The Foreign-Born Miners' Role in Thurber's 1903 Unionization
The most significant event in Thurber's history was the 1903 organization and unionization of the multi-ethnic coal miners in a hostile non-union setting. Of a dozen ethnic groups, the most populous were the Italians who made up about 52% of the miners, followed by the Poles with 12% and the Mexicans with 11%. The African-Americans were also 11% while the Americans, English, Irish, and Scottish comprised about 9% of the work force. The Italian majority, with the Poles for added assurance, were a key determinant for union control. Other significant labor events in Thurber's history were: formation of a second UMW local, "The Italian Local", which was several times larger than the original UMW Local; the 1921 Lockout and "Tent City."
There are several books on Thurber, several theses and dozens of periodical articles. But this literature virtually omits the foreign-born contributions to Thurber's success. As an UMW District 21 Executive, as Secretary of the Italian Local, and as UMW Legislative Representative, Lawrence Santi was the most influential union official in Thurber but he is scarcely noted or is ignored in the published work. Jacob Galik was deeply involved in the 1903 events and he is in the picture of the 1903 labor-management conference with John L. Lewis presiding. But Galik's efforts are not noted.
The majority of miners were Italians and Poles and the UMW concentrated on organizing these groups. They sent Joe Fenoglio to organize the Italians and Jacob Galik to organize the Poles. This took courage and prudence because the company absolutely forbade union activity and suspected organizers were summarily thrown out of Thurber, often after a beating. A dramatic scene in American labor history took place on September 10, 1903 at Rocky Creek Bridge, three miles north of Thurber. About 300 UMW miners from Lyra/Strawn marched 3 miles eastward to witness several hundred of their Thurber brethren take the Union Oath at this location. Tony Gardetto translated for the Italians, Austrians and Mexicans and Jacob Galik for the Poles and Hungarians.
Despite another claimant's statement of being the first secretary of the original UMW, the first secretary was undeniably William McKinnon. And all of the original Local officials were Americans, despite the overwhelming majority of foreign-born members. But these officials slighted grievances and religious holidays of the miners. Consequently, in 1906 some Italian miners, led by Frank Vittoria, broke away from the original UMW Local #2538 to form a second UMW Local, #2753 the "Italian Local." All Eastern European miners, African-Americans and Mexicans joined this local to make it the most powerful labor force in the region, able to shut down transportation and industry. But this large, potent Local is not discussed by Thurber historians.
Around 1940 writers began to record Thurber's story. But the first writers on UMW activities did not seek diverse references and were satisfied with only one convenient, willing view, this from a management position. This single source was valuable as the only available written record, but the omission of the foreign-born contributions to the labor movement appears biased. It was 50 years after the 1921 labor problems before Lawrence Santi, an eminent authority on Thurber labor, was first interviewed. As a result, Santi has been neglected in the Thurber literature. Writers of Thurber history would do well to read Santi's perspective on labor in the UT Arlington Labor archives.