An Immigrant in the Labor Revolution: Luigi Antonini and the ILGWU

Authored by AJ Lent


Pictured is the “Progressive Dress Club Award” received by Luigi Antonini in 1958. The inscription reads: “ Conspicuous service and outstanding achievements as an American of Italian Origin in the labor movement especially in the dress industry”. Photographed by AJ Lent, courtesy of the Center for Migration Studies

In the early 1900s, working conditions for the common worker, especially immigrants, were poor, and unions sprung up in order to organize workers and campaign for better conditions. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was founded in 1900 by eleven Jewish Old World tailors (The Editors 2009) and though it was initially male-only, over time it “organized thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled women, mostly Jewish and Italian young immigrants” (Cornell University Library, n.d.). Although in some places, such as Pennsylvania, Italian immigrants found it difficult to unionize due to the cultural beliefs of their home (Fenton 1959, 133), unions in New York City had better luck, and in 1909 and 1910 respectively ILGWU organized two of the better known industrial strikes in the twentieth century (Cornell University Library, n.d.).

With the large numbers of Italian immigrants arriving in the country at the time, this was an important breakthrough, one which Luigi Antonini became an important part of. Born in 1883 in southern Italy, Antonini immigrated to America in 1908, settling in New York City and tuning pianos and rolling cigars before he became a garment worker (LaGumina 2005, 19). Joining the ILGWU, Antonini became very active and was voted onto the executive board of Local 25 a year after joining; he then went on to become a vice president in 1925, then First Vice-President in 1934 (Cornell University Library n.d.), as well as serving as the general secretary for Local 89, an Italian-speaking local that at one point had around 37,000 members (Grossman 1996, 28).

Antonini served as the First Vice-President for thirty years, and in that time, not only was he an avid orator for Italian immigrant workers, he also actively spoke out against fascism and Benito Mussolini as World War II approached, going so far as to helping sponsor a rally of Italian American workers in January 1942. After the war, he advocated for aid for Italy and helped create the Franklin D. Roosevelt Vocational School in Mondello, Sicily (LaGumina 2005, 20).

Throughout his life, this plaque was not the only award Luigi Antonini received for his efforts in the labor movement. Through his efforts, the ILGWU grew and more Italian immigrants found a supportive union that advocated for their rights and organized strikes to improve conditions and pay. Luigi Antonini was an instrumental figure in improving the lives of thousands of Italian immigrant workers, making them and their families safer in a new, sometimes hostile country.

References:

Cornell University Library n.d. “ILGWU. Local 89. Luigi Antonini Correspondence, 1919-1968”. Accessed March 17, 2019. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/EAD/htmldocs/KCL05780-023.html#link7

Fenton, Edwin. 1959. “Italians in the Labor Movement”, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 26, no. 2 (April): 133-148. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27769876?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Grossman, Ronald P. The Italians in America. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co, 1966.

LaGumina, Salvatore J.. “Antonini, Luigi (1883-1968)”. In The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia, edited by Salvatore J. LaGumina, Frank J. Cavaioli, Salvatore Primeggia, and Joseph A. Varacalli , 19-20. New York: Tayler & Francis Group, 2005. https://books.google.com/books?id=Tm-AAAAAQBAJ&pg=PT6&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false

The Editors. “International Ladies Garment Workers Union”. Updated March 1, 2009. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/international-ladies-garment-workers-union

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