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The 1937 Woolworth’s Sit-Down by Dana Frank

21st Nov 2012

The 1937 Woolworth's Sit-Down by Dana Frank

Author Dana Frank is a professor of History at the University of California whose previous works include Buy American and Local Girl Makes History.

Supported by the local waiters and waitresses’ union, at 11am on Saturday, February 27th, 1937, 108 female employees of Woolworth’s in downtown Detroit, Michigan, called ‘Strike!’

They quickly elected Vita Terrall as Strike Committee Chair, and formed further committees overseeing food, cleaning, health, and entertainment.

Union activists presented the women’s demands for higher wages, shorter hours, and paid overtime to the store manager.

Among the union staff was Mira Komaroff (later known as Myra Wolfgang), a 23 year-old radical who also worked full-time for the Michigan Employment Security Commission.

Most of the young women involved still lived with their parents, and the strike was probably their first taste of rebellion.

Rather than picketing outside in freezing temperatures, they were able to make themselves at home. Reporters from both regional and national newspapers flocked to Detroit to cover the story.

The subtitle, ‘Women Strikers Occupy Chain Store, Win Big’ echoes the headlines of that week. However, the strikers were uniformly described as ‘girls’, not women. The press made much of their setting up a beauty parlour in the store, and asked if their boyfriends would stand by them.

But as Frank observes, the women manipulated the media right back. Maintaining a glamorous appearance enhanced their newsworthiness. Journalists compared their modest demands with the spendthrift lifestyle of Woolworth’s heiress, Barbara Hutton.

Strikes spread across Detroit, and the New York Union of Retail Clerks expressed their support. On Friday, March 5th, Woolworth’s agreed to all their demands, and Vita Terrall led a victory parade as they left the building.  The women took no part in the negotiations, and by October, the union contracts had been dropped.

Nonetheless, they had created a watershed in American labour history by being the first women to win a sit-down strike.

Inspired by the women of Detroit, workers at Woolworth’s stores across New York staged further sit-down strikes later that month. Their actions were celebrated in a hit song, ‘Chain Store Daisy’, from the 1938 Broadway revue, Pins and Needles; and the 1941 Hollywood comedy, The Devil and Miss Jones, starring Jean Arthur as a militant shopgirl.

Frank also notes the parallels between the 1937 sit-down and the current worldwide protests against austerity, remarking that ‘Whether it’s the anti-racist movement, immigrant rights, or gay rights, it’s about seeing all of these movements as a larger fight for social justice. That’s what’s brilliant about Occupy Wall Street and the way they’ve framed this as the 1 percent against the 99 percent.’  

The 1937 Woolworth’s Sit-Down: Women Strikers Occupy Chain Store, Win Big is a gutsy, inspiring read, with many lessons for activists today. The exploitative tactics that drove the women to strike are still being used by Walmart, McDonald’s and other global chains, making it a remarkably relevant and fascinating read.

The 1937 Woolworth’s Sit-Down is out now, published by Haymarket and available from Turnaround Books priced at £3.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Feminists, social activists, history geeks – and shop assistants everywhere

Other recommended reading: Another pamphlet from Haymarket Books, Lessons for Our Struggle by Frances Fox Piven; for a broader take on American labour history, try Dishing it Out: Waitresses and Their Unions by Dorothy Sue Cobble; and from a British perspective, Glamour: History, Women Feminism by Carol Dyhouse.

Tara Hanks