Italian Immigrants, the Lawrence Textile Strike and the Early American Labor Movement
It is undeniable that the American labor movement of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century was hugely beneficial for low-wage workers. Those typically in the most difficult conditions and with the lowest wages were immigrants, and the successes of the labor movement improved working conditions for immigrants of all generations. However, the labor movement typically is associated with blue collar workers who were already situated in the United States, their ancestors having arrived generations before the so-called Gilded Age, strikes, and large-scale unionization. Thus, immigrants are not typically heavily associated with the labor movement, especially not Southern and Eastern European immigrants who began to arrive in the late 19th Century. Italians, the largest of these groups, were contemporarily seen by labor activists and politicians as negative to the bargaining power of organized labor. While Italian immigrants were not exactly the foremost group in terms of class consciousness, their numbers made them a huge part of the working class and they had a vested interest in labor organization and better working conditions. Despite their reputation, over time Italian Americans became a hugely important part of the labor movement. They bettered their own circumstances and those of all working-class Americans through their contributions to important labor unions and participation and organization of landmark strikes. Though they often are not given their just credit, Italian Americans were essential to the power and triumphs of the American laborer.
Through the complicated history of immigration and American history, it has been an almost constant truth that recently arrived immigrants have been cheap options to employ. This stems from many things, but mostly the simple need to survive and secure a work opportunity. Immigrants arriving in an unfamiliar land typically take what they can get, and they certainly do not hold a valuable amount of bargaining power. For this reason, Italian immigrants often accepted jobs with terrible conditions and low wages as a fact of settling in and making a living. This was often a part of the padrone system, the foremost way Italian immigrants found work and necessities in the United States. Like most of the early immigrant experience in these times, the padrone system was inherently exploitative. Padroni were primarily labor brokers, finding cheap labor for various businesses in often dangerous fields. They sometimes had connections in Italy or went there to recruit people to immigrate and work certain jobs. They did the most work, however, with recently arrived immigrants in Little Italies. These immigrants were desperately in need of guidance, jobs, and housing. Padroni would find these at a steep price, taking cuts of paychecks, or handling immigrants banking and charging them arbitrary fees (Chand 2016). The padrone system relied on deception and desperation. Italian immigrants often did not speak English and the United States did not expend much of its resources to accommodate them. They would turn to padroni because they were often the only choice they had. Padroni would use deception to get Italians to work jobs in dangerous fields or remote areas, and act like they had the immigrants best interests at heart. The padrone system has a rightfully negative reputation, but it was a product of Italian community support and some padroni imparted a form of class consciousness: “Many attempted, as devoted patrons to immigrant workers, to represent their perceived interests in North America, and occasionally [articulate] their anger as a class of unskilled worker” (Peck 1998, 50).
For their desperation for work and willingness to take on bad conditions, Italian immigrants earned a bad reputation in the organized labor movement for the first few decades of their presence in America. For this reason, and sometimes racist beliefs, Italian Americans were denied entry to many unions for many years. Though out of their control, this further reinforced their anti-labor reputation. In fact, in 1910 the Senate Immigration Commission concluded that Southern Europeans were hindering the progress of organized labor, based on statistics and testimony from various union leaders (Baily 1967, 57). This report came at a height of nativistic sentiment and calls for immigration control, which must be taken into account. Yet, they underestimated Italian immigrants desire for a better life. To their surprise, Italian Americans were about to contribute heavily to the organized labor movement, especially over the next decade.
Italian immigrants were no stranger to collectivism. Due to the general rejection of them by American society, immigrants in Little Italies came to each other’s aid frequently and even established mutual benefit societies in some cases. Some of these corresponded to trades and played a similar role to unions. These grew exponentially, and by 1902 there were 41 in the city of Philadelphia alone (Fenton 1959, 136). So, why did Italian immigrants quickly receive a reputation as hard to unionize? First was a deep distrust of those outside family and community bounds, which was commonly observed in Southern Italians. Often, it was easier to trust an Italian padrone who had found work for family members rather than a labor organizer one had never met. Second was a propensity for wanting quick improvement and results from union membership. In order to make the risk of joining a union and losing job security in strikes worthwhile, Italian Americans expected to see tangible benefits and did not want to play the long game.
Despite the stereotypes and cultural reasons, perhaps the main indicator of whether Italian Americans were willing to unionize was what trade they worked in and how easy it was to organize labor based on the circumstances. This largely hinged on one factor, the proportion of the company’s wage bill to the final price of a product: “The smaller the proportion of wage bill to final price, the easier for workers to wrest concessions from employers” (Fenton 1959, 138). For professions such as barbers and garment workers, the wage bill covered most of the price of the cheap products they produced. Any increase in wages would make the price of the product rise and cause a loss of vital customers to the business. Not only this, they were easy to replace and their fields fostered fierce competition: “More barbers could easily be trained and with each ship from Europe adding to the numbers of barbers, the labor market was so flooded that barbering skill was not at a premium. The barber business was extremely competitive… unless the great majority raised prices at once, competition from unorganized men soon forced price cuts” (“Italian immigrants and Organized Labor” 2017).
However, circumstances greatly favored the organization of Italian Americans in different trades. Even beginning in the late 1800s, some unions had great success organizing more skilled trades. The best example of successful early organization comprised those involved in building and construction in cities, namely stonecutters, bricklayers and masons. In general, they were more skilled, their wages were a lower proportion of the final price, their work was seasonal, and they could time strikes for vulnerable times in the business; all of these being variables in getting employers or contractors to concede quickly to their demands (Fenton 1959, 138). The employees could strike at the beginning of prime times for construction or expansion, or even in the middle of constructing a building. This exerted enormous pressure to concede to their demands if one wanted their construction project to finish in a timely manner. One interesting fact was that 45% of stonecutters were Northern Italian, and Northerners showed a far greater appreciation for organized labor around the turn of the century (“Italian immigrants and Organized Labor” 2017). This was perhaps a crucial factor in the Social Darwinist thinking that asserted Northern and Southern Italians had a different racial makeup. Although some trades had a head start and better circumstances than others, important strikes involving Italian Americans across various industries would take place in the early 20th Century.
Lawrence, Massachusetts was a bustling mill town with a dark underside at the beginning of the 20th Century. The town was created as a center of the textile industry and employed tens of thousands of workers, mostly unskilled women. Work had gradually become less available to the skilled and by 1912 most jobs were unskilled. Labor was often along ethnic lines, as immigrants typically tended to work unskilled jobs for lower pay. Italians were a primary group represented in the mills, most of them being women. Conditions were, to say the least, appalling: “Spinners worked in extremely damp and humid rooms and were vulnerable to tuberculosis and pneumonia. In the years before the 1912 strike, one third of Lawrence’s spinners would die before they had worked ten years, and half of these would never reach the age of 25” (“Bread and Roses Strike of 1912: Working Conditions”). After a labor law was enforced by the state of Massachusetts, hours for mill workers had to be cut, which led to cuts in already meagre wages. Textile workers in the Washington Mill of the American Woolen company walked out wholesale in January. In this landmark strike, Italian Americans would give perhaps their most important contribution yet to the labor movement: “the 1912 Lawrence strike, perhaps more than any other labor conflict, inspired the Italian-American working class and especially its radical contingent” (Luconi 2010, 152).
Italian American experiences define the strike, which was characteristically brutal and difficult for the strikers, who were up against both a powerful business and the state government of Massachusetts. According to a contemporary journalist chronicling the event, the Italians in Lawrence had been organized by Italian American Joseph Ettor of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1911, just prior to the strike (McPherson 1912). Ettor crucially was able to smoothly communicate with the Italian laborers to explain the benefits of organization, as language was a huge barrier to organization in the past. It was actually an Italian immigrant by the name of Angelo Rocco who initiated the workers’ walkout on January 12th, 1912 (Luconi 2010, 152). The strikers’ proclamation made sure to include the international character of the strike: “All the nations of the world are represented in this fight of the workers for more bread. The flaxen-haired son of the North marches side by side with his dark-haired brother of the South” (“Proclamation of the Striking Textile Workers of Lawrence” 1912). The strike was powered by international bodies such as the International Workers of the World, but perhaps more important were the contributions of the Italian Socialist Federation (ISF). The ISF organized workers, helped to get workers accounts to publish in the newspaper Il Proletario, and contributed the best public-opinion tactic of the strike. This tactic was to send strikers’ children to supporters in nearby towns and states, which worked wonders for the strikers’ media presence and public opinion (Topp 1997, 44). The ISF also contributed perhaps the most important Italian American labor leader ever, immigrant Arturo Giovannitti. Incredibly charismatic and a fantastic writer, Giovannitti would become the face of the Lawrence Strike both contemporarily and for future students to look upon.
On January 29, the Massachusetts state militia and the strikers confronted each other, and a militia member shot Italian immigrant Annie LoPizzo. Seeing an opportunity, Massachusetts framed Giovannitti, Ettor, and striker Joseph Caruso for the killing of LoPizzo (“Bread and Roses Strike of 1912: Strike Leaders Arrested”). Outraged, the strikers released this proclamation:
This incident, sending the children out of Lawrence, and media like this helped to win Lawrence for the strikers. When the United States House Committee in Rules investigated the strike, 14-year-old Italian American Carmela Teoli provided crucial testimony which featured in their report of conditions in Lawrence. Teoli had suffered a horrific injury in an American Woolen Co. Mill and spent seven months in a hospital before going back to work. She testified that “the company only paid [her] [hospital] bills, they didn’t give [her] anything else” (“Camella Teoli Testifies about the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike”). This testimony, showing the company did not even make up lost wages or provide any other form of support, marked a huge boost in public opinion for the strikers and American Woolen Co. capitulated soon after. Giovannitti and Ettor remained in jail for months after the strikers’ demands were met by the American Woolen Co in March 1912. Famous Italian socialist Carlo Tresca coordinated a campaign for their release and managed to organize a day-long general strike before the conclusion of the trial (Luconi 2010, 154–155). On November 26, 1912, the three defendants were acquitted. Giovanitti, a gifted orator, said as part of an address to the jury before the verdict: “Let me tell you that [if we are acquitted] the first strike that breaks again in this Commonwealth or any other place in America where the work and the help and the intelligence of Joseph J. Error and Arturo Giovannitti will be needed and necessary, there we shall go again regardless of any fear and of any threat” (“Arturo Giovanitti’s Address to the Jury” 1912).
Lawrence was the most prominent example of Italian American contribution to the labor movement, but it was far from the only one. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Italian labor organizers, activists, or anarchists like Luigi Galleani, Arturo Giovannitti, Girolamo Valenti, and Louis C. Fraina, Angela Bambace, and Carlo Tresca would be active and relevant. Even lesser-known Italian American figures were important in crucial strikes and incidents at the height of the labor movement. Italian immigrant Joe Greeni inspired thousdands of iron ore workers to walk off the job at the Mesabi Iron Range, a strike in which Carlo Tresca and other IWW leaders were arrested (LaVigne 2015). In the Ludlow Massacre, the Colorado National Guard fired upon and set ablaze the camp of striking coal miners and their families. One witness described the killings as “the first murder I had ever seen, for it was a murder and nothing less” (“Recounting the Ludlow Massacre”). The two women and eleven children who died in the massacre were all Italian immigrants (“Working Across the Country”). Italian Americans left a huge mark on the labor movement with contributions from the most prominent activists to inconspicuous laborers simply seeking a better life.
Italian immigrants arrived and had to face not only terrible working conditions, but a reputation as lazy, dumb, and passive. Despite mostly being initially rejected by the labor movement, Italian Americans found a way to combat the obstacles that faced them in the pursuit of a better life and a place in American social change. Italian Americans gave a great many understated contributions to the American labor movement, and all American workers are better off for them today.
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