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 immigrants.