The Great Textile Strike of 1934                  

by James Findlay
 
In September 1934, Rhode Island experienced an important episode in its history of industrial conflict.  The textile strike of that year engulfed the primary industry in the Ocean State, required the calling out of the National Guard for riot duty, and nearly provoked the intervention of Federal troops.  It was also perhaps the most dramatic single illustration of the tragic long-term decline of the textile industry, the economic base supporting much of Rhode I
sland’s working class since the middle of the nineteenth century.


The conditions, which ignited workers’ discontent into a nationwide job action, had been long in the making.  In Rhode Island and all of New England the textile industry had experienced steady economic reverses for over a decade.  The great depression only added to these economic woes.  By late 1932, the work force in Rhode Island mills had shrunk by one-third from peaks of employment in the 1920s.  The election of Franklin Roosevelt and the creation of the National Recovery Act to aid the faltering national economy brought temporary relief to textile workers in the form of a “managed” system of a shorter work week, increased employment, and a stabilizing of wage rates.  But the continuing massive downward spiral of the national economy meant renewed economic losses in the textile industry by 1934.  Worker complaints of widespread use of the “stretchout,” of wage cuts, plant closing, and large-scale layoffs, led to rising militancy in the mills.


In 1934 the largest union in the industry was the United Textile Workers.  Prior to that year the U.T.W. had never been able to claim as members more than a small percentage of the total work force of the industry.  The economic conditions of the early thirties, combined with the hopes associated with a new, friendly Democratic administration in Washington, led both to a rapid increase in union membership in 1933 and 1934 and to rising demands for collective action to ease the workers’ economic burdens.  In August 1934 the U.T.W. called for a strike in early September if key worker grievances were not attended to by mill owners throughout the nation.  No concessions from management were forthcoming; on September 3, 1934, the nationwide strike began.





Although the walkout eventually affected mills in all parts of Rhode Island, picketing and efforts at plant closings were more frequent and most successful in the northern, heavily urbanized areas of the state.  “Flying squadrons” of strikers, reinforced by allies from the nearby Massachusetts textile towns of Fall River and New Bedford, moved from plant to plant in the Blackstone Valley, in Providence, and in the West Warwick area, urging workers to leave their jobs.  By the second week of the strike tensions between workers and owners erupted into open conflict centered in the Blackstone Valley village of Saylseville and in the city of Woonsocket.  On September 10 the continued misuse of force by deputy sheriffs closely allied with the owners of the huge Sayles textile complex provoked large scale rioting in and around the Sayles bleachery and other buildings and in an adjoining cemetery, strung out along Lonsdale Avenue.


Yet more serious disturbances developed the next day in Woonsocket.  The reasons for the eruption of violence in the city of Franco-Americans in Rhode Island are too complex to describe in detail here.  Perhaps it is sufficient to note that the rioting, which began in the mill area known as the Social District on September 11, soon spilled over into the city’s business district.  Looting, physical destruction of stores and other property, and eventual loss of lives ensured.  The rapidly escalating public tumult provoked Governor Theodore Green to mobilize the entire Rhode Island National Guard for riot duty and to urge Franklin Roosevelt on September 12 to intervene with Federal troops.


A cautious FDR, a balky state legislature called into special session by Green to respond to the emergency, and most important, the sudden ending of rioting on September 13 were all contributing factors in the rapid return to relative public calm by September 14.  Ten days later, after President Roosevelt appointed a national fact-finding commission to recommend solutions to the textile workers’ grievances, the U.T.W. called off the strike in Rhode Island and throughout the nation.


Nationally the workers’ achievements from the strike were minimal.  The basic economic difficulties of the textile industry remained unaffected, and workers in Rhode Island (and elsewhere) continued to suffer accordingly.  The U.T.W.’s strength and influence among workers began to decline noticeably after the strike failed to achieve hoped for goals.  As noted earlier, the strike of 1934 became a key indicator of the long-term disintegration of the central industry in Rhode Island’s economy, which had distressing effects for thousands of working class Rhode Islanders.  Yet it might also be argued that in the months just prior to and during the strike, the potential for improving conditions of working people through strong union organization and militancy also revealed itself.  It is regrettable that this potential could never be fully realized in the early 1930s. 


In a more positive sense the strike of 1934 also pointed to a new political alignments emerging in Rhode Island and in the nation.  Theodore Francis Green had been elected in 1932 as the first Democratic governor of Rhode Island in nearly a decade.  The textile strike burst into public consciousness only a few weeks before Green was to be tested again at the pools.  Because much of his political support came from the precise urban areas where strike activity was most intense, Green had to play a cautious role when pressured to intervene as the strike developed.  Displaying the cleverness which characterized his long political career, Green mobilized the National Guard somewhat reluctantly after violence occurred, publicly proclaimed his neutrality between strikers and mill owners, and eventually blamed the outbreaks of rioting and unrest on a small group of communists who had worked as strike organizers but who possessed relatively little influence in shaping the fundamental drift of events.


Somehow Green succeeded in projecting an image of himself as a protector of public safety, yet also as a continuing friend of Rhode Island’s working people.  In November 1934 he was re-elected by a larger plurality of votes than in 1932; just a few weeks later he and his Democratic colleagues in the state legislature engineered the now famous “bloodless revolution” of 1935, which assured a political hegemony for his party, which continues to this day.  The alliance between ethnic, working class Rhode Island, organized labor, and the Democratic Party was clearly taking shape in these events.  The coming to power of the new urban, working class groups, reflected in the dramatic events of 1934 recounted here, was perhaps the most significant historical result of that now largely forgotten moment of industrial conflict and working class distress which occurred in “Little Rhody.”

 

State police man a machine gun on the roof of the General Fabrics Corporation in Central Falls, July 11, 1931

copyrighted material

Gassing of the Saylesville strikers.

Saylesville strikers.