The first wage workers’ strike in the United States took place in Pawtucket nearly two centuries ago. This is the story of how Pawtucket, the birthplace of industry, also gave rise to organized labor.
In the 1790s, Pawtucket, RI started to transform from a village of craftspeople to a place of advanced industry.
Along the Blackstone River, wealthy investors sought to build mills, capitalizing on the talents of local workers and the river’s potential to provide waterpower.
These new mills, including Samuel Slater’s Yellow Mill, were subject to suspicion and concern from their inception. Mills created conflicts over established water rights, and significantly changed the daily lives of workers. This led to growing tensions within the community. Workers in mills were subject to the authority of their employers, who asserted control through strict work and behavioral standards. One benefit of working in factories, in theory, was the change to earn wages for work.
Throughout the early 1820s, the cotton industry was experiencing economic fluctuations, triggered by the Panic of 1819 and the Tariff of 1824. In response, mill owners looked for ways to keep production high, costs low, and profits going up.
“This Looks Rebellion”
In late May 1824, a group of Pawtucket mill owners decided to make some drastic changes. Citing a “general depression,” they announced a plan to extend the workday by an hour, reduce the worker’s mealtime, and cut wages by 25%.
Workers in town did not accept these new conditions. About one hundred women walked out of the mills, causing them to shut down. From May 26th to June 3rd, 1824, a large number of additional textiles workers joined them in going on strike.
Fellow laborers in the village of Pawtucket embraced the strike. Some people event went to the homes of the mill owners to shout at them, and demand restored wages.
The strike escalated on June 1, 1824, when an “incendiary device” was thrown into Walcott’s Mill, causing a small ﬁre. After the ﬁre, the mill owners and the strikers reached a settlement. No record of this settlement exists, but the mills reopened (with workers at their machines) on June 3rd.
Aftermath and Legacy
The walkout of 1824 was the first of its kind. No historical records from the perspective of the workers exist, but their story is not lost.
Workers who refused to accept lower wages for more work were reacting to some of the larger social changes that came with the Industrial Revolution.
The strike indicated the potential power that laborers could assert against factory owners. This early example of labor unrest was just the beginning of the continued conflict between employers and their employees.
In these early years of industrial development, workers enjoyed more autonomy and individual power to assert their rights as laborers. As the decades passed, this became more difficult. Most women were excluded from joining unions as they formed.
Providence, R.I. May 31 − The citizens of
Pawtucket, have, for a few days past, been in a
state of excitement and disorder, which reminds
us of the accounts we frequently read of the
tumults of the manufacturing places in England,
though unattended with the destruction and
damage usually accompanying those riots.
Last updated: March 2, 2023