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Agriculture Workers Strike

Italy 1908

Synopsis

In the early twentieth century, revolutionary syndicalists in the Italian province of Parma established a strong base among dissatisfied agricultural day laborers. After taking control of the chamber of labor in Parma, they succeeded in making the labor movement there more radical and confrontational. In 1907 a successful strike brought a number of gains to the workers. Building on this success, the revolutionary syndicalists launched a major strike in May and June 1908. Neither the workers nor the owners were willing to compromise. In the end, the financial strength and unity of the landowners was too much for the workers and the strike was defeated. In the aftermath of the failed strike, the labor movement in the region lost much of its strength and radical nature.

Timeline

  • 1889: Flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, kills thousands.
  • 1893: Wall Street stock prices plummet on 5 May, precipitating a market collapse on 27 June. In the wake of this debacle, some 600 banks and 15,000 other businesses fail. The nationwide depression will last for four more years.
  • 1898: Bayer introduces a cough suppressant, derived from opium. Its brand name: Heroin.
  • 1902: The Times Literary Supplement, a weekly review of literature and scholarship, begins publication in London.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 occurs. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St.Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
  • 1909: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded by W. E. B. Du Bois and a number of other prominent black and white intellectuals in New York City.
  • 1909: William Cadbury's Labour in Portuguese West Africa draws attention to conditions of slavery in São Tomé and Principe.
  • 1911: Revolution in Mexico, begun the year before, continues with the replacement of the corrupt Porfirio Diaz, president since 1877, by Francisco Madero.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.

Event and Its Context

Revolutionary Syndacalism in Parma

In the years before World War I, there was a struggle within the Italian labor movement between reformist socialists and revolutionary syndicalists. The socialists, who had more widespread support throughout the country, advocated cooperation and compromise with management and the government. They also had the support of the Socialist Party in the Italian parliament. By 1905 the revolutionary syndicalists offered an alternative to the socialists. In contrast to the reformists, the revolutionary syndicalists favored direct action by labor unions. In particular, they advocated the use of the strike.

The revolutionary syndicalists had a stronghold in the province of Parma, where they controlled the chamber of labor. Parma was still largely an agricultural area. In 1901, 67 percent of the population still worked in agriculture, growing wheat, corn, grapes, and tomatoes, and raising cattle and hogs. Whereas the southern hills were dominated by small proprietors, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers, the plains of the province contained large, modern farms worked by both salaried workers and day laborers. By the early twentieth century, many changes had taken place in the province. Agriculture had become more modern with the use of machines and scientific methods. Also, many smaller plots had been consolidated into larger estates, resulting in fewer landowners. At the same time, there were an increasing number of day laborers who would be at the fore-front of the labor movement. These changes also resulted in chronic unemployment and high inflation.

This situation led to a change in the leadership of the chamber of labor. More moderate elements gave way to the revolutionary syndicalists. In February 1907 Alceste De Ambris, himself a revolutionary syndicalist, became the secretary of the chamber. Then in March a congress of agricultural workers met and approved a program of minimum wages and maximum hours. They also recommended establishing employment offices to aid workers in finding jobs. The landowners responded with resistance. Furthermore, the owners also began to expand the Parmesean Agrarian Association (AAP), which was designed to protect the interests of the owners.

The 1907 Strike

On 15 May 1907 day laborers and salaried workers went on strike. Workers won this strike when stable hands abandoned some 60,000 head of cattle. On 21 May the two sides signed a three-year contract that generally satisfied the workers' demand for wage increases and limited the number of work hours. In reaction, the owners limited the employment of day laborers, reducing work to a minimum and using more machines. The AAP became stronger and more combative. For their part, the workers also claimed victory in 33 additional minor agitations in 1907. Furthermore, membership in the chamber of labor more than doubled from 13,446 in January 1907 to 28,719 in January 1908.

The 1908 Strike

Agricultural workers in Parma went on strike again in 1908. The immediate cause was a disagreement over certain clauses in the 1907 contract. In August 1907 the AAP had offered to submit the dispute to arbitration. However, the chamber of labor refused, since the revolutionary syndicalists preferred direct action, especially in light of the 1907 labor victory.

At the same time, the owners were looking to crush the unions. To this end they established the Inter-Provincial Federation of Landowners for Parma and other provinces in December 1907. The goal of the organization was to defend the interests of the landowners without the aid of the government. They collected insurance against boycotts and strikes. In general, they planned to defeat revolutionary syndicalism. In addition, owners in Parma formed groups of "free workers" to use as possible strikebreakers. Finally, the owners purchased more machinery to reduce their dependence on day laborers.

The conflict came to a head in February 1908, when a dispute between the owners and the workers prompted the AAP to order a lockout of all day laborers and to employ "free workers" as strikebreakers. In response, the workers began to prepare for a general strike to take place during the May and June harvest. Such a general strike would be difficult to carry out, as the owners were united and had the financial means to combat the strike. In addition, the labor movement was still split between the reformist socialists and the revolutionary syndicalists.

The general strike began on 1 May 1908 and included some 20,000 workers. In the short term, the workers demanded that the owners respect the 1907 contract and also requested small wage increases. Furthermore, they sought to discredit the AAP and strengthen their own union movement. The workers associated with the reformist socialists did not participate directly in the strike, although they did oppose the use of strikebreakers. Nevertheless, their failure to join the work stoppage demonstrates the serious split in the Parma labor movement.

In response to the general strike, the government announced that it would defend the right to work and would attempt to prevent any acts of violence. Authorities also informed the two sides in the dispute that they would maintain a stance of neutrality. To this end, the government brought in army units to maintain order and banned public meetings.

Conflicts soon arose as a result of the strike. Strikers made efforts to prevent the arrival of strikebreakers. They also attempted to stop the landowners from sending their cattle out of the strike zone. If the owners succeeded in removing the cattle, the position of the workers would be greatly weakened. Later, the strikers decided simply to allow the cattle to leave, instead concentrating on a complete stoppage of all work activities. There were also clashes between the police and the owners' "volunteer workers." A substantial number of women also participated in the strike-related activities. For example, many women who sided with the strikers slept along roads so as to keep watch. Some of these women even would lie on the road to prevent the passage of cattle and cavalry.

When no settlement seemed to be in sight, the revolutionary syndicalists sought to extend the strike beyond Parma to other provinces and the entire Po Valley. However, support outside of Parma was weak, and several attempts to spread the agitation failed. Having failed to accomplish this goal, the strikers then attempted to include sharecroppers and socialist workers who had not initially participated in the strike. Once again they failed.

In early June government officials encouraged both sides to accept negotiation. The strikers agreed to talks if they were based on their original demands. The owners also reluctantly agreed to the talks. However, the two sides were far apart and any compromise seemed unlikely. The mayor of Parma attempted to prepare a compromise solution on some issues such as wages and hours and suggested arbitration on other issues. In response, De Ambris recommended that the workers reject this offer. The workers did offer to reopen talks if the owners came up with a more conciliatory proposal. Initially, Lino Carrara, the general council for the AAP, accepted the idea with reservations. Yet once again, the two sides were unable to agree. By 12 June the mayor announced that he would no longer attempt to reconvene the workers and owners. These failed negotiations in early June are indicative of the fact that the struggle had gone beyond a mere economic dispute and had developed into a political problem, with neither side willing to back down and be perceived as the loser in the strike.

On 18 June rumors spread that a trainload of strikebreakers was on the way and would arrive the following morning. The strike leaders encouraged the workers to prevent the arrival of the strikebreakers. On 19 June the train did in fact arrive with about 380 strikebreakers under heavy police escort. In addition, government authorities attempted to clear the square in front of the train station using cavalry troops. Once again, women played a key role, placing themselves on the ground. Soon a violent clash broke out. Government troops pushed the strikers off of the square, but rioting then erupted in the center of the city that lasted most of the day. That night, several thousand workers met and voted to call a general strike for the entire province.

On 20 June conflicts between workers and troops continued. Workers crossed the bridge that connected the working-class district of Oltretorrente with the city center. Their goal was to close any shops that had remained open despite the call for a general strike. Troops pushed the workers back across the bridge into the working-class district, where residents on rooftops threw rocks at them. The troops then went to the headquarters of the chamber of labor, where they broke down the door and arrested numerous workers on the strike committee.

The next day, the violence continued. At this point, the workers seemed to have two options. One was to negotiate with the owners to bring an end to the conflict; the other was to call for a national general strike. The revolutionary syndicalists preferred the latter option. However, they still had little support beyond Parma. In the meantime, the reformist socialists negotiated with the authorities to secure the return of the chamber of labor headquarters, and the strike committee ordered the strikers back to work. When the workers attempted to return to the job on 22 June, the owners declared a five-day lockout. Conceding that they had lost, the workers did not resist. They then returned to work under the terms of the 1907 contract.

As a result of the strike, the revolutionary syndicalists lost much of the support that they had gained in Parma. Leading up to the strike, they had been able to build upon their successes of 1907. After, in light of the failed 1908 strike, many workers grew resentful and suspicious of the labor movement. The membership of the chamber of labor fell dramatically. In January 1908 there had been nearly 29,000 members. By January 1909 there were just over 7,000 members remaining, a clear indication that the strength of the radical labor movement in Parma had greatly decreased.

Key Players

De Ambris, Alceste (1874-1934): De Ambris was a well-known Italian revolutionary syndicalist. In 1907 he became the leader of the chamber of labor in Parma and was influential in radicalizing the labor movement in that province. De Ambris and the chamber played a leading role in the great agricultural strike of 1908. When the strike failed, De Ambris went into exile for a time. He later served as the general secretary of the national Italian Syndicalist Union.

See also: Red Week, Italy.

Bibliography

Books

Horowitz, Daniel. The Italian Labor Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Van der Linden, Marcel, and Wayne Thorpe, eds. Revolutionary Syndicalism: An International Perspective.Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1990.

Periodicals

Sykes, Thomas. "Revolutionary Syndicalism in the Italian Labor Movement: The Agrarian Strikes of 1907-08 in the Province of Parma." International Review of Social History 21, no. 2 (1976): 186-211.

—Ronald Young

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