Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Woonsocket

During our trip to Rhode Island we ventured out of Providence into the Blackstone River valley, a corridor of old mill towns ending in Worcester, Mass. Woonsocket, RI was at one time a leading center for manufacture of woolen fabric, but it suffered through an earlier era of deindustrialization as mills moved to the Southern US in pursuit of cheaper labor. There was a listener commentary on NPR recently in response to a piece on Southern mills closing due to overseas competition, where this guy remembered how basically the same process occurred in the early and middle 20th century to bring those jobs to places like the Carolinas in the first place. It left behind cities with anemic economies. And maybe in an earlier time, Woonsocket was the beneficiary of a similar process. During the height of the city’s industrial economy, before and after 1900, the mills there were staffed with lots of workers from French Canada, who were the cheap immigrant labor of their day, giving the owners a way to undercut the wage demands of “native” workers. At one point 60% of the population was French Canadian.

Woonsocket still seems down on its heels. One thing to say for them is that they have preserved many of the old mill buildings, and converted them into housing – but unlike Chicago or a big city, it doesn’t look these have become luxury lofts, but appear to be used in a lot of cases for subsidized or affordable housing.

We wandered into the historical museum in Woonsocket. Usually I skip these, most due to laziness in the face of something that seems too close to being in school, but this was very well done. It is small, and with minimal resources its presents a version of the town’ history structured around a passionately pro-worker point of view. Its name gives an idea about it: The Museum of Work and Culture (http://www.woonsocket.org/workandculture.htm). The museum lays out the economics behind the experience of French Canadian immigrant factory workers and their families. The exhibits address the transition from self-sufficient agriculture in Quebec to paid factory work, the nature of the work and of the relations between owners, supervisors, and workers, and the role of the Catholic Church in preserving French identity and maintaining industrial order. The galleries include simple games to demonstrate basic factory tasks, like sorting bobbins and installing yarn spindles. It allows you to time yourself and explains the time requirements you would have had as a worker (demonstrating you how hard the work was). It also gets into the mechanics of control on the shop floor, like time sheets and technical expertise. This may sound dry, but rather than relying on long text explanations, oral history recordings play and you can handle artifacts like an original copy of a thick operating manual for a complex automated loom in use in 1960. Just leafing through this volume shows you how the complexity of the machine vested power in whoever had full knowledge of its technical operations. There’s a great display that shows what went into home work production of costume jewelry, including the loose “jewels” and stock settings used.

The person at the museum’s front desk attributed the exhibit concept and design to the site’s co-manager, Ray Bacon, and it is almost inconceivable that a museum with such a strong point of view would have come about through a committee process. The exhibits put forth a clear narrative of the French-Canadian workers’ experience in Woonsocket, they deal directly with their hardships, and do not try to cast the “golden age” of Woonsocket manufacturing as an Eden. It makes the case of workers’ rights rather than resorting to saying in some form “we told you so – wasn’t it a lot better when at least there were jobs here.” This museum refuses to take that false exchange, and they end up as one of the "reddest" (as in red diaper baby, not red state) museums I've ever seen.

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