Women’s History Month: From Woolworth’s to Walmart, the Fight for Workplace Justice Continues

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.


Some of the 100 female Woolworth workers who participated in a sit-down strike (top) and a recent photo of Walmart workers speaking out to stop retaliation in their workplace.

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.

Retailers Starting To Get The Message: It’s Time to Raise Wages

WM-March-300x200This month, Walmart announced that the company will be hiking wages for 500,000 of its employees nationwide, raising pay to $9 an hour in April and $10 an hour by February of 2016. This decision came after years of pressure from members of OUR Walmart, who have bravely been standing up to the world’s largest retailer for better pay and regular hours. With the support or UFCW members and community organizations, workers are winning change.

Unlike many retail workers, UFCW and other union members are able to raise wages at companies by bargaining strong contracts. Union members also help raise the bar in the retail industry by joining Walmart workers to stand up to competitors like Walmart and pressuring them to raise wages.

In Forbes, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg directly responded to the petition for $15 per hour and full-time schedules, saying, “The door is open for associates who want to work full time and earn $15 an hour, all they have to do is walk through it.”

While it’s only a step, this victory is full of the promise of more change to come – at Walmart and beyond. As TIME magazine reported, “Walmart workers have proved they can move the most powerful retailer in the world to change. That means they, and others, can do it again.”

As Paul Krugman said in the New York Times, “The announcement is nonetheless a very big deal, for two reasons. First, there will be spillovers: Walmart is so big that its action will probably lead to raises for millions of workers employed by other companies. Second, and arguably far more important, is what Walmart’s move tells us — namely, that low wages are a political choice, and we can and should choose differently.”

Other retailers are already following suit. In the last week of February, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s and HomeGoods announced they will raise their minimum wage to $9 an hour in June and to $10 in 2016. Many speculate that other big name retailers aren’t far behind. The New York Times editorial board says, “raises at Walmart could well lead to raises elsewhere as competitive pressures force Target, Home Depot and other low-wage retailers to follow suit.”

While companies may cite different reasons for joining the bandwagon, one thing is clear – workers are standing together and creating an important discussion around inequality and the minimum wage in our country. In the last several years, paying decent wages has become part of the national conversation in an unprecedented way.  Cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle have passed their own legislation raising the wage in the next several years. Twenty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia, have set their minimum wage above the federal level as of January, 2015. Congress has even proposed a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Union members are able to use their collective voices to raise wages at their companies by not only bargaining strong contracts, but also by standing up to competitors like Walmart and pressuring them to raise wages. These recent events have shown that when workers stand together, they can start to change companies – even companies as big as Walmart.

Statement by UFCW International President Marc Perrone on Walmart’s Wage Announcement

UFCWnews(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Marc Perrone, International President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), today released the following statement about Walmart’s wage announcement:

“Walmart’s announcement yesterday that it will raise wages for 500,000 hourly associates is an important step forward for Walmart workers and their families. This is not an act of corporate benevolence. It would not have been possible without the courage of countless workers who are standing together, taking risks, and demanding wages and schedules that can support their families. Walmart is responding directly to calls from workers and their allies to pay a living wage.

Because of a strong and organized movement that includes many UFCW members, half a million Walmart workers will now get a raise. Because workers spoke out, $1 billion will now go directly into our economy instead of onto the Walton family’s balance sheet.

Walmart should know that we will continue to stand with workers and the community to be more transparent about exactly how much the company pays each of its 1.4 million associates. Today’s announcement calls to question Walmart’s long-term inconsistencies about its wage claims – even ten years ago it claimed workers were paid an average of $10 an hour.  High turnover leaves the vast majority of Walmart workers toiling at the lowest wage scales which will now pay at least $9 an hour. We know that Walmart can and should do better.

Yesterday marks a victory for Walmart workers but more importantly, a call to action for the UFCW and the entire labor movement.  The largest private employer in the nation is feeling the pressure to do better for its workers. We must seize this opportunity and keep fighting until every single worker – in retail stores, supermarkets and beyond – is paid a living wage.”


The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) represents more than 1.3 million workers, primarily in the retail and meatpacking, food processing and poultry industries. The UFCW protects the rights of workers and strengthens America’s middle class by fighting for health care reform, living wages, retirement security, safe working conditions and the right to unionize so that working men and women and their families can realize the American Dream. For more information about the UFCW’s effort to protect workers’ rights and strengthen America’s middle class, visit, or join our online community at