The last few days of Women’s History Month present us with an opportunity to pay tribute to women past and present who have taken a stand against the biggest employers in our country—Woolworth’s and Walmart—in the continued fight for social and economic justice.
Seventy-eight years ago during the Great Depression, over 100 female employees of Woolworth’s in downtown Detroit began a sit-down strike at their store for better workplace conditions. At that time, Woolworth’s was the Walmart of its day, with more than 2,000 stores in the U.S., Canada, Cuba, Britain and Germany, and over 65,000 employees who were mostly young women. As the largest retailer in the country, Woolworth’s was well known for its low wages, long hours and anti-union practices.
On February 27, 1937, the women who worked the counters, cash registers and storerooms at the Woolworth’s store in Detroit decided that a sit-down strike was a way to draw attention to their fight for better wages, hours and overtime pay. Previous sit-down strikes organized by rubber workers in Ohio and autoworkers in Michigan had been successful and served as a source of inspiration for the women. The sit-down worked and the national media flocked to Detroit and compared the modest demands of the Woolworth’s women to the opulent lifestyle of Barbara Hutton, heiress to the Woolworth empire and, at the time, one of the richest women in the world.
The sit-down strike had support from the hotel and restaurant employees unions, as well as from labor leaders, including the head of the UAW. When strikers shut down a second Woolworth’s store in Detroit and threatened to shut down all 40 stores in the area, support for the strikers spread throughout the country, including in New York City, where the retail clerks’ union launched a solidarity campaign. The strike also influenced Woolworth’s competitors to raise wages to head off similar sit-down strikes at their own stores. The strike ended on March 5, when Woolworth’s agreed to the workers’ demands, including a union contract for the 40 Woolworth’s stores in Detroit.
Today, Walmart is our country’s largest private employer, and it’s low-wage, part-time business practices have put a financial strain on too many Walmart women and their families. Like the courageous women of Woolworth’s, OUR Walmart members have used the sit-down strike to protest Walmart’s disrespect of their rights. OUR Walmart members have also compared the enormous wealth of the Walton Family, heirs to the Walmart empire, to their reasonable call for $15 an hour and access to full-time hours. While members of OUR Walmart have had several victories, such as better workplace policies for pregnant women through the “Respect the Bump” campaign and the recent announcement by Walmart that it would raise wages for 500,000 hourly associates, the fight for decent wages and hours continues.
From the Woolworth’s strike of 1937 to the OUR Walmart member movement, these workers have shown that by sticking together, positive change is possible even at our country’s largest and most powerful employers.