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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 these
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 time.”

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 unionize.”

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 strike.”

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 rank-and-file.

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.