Wage cuts and walkout
Almost immediately, however, they found this was not going to occur as they began to suffer the losses of a declining market and competition from the South and Europe. The attempt was made to lower prices to increase demand for the product and to eliminate competition. In 1921, to cut costs, the company lowered wages by 22.5 percent and increased the number of hours operatives were required to work per week. Matters became worse when, on Jan. 20, 1922, the Goddard Brothers and the owners of the B.B.& R. Knight Company were going to cut wages an additional 20-2 percent. Nearly all mill villages were soon affected by the cuts.
On Jan. 21, 1922, 250 weavers at the Royal Mill in Riverpoint and workers in the Natick and Pontiac mills declared a strike. The Valley Queen Mill in Riverpoint, now the Bradford Soap Works, closed and sympathy strikes took place in other mills in Pawtuxet Valley. Large numbers of strikers from the Knight mills in Natick and Riverpoint began going from mill to mill urging fellow workers to leave their positions. News of the walkout dominated the front page, even overshadowing the reports of the death of Pope Benedict XV and three cases of smallpox in Warwick.
As was feared, violence was inevitable. Rioting erupted on Jan. 31 at the Natick mill. Police from Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry were called out to quell the disturbance, which began when an alleged rioter was arrested. The mob began smashing windows and throwing stones at the mill, and the situation was rapidly getting out of control. Finally, the striker was released and the rioting subsided.
For the next few days, many in Warwick and other mill villages in Pawtuxet Valley lived under the shadow of violence and retaliation. Without wages, many workers were faced with severe economic repercussions. Those who lived in company houses were threatened with eviction and the unions opened cafeteria to help feed the destitute. Hopes for an early settlement were dashed on Feb. 1 when workers asked for the restoration of wage cuts with a 48-hour week and management refused.
On the following day, over 300 strikers marched to Apponaug and, with the aid of a cornet and a bass drum, sent up such a din that soon nearly all the operatives at the Apponaug mill walked out, crippling the plant and forcing it co cease operations. During the following week, violence again erupted. Fights, rock throwing and other forms of violence halted operations.
The strike did irreparable damage to both the mills and the mill villages in Warwick. When the strike finally came to an end, the paternalistic relationship of mill owner and workers had disintegrated and the textile industry no longer ruled supreme in Rhode Island. Before the strike was over, there was a great deal of violence, bitterness and hardship inflicted on both strikers and management.
Mill owners believed that calling out the state’s militia would bring an immediate end to the strike. Political pressure was exerted upon Governor Emory J. San Souci to order troops to Pawtuxet Valley to protect the mills and force the strikers back to work. San Souci, stunned by the turn of events, bowed to the wishes of the mill owners and sent the Mounted Command of the National Guard to the villages of Pontiac and Natick. Over 150 troops, many of them on horseback, arrived at Brown Square in Natick to stop a riot at the mill during the last week of February 1922.
For a very short time, it appeared that Rhode Island would be faced with its most serious rebellion when over 1,000 men, women and children gathered to face the troops in Natick. A Pawtuxet Times article, written in 1963, relates, “Father Tirrocchi of St. Joseph’s Church came running out of the rectory and pleaded with the crowd in Italian to go home and avoid bloodshed.”
His plea was heeded and the crowd disappeared from the square, allowing the troops to turn their attention to the rioting at the mill. A machine gun was mounted on the roof of the Natick Mill and National Guardsmen manned the weapon and patrolled the streets.
Finally, on Sept. 12, 1922, the owners of the B.B. & R. Knight Company, the Crompton Company, the Hope Company and the Interlaken Mills all agreed to restore the wage scale that was in effect before January 1922. William McLoughlin, in his Rhode Island, a History, says, “Their willingness to agree was in part dictated by the end of the recession and the upsurge of production orders. But the workers had at least learned that they could succeed.” He adds, “Employers claimed that the unions were cutting the throats of the workers by cutting the profits of the owners. But in truth, the day of New England’s supremacy in the textile industry was over.”