John Tisa

JOHN TISA was born in April 6, 1914 in Philadelphia PA to Sicilian immigrant parents Benedetto and Maria Tisa. The family, which included brothers Dominic, Charles, and Joseph Tisa,  lived at 1040 Reese Street in Philadelphia when the Census was taken in 1920. The Tisas subsequently moved to Camden where in 1930 they lived at 214 Benson Street. He graduated from Camden High School in 1933, where he was known as the class socialist, his ambition then was to travel the world. John Tisa was a member of the Young People's Socialist League, the Socialist Party and various other socialist and communist movements. He was a union organizer at the Campbell Soup Company and took part in the abortive strike of 1934. 

John Tisa studied at Brookwood Labor College and the Charles Morris Price School of Journalism in Philadelphia. In 1936 he took a job with the WPA but continued his union activities at Campbell's Soup. In November of 1936 he was sent as a delegate to the American Federation of Labor National Convention in Tampa FL. It was here that he heard about the struggle of the Republicans in the war against the Fascists in Spain.

John Tisa left for Spain in January of 1937 to join the American Lincoln Brigade. He fought at the battle of Jarama and later became the editor of Volunteer for Liberty, the official English-language brigade publication. At the defeat of the Republicans, he remained in Barcelona to help collect documentation on the International Brigades. He continued his documentation efforts in Paris, returning to Camden in 1939.

Upon his return, John Tisa renewed his efforts to organize workers at the Campbell Soup plants and help organize and win the first union contract for Local 80, United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America,  UCAPAWA-CIO. He next went to Chicago to help organize a similar plant, then returned to Camden to help organize unions at the La Palina Factory of the Consolidated Cigar Company, the Siegel Cigar Company, the Knox Gelatine Company, and tobacco companies in Trenton, Philadelphia, Charleston SC, and the middle west.

He served from 1942 through 1945 in the armed services. Because of his service in the Lincoln Brigade and membership in Communist and Socialist organizations, he was refused promotion and overseas service.

After the war, he returned to union organizing and was elected president of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers Union of America (FTA) local in Chicago (formerly the UCAPAWA). During the 1940s and 1950s he continued his work in the trade union movement and helped organize leaf tobacco workers in the South and fruit and vegetable packers in California.

At the CIO convention in December 1948, CIO President Philip Murray charged that the FTA consistently supported Communist Party interests rather than those of the CIO. Although John Tisa and other union officers filed a non-Communist affidavit in August of 1949, the FTA was expelled from the CIO in December of that   year. The remnants of the union merged with the Distributive Processing and Office Workers of America, an amalgamation of several Communist-dominated unions expelled from the CIO.

In 1952 John Tisa was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee but refused to answer any of the question put to him. Finally forced out of his union position, he opened a pet shop in Merchantville which later moved to a location on Route 38 west of Mansion Avenue in Pennsauken NJ. In 1981 he moved to Florida with his wife May, where he resided until his death on December 12, 1991.

During his time in Spain, John Tisa kept a diary to contribute to the Republican forces' program of tactical documentation of analysis. After retiring to Florida, John Tisa wrote Recalling the Good Fight. an account of his time in Spain. He described the training, or lack of it, of new recruits and recalled his experiences in battle and as historian and editor attached to the International Brigades headquarters. The book was published in 1985. He also edited a collection of propaganda posters,  The Palette and the Flame : Posters of the Spanish Civil War.

John Tisa also donated a collection of pamphlets, books, and periodicals relating to his Spanish Civil War and trade union experiences to the Rutgers-Camden Library. These items are now housed at the Camden County Historical Society in Camden NJ.

Antoinette Tisa, the wife of his brother Dominic, was well known in Philadelphia, Camden, and South Jersey as an opera singer during a career that ran from the 1940s through the 1960s. Dominic Tisa owned and operated the London Barber Shop on South 3rd Street in the 1940s and 1950s.


by Benedict Tisa

John Tisa was the son of Sicilian immigrants, born in Philadelphia on April 30, 1913 and raised in Camden, New Jersey. Through out his life he was active in the struggle for workers and civil rights. John attended Camden High School and early in his life became active in trade unionism. In 1934 while working in Campbell Soup he was part of the first attempt to unionize the industry that employed many immigrant families in the area. The factory was just a few short blocks form his home on Benson Street. His mother was a worker on the chicken line.

In 1936 he was with the WPA in a writers program working with various trade union activities. While attending a union meeting he hear of the Spanish Civil War and how Hitler and Mousslini's military were attempting to over throw the elected government in Spain.

John joined the first group of American volunteers in Spain in January 1937 and fought in the first major battle for the American volunteers at Jarama. Because of his special role as Brigade historian, he was the last volunteer to exit Spain in 1939 during the general retreat form Catalonia.

Talking about the picture on the right he said: At the Hotel Florida in Madrid, where my friend of the Lincoln Battalion recommended I stay, I was not doing well in my still faltering Spanish in conversation with the desk clerk when a tall, heavily built, mustachioed man listening to us quickly translated and got me accommodations. I thanked him. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself: "My name is Ernest Hemingway........He invited me up to his room for a drink, then supper. 

With a three-month scrubby beard and feeling dirty from the hot and dusty trip to Madrid on the back of a Ford pickup, I wanted first to shave, shower, and buy some clean clothes. The tight-fitting short khaki jacket I was wearing I had retrieved from a dead comrade during on of the battles in the Jarama Mountains. It had a bullet hole in the sleeve, and it was still bloodstained. Hemingway suggested, however, that I should first have my picture taken. May 1937."

Returning to Camden after Spain John resumed his prominent career in union organizing in New Jersey. He organized the workers of the Campbell Soup Company. Later in the 1940s he organized tobacco workers in Trenton, Philadelphia and the Knox Gelatin workers in Camden

When World War II, broke out his enlisted and served in the US Armed forces. After the war he resumed his Trade Union activities but that came to an end during the McCarthy era in the 1950s. 

John was continuously an active member of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, was a committed leader of peace activities during the Vietnam War, and became an outspoken advocate for the rights of workers and veterans. 

After the McCarthy investigation John had to withdraw from union activities and opened what was to become an area landmark on Rt 38, Tisas' Pet Shop. He maintained his home on Highland Avenue in East Camden until the late 60s when he and his wife, May Tisa retired to Florida where he passed away on 12 Dec 1991.

John Tisa has been the prime source for many books written about the Spanish 

Civil War, including his own: The Story of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (written between the battles in Madrid during 1937) The Palette and the Flame, and Recalling the Good Fight: An Autobiography of the Spanish Civil War.

Berkshire, Massachusetts Evening Eagle - December 17, 1949

Many thanks to Benedict Tisa for his assistance in creating this page.

BENEDICT TISA is the nephew of John Tisa. He has two web-stes of his own that are worth visiting, and has contributed many images the Camden Postcards section of the website.