Laboring for Justice: Labor Activism in Rhode Island
Samuel Slater launched the American Industrial Revolution when he introduced new manufacturing processes and hydro-power in his Pawtucket Mill in 1793. For the next fifty years, enterprising Rhode Islanders built dozens of mills along Rhode Island’s major rivers. In 1849, Providence’s George Henry Corliss designed a new, efficient steam engine that enabled manufacturers to build away from rivers, leading to a second wave of factories. Whatever their power source, these mills all relied on human labor as well, and immigrants flocked to Rhode Island from Europe and Canada in search of steady incomes and better lives.
Many mill owners constructed villages alongside their mills to accommodate the influx of workers. The villages provided housing, places of worship, schools, and stores for mill employees. Sometimes workers would receive credit to the company store in lieu of wages. While these amenities were attractive to immigrant families, they also presented a drastic change from the independent lifestyles they had in their home countries. Once independent farmers or artisans, workers were now completely dependent on the mill and mill village. Days were governed by the ringing of the mill bell, and workers were valued for the number of hours they could operate machinery, rather than a particular skill or craft. It wasn’t long before they became dissatisfied with the immense power and control mill owners had over their lives.
Frustrated workers began to advocate for change. They wrote letters to legislators, and circulated petitions requesting action on issues like child labor, factory safety standards, and a fair wage. They also organized rallies, protests, and strikes, and joined unions to protect workers’ rights through collective action. One year after Rhode Island’s biggest demonstration, the 1934 Saylesville Strike, Rhode Island’s General Assembly created the Department of Labor, with three divisions: the Division of Labor Relations; the Division of Industrial Inspection; and the Division of Personnel. A Division of Women and Children was added the following year.
Today our state’s labor force includes Dominicans, Cambodians, and others from around the globe, and their advocacy continues. Workers still petition our General Assembly, organize strikes, and come together with the goal improving the lives of all working Rhode Islanders.
"Laboring for Justice - Labor Activism in RI," features documents and artifacts related to the labor movement in RI – including petitions to address child labor laws, factory hours, and items related to the Saylesville Strike of 1934.