WOONSOCKET — For most people, Labor Day is a last call for summer, a chance for one more family cookout or that final great day at the beach.
But at the city’s Museum of Work And Culture, the holiday was another chance to remember a difficult period of local history, a national textile worker’s strike that came to town in early September 1934 and claimed the lives of two city men in the process.
As part of its Labor Day Open House 2011 program, the Museum staged two performances of Raymond H. Bacon’s short play about the strike and its local aftermath.
Bacon, co-manger of the Museum with Anne Conway, has authored several one-act performances on life in the city when the textile industry was its primary economic engine. He completed the play, “I.T.U Meeting,” in 2005 to commemorate the Sept. 11 and Sept. 12 strike and the local rioting that came with it.
The strike helped mobilized French Canadian and other local immigrant workers, long considered accepting of difficult work conditions and long hours, into active union members who counted on the Independent Textile Union not only for improvements in the workplace but also in housing, healthcare and even their social lives.
In the years after the strike, the ITU grew to a membership of more that 15,000 workers and changed its name to the Industrial Trades Union in light of its representation of not only local textile workers, but machinists, barbers, business employees, and clerks.
Bacon, a retired Woonsocket High School social studies teacher, said the museum’s Labor Day program was intended to be “truly representative of what the museum is all about.’’
“When you look back on that time, you are looking at a period of struggle and the bad times of the Great Depression,” he said. “It is a story of how these people were able to stand up for themselves and risk their lives,” he said.
A crowd of Labor Day visitors filled the museum’s second-floor, “ITU Hall” meeting room as Erik Eckilson, portraying ITU President Joseph Schmetz, opened an 11 a.m. performance of Bacon’s play with a rundown of the events sweeping the city in the fall of 1934.
The local labor unrest was sparked by a United Textile Workers union call for a nationwide strike to protest exploitive working conditions and unfair labor practices in the industry. The ITU, founded locally in 1931, agreed to honor the strike call and began to pull its workers from plants in the city.
All of the affected local mills closed as result of the strike with the exception of the massive Woonsocket Rayon Co. plant running the length of Clinton Street in the Social District.
Woonsocket Rayon’s continued operations drew a large crowd to its gates which then spilled over into rioting and vandalism across the densely developed social district.
Bacon recalled how the actions of participants later described as union outsiders and thugs began to throw rocks and bricks through the storefront windows of businesses in the area and loot them.
Looting hit the Eisenberg & Tickton general store in Social, Canada Malt Liquors on Social Street and about 30 other businesses in the neighborhood, Bacon said.
Gov. Theodore Francis Green sent National Guard troops at the Amory on South Main Street along with local police officers to quell the rioting on Sept. 12, and as the armed body forced the rioters back, shots were fired.
Jude Courtemache, 19, was shot dead as he passed by the scene and another man, Leon Rouette, the play notes, would die two weeks later of the wounds he suffered in the shooting.
Another 12 people in the area were wounded by the gunfire, including four members of the police department.
Bacon said it was never determined whether the shots striking Courtemache and Rouette had been fired by the Guard or by members of the police department confronted by the rock throwing crowd.
The play has Courtemache’s mother, played by Irene Blais, thanking the gathered ITU members for assisting her in the aftermath of her son’s death, and Courtemanch’s young sister, played by Victoria Gendron, saying how much she loved her brother and how she will miss him.
There is also a trio of news reporters of the day, played by Shulla Sannella, Darin Cooper, and Albert Brunelle, quizzing Mayor Toupin, performed by Romeo Berthiaume, about the riot and the government’s response to it.
David Amaral portrays a local merchant upset by the curfew closing Social Street businesses in the days after the riot and Steven Van Orsouw, plays a mill owner who promises to work with the ITU to prevent future violence.
Woonsocket High School English teacher Danielle DeRotto appears in the play as New England labor organizer, Anne Burlak, and refutes the government’s position that union, or communist-leaning operatives, had incited the violence.
Burlak, who visited the museum several times before her death in 2002, is portrayed as fighting the lower wages paid women in her time and also against the racial biases that existed among employers.
“I learned early in life that organizing was the best way to get equality and justice in the workplace,” DeRotto told her listeners. She recalled how she had once worked in a job paying her $8 a week, where a man doing the same job earned $12 a week.
Burlak’s daughter, Kathryn Wright of Springfield, Mass., and Burlak’s granddaughter, Jayme Winell, a college student working on a labor history paper, were among the museum’s visitors Monday and voiced appreciation for its strike tribute.
“My mother was very proud of this museum and loved it very much,” Wright said. “She called me after she visited it the first time and said ‘You won’t believe it; it is perfect.”
The speeches DeRotto makes in the play capture her mother’s sentiments exactly, Wright said, and noted she would be honored by that tribute too.
It is also a remembrance of the loss suffered by the family of Jules Courtemache, she said.
“The fact that the museum puts this on is a fabulous tradition,” Wright said.
After watching the performance Monday, city native Rene Lafayette, now an assistant middle school principal in Blackstone, said he found it to be an accurate and “very realistic” recounting of the strike events in the city.
Lafayette, who had been a history teacher before becoming a school administrator, said he remembers the stories his mother, Theresa, told of those days when he was growing up in the city. “She was 13 at the time and had seen the National Guardsmen fix their bayonets and start pushing the onlookers back out of the way,” Lafayette said. His mother had lived on Cumberland Street at the time and the riot had gone on all around her home. “It certainly was a memory that stayed with her, her entire life,” he said.
The ITU reached its pinnacle during World War II when city manufacturing plants were operating round the clock and just about everyone working in the city was a member, according to Bacon. The period of prosperity for the union was short-lived, however; and in the postwar year’s city’s textile companies either moved their operations to take advantage of lower wages in the South or closed them entirely. By the 1990s, the remaining mills not lost to fires were being converted to condos and apartments or razed.
Today just a few of the large mill complexes remain: the Singleton Street mills where manufacturing continues, and the vacant and deteriorated structures like the French Worsted Mill complex at Hamlet Avenue, which is expected to be razed in the near future to make way for new commercial uses at the location.
Like all history, Bacon said the story of Woonsocket’s labor unrest is a story that should not be lost to time. The museum, now entering its 15th year with the help of loyal volunteers and supporters, and will continue to tell the story of city’s labor history, he said. “It is remembered here and it is not forgotten,” Bacon said.