Labor Unions and Strikes in Rhode Island
Essay by Julia Turgeon, Education Intern, Stonehill College
Most people think of big city factories in 1800s New York when they think of labor unions and strikes. Yet, the 1934 Textile Strike was one of the largest strikes in the 20th century U.S.; there were over 400,000 strikers in states from Maine to Alabama.1John A. Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934: From Maine to Alabama, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002). What caused the strike? How did this strike grow to the national level and last for almost a month? It all started in the previous century: the 1800s.
As the American economy transitioned from agrarian to industrial, the need for workers to move from rural to urban areas increased. By the early 1800s, the demand for labor grew more than the rural migration could supply. Employers began to appeal to immigrants coming to America in waves, who were usually emigrating from terrible misfortunes in their homeland, such as the Irish during the mid-nineteenth century’s Great Famine. Greedy business owners soon realized that immigrants would work longer hours in dangerous conditions and for lower wages than their American counterparts. They would also often have large families to support and would bring their children to work with them in order to have another income for food and other necessities.
Most of New England specialized in the textile industry; in fact, most of the mills in the Blackstone Valley operated as textile mills at one time or another (especially during times of war). Yet, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the Civil War no longer demanded such high production of textile products, many New England laborers became upset. They realized that many mills were being shut down in order to be moved to the South, where production was cheaper due to the sharecroppers and newly displaced workers who served in the Confederate Army. The mill communities in New England were already working longer hours for low wages, but they were expected to work for even less because of Southern competition.
Many agreed that something needed to change, and soon enough there were labor unions, organizations of workers, sometimes for a specific job industry such as textiles, that fight for better treatment in their workplaces. Throughout New England, they would use their group bargaining power to gain better workers’ rights from the mill owners. However, if these needs were not met by the owners, the labor unions declared strikes in which they would not attend work. They would strike until the need for their labor was too great and the mill owner agreed to their conditions in order to get business booming again. This continued throughout the late nineteenth century, gaining workers’ rights successfully through the decades. Once the Great Depression, a financial and industrial slump, hit America in 1929, however, the fate of the worker and business itself were in even greater jeopardy. Labor activists who grew up in such conditions, often of immigrant families, were the main actors in the nineteenth century labor unions and strikes.
Thomas F. McMahon 2Rhode Island Historical Society, Historical Note on Thomas F. MacMahon Papers, Accessed http://rihs.minisisinc.com/rihs/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/RIHS_M2A/LINK/SISN+2754?SESSIONSEARCH. was born on May 2, 1868 in County Monaghan, Ireland. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1885. Upon arrival, he worked in textile mills located in Westerly, Clyde, and East Greenwich, Rhode Island. As labor unions began to gain popularity around the country, McMahon saw a way for himself and his fellow textile workers to advocate for themselves. He first organized a union of bleachery folders in the local Rhode Island textile mills, and there he found his passion fighting for civil rights. At age 33, he had co-founded the United Textile Workers of America in 1901 and served as its president from 1921 to 1937. This hard work paid off; McMahon was appointed in 1934 to the advisory board of the NIRA, or National Industrial Recovery Act.3National Industry Recovery Act, 1933, Accessed https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=66. This act, passed in 1933, authorized President Roosevelt to regulate industry to ensure fair wages and prices in hopes of stimulating economic recovery during the Great Depression. Under President Roosevelt, McMahon was appointed State Director of Labor, at which he served from 1937 to 1939. He even worked closely with the President after the 1934 strikes, with the aim of stabilizing the textile industry through support of the labor unions.
McMahon worked tirelessly to ensure the needs of laborers were met, which included the improvement of working conditions, a fair wage, ending child labor, and a reasonable work week. He collaborated with other famous labor activists across the country to accomplish this, including Samuel Gompers, William Green, John L. Lewis, and Daniel Tobin. He argued in 1922 that “textile strikers will not return to work anywhere,” 4Thomas F. MacMahon Papers, McMahon Opposes Textile Proposal, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS824 Folder 1 Page 4, 1922. unless the recently announced 54-hour work week was brought down to 48 hours by mill owners. Ten years later, McMahon was still fighting for the rights of the textile worker, but this time he was arguing for a five-day work week. “It is the greatest step yet proposed to bring our industry to a more normal condition…Without shorter working time, there is nothing to look forward to in the textile industry but chaos and still further chaos.”5Thomas F. MacMahon Papers, McMahon Urges Five-Day Week, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS824 Folder 1 Page 62, 1933. McMahon’s statement on chaos seemed foretelling, especially in regard to his home state of Rhode Island. Soon after he made this assertion, there were murmurings of a strike around the Rhode Island textile labor unions, starting in the late summer haze of August 1934.
By 1934, the American economy and its people had been plunged into the Great Depression for almost five years; people were losing hope even more so than they had post-Civil War in the textile industry slump. Would it ever get better? Would all their jobs be sent to the South? President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been in office a little over a year, and in his many attempts to stimulate growth in the American economy, he had signed the National Industrial Recovery Act. As mentioned earlier, the NIRA helped manage prices and wages in order to give consumers and laborers time and money to spend.
There were some significant changes, which were no doubt spurred by labor activist Thomas McMahon: the forty-hour work week, lowered disparity in wages between Northern and Southern textile mills, and child labor reduced. Although things were looking up for the textile workers, they still had a long way to go to success, considering they earned about “forty percent less than the average for all other manufacturing workers.”6James F. Findlay, “The Great Textile Strike of 1934: Illuminating Rhode Island History in the Thirties,” Rhode Island History 42, no. 1 (1983):18. Thus, the United Textile Workers union, formed in 1901 by McMahon and others, saw increased membership and activity in meetings regarding the rights of New England textile workers. Soon, textile workers had a list of demands for their employers which most importantly included the ending of “the practice of the ‘stretch-out’ (increased workloads in the mills),” 7Findlay, “Textile Strike of 1934,” 19. which were presented to the mill owners.
In August 1934, union members felt they were being ignored, so at the United Textile Works annual convention it was approved that a strike was to begin on Labor Day if their needs were not met. The strike began on September 3, 1934, and within days it grew to a national size––ranging from Maine to Alabama.8Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934. Many different demographics and groups were involved in the textile strike of 1934––while the UTW was generally organized and compliant, it was other groups that caused the strikes to turn to riots.
The National Textile Workers joined the strike with the UTW, but they were more militant in their approach and rumored to be connected with the local chapter of the Communist Party in Providence. The International Textile Union of Woonsocket was largely based in the French Canadian community of Woonsocket and known to be “better disciplined and cohesive as a local workers’ organization than was the UTW.”9Findlay, “Textile Strike of 1934,” 20. Despite all of these different labor unions joining the strike, they were still a minority population in the swath of textile workers in Rhode Island. The UTW recognized this and used an effective technique to make the most of their small numbers: flying squadrons were “mobile units of picketers, up to thirty-five per unit, who moved from place to place by car,”10Ibid. therefore covering a majority of the mills that were involved in the strike consistently demonstrating throughout the day. By September 10, though, the flying squadron was barely needed as more and more strikers joined the protests; it is believed that about two-thirds of Rhode Island’s textile workforce were striking.
As the crowds grew, the local and state police officers became nervous and responded to crowds in Woonsocket and Saylesville streets with tear gas and gunfire. In the Sayles Company Mill gathering of strikers, “two people were shot, and twenty-five others were injured by flying bricks, rocks, and police billy clubs;”11Findlay, “Textile Strike of 1934,” 21. Governor T. F. Green was worried about the situation exploding beyond repair, and so he called in the National Guard and appealed to the public for peace. By September 13th, after calling the Rhode Island legislature into special session to aid the state emergency, Governor Green got his wish and the riots died down almost as quickly as they had started.
Once the strikers, government, and millowners collected themselves, President Roosevelt implemented a Board of Inquiry to aid Governor Green and the State of Rhode Island. The Board recommended, on September 20, 1934 to: 1) create a new Textiles Labor Relations Board to specialize within the NIRA; 2) form a special committee within the TLRB to regulate the use of ‘stretch-out’ by mills; and 3) government research on regional wage differentials.12Findlay, “Textile Strike of 1934,” 28. Once the report was released to the public, labor unions such as the UTW considered it to be a great success and officially ended the strike on September 22, 1934.
While considered a success at first, the impact of the strike and its negotiations has been underwhelming at best for textile workers as a whole. The strike, being on such a large scale, became a spectacle and drew attention to the abusive conditions at work in the textile industry. What reform was enacted through popular public opinion and disgust, was not properly supported in the ‘behind the scenes’ workings recommended by the Inquiry Board. The negotiations agreed to were short-lived and quickly forgotten with changes in political office and especially short-staffing on the TLRB. Although it was lackluster in its quantifiable results in government, there was one major social impact of the Textile Strike of 1934. The social perspective of urban and ethnic laborers changed for the better; they were given the respect that was long held exclusively by the rural New Englanders that had been the ‘face’ of New England states like Rhode Island since the early days of America.
Labor union: A group of employees often associated with a trade or profession who organize to voice concerns or maintain workers’ rights and benefits within corporations
Strike: Action taken by a group of employees refusing to work in order to gain rights and benefits or dispute wrong-doings of employers
Agrarian: Lifestyle or economic system dependent on farming agriculture
Labor: The workforce or employees of a company
Immigrants: People who come to live permanently in a foreign country.
Group bargaining: Using group effort or voice of workers to gain agreements or benefits from employers
Great Depression: A period of time in American history (1929 and through the 1930s) where the nation faced a long, economic downfall that caused financial and job losses for many
Activists: People who attempt to make social change
Why did mill owners turn to immigrants as a source of labor?
What was the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA)? What was the purpose of NIRA?
What kinds of issues influenced workers to strike?
What impact did strikes have?
- 1John A. Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934: From Maine to Alabama, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002).
- 2Rhode Island Historical Society, Historical Note on Thomas F. MacMahon Papers, Accessed http://rihs.minisisinc.com/rihs/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/RIHS_M2A/LINK/SISN+2754?SESSIONSEARCH.
- 3National Industry Recovery Act, 1933, Accessed https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=66.
- 4Thomas F. MacMahon Papers, McMahon Opposes Textile Proposal, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS824 Folder 1 Page 4, 1922.
- 5Thomas F. MacMahon Papers, McMahon Urges Five-Day Week, Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS824 Folder 1 Page 62, 1933.
- 6James F. Findlay, “The Great Textile Strike of 1934: Illuminating Rhode Island History in the Thirties,” Rhode Island History 42, no. 1 (1983):18.
- 7Findlay, “Textile Strike of 1934,” 19.
- 8Salmond, The General Textile Strike of 1934.
- 9Findlay, “Textile Strike of 1934,” 20.
- 11Findlay, “Textile Strike of 1934,” 21.
- 12Findlay, “Textile Strike of 1934,” 28.