Although a good many residents of The Little Balkans know that D.J. ‘Joe’ Saia held the office of Crawford County Commissioner for 50 years, most aren’t aware that he rose to power as a labor leader and union organizer.
Saia, an unemployed coal miner with an 8th grade education, climbed from the bottom of the social pyramid to chairman of the Board of Commissioners through his adaptability, tenacity, understanding of human nature — and undying concern for those in need.
So writes Steve Baden in his 1975 KSTC Master of Arts in History thesis “D.J. ‘Joe’ Saia: the Padrone of Crawford County politics” — the work from which the facts and stories in this column are drawn. The information that follows is excerpted from Chapter 2, titled “The Political Education of D.J. Saia.”
It is fundamentally because of coal mining that the politics of Southeast Kansas is so unique. Although the eastern and southern Europeans who migrated to work the deep shaft mines were farm workers with little knowledge of the concept of industrial democracy, a class consciousness developed and manifested itself in numerous coal field strikes and political unrest.
David Joseph Saia was born May 2, 1904 to Phillip and Elizabeth Piraro Saia in Chicopee. His father emigrated from Sicily in 1897 with his uncle Joseph, arrived in New York, and came directly to the Crawford County coalfield. Phillip Saia became involved with union activities and was a friend of beloved District 14 president, Alexander Howat.
To help his father feed the family, Joe, the oldest of eight children, was forced to quit school and go to work in the mines at age 13. In a short time, he was selected to serve on the pit committee to represent the miners in grievances to the mine superintendent and union officials.
In 1927, at age 23, Joe left the mines to work in Kansas City for the Rock Island and Frisco railroads, returning after two years to open a gasoline station at the corner of McKay and Highway 160 in Frontenac.
In 1930, recognizing that coal field ethnic groups were important in the county’s Democratic organization, Governor Harry Woodring appointed the young politician from Frontenac a state vehicle inspector, thereby starting Joe on the road to making politics his life and career.
In his thesis, Baden quotes Robert Lane as listing six basic reasons why people may become involved in politics: economic gain; social advancement; to gain better understanding of world events; to relieve intra-psychic tensions; to achieve power; and to improve one’s self-esteem.
Most of the Italians came to America for economic opportunities and social advancement – not political power. But, as they were seen as lower class, politics assumed an important role in helping second generation Italians compensate for lack of opportunities in other areas.
Joe Saia, reared in the belief that the workers need to organize, naturally involved himself in political and union affairs. Saia believed, according to an interview with Baden, that he was forced into politics by coal field conditions and it being a way for him to advance economically and socially without much formal education.
He rose quickly in party ranks. He was elected precinct committeeman and vice chairman of the Crawford County Central Committee in 1934 when he was 30 years old. But Saia lost his first bid for office — for mayor of Frontenac in 1935 — to Henry Charosset. The up-and-coming politician portrayed himself as “a progressive candidate from the ranks who has no political boss, who is not ruled by the privileged class or the money changers.”
With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt the Democratic Party rose in influence because WPA relief jobs were distributed through political machines. At the time, Dr. Allen Sandidge of Mulberry and C.C. Strand of Pittsburg controlled the party and mostly ignored precinct committeemen. For political favors such as a relief job, a person would have to pay a twenty-five dollar ‘membership fee.’ Once he got a job he would be required to donate a certain part of his salary to the Democratic Central Committee.
Joe Saia was appointed relief foreman for the WPA by Congressman E.W. Patterson and challenged Sandidge … who subsequently fired him. Patterson reinstated him. Then Sandidge found an excuse to fire him again.
Consequently, Joe quit his WPA efforts and started work in the Farmer-Labor Union, which was organized to represent relief workers and the unemployed. It’s small dues of ten cents a month enabled the poor to join. The union, which eventually flourished statewide with Saia as its first president, was, in Crawford County, composed mainly of former coal miners and farmers who’d lost their farms during the Depression.
Expressing his discontent with the WPA hiring system on KOAM radio, Saia said, “I am bitterly opposed to any system that makes provisions to take care of half the needy while the other half literally starve to death.“
When the national director of the WPA announced a cut of 1,300 jobs in Southeast Kansas, Joe Saia a revolt that led to two ‘hunger marches’ and sit-ins to the WPA district office in Chanute, which ultimately led to a meeting in Topeka where he and union members were assured the reduction numbers were for the summer only and the Kansas quota for WPA jobs would be increased in the fall.
In July of 1938, at the age of 35, Saia announced he would run for county commissioner. Dr. Sandidge selected Ed Fleming to run against him in the primary and made sure he was well financed. Sandidge also sent hecklers to disrupt Saia’s speeches, which they did until one night he was escorted to the podium by a man known throughout the county as ‘a strong arm man.’
Saia went on to win the primary and the general election — the first person of Italian descent to win an office in Crawford County. The skills necessary to become a successful candidate and influential factor in the Democratic Party came, in great part, from Saia’s many years of involvement in union activities.
The numerous hardships that the young politician had to face in the rough, give-and-take politics in the coal fields gave him a political education that he would never forget, and which would be reflected in his activities through the rest of his 50-year career.
Next week’s column will explore how Saia came to be known as “Papa Joe.”