On February 27th, 1937, some salesladies at Woolworth’s in Detroit (at the time one of the largest retailers in the country) followed the lead of their brothers at GM down the street from a successful strike earlier in the month by sitting down on the job and demanding better pay and working conditions. At the time, Woolworth’s employed mostly women, only white workers, and actively sought deskill their workers and keep unions out. The women demanded raises, time and a half for overtime, lunches, breaks, money for uniforms and union hiring. Within the first few hours of the strike, other department stores in Detroit started voluntarily raising the wages of their workers to avoid the strike spreading to their businesses. Within the first few days, the ladies garnered solidarity from other unions in Detroit and positive media attention. And within one week, Woolworth capitulated to the demands and unionized all 40 of their stores in Detroit, covering 2,500 mostly women workers.
As this piece in Workers World excerpting “Low-Wage Capitalism” by Fred Goldstein points out that this really demonstrates the labor environment back in the inter-war era. Back then, there was this thing called solidarity. In fact, solidarity was so strong in Detroit that it even crossed gender lines. The ladies of the Woolworth’s strike demanded the same consideration of many of today’s workers, but their union brothers (and let’s remember that most union members were men at the time) were there to help them achieve this by picketing, providing food, and even providing musical entertainment. It was a golden era of union organizing. So today let’s remember these strong women and honor their contribution to the labor movement and women worker’s rights.