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Industrial Trade Union (ITU)

Transition marked the social, economic and political affairs of Woonsocket in the 1920's. While woolen goods, rubber and machinery firms prospered, the cotton goods industry collapsed. Competition from southern mills, conflicts between labor and management and antiquated facilities all contributed to the collapse of cotton manufacture, a decline repeated throughout New England. Woonsocket's largest producer, the Social Mill, closed in 1927. By the early 1930's, a total of fourteen large mills has closed in Woonsocket.

Joseph Schmetz (from Highlights of History) It is into this economic uncertainty that the Independent Textile Union, later the Industrial Trade Union, was born in 1931. Formation of the union was fostered by the policies of President Roosevelt who gave organized labor rights that they never before enjoyed. The ITU differed from earlier unions in Woonsocket since all workers, not just skilled labor, were included. In its early years, all union officers were required to have regular mill jobs in addition to their union duties. Joseph Schmetz, a skilled trade unionist from Belgium and Mule Spinner from the Jules Desurmont Mill, was the union's president from the early 1930's to the early 1940's.

The Great Textile Strike of 1934, the most violent strike ever in Rhode Island, gave the ITU the impetus it needed for rapid growth. Two people were killed and many businesses were damaged when striking workers turned into an angry mob and rioted in the Social District near the Nourse Mill, then operated by the Woonsocket Rayon Company. ITU leaders condemned the violence. After the riot, the union was seen by many workers as a solid organization with the leadership skills necessary to promote labor's interests.

International Trade Union Magazine (from La Survivance - A Companion the the Museum of Work and Culture) By 1941, the ITU had over 12,000 members. Eventually, it built an impressive headquarters at 53 Federal Street. Under the leadership of Schmetz and General Secretary Larry Spitz, the union became more than a bargaining unit. It also attempted to improve the educational, medical, social and economic interests of its members.

The extraordinary demands of World War II brought a period of great prosperity to the textile mills of Woonsocket. When the war ended and the lucrative contracts ran out, local mills faced an old reality. High labor costs, outmoded facilities and high energy and transportation costs made local mills less competitive than their southern counterparts. Slowly but surely, the remaining textile mills in Woonsocket began moving south. Even the powerful ITU could do nothing to stop the trend.

When the union voted down a 23.6 cent an hour pay cut in 1953, the Guerin Mills closed putting 1,000 union members out of work. The declining textile industry of the 1950's destroyed the base of the ITU's membership. With the large mills gone, there were no longer enough members to support the ITU's large headquarters. It was sold to the Catholic Youth Organization, the CYO, in the 1970's. By the mid-1970's, membership had diminished considerably and the union was a less potent force in the lives of Woonsocket workers.

Thanks to John Guice of ABC 6 News for his report on the Museum of Work and Culture's 2007 Labor Day Open House. You can see his report here (Windows Media Player required):

This page utilizes excerpts taken in whole or in part from:

  • Statewide Historic Preservation Report for Woonsocket, Rhode Island published by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission in September, 1976.
  • Woonsocket - Highlights of History 1800-1976 written by Alton Pickering Thomas, MD and published by the Woonsocket Opera House Society in 1973.
  • Woonsocket, Rhode Island - A Centennial History 1888 - 1988 published by the Woonsocket Centennial Committee in 1988.
For Woonsocket residents, both books are available at the Woonsocket Harris Public Library.

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