The Long and Terrible Strike of 1922
In January 1922, the small Warwick village of Pontiac was changed
drastically by one of the area's longest and most devastating strikes.
Before the eight month walkout ended, there was widespread turmoil and
suffering throughout the Pawtuxet Valley.
Breadlines and violence
Mills closed, nearly 5000 workers were idle, breadlines formed, armed soldiers patrolled the villages, and nearly all business activity ceased. The villagers in Pontiac soon found that the prosperous period that followed World War I was over. For many decades, the village had been dominated by the Knight family and had accepted the paternalistic rule of Robert Knight and his son, Webster. This ended when Webster Knight and his brother, C. Prescott Knight, sold their mills to the Consolidated Textile Corporation. The new owners purchased the B. B. & R. Knight name and the "Fruit of the Loom" trademark, hoping to continue to enjoy the high profits as the Knights had for so many decades.
Almost immediately, however, they found this was not going to occur as they began to suffer losses because of a declining market and competition from the South and from Europe. The attempt was made to lower prices to increase the demand for the product and to eliminate competition.
In 1921, to cut costs the company lowered wages by 22.5% and increased the number of hours operatives were required to work per week. Mill workers in Pontiac grumbled, but continued to work with the hope that an increase in demand would bring prosperity to the mill owners and earlier pay cuts would be restored.
On January 20, 1922, these hopes were lost as news reached the village that the Goddard Brothers and the owners of the B. B. & R. Knight Company were going to cut wages an additional 20 22%. The plants immediately affected were the ones at Riverpoint, Phenix, Arctic, Centreville, and Hope. It was felt that the mill workers in Natick and Pontiac would also suffer the same wage losses. Their fears increased when it was learned that the operatives in Crompton, Arkwright, and Harris were getting a reduction in wages.
On January 21, 1922, 250 weavers at the Royal Mill in Riverpoint and workers in the Natick and Pontiac mills declared a strike. News of the walkout dominated the front page, even overshadowing the report of the death of Pope Benedict XV and of three cases of smallpox in Warwick. The Valley Queen Mill in Riverpoint, now the Bradford Soap Works, closed and sympathy strikes took place in other mills in the Pawtuxet Valley. Large numbers of strikers from the Knight mills in Natick and Riverpoint began going from mill to mill urging their fellow workers to leave their positions.
According to articles from a 1963 special report on the strike that appeared in the Pawtuxet Valley Daily Times, "West Warwick police were called out to prevent what seemed to be inevitable violence...at Centreville...But trouble was avoided when workers in the plant...walked out and joined the crowd. The mill closed, making the total number of unemployed workers 2,874".
Dick & Derrick
Shortly after this, over 3000 strikers met at Vanesse Hall in Phenix with the objective of getting all mill workers in the Valley to join in the strike. Within a short time, professional organizers, James A. Dick and William Derrick, entered Rhode Island. Dick assumed control and marched the strikers from Phenix to the Pontiac Bleachery to attempt to persuade the workers in the mills to walk out. The 1963 article in the Pawtuxet Valley Daily Times reported that, "Warwick police guarded the bleachery yard, however, and the West Warwick strikers were unable to get in".
Workers from the Royal Mill in Riverpoint and from the Valley Queen Mill marched to Pontiac to get the workers to leave the mill on strike.