The Industrial Revolution created a dramatic change in the way people worked. As laborers transitioned from the farm fields to the factory floor, many lost their sense of personal freedom. The regimented life of a Blackstone Valley mill meant long days, low wages, and poor working conditions. Women and children were impacted the most by this larger social change.
At first, individual workers expressed their unhappiness with working hours and wages by threatening to not work. Due to the small pool of potential workers, threats of not reporting to work could shut down production and kept many owners more reasonable. Unhappy workers forced Samuel Slater, for example, to shut his mills down on numerous occasions.
In the wake of the failed Embargo Act and the War of 1812, an economic depression led owners to lay off workers in many of the new textile mills. This left a large pool of unemployed workers who learned that factory life could, like farming, be unpredictable. In 1824, when Pawtucket mill owners decided to extend the working day by an hour and decrease power loom weavers’ pay by twenty-five percent, the women who worked the power looms revolted. This culminated in a weeklong strike which resulted in the destruction of mill property. Ultimately, this forced a resolution between the owners and workers. This was the first strike in United States history led by women.
The Dorr Rebellion was sparked by further unrest in 1841. In that time, Rhode Island’s system of government disenfranchised mill workers. Living in factory owned housing, men did not own their own property which meant they could not vote. In October 1841, Thomas Wilson Dorr and his followers held an extralegal constitutional convention. They called it the People’s Constitution. In the elections that November two separate governments were elected. One led by Dorr under the new constitution and one under the old system of government. Dorr led an armed assault on the arsenal in Providence which failed. A later attempt to consolidate his separatists government also failed at Chepachet in 1842. Although the Dorr Rebellion failed, it did eventually ensure male mill workers the right to vote. For many though, equal voting rights was still decades away.
Some workers came together to fight for their rights, but overall, trade union organizations appeared very slowly in the Blackstone. The mule spinners were the first to unionize in 1858, but textile workers didn’t unionize until 1893. By then, “turn-outs” or strikes were fairly common as a strategy among workers. The movement for ten-hour workdays was also an important part of labor unrest by the late 1800s. Over time, larger unions like the Knights of Labor, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the International Workers of the World (I.W.W. or “Wobblies”) became prominent in the Valley. In 1913, members of the I.W.W. led a 6-month strike at the Draper Manufacturing Company in Hopedale, Massachusetts. They tried unsuccessfully to help machinists make gains with the Draper Company. This strike damaged the idealistic vision many had of Hopedale as an ideal industrial community.
In the following decades, the “Red Scare” limited the power of many unions. Some people saw unions, and the often foreign workers they represented, as threats to American democracy. Tensions reached a boiling point in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1934. The United Textile Workers (U.T.W.) led the strike which began in early September. For four days, federal troops fought to suppress the worker’s revolt. In the end, the strike failed, but the movement did not. Governor Theodore Francis Green signed a series of legislation on January 1, 1935, which he claimed finally realized the spirit of the Dorr Rebellion. This event, known as the “Bloodless Revolution,” marked an important step for the working classes of the Blackstone River Valley. But class tension remained in the industrial workplaces of the Valley.
People, Places and Stories
Last updated: July 17, 2021