latinas and their followers began working with the Pecan Shelling Workers Union to encourage San Antonio shellers to protest poor working conditions and low pay.[5]

Red-baiting

Interviewer Anne Feeney asked Mela, "Have you ever lost a job because of red baiting?"

Mela answered, "Oh man, have I? I got kicked out of a job because of it. Not for being a Red but for being the wife of a Red. People didn't know who I was. But after that, I said, 'The hell with them!" As a matter of fact, when we were organizing in the Valley, is it all right to talk about this? We had no time. We had a union hall, as I told you, in every town starting from Harlingen. We went to San Benito, Brownsville, then we went to Edinberg, Weslaco, Santa Rosa, La Feria, Weslaco, and we organized a union hall in every town."

Red baiting continued to hurt the Sager family as the anti-communist witch hunt period replaced the glory days of CIO union organizing. In the last words recorded on the 1991 cassette tape, Mela recounted long years of low-paying jobs and continuing FBI harassment. She also told about her husband's final moment: "By the time he passed away, with 15 years of working, he was getting $1.25 or $1.35, I can't remember. He was supposed to have got a pension. He was 77 when he passed away July 18, 1979. It was the day, while he was in the hospital. The last words of him were, 'I'm glad we got rid of Somoza in Nicaragua, now we're going to have to get rid of him in the USA with all of his millions and his family.' He died with a heart attack. I was glad somebody got rid of Somoza, in some South American country.[6]

"Free Angela Davis"

People’s World, June 12, 1971, covered the meeting “!,500 in San Antonio at Free Angela meeting."

“San Antonio, Texas—The first mass rally and dance for Angela Davis in the Southwest was a smashing success here May 23 as some 1,500 persons attended.

David Poindexter, main speaker of the evening, termed the rally and dance the most successful he had yet seen.

“First speaker for the evening, Rev. C. W. Black, Jr., pastor of the Mt Zion First Baptist Church, was followed by Franklin Garcia, international representative of the Amalgamated Meatcutters and Butcher Workmen’s Union.

“Seated on the platform were Carlos Richardson, Texas co-ordinator of Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee and chairman of the San Antonio Committee to Free Angela Davis; Raul Rodriguez, publisher of Chicano Times, and Rosie Castro, both candidates for City Council; G.J. Sutton and John Inman, black community leaders; John Stanford, Communist party spokesman; Mario Cantu, Chicano businessman; Mrs Manuela Sager, and David Plylar.

“Poindexter dealt with the August 7 shoot-out at the Marin County Courthouse, used as the excuse for Angela Davis’ subsequent imprisonment. He said Davis ‘didn’t know about Jonathan Jackson’s attempt; didn’t give Jonathan any guns; and had she known, she would have stopped Jonathan. Angela knew that the only defense we have is organizing people.’

References