Pontiac affected by bitterness and violence

When the Warwick police successfully stopped the strikers from entering the bleachery yard at Pontiac on January 29, 1922, they succeeded in sending the strikers home for only a short while. Within a few days, most of the workers at the bleachery left their jobs. Soon, as mill after mill witnessed the exodus of the workers, the entire Pawtuxet Valley was paralyzed.

Workers Unite

While many members of the United Textile Workers Union felt that the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union, which had promoted the strike, was too radical, it soon agreed to join forces. Leadership was provided by their professional unionists, James Dick and William Derrick. These men soon organized "flying squadrons" which went from mill to mill to call out the workers.

Still believing in paternalism, where the mill owners controlled like benevolent despots, the Consolidated Textile Corporation, the new owners who had purchased the B. B. & R. Knight name and the "Fruit of the Loom" trademark, felt they could act as the Knights had for decades. The company prepared a statement confident that the mill operatives would return if they were told that the wage cuts were justified and necessary. They said that the mills could only operate if the workers accepted a wage cut and they promised to provide work for those who returned to their machines. If the workers didn't comply, the mills would be closed. This type of statement had worked in the past, but now it was met with derision and open scorn.


As was feared, violence was inevitable. Rioting erupted on January 31, 1922 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 Pontiac and other mill villages in the Pawtuxet Valley lived under the shadow of violence and retaliation. Strikers attacked truck drivers transferring cotton cloth from the Harris to the Arkwright Mill in Coventry and demanded the Interlaken Mills close. When the company agreed, workers from Natick and Pontiac organized "Iron Battalions" to stand guard lest the mill re open.


Without wages, many workers were faced with severe economic repercussions. Those who lived in company houses were threatened with eviction and the unions opened cafeterias to help feed the destitute. Hopes for an early settlement were dashed when workers asked for the restoration of wage cuts and a 48-hour week and management refused on February 1st. On the following day, over three hundred 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 to cease operations.

During the following week, violence again erupted when an attempt was made to transfer coal and cotton bales from the freight depot at Centreville to the Knight mills. Fights, rock throwing, and other forms of violence halted operations and Governor Emory J. San Souci threatened to call out the National Guard.

The West Warwick Town Council attempted to call the union and management representatives together for some type of mediation, but it proved fruitless. Edward Burton Jr., representing B. B. & R. Knight Company wrote the Council that, "...the responsibility for the strikes must rest upon those who by threat and lawless act have for over three weeks prevented the return to work of a great majority of these employees...." Other representatives of the mill owners agreed that arbitration would avail nothing and demanded that the governor call out the troops. On February 20, 1922, Governor San Souci called out the National Guard.


Governor Emery J. San Souci suffered politically because of the strike. His reluctance to call out the National Guard lost him support from the mill owners, and when he did call out the Guard, he lost the support of the mill operatives.
From Ralph Mohr, Rhode Island Governors 1959.

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