Working Across the Country
As the great surge of immigration
continued into the 20th century, Italian communities bloomed across the
country. As they did so, the Italian immigrants put their hands to a
wide variety of work. In San Francisco, home of a longstanding Italian
enclave, the new arrivals found their way to the docks for work as
fishermen and stevedores. In Appalachia and the mountain West, they went
into the pits and mines, digging for coal and ore. Stonemasons who had
learned their trade on the rocks and crags of southern Italy worked in
the quarries of New England and Indiana. Meanwhile, Italians labored on
farms and ranches in every corner of the country, from the cranberry
bogs of the northeast to the strawberry beds of Louisiana to the bean
fields of California.
One stoneworker in Barre, Vermont,
told his story to a WPA oral historian in 1940.
Viuggi, Italy, in the Como
district, is where I am born. A good granite center, Viuggi. I am
raise' to feel granite, to smell an' know it. My father an' his
brother, they work' the stone, too….Funny, here in Barre we got 'bout
couple dozen people from my town of Viuggi.
Some Italians seized upon
entrepreneurial opportunities in their new home. Italian immigrants in
upstate New York formed the Contadina food company in 1918, and Andrea
Sbarbaro of Genoa helped establish the California wine industry. In
turn-of-the-century San Francisco, a Neapolitan American named A.P.
Giannini began offering small loans to his fellow Italians, going door
to door to collect interest. Eventually, Giannini's operation grew until
he was forced to rent an office in the North Beach neighborhood, then to
buy a building. Today, Giannini's Banca D'Italia has become one of the
world's largest financial institutions, the Bank of America.
Many Italian immigrants, however,
found themselves toiling for low pay in unhealthy working conditions. At
the turn of the 20th century, southern Italian immigrants were among the
lowest-paid workers in the United States. Child labor was common, and
even small children often went to work in factories, mines, and farms,
or sold newspapers on city streets.
Many thousands of Italian immigrants
found themselves prisoners of the padrone, or patron, system of
labor. The padroni were labor brokers, sometimes immigrants
themselves, who recruited Italian immigrants for large employers and
then acted as overseers on the work site. In practice, many padroni
acted more like slave holders than managers. A padrone often controlled
the wages, contracts, and food supply of the immigrants under his
authority, and could keep workers on the job for weeks or months beyond
their contracts. Some padroni built vast labor empires, keeping
thousands of workers confined in locked camps, behind barbed wire fences
patrolled by armed guards. The padrone system, despite its many
injustices, was not eradicated until the middle of the 20th century.
Italian immigrants fought against
unscrupulous management and unsafe conditions by taking organized action.
Because several of the major U.S. unions barred foreign workers from
membership for many years, many immigrants formed their own unions, such
as the Italian Workers union in Houston, or joined the radical
International Workers of the World. Italian union organizers fanned out
across the nation, often risking arrest or death for their efforts.
Italian workers were active in most of the great labor struggles of the
20th century's early decades, leading strikes in the Tampa cigar
factories, the granite quarries of Vermont, and the textile mills of New
England. In 1912, during a bitter textile strike in Lawrence,
Massachusetts, the Italian IWW organizers Arturo Giovannitti and Joseph
Ettor, along with striker Joseph Caruso, were imprisoned for nearly a
year on false murder charges. In the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, when
Colorado National Guardsmen attempted to break a miners' strike by
burning down the strikers' tent village, the two women and eleven
children who died in the fire were all Italian immigrant