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Electric City Immigrants: Italians and Poles of Schenectady, N.Y., 1880-1930
Chapter 5: Labor and Politics

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[This information is from pp. 185-217 of Electric City Immigrants: Italians and Poles of Schenectady, N.Y., 1880-1930 by Dr. Robert R. Pascucci (State University of New York at Albany, Department of History, 1984). It is copyrighted by Dr. Pascucci and reproduced here with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 325.24 PAS.]

In 1905, the federal census bureau reported that over 90 percent of all those employed in Schenectady industries were at work in either the General Electric or the American Locomotive companies. (1) In neighboring Troy, by contrast, the major industry, the manufacture of collars and cuffs, gave employment to 49.3 percent of the city's wage earners, but these were spread among twenty-one establishments. (2) The vast labor needs of the two Schenectady industries limited the growth of other businesses in the city. Albany, with a smaller total work force, had almost three times as many industrial firms as Schenectady (see Table 5.1).

Table 5.1

Albany and Schenectady — 1909: Industries and Workers
 Number of EstablishmentsNumber of Workers

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census: 1910. Abstract of the Census with Supplement for New York, p. 533.

With the exception of the mica company and two garment factories, which employed between 150 and 350 each (largely women), the other firms were small, with ten to thirty workers apiece. (3)

Not surprisingly, a large proportion of Italians and Poles worked at General Electric and American Locomotive. The two large plants, however, were not equally attractive as places of employment to the immigrant groups. While a similar proportion of all Italian and Polish employed males (approximately one-third each) worked at the General Electric Company in 1910, far more Poles than Italians labored at the locomotive works (see Table 5.2). (4) Here, 53.6 percent of the Poles were found, but only 21.7 percent of the Italians. Employers preferred the sturdier Poles for the heavy, often dangerous, work building locomotives, and for similar jobs available in the city's foundries and machine shops. Altogether, 93.2 percent of the Poles worked in industrial establishments, compared to 54.8 percent of the Italians. Table 5.3 shows that at General Electric and American Locomotive, particularly the latter, a much greater proportion of the Italians performed unskilled labor. At the locomotive works, Italians assumed the unskilled positions formerly dominated by the Irish. While 16.4 percent of the Poles were listed in the 1910 federal manuscript census as machinists, boilermakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, moulders and patternmakers at American Locomotive, only 2.4 percent of the Italians were. (5)

Table 5.2

Italian and Polish Workers 1910
Place or Type of EmploymentPercent of ItaliansPercent of Poles
General Electric30.332.6
American Locomotive21.753.6
Street Labor7.0.5

Source: Compiled from a 25 percent sample taken from the USFMC, 1910.

Table 5.3

Italian and Polish Unskilled Laborers at General Electric and American Locomotive 1910
 General ElectricAmerican Locomotive

Source: Compiled from USFMC, 1910.

Founded in 1848, the locomotive company developed erratically for three decades, surviving both panics and reorganizations. During the Civil War, the company prospered, turning out seventy-three locomotives for the Union cause. At the conclusion of the conflict, the "Big Shop" employed five hundred — 20 percent of the city's population. During the pre-war period, however, an order for a dozen engines kept the plant in production for a full year. Post-war expansion was interrupted by the panic that struck in 1873. Nine locomotives were produced that year, and in 1876 the works closed for a time. By the end of 1880, prosperity returned and 175 locomotives were manufactured in Schenectady. (6) The hiring of the first Italian, Stephano Guilielmo, in 1883, coincided with this beginning of dynamic growth. (7) With the demand for engines further stimulated by the tapping of the foreign market, the work force expanded to 1,800 in 1893. During the next five years, the plant was practically rebuilt. Spreading to the west side of the Erie Canal, locomotive production was housed in over a hundred buildings that covered sixty-two acres. In the new section west of the canal, which contained the foundry, boiler, forge, and blacksmith shops, the rough material was made ready for finishing and assembling in the machine and erecting shops located in the old part of the works on the other side of the canal. In 1910, ending a half century of control by the Ellis family, the locomotive works merged with seven other locomotive firms to form the American Locomotive Company. In 1907, the Schenectady works, the largest of the company's plants, reached its peak by producing 942 locomotives, costing approximately $20,000 each, with 6,200 workers. (8)

Even though the work was more plentiful at General Electric (see Table 5.4), Poles sought the higher wages paid at American Locomotive. (9) While electrical apparatus workers earned $2.50-$3.00 a day, boilermakers and iron moulders received $3.00-$4.00. (10) Fixed on obtaining the highest possible wages, Poles were willing to accept longer hours and unhealthy, often hazardous, working conditions. (11) In addition to these hardships, Poles endured slowdowns and layoffs at the locomotive works. Only four years after reaching its peak of production (1911), the Schenectady plant was operating at 30 percent of capacity (about thirty locomotives a month) and employing half its regular work force on a four-day week. At the same time, the company's western New York plant in Dunkirk closed completely for lack of orders. (12)

Table 5.4

General Electric and American Locomotive Work Force
YearGeneral ElectricAmerican Locomotive

Source: Annual Report of Chief of Police, 1901; Evening Star, June 14, 1904; Union Star, March 21, 1913.

Unlike locomotive building, electric manufacturing was one of the new industries of the "second industrial revolution," that reinvigorated and extended American economic growth. (13) Local historian Joel Monroe paid homage to the General Electric Company for ending a "long period of stagnation" and infusing "new blood and life in Schenectady." Relocating from New York City to Schenectady in 1886, the Edison Machine Works evolved into the General Electric Company in 1892 and became the leading firm in the electrical industry. Headquarters and largest plant of the huge corporation, the Schenectady works expanded from two buildings and a few hundred workers to more than two hundred structures and over twenty thousand employees by World War I. (14)

A smaller proportion of the immigrants were engaged in common labor at General Electric than at the locomotive plant (see Table 5.3). While 90.1 percent of Italians at American Locomotive in 1910 were unskilled laborers, 79.3 percent were at General Electric. For the Poles, the difference was even greater, 77.9 percent were unskilled at American Locomotive, but 51.6 percent at General Electric. Most of the buildings in the mile and a half long plant were machine shops that contained a total of nine thousand machines. At American Locomotive, 7.2 percent of the Poles in 1910 were machinists but at General Electric, 12 percent of the Poles were machinists or machine operators. For the Italians, only 1.6 percent were listed as machinists at American Locomotive, but 6.8 percent of them were General Electric machinists. (15) But here, as at the locomotive works, the Poles were found in large numbers in the brass and iron foundries.

Preferring to work among their own in gang labor, Italians were slower than the Poles to seek work at General Electric. In 1921, the company's quarter century club included twenty-seven Poles, but only five Italians. (16) Many Italians were first employed as strikebreakers. Some however, were sought because of their special skills. (17) Stephen Abba, a skilled mechanic from Turin, learned his trade in Paris, and was among the small group of workmen who moved with the company to Schenectady. John Nicodemi and several fellow ceramic workers from Abruzzi were instrumental in the establishment of the porcelain department. Julius Pardi, who had studied art in Italy, became a subforeman in charge of wet process work in this department. (18) In this position, Pardi was one of a small group of Italian and Polish foremen, assistant foremen and subforemen. Altogether, 19.8 percent of the foremen were foreign born, while 37 percent of all workers at General Electric were born abroad (see Table 5.5). (19)

Table 5.5

Nativity of General Electric Foremen — 1924
United States521

Source: Schenectady Works News, March 21, 1924.

General Electric prided itself on having a stable work force. In 1919, the company announced that 13,000 workers were hired annually to maintain a staff of 23,000 employees. Other companies, General Electric claimed, "hire their force over three or four times a year." Of the 3,800 employed in 1897, 25 percent were still on the job twenty-five years later. (20) Holding on to laborers had become a necessity when the normal flow of immigration was interrupted during World War I, and reduced to a trickle by postwar restrictive legislation. As defense work increased during the war, General Electric turned to blacks to help fill their growing need for manpower. At the Schenectady plant, blacks were placed in the yards as common laborers. An uproar occurred, however, when one, "more intelligent" black, Wendell King, was put to work on a drill press. Led by a twenty-four year old Hungarian, Joseph Lefkowitz, machinists promptly staged a walk out, demanding that King be removed from his work as a machinist. Metal polishers, drop forgers and electrical workers announced separate union meetings to discuss a sympathy strike. Polish workers were informed that "you have a right to choose whom you will work with." General manager George Emmons assured a gathering of eight hundred workers that it was not the policy of General Electric to replace white workers. Pressure was applied by federal officials, who were intent on ending the work stoppage that stalled the electrical work on three battle cruisers then under construction. Lefkowitz, an alien, was questioned, and rumors spread doubting his loyalty. Within a week, however, the company yielded and King's brief career as a machinist ended. (21)

With the outbreak of the war, industry accelerated its implementation of programs designed to encourage labor stability and efficiency. (22) In 1913, General Electric had offered its employees, for $.10 a week, sick benefits of $6.00 a week for a maximum of fourteen weeks, and a $200 death benefit. Plant officer, Myron Westover, who had informed the factory investigation commission that there was "little opportunity for danger" at General Electric, nevertheless, later reported that fifty-five fatalities had occurred between 1902 and 1912. It was Westover's contention that this was a small number of deaths when considering the large number of workers employed and, therefore, illustrated how safe conditions were. (23) The company adopted a broad variety of welfare programs currently urged by reformers and Americanizers. (24) Baseball teams were sponsored and annual field days held. Dues of fifty cents a month entitled a member of the General Electric Athletic Association to bowl and play pool in the club facility on State Street, as well as free admission to all athletic games at General Electric Park. Lunch-time concerts and dances were provided. Frank Capello organized a string orchestra and a women's choir for the entertainment of his fellow workers in building number 77 (wiring and supplies). On occasion, the company newspaper reported a leave of six months being given to an Italian who was returning home for a visit. By 1919 the work week had been gradually reduced from fifty-four hours to forty-eight, with a 4 percent increase in hourly rates. The lunch break was increased from thirty to fifty minutes, and each day at ten and three o'clock, windows were thrown open for eight minutes of exercise, consisting of six minutes of calisthenics and two of deep breathing. (25)

An Americanization division, under the direction of A. L. Hahn, was created as part of the new industrial service department. In an apparent effort to focus special attention on immigrant workers, ethnic activities were encouraged. In 1920 Garibaldi Day was celebrated on "Works Avenue" with a parade of five hundred Italian marchers and a float that carried Frank Capello's G. E. Choral Society. Also aboard were Andrew Nicodemi and Anthony Revella, dressed to impersonate Giuseppe Garibaldi and George Washington, respectively. Boccie, "a game similar to quoits," was played during lunch in three different locations in the works. The heavily Italian porcelain department contributed several of the thirteen teams that competed in the tournament held at the annual field day. (26)

The main focus of the Americanization program, however was placed on the teaching of English and civics in preparation for citizenship. In December 1919, the effort was inaugurated with a mass meeting held at the Mohawk Club that was attended by two thousand employees. Reverend Neyroz, the Italian Protestant minister, and Father Gostomski translated the general manager's remarks to the predominately Italian and Polish listeners. Volunteer teachers were soon recruited largely among the foreign born themselves. The YMCA pioneer in Americanization work, Peter Roberts, came to Schenectady to discuss techniques with the new instructors. "Flying Squadrons" of volunteers went from building to building encouraging the foreigners to attend class. In addition, eight more mass meetings were held that year. Approximately 10 percent of the 6,220 foreign-born workers were said to be unable to speak English. (27)

Classes were conducted on company time twice a week during the last hour of the work day (4:30 to 5:30). Attendance was, not surprisingly, excellent. By the end of the first term in May, 350 men in forty classes had received instruction in English. Their ages ranged from sixteen to fifty-seven (average age, thirty-three) and their number of years in the country from one month to thirty-five years (average, ten years). The Schenectady Works News provided additional help for those studying for citizenship by printing a series of charts explaining American government. Typical naturalization questions and answers were also provided. In the fall, a mixed class of men and women was added. By the end of the first year, eighty-eight classes of English had been organized for 666 workers and four classes of civics for fifty-nine employees. An hour before the end of each work day, a company truck ("the courthouse special") transported those who were interested in obtainin their citizenship papers. That first year, a total of 717 took out their first papers and sixty-two their final ones. By 1922, the year before the program ended, the company reported that the cumulative numbers were 1,173 and 343, respectively. (28)

At least half of all employed Italian men in 1910 worked in neither General Electric nor American Locomotive. (29) A substantial number of these worked in gangs on a variety of construction jobs. An 1898 state report explained that the immigrants preferred this type of employment in order to work with other Italians and retain their "habits of life." Consequently, little interest was shown for the isolation of farm labor, which Italians compared to a "prison cell." (30) The Schenectady employment bureau, created by the Socialist Lunn administration, made similar observations when Italians consistently ignored jobs on farms for work with a contractor. (31) However, early Polish settlers in the county, before securing factory jobs, worked on farms in Scotia, Glenville, and on the islands in the Mohawk river where broom corn, sugar beets, cabbage and potatoes were grown. (32)

At times hiring over a thousand workers, the Schenectady Railway Company relied on gang labor for its periodic extensions of trolley service. The road crews were composed almost exclusively of Italians. Seven hundred Italians labored on one job that involved adjusting the seventeen-mile grade between Schenectady and Albany. Other types of jobs that used Italian gang labor included digging trenches for the Home Telephone Company, improving the local segment of the Erie Canal, installing water mains and sewer conduits, laying sidewalks, and paving streets. (33)

For these large, though relatively temporary assignments, Italians were generally brought from New York City under the direction of a padrone (boss). Unfamiliar with English and dependent on others for employment, shelter and food, these laborers often became victims of sharp practices. One unfortunate group of seventy, abandoned enroute by their padrone to whom they had paid a two-hundred dollar commission, arrived in Schenectady only to find the promised job nonexistent. As meager as a typical pay of fifteen cents an hour was, the Italians also endured grasping foremen who shorted their hours and "shook them down" by threat of dismissal. The enterprising padrone also charged for the use of equipment — sixty cents for the use of a pick or shovel. Labor gangs frequently camped along the line of work, and were forced to purchase inferior and grossly over-priced food supplied by the contractor. One group, laying track along Union Street, was provided accommodations in foxhole shelters. An Evening Star reporter toured this gopher-like community ("Camp Italia") and thought he saw "happy sons of sunny Italy." (34)

Out of frustration, exploited Italians, not infrequently, struck out in anger against their most immediate oppressor — the foreman. Stories appeared in the press, with some regularity, of bosses being pummelled, knifed, and assaulted with shovels. Surprisingly, they usually survived. After being struck an assortment of blows, one foreman bolted the work site with forty irate and unsatisfied Italians in close pursuit. Similarly, a large group of quarrymen mauled their foreman and then stormed off the job. (35) Without union organization to channel grievances, spontaneous revolt broke out when working conditions became unbearable. (36) In 1896, Nick Navaretta, holding a red banner aloft, led a group of one hundred Italians and Poles in an effort to get other canal workers to walk off their jobs. The state reported that such strikes were common among the low-paid laborers on canal improvements. In Schenectady, they received $1.12 a day and were charged $1.50 a month for lodging in shanties and $.10 for bread that sold for $.06 in town. The. immigrants paid heavily for their show of strength. Six leaders of the strike, all Italians, were convicted of rioting and received sentences varying from one to almost three years in the state prison. Just as often, however, the Italians served as strikebreakers. When Poles, who were being paid a dollar a day, walked off their jobs at a building site in 1895, Italians, during this depression year, "gladly" took their places. (37)

In the 1900 manuscript census, 14.2 percent of the 381 employed Italian males were listed as railroad employees, and ten years later the proportion was almost the same. (38) At first they held temporary jobs as construction workers. Led by padroni, gangs of fifty to one hundred Italian railroad laborers appeared as early as 1874 in Schenectady. Laying track for the New York Central, they moved on as the work was completed in the area. In the early 1880s, the building of the West Shore Railroad brought more Italians, who were paid $1.35 a day, into town. So dominant had the Italians become in this work, that when a group of unemployed (native-born) corkers at the locomotive works sought employment with the Delaware and Hudson, they were informed, "we prefer Italians." In response, the rejected job seekers dumped Italians into the nearby Erie Canal. (39) As time passed, Italians gained nore permanent positions as section hands, maintaining the road beds, or as laborers in the freight yards or coal pits. The pay, however, had improved little. In 1910, Italian section hands with the Delaware and Hudson were receiving $1.50 for a ten-hour work day. In winter their hours were reduced to eight a day and their salary to $1.20. A ton of coal, they pointed out, cost more than a week's wages, and if family members picked up coal along the tracks, the company had them arrested. Upon learning that Italians employed by the Boston and Maine earned more and worked an hour less ($1.80 for a nine-hour day), the Delaware and Hudson track hands quit work. Eight Italians were later arrested and tried in Schenectady for firing on a passing freight train and causing a train wreck. The strike by the unorganized trackmen soon failed, when the railroad hired strikebreakers for $2.00 a day. (40)

Unskilled Italian laborers in the building trades were more successful in gaining more money and shorter hours. Organizing a local of the largely Italian International Hod Carriers and Building Laborers Union, the immigrants struck in 1906 to raise their wages from $1.75 a day to $2.25, and to reduce their hours from ten to eight a day. Unsuccessful but undeterred, the laborers continued to stage strikes periodically. When a strike was declared, gangs visited the various construction sites in the city to encourage the unskilled laborers to quit work. In 1910, strikers went from those working on the new county building to the men laying curbing for the Union Paving Company, and to those doing sewer work, demanding that they join the strike. Since some union men hesitated and others were unorganized, various forms of persuasion was needed to win their support. In 1911, seventy-five to one hundred Italians threatened to remove bodily the native-born excavators who were digging the basement for the new parish house of St. George's (Episcopal) Church. In this situation, the affair ended peacefully through the intervention of deputy sheriff James Matarazzo. Ordinarily, however, the contractors seemed to invite confrontation in order to break the strike. When the three hundred organized hod carriers or masons' tenders (local no. 157) joined the five hundred less-skilled shovelmen, excavators, and concrete mixers (local no. 298), Union Paving Company's "Charlie" Beckwith observed that he could get all the strikebreakers and police protection needed, and threatened that he would "fill the jails with strikers." Two weeks later, as seventy-five to eighty Italians approached a paving job on Chrisler Avenue, an "army" of police, many on foot and others on horseback or motorcycles, clubbed and arrested the strikers when they failed to turn back as ordered. (41)

The Italians received little support from the city press. The Daily Union, a "pro boss sheet," portrayed their efforts unfavorably. At one strike meeting, the newspaper reported that a box was passed about and "all were asked to leave their knives, revolvers, and other dangerous weapons." A leader of the strikers charged the press with characterizing them as outlaws and cutthroats, "unworthy of citizenship and a menace to the community." Reaffirming their right to strike for better working conditions, he added that:

It has always been our endeavor to conduct ourselves that we would be worthy citizens of our adopted country.

George Lunn's socialist paper, The Citizen, was an exception. Sympathetic to the plight of the Italians, The Citizen provided extensive coverage of the labor troubles. Lunn described the Italians as victims of "greedy capitalists" who lured them to this country to flood the market with cheap labor and hold down the standard of living of American workmen. Describing the unskilled laborers as "in a strike for their lives," Lunn explained that the excavators received $1.50 a day for ten hours and worked only seven months (May to November), less days of inclement weather. On the basis of a full year, they earned seventy-seven cents a day.

When the skilled members of the building trades provided support, victory was usually inevitable. In 1911, whe the members of the Bricklayers, Plasterers and Masons Union broke union solidarity, returned to work and accepted scab helpers, they were expelled from the Trades Assembly. However, victories often proved short-lived and had to be refought. Frequently, contractors reneged on concessions made by returning to previous wages and hours, refusing to recognize the unskilled unions, and hiring non-organized laborers. Nevertheless, the Italians were organized and, when supported by the skilled trades, had an effective vehicle to improve conditions. (42)

The extent of employment among immigrant women (aged sixteen and over) varied according to nationality and marital status. In both Italian and Polish groups, a working, married woman was uncommon (see Table 5.6). In 1900, only one (0.3 percent) married Polish woman out of a total of 280, held a job, and two (1.2 percent) of 144 married Italian women. And in 1910, there was little change.

Table 5.6

Employed Italian and Polish Married Women
Nationality1900 Percent1910 Percent*

Source: USFMC, 1900, 1910.
(*Compiled from a 25 percent sample of Italian and Polish households.)

The typical immigrant working woman was the Polish domestic. According to the 1900 manuscript census, forty-seven, or 53.4 percent, of all Polish-born unmarried women were employed as live-in servants. Not one Italian woman, however, was so employed. In their late teens or early twenties, usually newly arrived in the country, Polish domestics worked in boardinghouses and, more commonly, private homes. Bessie (aged 17) and Julia (aged 18), along with three other (non-Polish) servants worked in George Cranston's boardinghouse on South Centre Street tending to the needs of the four members of the Cranston Family and thirty-three boarders, native-born and mostly skilled workmen (machinists, carpenters, painters, etc.). Others worked in more genteel situations, such as Mary, an Austrian Pole, who was employed by Thomas Fillott whose family rented a home on Union Street and took in five "lodgers" including a bookkeeper, a stenographer, and a piano tuner. On State Street, two Russian Poles, Josephine (aged 17) and Annie (aged 20) toiled for the three members of the Vrooman family and forty-three boarders. The larger proportion of the girls worked as domestics in the homes of Schenectady's established, economically comfortable families. With the exception of a Union College professor and his wife, who had two Polish servants to attend them, only a single domestic was found in these households. Judge Austin Yates in the Stockade area had a Polish servant, as did his neighbor, the superintendent of the Mica Insulating Company. Others that had a Polish domestic in their home included Judge Veeder, a patent lawyer, the Presbyterian minister, an electrical engineer, an attorney-at-law, and a physician. Even a couple of newcomers were able to emulate the establishment. Irish-born Patrick Behan, a butcher, employed a Russian Polish girl, and a fruit wholesaler on State Street, Morris Freidman, had a seventeen-year-old Polish servant in his household. (43)

Of the unmarried women (sixteen and over) living at home, the 1910 manuscript census reveals that more than twice as many Poles were employed as Italians. The numbers in the sample are small, but the results are reinforced by the marriage records (1908-1910) on file at the county clerk's office, which list specific jobs held by the spouses at the time of their marriage. Table 5.7 shows that 24.2 percent of the Polish brides held jobs but only 12.9 percent of the Italian.

Table 5.7

Employed Italian and Polish Unmarried Women
 Number in SampleNumber EmployedPercent

Source: Schenectady County Clerk, Marriage Records (1908-1910).

In 1900, 73.4 percent of all employed Polish (unmarried) women worked as domestics, but as time passed, opportunities for women became available at General Electric. In 1912, approximately 10 percent of the employees of General Electric were women. Of the young Polish women married between 1908 and 1910, 40 percent of those employed worked at General Electric as did 50 percent of the Italians. The Poles were engaged in a variety of tasks including wire work, armature winding, porcelain work, mica splitting, and kitchen work in the company restaurant. At this time, however, all but one of the Italian women worked in the porcelain department (building no. 68). Women employees were found in particular departments: for example, 25 percent were employed in wire supplies (building no. 77). Nevertheless, the exceptionally high concentration of Italian women was unusual, and the result of either employee request or management design. (44)

Politics, like work, provided the immigrants with a means of adjusting to American life. The two groups, however, did not share a similar involvement in political activity. Although Poles had shown an interest in local politics from their earliest years in the city, the extent of their participation was limited to the quadrennial appearance, and quick disappearance after elections, of a political club or two that offered beer, parades and stirring speeches. In 1892 some marched for Harrison and others, led by "captain" Ignacy Dobrocinski, for Cleveland. The Democratic Evening Star carped that eligible voters (citizens) were in a minority in the Polish Republican Club. Four years later, a group of Poles that included the immigrant banker, Louis Gapczynski, organized the Polish Lancers Republican Club:

…to promote social intercourse among its members, to advance the interests of the Republican party and to defend the purity of the ballot box. (45)

Other Poles quickly organized a second Republican club, Polish Citizens' McKinley Club, and elected Stanslaw Kowalski, a saloonkeeper, as their president. (46) Polish politics continued in this fashion for years. With the exception of the Fifth Ward saloonkeeper, Anthony Wroblewski, who served as a frequent delegate to Republican city conventions, the Poles received no party positions or nominations for public office. (47) The outbreak of World War I not only sparked an intense interest and participation in fraternal and war-related affairs, but also heralded a brief escalation of political activity. Four Republican clubs were soon organized and the Union Star predicted that the Poles would be a significant factor in the 1915 elections. As a reward for his organizing activity in the Sixth Ward, Stephen Wolongiewicz was appointed by the Republican city administration as assistant corporation counsel. With the nomination and election of Casper Dobrocinski as alderman of the Seventh Ward, Polish politics in the city reached the peak of its success. Dobrocinski, a pharmacist, was reelected in 1917 and again in 1919. (48)

During the presidential election of 1900, the city's political organizations considered the growing Italian population significant enough to warrant special attention. Contemplating jobs, prestige and influence, the Italians responded. Some donned Garibaldi uniforms and marched for McKinley and Roosevelt, while others flocked to Hibernian Hall to hear Antonio Zucca, New York City coroner, describe the Democratic Party as the true friend of the Italians. Still others, believing more could be gained by remaining neutral, organized the Clubba Independente Cittadino Italo-Americano which accepted only citizens of good character who were free of "any crime, infamous act or theft." (49)

In 1903, the Republican Party made a strong bid to capture the Italian vote by being the first to offer Italians significant positions of political power. In the Third Ward Peter Dente was chosen city committeeman of the first district and P. Stephen Montenaro received the nomination for alderman. "Steve" Montenaro, a Neapolitan (born in Dragoni, province of Caserta), came to Schenectady in 1889. After attending night school, he left the boilershop of the locomotive company for General Electric, where he acted as an interpreter for other Italian employees. A few years later he opened a saloon and acted as an agent for three steamship lines. The Evening Star, a Democratic newspaper, claimed that the Republican party fully realized its slim chances of dislodging the long entrenched McDermott machine in the Third Ward, and merely ran Montenaro as a pawn to "catch the dago vote." The prediction proved correct. Montenaro was crushed. Though he never again was nominated for elective office, he continued as a power in the Italian colony and Republican machinery of the Third Ward. In 1905 a contest conducted by the Italian newspaper, L'Internazionale, named Montenaro the most popular Schenectady Italian. The contest chairman, it might be mentioned, was Nunzio Montenaro. In 1908 Montenaro was rewarded with the position of water inspector, a sinecure that he doggedly defended against numerous accusations of wrong-doing and incompetence. He also published an Italian-language weekly, and later became associated with Ettore Mancuso's Record. By the close of the 1920s, he had served as a deputy sheriff and defended himself against Il Corriere's charges that he was connected with whorehouses. (50)

During the same 1903 campaign, the Republican party was also developing Italian political leaders to gather votes in the Fifth Ward. Under the caption, "Red Light Registration," the Evening Star accused saloonkeeper John Verra ("the mayor's Italian lieutenant among the Red Lights") of fast enrolling Italians, citizens and aliens alike. (51)

In 1905, "Mike" DeFeo was appointed Republican city committeeman of the first district, thus becoming the first Italian to hold party office in the Fifth Ward. Born in Fontanarosa (near Naples), DeFeo emigrated at age twenty and settled first in New York City before coming to Schenectady in 1899. After working for a lumber yard, DeFeo opened a grocery and dabbled in real estate and banking. He became disillusioned, however, with the banking business. In 1905 a partner absconded with the bank's funds. Two years later, a misprint appeared in a newspaper article which reported a $1,350 mechanic's lien had been placed against DeFeo. A run on his bank ensued. The lien was actually for $13.50. DeFeo continued to hold his committeeman position, while constantly expanding his influence. Not surprisingly, he was elected president of the newly organized Michael DeFeo Association. The members of this political-social club wore badges containing a portrait of DeFeo superimposed on an Italian flag. DeFeo became the second Italian to run for public office when he received the nomination for alderman of the Fifth Ward in 1909. Suffering the same fate as Montenaro, he lost. Since the Italian population began to decline in the ward, the Republicans did not again select an Italian candidate to represent the Fifth. (52)

Throughout these years, the Italians maintained a keen interest and involvement in local politics, but failed to achieve any significant success. Italian Republicans won such positions as city committeeman of one of the two districts of the Fifth Ward, and at times, both committeeman positions of the Third Ward. The Democrats offered the Italians far less — a couple of Third Ward convention delegate positions and (beginning in 1908) one in the Thirteenth Ward, held by John Nicodemi (president of the Italian Democratic Club). (53)

Not until 1915 was another Italian nominated for public office. A newcomer to the city, Charles Drago, a twenty-five year old lawyer, was selected to be the candidate for supervisor of the Third Ward. This time the Italian candidate won. Subsequent reelections of Drago prompted the Democratic party in 1919 to nominate their first Italian candidate, James Matarrazzo. Drago, however, won again. After this campaign, contests for alderman and supervisor became primarily an Italian affair. With the exception of Ettore Mancuso's (D) unsuccessful bid for the office of Eleventh Ward Alderman and Alexander Grasso's (D) failure to win a seat in the state assembly, Italian political aspirations throughout the 1920s were confined to the positions of alderman and supervisor of the Third Ward. (54)

Notes — Chapter 5

  1. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Manufacturers, 1905, II, 748.
  2. U.S. Census, Thirteenth Census: 1910, Abstract of the Census with Supplement for New York, p. 705.
  3. New York State, Preliminary Report of the Factory Investigation Commission, 1912, III, 1330-1350.
  4. A 25 percent sample of employed Italian and Polish males was used, U.S., Federal Manuscript Census, 1910 (hereafter cited as USFMC).
  5. The Citizen, May 20, 1910; USFMC, 1910.
  6. The American Institute of Electrical Engineers, The Schenectady Electrical Handbook (Schenectady, 1904), pp. 67, 68; Schenectady Sesquicentennial, 1809-1959 (n.p. [1959]), unpaged.
  7. J. DeSimoney, "Italian Immigrants and Their Families in Schenectady," Works Progress Administration Writers' Project, 1938. (Typewritten.)
  8. American Locomotive Company, Growing With Schenectady (Schenectady, 1948), pp. 23-29.
  9. Interview with Jerome Razewski, July 21, 1983.
  10. David Goodall, "Workers, Industrial Unionists and Socialists, the IWW in Schenectady, New York" (unpublished seminar paper, SUNY at Albany, 1975), p. 51.
  11. Emily Greene Balch, Our Slavic Fellow Citizens (New York: Arno Press, 1969), pp. 203-294.
  12. The Citizen, June 30, August 4, 1911.
  13. Ronald W. Schatz, The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-1960 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983), pp. 3-4.
  14. Joel Henry Monroe, Schenectady, Ancient and Modern (Schenectady: Privately printed, 1914), pp. 277-78; Schenectady Works News, April 2, 1920.
  15. USFMC, 1910.
  16. General Electric Quarter Century Club, January 1, 1921.
  17. Goodall, p. 8.
  18. Schenectady Gazette, January 27, 1912; Schenectady Works News, January 23, May 23, 1920, March 21, 1924.
  19. Ibid., May 30, December 24, 1920.
  20. Schenectady Works News, April 11, 1919.
  21. Union Star, June 16, 20, 21, 23, 26, 1917.
  22. Gerd Korman, Industrialization, Immigrants and Americanizers: The View From Milwaukee, 1866-1921 (Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1967), p. 5.
  23. The Citizen, May 16, 1913; FIC Report, 1912, p. 1359.
  24. For example, see William M. Leiserson, Adjusting Immigrant and Industry (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924), pp. 133-149.
  25. G-E Reporter (renamed Schenectady Works News), January, February 1917; Schenectady Works News, June 13, July 22, December 12, 1919, June 4, 1920.
  26. Ibid., June 4, 18, July 2, 1920, July 21, 1922, March 2, 1923; Schenectady Gazette, June 24, 1924.
  27. Schenectady Works News, December 26, 1919, January 23, February 13, April 2, December 24, 1920.
  28. Ibid., May 21, August 6, October 15, 22, November 19, December 24, 1920, December 8, 1922, November 2, 1923.
  29. USFMC, 1910.
  30. New York State, Report of the Commission of Immigration, 1909 (Albany, 1909), p. 138.
  31. The Citizen, January 10, 1913.
  32. [Thaddeus Ogonowski], "Polish Pioneers in American and Local History," Talk given at Schenectady Historical Society (1935) (Typewritten.) p. 15.
  33. Evening Star, February 17, March 25, July 16, 1902, July 10, September 26, 1903, January 17, 1907; Daily Union, September 26, 1903.
  34. Evening Star, February 17, May 12, 1902, June 4, 1903, August 5, 1904; New York State, Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1898 (Albany, 1899), pp. 1151-1152.
  35. Evening Star, September 17, 1886, May 16, 1889, May 15, 1900, June 15, 1905, July 10, 1911; Daily Union, September 26, 1903, July 23, 1906.
  36. Edwin Fenton, Immigrants and Unions, A Case Study: Italians and American Labor, 1870-1920 (New York: Arno Press, 1975) p. 197.
  37. New York State, Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1898, p. 1153; Evening Star, May 6, 1895, December 28, 1896.
  38. USFMC, 1900, 1910.
  39. Evening Star, June 29, 1874, January 2, October 9, 18, 1882, August 16, 1884; Fenton, pp. 242-243.
  40. Daily Union, February 15, 1906; The Citizen, June 10, 1910; Evening Star, August 9, 1910.
  41. Daily Union, June 23, 1906, June 6, 1910; Evening Star, May 28, 1908, June 6, 1910.
  42. Daily Union, June 7, 1910; The Citizen, June 10, 1910, June 6, 16, 30, July 7, 14, 1911, June 5, 1914.
  43. USFMC, 1900.
  44. Ibid., FIC Report (1912), p. 1360; Marriage Records, 1908-1910; The Citizen, November 28, 1913; Schenectady Works News, April 18, 1917, December 8, 1922.
  45. Evening Star, October 21, 25, 1892; Certificate of Incorporation (A-117), May 27, 1896.
  46. Evening Star, July 21, 1896.
  47. Certificate of Incorporation (A-183), December 27, 1899; Daily Union, July 17, 1904; Evening Star, September 14, 1904, September 15, 1909; Union Star, November 3, 1911.
  48. Union Star, March 22, April 13, September 29, October 15, 19, 30, 1915; November 7, 1917; Schenectady Gazette, November 5, 1919.
  49. Evening Star, October 5, November 2, 18, 1900.
  50. Daily Union, October 3, 22, 1903; Evening Star, October 5, 1903, September 24, 1904, March 18, 1905, September 26, February 17, 19, 21, 1908; Union Star, December 26, 1913; The Record, June 12, 1925, June 18, 1926.
  51. Evening Star, October 17, 1903.
  52. Evening Star, October 17, 21, 1903, July 11, October 14, 1905, March 16, 1907, September 15, October 11, November 3, 1909; Daily Union, September 19, 1905.
  53. Evening Star, July 26, 1904, November 1, 1906, November 1, 1907, September 22, 1908, October 29, 1909; Daily Union, October 21, 1904, October 20, 1905; Union Star, July 26, 1904.
  54. Union Star, October 31, November 2, 1921, October 12, 1923, October 26, 1925, November 1, 1927, October 30, 1929; Schenectady Gazette, October 30, November 1, 1929.

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