Luigi Rocco Antonini (1883-1968), was a notable labor leader and emerged as one of the most outstanding labor leaders of the first half of the 20th Century.
Antonini served as the First Vice President of the ILGWU from 1936 - 1967. He was the General Secretary of the Local 89, Italian Dressmakers Union, and President of the Italian American Labor Council. As a labor leader Antonini affected New York City, national, and international US politics. Whether it was assisting in the election of New York City's first Italian American Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, to assisting Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his cabinet on policy towards Italy during World War II and post war relief and rebuilding of Italy after the war.
Eloquent, courageous and idealistic he symbolized faith in freedom. Luigi was a big warm man, who loved children, animals, books, Italian Opera and good cuisine. With a melodious, almost operatic voice he quoted the Old Testament and Dante to appeal equally to Jewish and Italian members of unions. His love for animals lead him to keep a private "zoo" at his home in Yonkers. He had wild birds and a lion cub.
With his flowing bowtie and mane of white hair he looked more like an opera singer that a labor leader.
Luigi Antonini was born in Italy in the town of Vallata Irpina, province of Avellino, Sept 11, 1883. His father was "Maestro" Pietro Valeriano Antonini born, 1848 in Gaggiano (Milan). He was a poet and studied at the Giuseppe Verdi Music Conservatory in Milan, He played the organ in The Duomo of Milan. He went to southern Italy (Avellino) as a schoolteacher and died in 1928 in the Bronx NY.
His mother Maria Francesca Netta was born in 1853 at Valletta Irpina, (AV). She was the daughter of local nobility. She died in 1892 in Valmadrera, Como.
He had six brothers and sisters two of who immigrated to New York with him, (Paolo, and Francesco). One sister, (Savina) remained in Italy and became Baronessa di San Sossio, (AV).
His great uncle was General Giaccomo Antonini served with Napoleon's army in Poland. He was active in the 1848 Risorgimento movement in Italy. He commanded forces in battle in Milan and Venice and garrisoned Sicily. He lost his arm to a cannon in the battle for Milan. It is preserved in a Torino Museum today.
In 1892 at the death of his mother his father moved the family back to Lombardia. Luigi had his education at the high school in Tortona, (Piedmont). From 1902-1906 he served in the Italian army in the 11th Infantry as a top sergeant and expert fencer.
In 1908 he immigrated to New York City with his brother Paolo. They settled in the then Italian neighborhood of the 4th ward, (Greenwich Village) leaving his fiance' Jennie Costanza a dressmaker. Two years later he sent for her and they were married. For a couple of years Luigi took various jobs from cigar roller to piano tuner. Then he took a job as a dress presser. He immediately became involved in the issues concerning the treatment of garment workers where he worked.
He slowly emerged as one, of the most dynamic and active leaders of working class emerging as a speaker in the famous waistmakers' general strike of 1913 in New York City. Within a few years he devoted his time to organizing Italian garment workers.
He joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) in 1913, and was elected to the executive board of Local 25 the following year.
In 1916 he became the editor of the magazine L'Operaia, where he urged with his writing as well and speeches for the Italian garment workers to organize. It is mainly to his credit that in 1919 the Italian Dress and Waist makers' Union, Italian Dressmakers Local 89 was founded, (the number 89 refers to year of the French revolution). It became the largest local in the I.L.G.W.U.
He was a great orator to rally Italian Americans in behalf of unions. In the twenties he rose to become a spokesman for Italian Americans and for all labor in the United States. He became increasingly a spokesman for the Italian ethnic group on issues that went beyond labor as, for example, politics.
A skilled organizer and leader, he was voted a vice president of the ILGWU in 1925 a post he held for 30 years. He was a founder of the American Labor Party (ALP) and served for a time as its state chairman. He helped found New York's Liberal Party that was resolutely anti-Communist.
Antonini was one of the first to use mass media of the time, print and radio to further the cause of labor.
The Voce della Locale 89 (Voice of Local 89) was the radio program started by Antonini to reach the mass audiences of the time.
Antonini also utilized journalism to achieve objectives. In 1916 he became the editor of the Italian workers magazine L'Operaia. He founded the Italian-language edition of the ILGWU's newspaper, Giustizia. Antonini also authored articles books and other materials to reach workers.
The radio program, The Voce della Locale 89, was produced in New York City. Antonini began giving 15-minute messages, in Italian, over station WFAB in 1934.
The Italian-language program aired on Saturday mornings and offered a "half hour of melodious music and songs with the best Italian radio artists available. Addresses in Italian and English by prominent Union leaders."
Antonini understood that as unions grew--partly in response to federal recognition of labors right to organize--union officials would need to use the radio to reach out to young people and "to teach the new members the history (and) the general objective of labor Showmanship, trade union education, and political commentary all came together in The Voice of Local 89 under the supervision of Antonini.
An intellectual with a "romantic-proletarian touch," Antonini emerged as an early labor and cultural leader in the Italian-American working-class community. A superb orator, Antonini spoke weekly on topics "embracing problems of general interest to the Italian workers and problems of the dress industry." In the course of discussing national and international events from a labor and social democratic perspective, Antonini analyzed health care, attacked fascism, and pleaded for racial tolerance. Initially 30 minutes, The Voice of Local 89 expanded full hour. Then Antonini enhanced the program's entertainment: to offer, for example, abridged versions of Carmen, Aida, and other operas and "lively sketches based on the lighter side of the worker's life arranged and presented by the best fun makers of the Italian theatre." The added time also allowed for weekly messages in English from prominent politicians and ILGWU officials.
The Voice of Local 89 proved popular and useful within and outside the Italian-American, working-class community in New York. As early as January 1936 with several radio stations along the Atlantic seaboard to form an eastern network for Antonini's program.
In the 1930's during the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe Antonini was fiercely apposed to Fascism from the very beginning. This point of view was not always popular in the early 1930's in New York.
Through the Roosevelt administration his leadership flourished as he developed ties to the White Houses New deal era policies. He was a presidential elector for Franklin D. Roosevelt's third term. He was also equally apposed to the rise of communism both in the United States and in Italy (especially after World War II).
Antonini's rise to the top of the Italian-American labor movement did not occur overnight. In 1934, he became the ILGWU's first vice-president.
In 1935 he represented the American Labor Movement to the anti-war anti-fascist international congress held in Bruxelles, Belgium and in 1939 he attended the Pan-American Congress for Democracy in Montevideo, Uruguay. He was a founder of the American Labor Party (ALP) in 1936, and was elected State Chairman of the American Labor Party in New York State.
By 1940, Local 89 had 33,500 members and could stake a claim as one of the largest union locals in the United States. During this period Antonini's sway over the Local 89 membership remained the source of his power and placed him at the top of Italian-American labor leadership at the outbreak of World War II.
In 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor, Antonini was the main founder of the Italian-American Labor Council which, under his chairmanship, performed valuable services to help America win the war.
The IALC was formed in direct response to Mussolini's declaration of war against the United States. Antonini lobbied successfully against the implementation of the Enemy Alien Act of 1942, which designated all German, Italian and Japanese nationals as enemy aliens. Italian-Americans found themselves facing the possibility of a massive evacuation from the east and west coasts of the United States to confinement in the Mid-West.
Through Antonini's collaborative efforts with US attorney General, 600,000 Italian-Americans were exempted from the Enemy Alien category. During this period, the IALC also raised funds for the Italian resistance movement and facilitated the settlement of Italian refugees.
In order to emphasize Italian-American loyalty to America, Antonini and the IALC organized a "Freedom Rally" at Madison Square Garden on January 31, 1942, where two thousand people attended.
At the end of its first year, the IALC could claim affiliates with a membership of 300,000 workers. Antonini was also working behind the scenes with various US Government war efforts to assist in bringing Allied victory in Italy. He worked with OSS Italy missions to influence situation here and in Italy.
He had influence in the fight against Mussolini during the war but also had a leading role in post war Italy, rebuilding both on the political and humanitarian level.
Right after the Second World War he led the drive to collect among various labor unions hundreds of thousands of dollars for Italian relief as well as thousands and thousands of garments, medicine, food, etc.
During his many visits to Italy he was in contact with the leaders of the Italian Government, such as Presidents De Nicola, Einaudi, Gronchi; Premiers Bonomi, De Gasperi, Scelba Segni and many leaders of the Parliament as well, and many leaders of the Parliament.
He was the spokesman for the Italian-American Committee for a Just Peace to Italy when he went to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. Then he followed with a tour to Latin America: to enlist the support of those people for the same purpose.
In Post war Italy he assisted the rebuilding apposed Italy turning communist and worked with its newly formed governments Post war era to build unions.
One of the largest vocational schools in Europe for orphans, the Franklin D, Roosevelt Institute in Palermo, Italy, was conceived and helped made a reality by Antonini.
He was chosen by the American Federation of Labor to go to Italy in 1944 to advise, as an influential member of the Anglo-American Trade Union Committee, the Italian workers how to rebuild bona fide Labor Unions.
He implemented The IALC's Four Freedoms Award. This citation was created to honor meritorious services rendered to the cause of liberty among the people throughout the world. Honorees included Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. United States Attorney General Francis Biddle in 1943 became the first recipient of the IALC's Four Freedoms Award.
Antonini continued his long tenure as a leader of Labor and Italy Italian matters throughout the 50's and 60's. He was a delegate to American Federation of Labor in Milan Free trade Conference in 1951.
In 1956 lead delegation of Labor officials to Italy and Israel. The Haifa stadium was named after him on that occasion. Decorated by the Italian Republic with the Star of Solidarity Second and First Class, "Commendatore" and as "Grand Ufficiale" of that Republic. He was also decorated with a gold medal by the city of Trieste. Decorated with a gold medal by Sicily. Decorated as "Cavaliere Grand Ufficiale" of the Republic of San Marino.
Made honorary citizen of Molinella, a famous city in Italy which best symbolizes resistance. In 1963, on his 80 birthday then Mayor Robert Wagner gave him the key to the city of New York. Seventh Avenue was named Luigi Antonini Avenue for that day.
"I think I accomplished my duty. I think I did my part in organizing Italian dressmakers - there was a time when my people had little notion of a union. We have now come to the point where we are the biggest in the ILGWU."