20. George DeNucci and the Rise of Mass-Production Unionism in Ohio
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URING THE bleak depression years of the 1930s, Ohio workers took part in a national movement to gain a greater voice on the job and in society. Although the movement was centered around steel, auto, rubber and other mass-production industries, it involved all types of laborers, from retail clerks to schoolteachers and janitors. After years of resignation and apathy, working-class militancy dramatically increased in 1934, as Ohio experienced more strikes than in any year since the wave of 1919 to 1920. In 1935, workers gained much needed government and legal support with the passage of the Wagner Act, and equally important institutional and financial support with the establishment of the Committee for Industrial Organization, changed in 1938 to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). These two developments promoted the image of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and CIO head John L. Lewis as saviors of the working class. Yet, important as national leaders and federal policies were in advancing unionism, hundreds of relatively unknown men and women played an equally critical role at the grass roots level. In almost every manufacturing center in Ohio, a handful of individuals served as catalysts for the local labor movement’s upsurge in the 1930s. Iorwith Wilber (I. W.) Abel helped organize the Timken Company’s Canton plant for the United Steelworkers of America. Ray Ross brought the United Autoworkers into International Harvester in Springfield, while John House led Goodyear rubber workers in a 1936 strike that became the CIO’s first significant victory. Some of these activists, such as Abel who became president of the Steel20 254 George DeNucci and the Rise of Mass-Production Unionism in Ohio WARREN VAN TINE  D vantne_3rd_chap20.qxd 11/10/2003 3:34 PM Page 254 workers in 1965, eventually gained major positions in the national unions they helped to build. But many did not make the adjustment to the more institutionalized labor movement of the post–World War II era. Some discovered that the skills needed for organizing a union were not the same skills needed for running one. Others lacked the proper base for attaining leadership positions as power gravitated to the representatives of those locals and national unions with the largest memberships. Such men and women spent their lives in the trenches of the labor movement, only to have history forget their names. This essay explores the life of one such activist, George DeNucci, both to reclaim his importance and to highlight some significant dynamics in Ohio labor history. George DeNucci, whose given name was Galli, was born in the small Italian town of Capratto on February 14, 1902. Within months of his birth, George’s father, Vincent, left his wife, Catherine , and their two children and, on borrowed money, sailed for the United States in search of work as a skilled tailor. George’s father had 255 GEORGE DENUCCI FIG. 16 George DeNucci. Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society. vantne_3rd_chap20.qxd 11/10/2003 3:34 PM Page 255 difficulty establishing himself in America, but after a few months he landed a tailoring job in Baltimore. Still, he did not earn enough to pay off his debts and send for his family. Vincent DeNucci’s luck changed in 1904 when William Hersch, owner of the United Woolen Mill in Parkersburg, West Virginia, traveled east to recruit Italian tailors. Vincent was a particularly valuable catch for Hersch. Having served a five-year apprenticeship, the elder DeNucci was a “complete” tailor capable of designing and assembling a man’s suit from scratch. Most of the workers at United Woolen were “partial” tailors, cutting and pressing in the factory’s wholesale department where young women did most of the sewing. In addition to receiving higher pay because of his skill, Vincent earned extra money from Hersch by recruiting old friends in Italy to United Woolen. This allowed Vincent to pay off his debts and send for his family, who arrived in Parkersburg in early 1906. Once in the United States, George enjoyed a childhood shaped by his father’s status as a skilled worker. His family, the Catholic Church, the local Italian community, the public schools, and sports dominated his youth. Unlike many working-class boys, George never mentioned having to work odd jobs while young. And becoming a U.S. citizen was simply something that happened under the prevailing naturalization laws when his father declared citizenship in 1918. In 1921, George graduated from Parkersburg High School, receiving no academic honors but letters in both...