Labor’s Family Tree

While most of us are aware of the contributions of Jimmy Hoffa, Walter Reuther, George Meany, John L. Lewis, Eugene Debs, et al, one aspect of American labor history that tends to get overlooked is the role European immigrants played in it—not only as members of various textile, mining and manufacturing unions, but as leaders and founders of the labor federations themselves.

In fact, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the U.S. labor movement was a uniquely European socio-economic enterprise transplanted and reconstituted on American soil.

Consider:  Daniel DeLeon, a co-founder of the venerated Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known colloquially as the “Wobblies,” grew up in Germany and didn’t move to the U.S. until age 31.  Another co-founder (and general-secretary) of the IWW, William Trautmann, was born in New Zealand and raised in Germany and Poland.  Yet another IWW co-founder, Mary Harris Jones (“Mother Jones”), was an Irish immigrant.

Carlo Tresca, a key IWW activist and labor agitator, was born in Italy.  Joe Hill, the legendary Utah mining activist (executed by firing squad on trumped-up charges), was born “Joel Hagglund,” in Gavle, Sweden.  Emma Goldman, the radical activist and anarchist, was Russian (eventually deported back to Russia).  Samuel Gompers, president of the Cigarmakers Union and founder of the American Federation of Labor (the AF of L) was born in England.

One of the greatest labor leaders in American history was Harry Bridges, an IWW member and founder of the West Coast longshoremen’s union (ILWU).  Bridges was an Australian.  And Rose Schneidermann, an organizer and officer with the WTUL (Women’s Trade Union League) and one of the most prominent women labor activists of the early 20th century, was born in Poland.

It has been argued that the basis for this European influence on American labor was rooted in their contrasting intellectual and social histories.  Unlike the U.S., Europe had a rich and deep-seated socialist-anarchist tradition, one that adapted perfectly to the worker exploitation that was occurring in a rapidly expanding, no-holds-barred, entrepreneur-dominated America during the Industrial Revolution.

Going back to before the French Revolution, Europe not only had the class-sensitive proletarian antennae the U.S. lacked, but rejoiced in collectivism and the dignity of working people in a way that Americans didn’t.  After all, the First International (1864) was founded in London….not Philadelphia or New York.  And, as Gore Vidal has observed, “Unlike the Europeans, Americans have never hated the rich, only envied them.”   Granted, these are broad generalizations, but they speak to some fundamental differences.

As impressive as the number of foreign-born labor leaders (and martyrs) was, the rank-and-file’s demographics were almost as startling.   Hundreds of thousands of working people who helped launch the American labor movement—the foot soldiers who loyally supported their union leaders, defiantly stood up to management, and bravely fought in the streets against strike-breakers and police goon squads—could barely speak English.

Consider:  The one and only daily newspaper the IWW ever had (with a circulation that reached 10,000) was called The Industrialisti.  This newspaper, headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, was printed in Finnish.  There was another Finnish-language publication, as well, a monthly called, Tie Vapauteen (“Road to Freedom”).  Finlanders played a big part in the labor movement.

Another example:  The pamphlets that were circulated by organizers to the rank-and-file, announcing the rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, on Tuesday, May 4, 1886, (leading to what became the infamous Haymarket Massacre) were, by necessity, printed in both English and German.

Another example:  The German-born agitator and Socialist Labor Party member, August Spies (who was falsely accused of conspiracy to incite a riot and hanged as a result of Haymarket violence), was editor of a popular German-language daily anarchist newspaper, Arbeiter-Zeitung.

And another: Carlo Tresca was also editor of the Philadelphia-based Italian-language newspaper, Il Proletario, the official publication of the ISF (Italian Socialist Federation).  Clearly, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a cauldron of immigrant labor activism.

A footnote:  Given the Wobblies’ romanticized, near iconic status in the history of organized labor, it is gratifying—if a bit surprising—to learn that this union is still alive and kicking.  With its International headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, the IWW has about 2,000 members in the U.S. and many more around the world.

Stonemountain and Daughter Fabrics, a textile manufacturer in Berkeley, California, is an IWW shop, and the SWU (Starbucks Workers Union) belongs to the IWW, with locals in New York City, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Bloomington, Minnesota.

As Joe Hill himself hauntingly declared in that Joan Baez folk song:  “I never died.”  How cool is that?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at




David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at