Italian immigrants and Organized Labor

Italian Immigrants and Organized Labor

The history of labor, its organization and impact on the workplace has long been examined and debated. When we look back at the Italian immigrants that came to the shores of the U.S., historians have tended to ask three questions – what was the influence of the labor movement on immigrants? What was the impact of immigrants on unions? And what factors determined whether immigrants joined, organized and remained members of unions in various industries at different times? The experiences of Italian immigrants shed light on each of these questions.

The subject that raised the most intense controversy within the labor movement was the problem of organizing immigrants. In the cases of our immigrant forefathers, how did their ambitions and social factors influence or hinder their ability to organize? Did economic factors give specific unions greater bargaining power when enlisting Italian immigrants?

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If one believes that the economic forces were dominant, then you would expect Italians to have sought out unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that had the greatest bargaining power. This was true, but only to an extent. Certain occupations lent themselves to organization more so than others, as was the case of three occupations where Italian immigrants thrived – barbers, garment workers and bricklayers/masons. More than three-quarters of the four million Italians emigrating to the United States were poorly-educated and poverty-stricken. They were mainly from southern Italy, who were driven abroad by the pressure of a growing population in their regions, coupled with limited resources. As a group, there were two significant characteristics: they were provincial, trusting no one from outside the bounds of their village, or at most their section of the peninsula; and they were self-reliant, preferring to depend on their own strong backs and on their families, rather than on organized groups. Southern Italian immigrants knew nothing about industrialism, or unions. Their lives were centered on the tiny plots of land which they owned, or rented, or hoped to acquire in the future. In their families and their villages, they found security, religious faith and fulfillment. Italian immigrants were quite unprepared by their background to assume a role as trade unionists!

At first, experiences in America reinforced the imbedded beliefs of these southern Italian immigrants. Those who were unable to find work in agriculture, found work in construction projects in gangs under bilingual foremen called padroni. These men directed the labor, provided lodging and board, but tended to exploit the men. Despite several efforts to reform the padrone system, its abuses remained unchecked until about the time of the First World War.

In the meantime, Italian residents organized in societies that were similar to their Italian antecedents. Certain occupations were targeted by Italian immigrants who provided the expertise and training to allow new workers to enter the workforce. These were barbers, masons and garment workers. At the turn of the 20th century in cities such as New York, Newark, NJ and Philadelphia, PA, one in five barbers were Italian immigrants. In the case of masons and stone workers, the number was about 1 in 10. Garment workers numbered about 1 in 20. These percentages increased significantly from 1900 through 1930. The proliferation within these occupations indicates the degree to which local loyalties were infused in Italian immigrants once they reached the shores of the U.S.

Overall, Italian immigrants in America would seem to have been poor prospects for the union organizer. Yet many were enrolled soon after arriving in the U.S. Men from northern Italy tended to readily accept the value of union organizing, while those in the south were far more skeptical. As an example, about one third of the masons were from the north and represented the greatest Italian immigrant participation in unions. On the other hand, barbers from northern Italy represented about 4% of the Italian immigrant total, but as an occupation, proved to be proved extremely difficult to organize.

45% of Italian immigrant stonecutters were from the north and the Granite Cutters’ International Association organized Italians with great success (the Bricklayers’ and Masons’ Union had the same success later). The union held within its ranks the highly-skilled cutters and letterers that were indispensable to for producing tombstones and monuments, a skill of Italian artisans for many centuries. There were other unions in the trade, but only the granite cutters, had substantial bargaining power and could organize successfully. Essentially, when it came to labor, if the skills associated with the trade had bargaining power, they organized. Through negotiation, the union could obtain better wages and working conditions. If all else failed in negotiations, they could go on strike. It is not surprising that bricklayers and masons organized more successfully than barbers or garment workers.

One must remember that wages of bricklayers and masons were a small part of the overall cost of a building. A small increase in prices would not generally deter a customer from expanding his business, or building a home. The skills of the bricklayer and mason were indispensable to contractors, particularly in large buildings. If they went on strike when a building was partially completed, this brought direct pressure on the customer, or the contractor to concede.

While the Bricklayers’ and Masons’ Union successfully organized Italians in many cities after 1900, the garment workers were less fortunate. Their wages were a much higher proportion of the final price of a product and in a highly competitive industry with firms scattered all over the country, it was extremely difficult for an individual employer to pass on increased costs by raising prices. Some trades, such as cutting, were highly skilled, but most of the workers in the industry could be trained quickly for their jobs. The industry was seasonal, an advantage to a potential union and the resources of many employers were extremely small, again a point in a union’s favor.

The garment workers had some bargaining power; but their success depended on their ability to strike and win concessions from all the employers in a market area simultaneously, but if the union struck in one city, tailors sent their work to another until the strike was broken. The fact was, when Italian immigrants joined a garment workers union, they typically left when their conditions and wages did not improve. It was an exceedingly difficult task to organize.

Barbers faced an even more complicated problem. Their wages, which absorbed most of the price of a haircut, could not be passed on to customers without raising prices. 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, with hundreds of small shops scattered over metropolitan areas, but unless the great majority raised prices at once, competition from unorganized men soon forced prices cuts. The employers had small resources, but since most master barbers worked in the shops their income was not completely cut off if their employees went on strike.

So we see that the labor movement and organized unions strived in certain areas, while others proved little to no success. What was evident was that regardless of the job, Italians worked hard, very hard to climb the ladder through the labor and social fabric on America. We owe a debt of gratitude to them for their work ethic and integrity and should bear this in mind when we celebrate Labor Day.

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