Detroit’s 1937 Woolworth sit-down strike
How women workers led the way
Published Mar 11, 2010 9:30 PM
The following excerpt from “Low-Wage Capitalism,” by Fred
Goldstein, recalls the importance of a little-known eight-day sit-down strike
by women workers that swept the country and organized the Wal-Mart of the 1930s
and other service companies.
Woolworth’s racist, anti-worker,
anti-union policies didn’t stop
women, none of whom had ever
been in a union before.
One of the main features of the new low-wage capitalism today is the creation
of millions of low-paid retail jobs. This is typified by Wal-Mart, the largest
employer in the United States. The idea put forth that this vast section of the
working class is beyond organization is really self-justification for the
narrowness and lethargy of the present labor leadership. In this connection, it
is worthwhile to take time to look back to the 1930s and a nearly forgotten
chapter in the history of that period. It pertains to the 1937 Woolworth
sit-down strike, which became nationally known at the time. This strike sparked
a wave of rank-and-file sit-down rebellions, which led to organizing around the
country in retail, hotels, restaurants, laundries, etc. The account of this
strike and its aftermath has been preserved by Dana Frank as a chapter in the
book, “Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting
Spirit of Labor’s Last Century.”
Here are some of the highlights of this episode.
The victory of the United Auto Workers over General Motors through the
sit-downs at the Fisher Body plant in Flint was concluded on Feb. 11, 1937. The
GM strike had idled 112,000 workers. Days after it was over, a strike wave in
Detroit involved laundry workers, women custodial workers, high school students
working as delivery workers and others in sit-downs.
On Feb. 27, 16 days after the GM victory, more than 100 young women workers at
one of the 40 Woolworth stores in the city stopped work, ushered the customers
out, shut the doors and called the manager to come to a conference with all of
them. They demanded raises, time and a half for more than 40 hours, company pay
for uniforms, lunch allowances, breaks, recognition of the Waiters and
Waitresses Union and hiring only through the union. The union had only one
staff person there. None of the women had ever been in a union before.
The audacity of the strikers can be appreciated by the fact that they were up
against the largest retailer of the era. In 1937 Woolworth’s had more
than 2,000 stores in the U.S., Canada and Cuba. It had 737 stores in Britain
and 82 in Germany. “It was,” in the words of Frank, “like
striking Wal-Mart, the Gap, and McDonald’s all at the same
It employed 65,000 workers, almost all young women. It was viciously
anti-union. And it had a racist, white-only hiring policy. Woolworth’s
had a policy of deskilling its labor force. Says Frank,
“Woolworth’s formula is the same one used by McDonald’s,
Circuit City, and other big chains today. If the job is sufficiently deskilled,
a huge potential labor pool opens up, and if turnover rates are high, so much
the better managers can then pick and choose.” Most importantly, the
management picked young women who had few options on the job market, who were
more likely to work temporary, and who “in theory, were less likely to
The sit-down strike lasted a week, until March 5. It broke into the media
during the first few days. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union
was called in by the strikers — after they sat down. During the course of
the strike the cooks’ union supplied meals; the musicians’ union
supplied entertainment. Hotel workers from all around the city came to the site
to picket and show solidarity.
UAW head Homer Martin came to Woolworth’s to pledge union support. The
head of the Detroit and Wayne County AFL showed up at the strike the first day.
He held out a hand of solidarity to the CIO-affiliated UAW in support of the
strike and donated money. The head of UAW Chrysler Local 7 showed support. The
national president of HERE announced plans to come to Detroit to put the
international behind the strike. It was settled before he arrived.
Five hours after the strike started, Kresge, Woolworth’s biggest
competitor, raised its workers’ wages from $14 a day to $17. All over
downtown Detroit, bosses were giving the workers raises in an attempt to stave
off similar sit-downs.
The union shut down a second store with a sit-down strike and threatened to
spread the strike to all 40 Woolworth stores. Support flowed in from around the
country. The Retail Clerks in New York started a solidarity campaign.
In Detroit itself, sit-downs spread among thousands of local workers, from
waitresses to kitchen workers to cafeteria, hotel, and factory workers. On
March 4 U.S. Steel capitulated to the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. While
this drew all the headlines, on March 5 the biggest retail giant in the world
caved in and the Woolworth workers won all their demands, including the union
shop. The union won a uniform contract for all 40 stores in Detroit, which
covered 2,500 workers.
The effects of the strike rippled for a year. In Detroit, there were sit-downs
at Lerner’s, at Federated Department Stores, and numerous other downtown
stores. In New York City, the retail clerks sat down at five H.L. Green stores.
In East St. Louis, Ill., workers got a uniform contract covering
Woolworth’s, W.T. Grant, Newberry, and Kresge stores throughout the city.
A similar victory took place among retail workers in Akron, Ohio, site of the
first major sit-down strikes among the rubber workers. Some 1,500 workers at 33
Woolworth stores in St. Louis got a contract.
By year’s end, chain variety stores, grocery and department stores had
been organized in St. Paul and Duluth, Minn.; Tacoma and Centralia, Wash.;
Superior, Wis.; and San Francisco.
In Seattle, wrote Frank, “3,000 clerks in 23 stores, including Sears,
J.C. Penney, Frederick & Nelson’s, the Bon Marché and
Lerner’s won not only the 40-hour week but a pay increase
‘estimated to increase the income of the employees by at least one
half-million dollars.’ Over 60 years later, unions today in department
stores all over the country owe their existence in part to the Woolworth
This is an important struggle in the history of the workers’ movement.
Wal-Mart is no more anti-union today than Woolworth’s was in 1937. This
struggle shows that it is not the structure of the retail industry that
determines whether or not it can be organized but the climate of the labor
movement, the general level of struggle in the country and its effect on the
See “Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting
Spirit of Labor’s Last Century,” by Howard Zinn, Dana Frank and
Robin G. Kelley; Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
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