In the set of readings we have read for this paper, the labor movements and actors discussed are not innovators in their movements. Immigrant labor movements had been well established by the time these laborers come on the scene. Instead of negotiating new forms of resistance, these workers took the forms of resistance they learned in their home countries, some of which had been imported back from the United States, and applied them to their situations in the U.S. In so doing, they were able to at times respond to capitalism’s abuses as one, and in others they fractured and became ineffective. In Wobblies on the Waterfront, Peter Cole argues that leadership is vitally important to social movements, and that external repression is merely a secondary factor when social movements fail or lose influence (Cole, Loc 168). Cole’s work shows that external pressures and repression could affect leadership, and in fact this was a strategy employers and the government used to break labor movements. These readings show how leadership and styles of participation was affected by customs and ideologies learned in home countries, and how having diverse experiences there and in the United States led to fractures in leadership that doomed many of these movements to failure.
In Wobblies, Cole argues that the interracial IWW Local 8 was in part a reaction to the fact that black longshoremen were manipulated in the southern ports, in which many worked before migrating north, by the white leadership of the AFL’s ILA (Cole Loc 691-753). When they came north they were attracted to the IWW because of their open acknowledgement that employers pitted black and white workers against each other in an effort to quell labor unrest (Cole Loc 816). Not wishing to repeat their experience in subordinate roles in the south, African Americans took leadership roles in the Local 8 that reflected proportionately their membership (Cole, Loc 1969). Leadership started to fall apart as both a cause and a consequence of race relations within Local 8 disintegrating (Cole, Loc 3366-3397). While Cole credits the strength of employers with destroying Local 8 in 1922, he also argues that a more sensitive leadership, which could have more deftly handled the lockout, could have held the union together (Cole, Loc 3428).
Paul Avrich’s Sacco and Vanzetti traces Sacco and Vanzetti’s activism back to their birthplaces in Italy. Nicola Sacco emigrated to the United States with his brother, who had spent time in the military and would not be confined to his father’s farm. His brother had also become a socialist, although Avrich does not think that influenced Sacco. When Sacco envisioned his new life, he saw himself making a living in a thoroughly modern country – one with relative freedom (Avrich, 11-13). Vanzetti, on the other hand, had toiled long and hard as an apprentice in a pastry shop and later became skeptical of the Church. It was in Italy that he became attracted to humanism and he went to the U.S. thinking it a place where freedom of thought was a right (Avrich, 15-19). Their experience in Italy, and their idealism about the United States would influence their decision to dedicate themselves to the anarchist cause in the U.S.
Sacco was shocked at the condition of working people in the United States and was attracted at first to the IWW, but later, after the Lawrence strike, he turned to libertarian anarchism and dedicated his life to the cause (Avrich, 26-28). Vanzetti, an autodidact, came to his full radicalism from reading, and finally meeting some anarchists who impressed him with their devotion to the cause of dismantling the government, which he considered an evil (Avrich, 31-33). They both eventually became Galleanists. Galleani was the publisher of Cronaco Sovversiva, the main libertarian anarchist newspaper (Avrich, 27). While Sacco and Vanzetti were absolutely dedicated to the Galleanist cause, they were merely foot soldiers. In a movement that eschewed structure and leaders, Galleani was an ideological leader as his publication set the tone for the movement (Avrich, 48). Galleani was a strong leader and never wavered in his dedication, but the United States’ government was able to deport him and other leaders in the movement, leaving the movement in the U.S. with a void in leadership that could not be replenished by new immigration. With these pressures, the libertarian anarchist movement lost influence after the 1920s (Avrich, 208-209, 211).
The Carlo Tresca that Nunzio Pernicone describes in his biography of Tresca understood the dangers of division in the labor movement. Tresca first felt the stirrings of radical feeling amongst railroad workers in Italy. He was at heart a pragmatist who became a leader amongst many diverse labor groups, despite not adhering to a set ideology. Tresca was the person labor groups could count on for help when they were in a bind or needed a speaker to rally the troops. Tresca faced down challenges from everyone from Galleani’s followers, to the BI, to Benito Mussolini (Pernicone, Loc 1555, 3688, 3669).
Tresca’s influence in labor movements waned over the years, but he found new relevance as a leading anti-Fascist. Repression of this movement, too, weakened the cause, but did not stop the Mussolini regime and a sympathetic U.S. government from understanding that eliminating Tresca as a leader was of the utmost importance. Tresca was critical, too, of Communism, which had dominated the labor movement in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Communists also wanted to see him out of the picture. In the end, he was assassinated. He was critical of so many that it is hard to tell which group actually did the deed, but what is clear is that he was such a strong and influential leader that his critics wished him gone. They knew that his leadership and public critique adversely affected their ability to meet their goals (Pernicone, Loc 3639, 5622, 7414).
Jennifer Guglielmo describes Italian women’s radicalism in the United States in Living the Revolution. These women had experience with resistance in Italy, and they used these same methods in the United States once they became wageworkers. Important to the erasing of women in labor history is the idea that women had spaces for resistance that were more personal and private than men’s spaces. Thus it appears on the surface, that with a couple of notable exceptions, the labor movement amongst Italian immigrants in the United States was devoid of women leaders and dominated by male leaders (Guglielmo, 9-43, 138, 151).
One could argue that prominent women labor leaders, such as Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn and Emma Goldman influenced the Italian women’s labor movement. Flynn was described by Tresca’s daughter Beatrice as not inhabiting women’s spaces, and therefore having no knowledge that a movement existed amongst them at all. And Goldman, speaking to Italian audiences became a role model for Italian women, offering them an example of an anarchist woman who spoke out to mixed audiences in a leadership role (Guglielmo, 172, Pernicone Loc 2128-2159).
Goldman was impressed by Italian leader Maria Roda, and offered to teach her the ways of leadership amongst anarchists. Roda was one of the few women to be published in the anarchist press, arguing against the stereotype that women were weak and had no place in the movement. However, unlike Goldman, Roda ultimately preferred to direct her efforts to organizing women specifically (Guglielmo, 159, 156). Even so, she was prominent enough to capture the attention of the Italian government, who sought to repress her activism even as it credited her father with inspiring it (Guglielmo, 156-157). Again, she was a first generation immigrant who was exposed to radicalism in Europe before she came to the U.S. That she had faced trial in Milan added to her credibility amongst anarchists and the Italian government. She was a leader they needed to contend with.
Guglielmo argues that Italian women were dismissed as less than white, with all of the negative stereotypes so often applied to non-white women in the early 20th century at the very time they were finding the space to assert their feminism as workers and leaders in the labor movement (Guglielmo, 82-102, 172-175). This dismissal was not accidental. Employers and others in power knew that these women exerted power in their homes, in their neighborhoods, and in the workplace. According to Guglielmo, the resolution came once Italian women were offered the opportunity to become white and were fully assimilated (Guglielmo, 230-232). But this offer was not made until after the mass deportations of labor leaders back to Italy. The repression of the movement led to a leadership vacuum that arguably made assimilation more appealing.
Labor movements after the initial wave of movements in the late 19th century were influenced by lessons learned before migration, and this allowed immigrants to come to leadership positions with a set of skills for teaching and enacting resistance. Both internal and external forces fractured labor movements, but deft leadership could hold groups together in the face of intragroup acrimony or external repression. Many who fomented dissent within movements were strict ideologues who valued adherence to ideology over more pragmatic goals, and these actors ultimately weakened the labor movement. Those who sought to repress from outside quickly learned that dismantling leadership, or dividing a group, was as or more effective than outright violent repression, and they used it effectively to put down labor movements in the early 20th century.
Avrich, Paul. Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Cole, Peter. Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. University of Illinois Press, 2007.
Guglielmo, Jennifer. Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. 1 edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Pernicone, Nunzio. Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2010.