Occupy Woolworth's: A Labor Story from the Great Depression
“Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights! Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!”—-Bob Marley
The legendary reggae artist Bob Marley gave us some good advice. There are times when people do have to stand up for their rights. But there are also other times when it pays to sit down for your rights. In 1937, during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, sitting down for one’s rights was on the agenda for people across the nation.
One of those places was a Detroit Woolworth’s on a typical 1937 Saturday morning shopping day. Woolworth’s went out of business in the USA in 1996. But in 1937, it had an empire of over 2000 stores in the USA and Canada plus more in Cuba, the UK and Germany. At precisely 11 am that February 27th, a union organizer named Fred Loew blew a loud whistle and began yelling “STRIKE! STRIKE!” Shouts and cheers could be heard as department by department the 150 “sales girls” stopped working and stood proudly with their arms folded. The sit-down strike against the USA’s most unpopular chain store had begun.
Woolworth’s was a Five and Dime, a variety store that was the Walmart of its day. It had ruthlessly put small mom and pop stores out of business by buying huge quantities of goods directly from factories and negotiating low prices in return for long term contracts. Founder Frank Woolworth was an expert at finding cheap sweatshop and child labor in Europe.
A nationwide movement against the aggressive chain store tactics of Woolworth’s resulted in regulatory legislation and court battles. A protest letter from Indiana stated,
“The chain stores are undermining the foundations of our entire local happiness and prosperity. They have destroyed our home markets and merchants, paying a minimum to our local enterprises and charity, sapping the lifeblood from prosperous communities.”
A poll taken in 1936 showed that 69% of Americans polled were against the growth of big chains.
But it was the strike by the Detroit saleswomen that was the most dramatic challenge to the Woolworth empire. The striking saleswomen and their union organizers asked for a 10 cent an hour raise, the 8 hour day, time and half after 48 hours, seniority rights, a union hiring hall and no retaliation against workers after the strike. Store Manager William Mayer told them that he would consider their demands on Monday if they would please go home. The strikers were unmoved.
The strikers were overwhelming young and white, though light-skinned African Americans sometimes passed as Italian or Spanish to get Woolworth jobs. Woolworth’s saleswomen were expected to be pert and engaging with the general public despite many hours of constant standing. One NYC Woolworth’s worker bought special shoes saying, “I don’t know how the other girls stand it. They get flat feel and fallen arches and little surface varicose veins.” There was little time for rests or breaks as the saleswomen were constantly harassed by managers and spies posing as customers. A woman’s “looks” counted heavily in promotions and some of the male managers demanded sexual favors for promotions and special treatment.
The women were very aware that they were part of a larger movement. The new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was organizing workers across the country. The small and struggling United Auto Workers had just won the long bitter Flint sit-down strike when General Motors agreed to recognize the union on February 11. In the wake of Flint, sit-downs and traditional strikes broke out all over the Detroit area. But the male dominated media was inevitably drawn to the young women strikers at Woolworth’s and they quickly became a national sensation.
Despite the general dislike of the chain store’s ruthless economics, working class people were enthusiastic Woolworth’s shoppers. Unlike today’s soulless looking Walmart or Target, Woolworth’s had brightly painted columns, winding stairs, attractive bins of inexpensive goods and smiling, helpful (if secretly exhausted) sales clerks. But the public loved the “working girls” of Woolworth’s, not the spoiled Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, whose Marie Antoinette excesses were well documented in the popular press. Reputed to be the world’s richest woman, she renounced her American citizenship to avoid paying taxes and moved to Europe.
The strikers loved to sing this song:
“Barbara Hutton’s got the dough, parlez vous.
We know where she got it, too, parlez vous.
We slave at Woolworth’s five and dime,
The pay we get is sure a crime.
Hinky dinky parlez vous”
Family, friends and union supporters brought in blankets, mattresses, food and other supplies. The women organized committees and set out to have as much fun as they could, chatting among themselves, playing cards, dancing, knitting, doing makeup and phoning boy friends and families. There was a special Cheer-Up Committee in charge of morale. Many of the young women lived with their families and had never spent a night away from home before.
The women were very conscious of the press attention and carefully did their hair and makeup each morning. The press insisted in calling them “girls” and trivialized their struggle in that way. But paradoxically, their media image as fun loving girls was also a kind of protection. It would be a PR disaster for the Woolworth’s management to call the cops and have them dragged out by force. The women carefully documented press coverage through their Scrapbook Committee. They were a lot more media savvy than even the media realized.
At first Woolworth’s management refused to negotiate. The strikers answered with a second Woolworth’s sit-down strike at another Detroit store and a promise of a national Woolworth’s sit-down if progress was not made. The Kresge’s chain, Woolworth’s biggest competitor, raised wages immediately. Hundreds of employers across the nation also raised wages in the hope of avoiding unionization and sit-down strikes. US Steel signed a major agreement with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee-CIO to avoid a costly shutdown.
The handwriting was on the wall for Woolworth’s and on the 7th day of the strike, management capitulated and gave in to the striker’s demands. The victory at Woolworth’s was followed by more sit-down strikes across the nation.
Even Broadway and Hollywood got into the act. A musical called Pins and Needles opened in 1938 and a movie comedy called The Devil and Miss Jones was released 3 years later. Both were based upon the wave of sit-down strikes by the saleswomen of America’s department and variety stores. Sadly, there was no Hollywood ending for the the Detroit Woolworth workers. They eventually lost their contract when the company hired new, more docile employees, screening out pro-union workers in what was a high turnover industry.
If all of this sounds like today’s Occupy Wall Street, it’s because there are striking similarities: the spontaneity, the rapid spread of the movement and the energetic youthful participants. But there are key differences. Among them is this: Occupy Wall Street has contested the use of public space, the Depression Era sit-downs contested the use of private space .
Generations of corporate propaganda have imbued us with the idea that the workplace is strictly private property; a holy ground upon which we tread only at the sufferance of its owners. If we don’t want to be expelled like Adam and Eve from the Garden, we must obey its divine commandments. Freedom of speech, assembly and the right to petition grievances melt way within its sacred environs. People who challenge the authority of this private control of the work space are labeled troublemakers, radicals, communists…snakes in the garden who seek to seduce the innocent and lead them to temptation.
The sit-down strikers had much different attitude. They looked at the workplace as a social contract. Because they invested their precious time and labor, they were as important as the capital that was also invested. If the owners were respectful, fair-minded and provided a reasonable return on investment of time and labor made by the workers, then there no need to contest the use of that private space with a sit-down strike. But if the owners failed to show the proper respect for the contributions of the employees, than it was time to teach the boss some proper manners.
The years of terrible Depression hardships had removed much of capitalism’s luster, even for workers who had little sympathy for radical economics. Wall Street produced few good paying jobs, but did produce a fair number of socialists, communists and freelance radicals. The sit-down strikes were often led by these workplace rebels and were an expression of an emerging workplace democracy, challenging the rigid totalitarian organization of the modern corporation.
These workplace rebels also blamed the economic wreckage from the 1929 Crash for feeding the rise of totalitarian movements around the world, and propelling humanity toward global war. Economic collapse, totalitarianism and World War II were failures of capitalism that were hard to explain away.
Any expression of workplace democracy aroused the most powerful fear and loathing from Wall Street and the Empire eventually struck back. The most powerful tools of the labor movement were banned. Sit-down strikes were declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1939. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 put heavy restrictions on strikes and boycotts. Communists and other radicals were banned from leadership in the labor movement.
But the historical memory of the Depression Era sit-downs was not totally extinguished. It was revived again when 4 college students sat down in a white-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 and began the sit-in movement that eventually toppled segregation. The radical democracy of the civil rights movement expanded the notion of public space into what had once been the sacred ground controlled by a racist private ownership. The sit-in movement spread further into US college campuses and became a standard feature of student protests against racism, gender discrimination and war.
Today’s dysfunctional economy is producing a new generation of economic radicals, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, who challenge the Wall Street oligarchy with its own 21st century version of radical democracy.The Occupiers see themselves as part of a global democratic movement, now easier to organize with modern Internet technology. They want decent jobs and educational for all. They are also in a race against time as the planet is plundered of its resources, feeding endless local wars that really amount to another World War. They know that climate change is here, that extinction of species is the rule not the exception and that Nature always bats last.
The Occupy Movement has the audacity to suggest that Wall Street be open not only to public scrutiny, but to some degree of public control. In a world where extreme opulence contrasts with painful economic adversity, this looks like simple common sense to most Americans, even to those with little sympathy for radical economic theories (sound familiar?).
But this will mean challenging what Wall Street now considers the private spaces of capitalism, into the very lion’s den of global corporations. Judging by how Wall Street and its allies have violently attacked the Occupy Movement for its protests in what are supposedly public spaces, this will be the Occupy Movement’s greatest challenge of all.
The information about the Woolworths Sitdown strike was gathered from the following sources:
Three Strikes By Howard Zinn, Dana Frank and Robin DG Kelly: Beacon Press 2001
F.W. Woolworth and the American Five and Dime By Jean Pitrone: McFarland 2007
They Won Big: The 1937 Woolworth Strike, Part II By Melissa Corn
Retail Revolt: Chain-Store Taxes in the 1930s by Joseph J. Thorndike