PROVIDENCE — On Labor Day, Rhode Island labor officials will commemorate the 1934 Saylesville Massacre, in which striking workers fought a week-long street battle against the Rhode Island National Guard in the tiny mill village of Saylesville.
Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, has written a book, “The Battle of the Gravestones,” about the events of September 1934, and he answered six questions about them:
Q: Monday marks the annual commemoration of the Saylesville Massacre. Remind us of what happened back in September 1934.
Crowley: On Sept. 4, 1934, the Textile Workers Union of America launched a nationwide textile strike, putting 500,000 workers on picket lines across the country. Here in Rhode Island, thousands of textile workers walked out of their factories to protest horrible working conditions and draconian wage cuts by employers. At the time, it was the largest strike in American history.
The strike was relatively peaceful in Rhode Island until Sept. 10, when deputy sheriffs patrolling the Saylesville Bleachery in Lincoln fired their guns on protesting workers. For the next week, workers, local and state police, and eventually the National Guard, fought a running street battle near the Moshassuck Cemetery in Central Falls. Two workers were shot and killed, and hundreds were injured by police batons and tear and nausea gas. The violence only ended after the owners of the Saylesville Bleachery finally agreed to shut the factory down for the duration of the strike, which ended a week later.
Bullet holes are still visible in a gravestone at the Moshassuck Cemetery in Central Falls. How did they get there?
Thousands of workers had gathered in front of the Saylesville Bleachery to try and force the operators to close the factory. State and local police pushed the crowds away from the factory gates using fire hoses and clubs, forcing the workers to retreat to Lonsdale Avenue on the way into Central Falls. Then, the National Guard began firing at the workers with rifles, chasing them into the Moshassuck Cemetery. As the soldiers shot at the workers, people took cover behind the gravestones, and, yes, to this day, you can see a gravestone that still has bullet holes in it.
Who was the governor of Rhode Island in those days and what role did he play?
The governor was Theodore Francis “T.F.” Green and what my book shows is that Green’s inept handling of the strike led to the violent confrontation. Green was caught between militant factory owners who wanted him to immediately use force to end the strike and the General Assembly, which refused to give Green any additional power to quell the violence. Because Green waited too long to act, the situation in Saylesville escalated beyond anyone’s control, leading to the deaths of two innocent workers, Charles Gorcynski and William Blackwood.
You have written a book about those events, “The Battle of the Gravestones.” What was the biggest conclusion from your research?
The biggest takeaway from my book is that despite the claims of victory at the time, the 1934 textile strike was a loss for the strikers and their union. I also argue that there is a direct connection to the strike and the 1935 “Bloodless Revolution,” which saw Governor Green and the Democratic Party sweep to power at the State House. The blood of the dead and wounded workers was conveniently forgotten.
What will the commemoration involve? What is the message you will convey?
We in the labor movement like to say that the most dangerous idea in America is a long memory. That’s why we gather each year to remember our martyred dead and renew our call for justice and equality for all. This year’s event, starting at 10 a.m. at the Moshassuck Cemetery (978 Lonsdale Ave., Central Falls), features a talk by URI labor historian Erik Loomis, who will speak about the connections between the labor and environmental movements and how workers can lead the way to a greener and more just economy.
What should Rhode Islanders keep in mind about Labor Day s they celebrate?
The most important thing to remember on Labor Day is the things we sometimes take for granted – workplace safety laws, minimum wages, the eight-hour work day, and anti-discrimination laws – didn’t happen without decades of struggle by ordinary working people of all races and nationalities. It is also a day to think about all the work that still needs to be done in Rhode Island, like making wage theft a felony and getting lead out of our water supply. Together, through solidarity, we can make these critical changes protecting all Rhode Islanders.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.