RI Labor History

RI Labor History Society (PDF)


First Trade Organizations – In 1752, maritime workers in Providence formed the “Fellowship Club of Rhode Island” to provide relief for distressed workers, their widows and children. In 1760, masons in Newport published rules of work. In 1796,  carpenters in Providence revised their rules of work. On March 24, 1757,  six cabinetmakers in Providence updated an agreement that set prices  for their work.  

Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers – On February 27, 1789, a group of workers in different trades came together to form an organization to protect their crafts and improve their way  of life. The Providence Association of Mechanics and Manufacturers was chartered by the Rhode Island General Assembly on March 16, 1790. The group consisted of hat makers, tinsmiths, cabinetmakers, printers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, store clerks, clothiers and hairdressers. The organization promoted home manufacturing, created a fund for the distressed, favored public education and temperance, and lobbied the General Assembly over work issues.  

Industrial Revolution and Child Labor – In 1790, Samuel Slater built the first factory in the United States on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket. His cotton mill was run by nine workers,  seven boys and two girls, who were all under age 12. 

Pawtucket Turnout of 1824 – In the Spring of 1824, a week-long strike closed 8 cotton mills in  Pawtucket. The strike was the first known strike in Rhode Island and the first strike in the country that was led by women. The weavers struck to protest an increase in hours and a reduction in pay that had been coordinated by the local mill owners. The newspaper called it a riot and the workers called it a turn-out. A fire was set at one of the mills. The community protested in support of the workers. On June 6, 1824 a settlement was reached and the workers returned to the mills. 

Seth Luther – Labor Activist – Born in 1795 in Providence, Seth Luther was a carpenter by trade, but was widely known as a forceful labor advocate. In 1832, he  was part of a delegation asking the Governor to support a ten hour work day. Four of his speeches were published. In 1834, he and William Tillinghast, a barber, helped found the Providence Workingmen’s  Association. He also helped found the Trade Union of Boston and Vicinity and was active in the National Trades Union. In 1841 he was a  spokesperson for the movement to get rid of property ownership as a voting requirement. He was arrested and imprisoned after the Dorr War. In his later years, he was institutionalized at several places included  Butler Hospital and the Vermont Asylum (now Brattleboro Retreat) where  he died and was interred. 

The Dorr War – In the 1830s, most workers could not vote because they did not own sufficient property. Labor advocates such as Seth Luther and William Tillinghast organized efforts to end the practice with Harvard-educated  lawyer Thomas Wilson Dorr. In December, 1841, the reformers held their own election and ratified the People’s Constitution. Rhode Island had  two Governors and two state governments. The Dorrites tried to seize the Dexter Street Armory in Providence. Dorr was arrested and spent a year  in prison. Some reforms were made by the conservatives, allowing poor  native-born and blacks to vote but not immigrants. Property restrictions  were not lifted for state elections until 1888 and local elections in 1928. 

Granite Cutters – In July, 1887, Granite Cutters organized a union in Westerly. The 500 members belonged to the Granite Cutters National Union. The organization provided a $125 funeral benefit. In the 1890s, quarry workers were paid  $2.50 / day for a ten hour, six day workweek. 

Black Bridget Strikes – On May 9, 1858 workers at the Georgiaville Mill in Smithfield joined a regional strike at textile mills. Workers at the Arctic Mill (West Warwick) and Quidnic Mills (Coventry) were successful in having prior wage cuts reversed. The strike also reduced prices by 25% at the company stores that workers were forced to use. The workers at Georgiaville settled nine days later without a pay raise. On March 24, 1859 eight Irish women, led by one known as “Black Bridget”, led a strike for higher wages. They were fired and Black Bridget and her sister were thrown out of the company housing. 

America’s Fist Labor Day Parade – On  August 23, 1882, a thousand union members paraded through downtown Providence. This parade pre-dates the September 5, 1882 parade by 10,000 workers in New York City. The Rhode Island parade included tailors, boilermakers, blacksmiths, Knights of Labor, and 48 members of Carpenters Local 94. After the parade, 5,000 boarded steamboats to Rocky Point in Warwick. Peter McGuire, a founder of the AFL, was the featured  speaker. Labor Day became a holiday in Rhode Island in 1893. 

Knights of Labor – Workers joined different organizations to agitate for a ten hour day and increased wages. The Knights were involved in social and political work throughout the state in the 1880s. They operated a day care center in Olneyville. A labor paper The People was published. The Knights of Labor organized all kinds of workers in Rhode Island including textile operatives, shoemakers, rubber workers and machinists. 

Rhode Island AFL – On March 27, 1884 in Providence, the Rhode Island Central Labor Union was  founded. The statewide organization was founded by delegates from workers affiliated with national organizations, three socialist societies and the Knights of Labor. By 1890, 17 unions were part of the Rhode Island Central Labor Union composed of about 3,000 workers. 

Streetcar Strike – On June 4, 1902 700 workers went on strike against the Union Railroad Company owned by U.S. Senator Nelson Aldrich. They struck for a union shop, the arbitration of grievances, and a ten hour day. Riots broke out. Pawtucket Mayor John Fitzgerald declined to use the city police to protect company property. The Governor mobilized 1,000 state militia to suppress the strike and the growing community support of the strikers. Union members caught riding streetcars were fined by their local union. The strike ultimately failed though the workers organized a permanent transit union a decade later. 

Providence Bishop Arbitrates Dispute – On June 1, 1906, Episcopal Bishop Right Reverend William N. McVickar acted as  an arbitrator in a wage dispute between Carpenters Union and the Master  Builders’ Association. Bishop McVickar awarded carpenters the 2 1⁄2  cents per hour increase they sought. 1,400 workers benefited from the new hourly rate of 37 1⁄2 cents per hour. 

Industrial Workers of the World – the IWW had a strong presence in Rhode Island after the successful 1912  “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, MA. Early supporters were from the Italian Socialist Federation and the Karl Marx Circle in Federal Hill.  The IWW let a strike at Esmond Mill (Smithfield) in 1913. Strikes occurred in Pawtucket, South Kingstown, Centerdale (North Providence), Thornton (Johnston), Warren, Woonsocket, Berkeley (Cumberland) and  Olneyville. IWW members participated in protests that led to a food riot on Federal Hill in 1914. 

James Reid – Working  as bobbin boy in textile mills, James Reid rose to become Secretary of  the National Textile Union in 1896. The union was headquartered in Providence. After the union folded due to blacklisting and economic  pressure, he became a dentist and worked in Olneyville. Reid was active in the IWW and the Socialist Party led by Eugene V Debs. As a Socialist, he was elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1911, where he championed labor legislation. He was President of a new National Textile Workers Union headquartered in Providence in 1928.

1922 Textile Strike – On  January 23, 1922, textile workers at the Royal Mills in Warwick struck to protest an increase in hours and a 20% pay cut. Workers at other mills joined the effort over the next eight months. A striker was killed in Pawtucket. Some wages were increased but the work week remained at  54 hours instead of the 48 hours sought by the strikers. 

Saylesville Massacre, Social District Riots – A nationwide textile strike was called by the United Textile Workers on  September 3, 1934. Many textile workers in northern Rhode Island  participated in the strike. Two workers were killed by National  Guardsmen in riots around the Moshassuck Cemetery in Central Falls. Two others were killed in the riots in the Social District in Woonsocket on September 11. The National Guard used tear gas to suppress the strikers. The UTW called off the strike two weeks later. 

Pawtucket Teacher Strike – A sixteen week teacher strike ended on August 31, 1951 in Pawtucket. Teachers sought an increase in pay, and won higher wages as part of the strike settlement. The contract also prohibited a walk-out over wages for a four year period while permitting the Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance to strike over unresolved grievances over the summer and into the new  school year. 

Public Sector Bargaining –  Private sector workers won statutory right to bargain with the passage  of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The federal law did not include public sector workers, who had to obtain their own state laws. In 1961, Rhode Island Firefighters obtained collective bargaining rights. Following the Firefighters, State Police (1963), Teachers (1966), Municipal Workers (1967) and State Workers (1972) won passage of bargaining laws governing union recognition and dispute resolution. 

IMH Strike Fatality – On November 9, 1974, a striking AFSCME member Wilma Schesler was struck and killed while walking a picket line in Cranston. AFSCME members were on strike at the Institute of Mental Health and other state facilities. A road in the state government complex was named after Ms. Schesler.

Brown and Sharpe – On March 29, 1982 tear gas is used against strikers and their supporters during a strike at the Brown and Sharpe plant in North Kingston. The Machinists had struck Brown and Sharpe (then located in Providence) in 1915. 

Warwick Teacher Strike – On  September 12, 1992, Judge Pederzani ordered 18 striking Warwick teachers to jail for failing to obey his back- to-work order. The strike occurred after the School Committee failed to live up to a tentative agreement and later unilaterally imposed contract changes.