Strike! Strike! Strike!
It was a warm summer day in July of 1904, and tensions were running high in Fall River, Massachusetts. Earlier in the month, the Fall River Cotton Manufacturers’ Association had announced a 12.5% wage cut in all of the conglomerate’s mills. Now, after two weeks of unsuccessful negotiations between the Association and union locals, a city-wide strike was looming on the horizon. The question dominating everyone’s thoughts -- would the operatives across the border in Tiverton’s Bourne Mill join their Massachusetts colleagues in the strike or prove loyal to their employer?
Founded by a group of Fall River textile magnates in 1881, the Bourne Mill complex was constructed at the southern end of Cook’s Pond, joining several other mills already using the pond as a source of water for the mills’ steam engines. This location, however, placed the mill just over the state border into Rhode Island, resulting in the peculiar situation where several of the mill’s structures physically bridged the border. Beginning modestly with a single, five-story granite mill finished in 1883, the Bourne Mill complex eventually expanded to include more than twenty buildings of brick and granite.
Unlike all of the other mills in Fall River, Bourne Mill operated on a unique financial model where employees were involved in a profit-sharing initiative. Under this plan, if the mill made a profit and paid dividends to investors, “faithful” employees also received a biannual dividend that was calculated as a percentage of their wages. The impetus for this innovative strategy came from Jonathan Bourne -- the namesake of the mill and one of the founding investors. Bourne made his fortune in the whaling industry and was accustomed to the “lay” system used on whalers where all of the crew received a percentage of the profit at the end of a successful voyage. At Bourne Mill, this initiative was intended to both increase productivity and bolster employer-employee rapport.
As the New England textile industry began to face increasing pressure in the early twentieth century from southern mills, the Fall River Cotton Manufacturers’ Association, like other northern mill conglomerates, confronted the challenge of cutting costs in order to continue turning a profit. Introducing more efficient, Northrop automatic power looms that required less supervision was one way that many mills began to adjust to the increasingly competitive environment. In 1898, Bourne Mill purchased a number of Northrop looms, allowing the mill management to reduce the number of weavers in half. Despite the mill operatives’ opposition, the Northrop looms were an inevitable part of progress in the textile industry. Two years after Bourne Mill purchased its first automatic looms, it embarked on a major expansion of its weaving facilities, constructing a new, sawtooth-roofed, granite weave shed that allowed it to double the number of Northrop looms in operation.
In addition to the introduction of the Northrop automatic looms, relationships between the mill corporations and the mill operatives were further strained by a general “slowdown” in the northern textile industry in first years of the twentieth century. In this charged environment, the 12.5% decrease in wages proposed by the Fall River Cotton Manufacturers’ Association was a flashpoint. On July 25th, over 25,000 Fall River textile workers -- and most of the employees of Tiverton’s Bourne Mill -- walked out of the mills. Despite its fifteen years of successful operation, the Bourne Mill’s profit-sharing initiative had not generated enough employee goodwill to keep the mill in operation. Like the mills across the border in Fall River, Tiverton’s Bourne Mill would remain closed for the next six months. It was not reopened until after the union locals successfully negotiated for only a 7.5% wage decrease in January of 1905.
Although the Fall River textile industry seemed to recover rapidly from the effects of the 1904 strike, this conflict prefigured the eventual end of the New England cotton manufacturing industry. Northern mills simply could not compete with southern mills’ lower labor costs, newer equipment, and better access to raw cotton. Bourne Mill continued to operate though the 1940s, with World War II providing the mill with a major production boost.
In 1953, the mill was sold to Berkshire-Hathaway, a textile conglomerate formed by Warren Buffett in the 1950s. By the end of the decade, Berkshire-Hathaway, realizing that the textile industry was abandoning New England, decided to divest themselves from the mills they had recently acquired . Bourne Mill, along with six other Berkshire-Hathaway mills, closed in 1961.