The Italian Community on Strike

Wolensky cover
It has been awhile since the last blogpost. We have been busy working on our other archaeology project which focuses on company town life in the towns of Lattimer and Pardeesville (http://lattimerarchaeology.wordpress.com/). This post is a book review of sorts. First of all we will introduce some recent scholarship written about the massacre, examining Anthracite Labor Wars: Tenancy, Italians, and Organized Crime in the Northern Coalfield of Northeast Pennsylvania, 1897-1959 by Robert P. Wolensky and William A. Hastie Sr.  The book is remarkable, describing the intimate relationships and conflicts that arose between many different groups in the region. It looks at local labor history through the often neglected or misunderstood lenses of organized crime, Italian immigration and the evolving system of contracting or leasing work in the region. The latter system contributed to many of the tensions that arose between workers and owners in the coal mines.

Importantly for us Wolensky and Hastie provide an important conceptual bridge between the two Lattimer projects. Specifically, the chapter on the Italian community on strike was informative and revelatory. We have spent the last three years conducting archaeological fieldwork at Italian shanty settlements in Lattimer and Pardeesville, examining the everyday life of workers and their families. We see the choice of expanding our project into company town life as a way of understanding the historical context of the massacre, particularly in regards to the lives of those who had much at stake in the strike. Wolensky and Hastie make this connection explicit in this chapter, extending the narrative of the events of the 1897 massacre to the Italian community.

GreeneIn 1968, Victor Greene wrote The Slavic Community on Strike: Immigrant Labor in Pennsylvania Labor, a very important text challenging narratives of labor radicalism in the region.  Before this point, the important roles that Eastern European workers and their families played in establishing unions and reforming the industry have been underplayed or even entirely disregarded. In fact, Greene, writing at the time, suggests that “far from weakening labor organization, the Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, and Ukrainian mineworkers, their families, and their communities supported labor protest more enthusiastically than many other groups and were essential to the establishment of unionism permanently in the coal fields” (Greene 1968: xv).

The Lattimer Massacre is often associated with the marchers and martyrs that died on September 10, 1897. The group of 400 or so men that walked from Harwood, Pennsylvania that day were drawn from the predominantly Eastern European patch towns in the area to the south of Hazleton. It is for this reason that it is sometimes described as “A Slavic Massacre”. The massacre itself, however, occurred within the context of a broader protest made largely of new immigrant groups in the area, and largely supported by the earlier generations of immigrant labor. The immigrant strikers were united in their protest of the burdensome new labor tax on non-citizen labor (the Campbell Act) and the foul treatment received by a young laborer at the hands of Gomer Jones, a ruthless superintendent. More broadly, however, they protested a variety of living and working conditions that affected the miners and their families from every group including low wages, and the imposition of company stores and physicians.

The first protest began on August 19th, 1897, and it involved a coalition of workers including Italian, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak, Irish and English. They were each represented in a committee made up of representatives of each group. Following a regional strike on the 21st of August a large rally was planned for the 3rd of September, 1897. This was to be the largest rally the town had ever seen. Apparently, this rally was led by a “’burly Italian’ who addressed the gathering in a loud and enthusiastic voice” (Wolensky and Hastie 2013: 207). The Wilkes Barre Times suggested that “… the burst of Italian eloquence tended to invigorate the crowd” (quoted in Wolensky and Hastie 2013: 207).  They marched to Jeansville, shutting down the colliery. According to reports at the time, the Italians “hooked a plank to the [breaker] whistle, leaving it blowing to announce the victory to the surrounding countryside”.  The strikers marched onwards, shutting down a total of four operations and swelling to the ranks of 10,000 miners and laborers that day. The resulting work stoppage clearly unsettled the coal operators. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the solidarity growing between the different ethnic groups in the region.  They quickly conspired to put as quick an end to the movement as possible, calling in the local Sheriff as well as the Coal and Iron police.

A drawing of an Italian miner from Pardeesville drawn by Jay Hambridge for the Century Magazine, April 1898

By the 9th of September most of the collieries in the south of the city of Hazleton had been shut down. On the 9th of September, a group of men from the Lattimer Colliery met with strikers in Harwood asking for the strikers to march to Lattimer. At the time the dominant new immigrant workforce in the town came predominantly from Italy, though our census research suggests it also contained Irish, Slovak, Hungarian and Polish laborers. Those with the most to gain from a strike, however, were likely to have been those at the bottom of the hierarchy. The results of the march have been described in great detail in this blog and in other places. What is interesting here is the way a new context changes the way the event can be understood. Wolensky and Hastie suggest that the Italians not only played a huge role in the unrest during the summer of 1897 but likely instigated the Lattimer march itself (Wolensky and Hastie 2013: 212).

In the summer of 2014 we will continue our excavations in Pardeesville. This time around, we plan to excavate at a company double house occupied by Slovak immigrants between 1910 and 1940. The Yanac family has kindly offered to let us excavate their backyard. In the course of this research we hope to learn about Eastern European community life in the company double houses of Pardeesville. We hope to learn about the inhabitants of these houses before the Eastern European immigrants moved into the region. The story of the massacre only gets richer and richer as we find new perspectives to change the way we look at this event.  As we delve into aspects of everyday life in the region throughout the following century we find ourselves returning again and again to that fateful day in 1897.

Greene. V. (1968) The Slavic Community on Strike. South Bend: Notre Dame Press.

Wolensky. R.P. and Hastie W. (2013) Anthracite Labor Wars: Tenancy, Italians and Organized Crime in the Northern Coalfield of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1895-1959. Easton: Canal History and Technology Press.

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About LM Project
The LMP is a collaborative endeavor which aims to recognize the events surrounding the Lattimer Massacre, an incident that changed the labor movement and impacted the world by bringing to light economic disparities and ethnic tensions in the anthracite region of PA.

2 Responses to The Italian Community on Strike

  1. Pingback: The Italian Community on Strike | Lattimer Archaeology Project

  2. Johne913 says:

    Thanks for the post.Really looking forward to read more. Will read on ceefceaaedge

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