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This Day in Labor History: February 27, 1937

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On February 27, 1937, women working in a Detroit Woolworth’s started a sit-down strike. This lesser-known but critically important action is one of the greatest of the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. It also is a perfect opportunity to examine how gender ideology and strikes have intersected in the past.

Much of American labor history and our ideology of work revolves around men. If you ask someone today what comes into their mind when they think of the word “worker,” it’s quite likely it’s a man in a factory. But the real history of work is far more complicated. Women have also labored as much as men, just in less roles with less social capital. Whether unpaid reproductive labor in the home, working as secretaries in an office building, or laboring in a textile factory, women’s work has been defined as less worthy and thus lower paid. However, women’s actions have driven our labor history as much as men’s. We need to study this if we want a full understanding of our labor history. This is true of the sit-down strikes as well. We focus on the United Auto Workers action at Flint for a very good reason. But women could also sit down on the job.

Chain stores such as Woolworth’s were quite controversial in the 1930s. Driving local stores out of business, they were distinctly unpopular enterprises even as people shopped there because of the prices, a la Walmart today. In fact, many states even considered legislation to ban them. In fact, in 1936, the Robinson-Patman Act banned manufacturers from offering discounts to large buyers as a shot against chains. A 1936 poll showed that 69 percent of Americans thought chain stores needed to be controlled or eliminated. So the women, treated poorly like workers throughout the country, labored for a company where a labor action would gain widespread support. Moreover, like Walmart, the low prices were based on low wages. Half of Woolworth employees were 18 years old and under, allowing them to pay even less. The average work week was 50 hours and over a third worked at least 54 hours. These were long, hard, days. The work wasn’t dangerous in the way the steel mills were but it was a very long time on your feet, dealing with customers.

At the end of 1936, the UAW started the Flint sit-down strike. That success briefly legitimized the sit-down as a key labor tactic. It also led to the rapid unionization of the city. One great thing about successful strikes is that they lead to more strikes. An action like a strike is very scary! Don’t romanticize strikes. They are tough and hard and can backfire. But you see them, it gives you the confidence that you can take control over your working life as well. So that’s what happened with the Woolworth’s workers in Detroit. So on February 27, they went on strike after management had dismissed their concerns the day before.

Like at Flint, these women knew their best way to win was to stay in the store. At the moment they decided to strike, there were 200 customers in the store and they were pretty freaked out! They all left over the next hour. Mira Komaroff, a 23 year old organizer with the Waiters and Waitresses Union, which was Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 705, made this strike work. The workers treated all the merchandise with respect. They knew that respectability was their friend. Soon, union leaders from around the city showed up to express their solidarity. They brought mattresses and other supplies. The workers were there to stay.

The media would play a major role here. And it was fascinated. Girl strikers! That these were young women made them even more appealing to the papers. It was just a good story. But also, the reporters thought this was hilarious and infantlized the strikers while also talking about how pretty they were. Moreover, most of the women had fun. They turned up the radio, started dancing, and just had a good time. There were a few who tried to leave for dates, but most stuck. Even Woolworth’s management just decided to feed them from the lunch counter at first rather than get the bad publicity being mean would lead to. Now, it’s not as if these women did not deal with sexism from the union movement. They most certainly did. Many leading Detroit unionists hated the idea of organizing women. The workers did not let that stop them. They were well-organized, creating committees around health and food to keep things clean and orderly.

The women also used the life of the Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton, to help them. The “poor little rich girl” was engaged in one of her many tumultuous marriages to minor European nobles. Her lavish spending habits compared to the poverty of the working women who funded them was a powerful tool. If Woolworth’s could pay for her, why couldn’t they pay a living wage to their workers?

Woolworth’s tried to play hard ball after a few days, threatening to close all their Detroit stores. The union announced it would organize them all. Then workers throughout the city started sitting down themselves. Unions as far away as New York announced boycotts of Woolworth’s until they settled. As the strikes spread through the city, employers began to cave. And then so did Woolworth’s. On March 5, they came to a settlement. Everyone got a 5 cent an hour raise, which worked out to 20-25 percent depending on the earlier wage. The 48 hour work week was established, with time and a half after that. A union hiring hall would control employment, something almost unimaginable today. They even got 50 percent of their wages for their time during the sit-down strike. This was a big win.

In the aftermath, Woolworth’s workers around the country formed unions. The sit-down strike as a tactic was short-lived, as they proved hard to run and then employers managed to turn locals against workers using it, such as what happened in the Hershey sit-down strike. Then in 1939, the Supreme Court ruled the tactic illegal, which is why you don’t see it today. That is a sign of how limited support for workers from the Supreme Court has been even during the rare liberal years.

However, the specific union at the Detroit Woolworth’s only lasted a year. Lots of these workers were not sticking around for long. The union movement moved on, local organizing did not build on this victory, and management just didn’t renew the contract and faced no pressure on it.

I borrowed from Dana Frank’s essay in Three Strikes: The Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century to write this post.

This is the 426th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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