The 1922 Textile Strike     

                                by Paul Buhle
 

From January to September 1922, textile workers in the Blackstone and Pawtuxet Valleys fought one of the most significant battles in modern Rhode Island labor history.  They did so without a strong, unified labor organization, without significant help from outside the state, almost without any resources except those pooled by strikers and gathered from other sympathetic workers.  If they could not overcome the financial and political advantages held by the mill barons, they showed by their sacrifice and resolve the way for the next round of unionization.


During the First World War, tight labor markets and scattered union activity had forced textile companies from a 64-hour week to a 48-hour one with higher wages.  But the nationwide rollback of unions, the open shop of the early 1920s, and the blacklisting of labor activists had their effect in Rhode Island.  Their own revenues reduced, Rhode Island mill owners announced a return to the 54-hour week and pay cuts of up to 20%.  Organized and unorganized, Irish, Italian, Polish and Portuguese set themselves to resist these conditions.


On January 23, 1922, weavers at the Royal mills formally began the walkout.  The Pawtuxet Valley quickly became a beehive of activity for strike support.  Each major mill village maintained its own committee to hold up picket lines and bring relief to the poverty stricke
n mill families.  The Amalgamated Textile Workers, a progressive union based in New Jersey, recruited some 5,000 workers in the Valley and helped coordinate the social and educational activities – mass meetings, rallies, and dances – to keep up strikers’ spirit.  Luigi Nardella, later an official of the Barbers’ Union and a prominent social activist, directed the organization of benefits, with some thirteen cooperative restaurants in the Pawtuxet Valley, one hot meal per day, sandwiches and milk of the children, wood and coal for workers’ furnaces.


In the Blackstone Valley, scattered locals of the craft union, the Un
ited Textile Workers, helped channel the strike enthusiasm.  Here the Portuguese community, supported financially and spiritually by fellow immigrants in Fall River and New Bedford, played a decisive role.  Especially after a Portuguese striker was killed in Pawtucket.  So also Greeks, Poles and other groups in Central Falls lent significant community backing.


By August and September, workers streamed back into the mills under various local agreements.  Some wage cuts were trimmed and while the 48-hour week was basically lost, the strikers injected the issue into the political arena as state Democrats unsuccessfully introduced a 48-hour bill into the General Assembly.


Perhaps up to 2,000 strikers left the state altogether.  For those who remained, hours became longer and wages less.  But a certain lesson had been learned about ethnic solidarity.  In the next few years, Italian-American militants would lead a tremendous demonstration in Providence for the political prisoners, Sacco and Vanzetti, would group themselves together in an important anti-Fascist organization, the Risorgimento Club, and stake out a progressive position generally.


Likewise, workers in many towns voted against the
political party of the mill owners, the Republicans, leading

the way to Democratic administrations which tended to support labor and social welfare measures.  This was especially true of the old, unholy alliance between French Canadian workers and Yankee mill barons who had formed a solid voting bloc against other ethnic groups that favored the Democrats.  When Republican Governor Emery San Souci called out the National Guard at the behest of the mill owners, French-Canadian laborers finally realized they had been on the wrong side of the class fence.


A decade or more later, many of the strikers took part in the formation of permanent industrial unions.

 

Providence Journal headlines from 1902

Funeral of worker killed during strike

Strikers picket for restoration of 48-hour week and lost wages

copyrighted material