Labor Day weekend will be an appropriate time for the broadcast premiere of “If Stone Could Speak,” a documentary by local labor filmmaker Randy Croce. The film tells the story of Italian stonecutters who immigrated to Vermont in the late 1800s, where they continued to practice their age-old craft, creating art from stone, art that continues to grace public buildings, churches and cemeteries across the U.S. The film also tells the story of the stonecutters’ struggles against silicosis and how the union they organized in the 1930s ultimately won safer workplaces.
• Sunday, August 31, 3 p.m. on TPT Channel 2
• Monday, September 1, 7 p.m. on TPT Channel 17
The film’s broadcast premiere will be Sunday August 31, at 3:00 p.m. on TPT Channel 2, followed by a second airing Monday, September 1 (Labor Day) at 7:00 p.m. on TPT Channel 17.
For Croce, the project was eight years in the making.
The idea came when he was taking an Italian-American history class at the University of Minnesota, taught by Rudolph Vecoli. Vecoli devoted a day of the class to the Italian stonecutters — scalpellini — who settled in Barre, Vermont.
“I was impressed by the quality of the craftsmanship but just as much by the fact that they were ardent union members and socialists and anarchists who were very committed to political and economic change,” Croce said.
Croce, who is Italian on his father’s side, said for some time he had been interested in making a film about Italian craftsmen and going to Italy.
“All these interests in my heritage, labor activism, and art all came together,” he related.
At the end of Vecoli’s class that day, Croce said, “I went up to him and said I wanted to do a documentary.”
Croce’s film drew on Vecoli’s research and on personal contacts Vecoli provided in Barre. One contact led to others and to further contacts in Italy. The people interviewed in the film are “at the end of a long chain of relationships,” Croce noted. “It took years to build those relationships.”
Croce, 57, works full-time as multimedia coordinator at the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota, where he has worked since 1990. He is a member of IATSE Local 219. For the most part, Croce had to keep his day job during the eight years he worked to produce “If Stone Could Speak,” using his own funds and vacation time to pursue the project.
He learned “passable” Italian, won two grants from the Jerome Foundation to support travel and production work in Vermont and Italy, and by May 2006 had shot more than 40 hours of footage.
Next, he said, “I took a sabbatical from July to October 2006 when I did the bulk of the editing.” To finish the film, “I edited on vacation days and early in the morning and at night.”
He finished the final one-hour cut for broadcast on Twin Cities Public Television in July.
(The film had a premiere as a work-in- progress in Barre, Vermont on May Day 2007 at the stonecutters’ union hall).
Croce observed that the art of making a film with digital technology shares some similarities with the craft of stonecarving. “You start out with a mass of material and you have to carve it down to the essentials so you can communicate to an audience.”
The film intersperses contemporary interviews and footage of modern day stonecutters at work with historical photos and shots of the buildings and monuments that are the lasting legacy of the Italian immigrant stonecutters.
The film also is the story of how an immigrant community maintained its heritage. “I’m excited to share the story of how these people managed to maintain their culture, their politics, and their art in a new place,” Croce said.
The film shares another legacy: the story of workers banding together in unions to win safer working conditions.
In Italy, the stonecutters labored in open sheds and worked with marble and granite.
After immigrating to Vermont, however, they worked through the New England winters in enclosed sheds with a different type of granite containing a higher concentration of silica.
Stonecutters started dying from silicosis as a result of breathing the dust from the granite. “They were suffering 90 percent fatalities from breathing the silica dust,” Croce reported.
Workers organized, waged strikes, and fought for safer working conditions. The shop owners resisted and blacklisted many workers for their organizing activity.
The 1934 National Labor Relations Act, however, strengthened the stonecutters’ right to organize. By 1937, they had organized all the granite sheds in Barre. “It was only then that they could speak with a collective voice and compel the owners to install suction equipment,” Croce said. No workers who began working in the granite sheds after 1938 would die of silicosis.
“The stonecutters’ fight to achieve safer workplaces and save future generations of stonecutters is an important example of what collective action under a union can do,” Croce said.