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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.

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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.

Women’s History Month: Celebrating the Lives of Addie Wyatt and Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta, via doloreshuerta.org

Dolores Huerta, via doloreshuerta.org

The third week of Women’s History Month gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to Addie Wyatt and Dolores Huerta, two extraordinary women who were shaped by the Great Depression, fought for workers’ rights during the height of the American Feminist Movement, and changed the face of organized labor.

Addie Loraine Cameron, better known as Addie L. Wyatt (1924 –2012), was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago with her family in 1930.  When she was 17 years old, she married Claude S. Wyatt, Jr.

She began working in the meatpacking industry in 1941.  Although she applied for a job as a typist for Armour and Company, African American women were barred from holding clerical positions and she was sent to the canning department to pack stew in cans for the army. Due to a contract between Armour and the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), she earned more working on the packinghouse floor canning stew than she would have made working as a typist, and joined the UPWA after learning that the union did not discriminate against its members.

In 1953, she was elected vice president of UPWA Local 56. In 1954, she became the first woman president of the local, and was soon tapped to serve as an international representative. She held this position through the 1968 merger of UPWA and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen until 1974, when she became director of the newly formed Women’s Affairs Department. In 1970s, she became the first female international vice president in the history of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen and later served as director of its Human Rights and Women’s Affairs and Civil Rights Departments. She served as the first female African American international vice president of the UFCW after Amalgamated and the Retail Clerks International Union merged in 1979.

She and her husband were ordained ministers and founded the Vernon Park Church of God in Chicago.  She played an integral role in the civil rights movement, and joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in major civil rights marches, including the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the demonstration in Chicago. She was one of the founders of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the country’s only national organization for union women. She was also a founding member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the National Organization of Women.

In 1984, Addie Wyatt retired from the labor movement as one of its highest ranked and most prominent African American and female officials. In honor of her work, she was named one of Time magazine′s Women of the Year in 1975, and one of Ebony magazine′s 100 most influential black Americans from 1980 to 1984. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists established the Addie L. Wyatt Award in 1987. She was inducted into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor in 2012.

Dolores Clara Fernandez, better known as Dolores Huerta, was born in 1930 in New Mexico, and grew up in the farming community of Stockton, California. She earned a teaching degree at Delta Community College.  During that time, she met her first husband.  She later married Ventura Huerta. In the early 1950s, she worked as an elementary school teacher, and many of her students were the children of farm workers who were living in poverty.  Teaching the children of farm workers had a profound impact on her, and in 1955, she became one of the founders of the Stockton chapter of the Community Services Organization (CSO), which worked to improve social and economic conditions for farm workers and fight discrimination.  Through her work at the CSO, she met Cesar Chavez.

In 1960, she helped create the Agricultural Worker’s Association (AWA), and in 1962, she and Chavez launched the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the predecessor to the United Farm Workers Union (UFW).

In 1965, she helped to organize the historic Delano Grape Strike and consumer boycott against growers of table grapes in California.  The strike involved thousands of grape workers and was a significant victory for the UFW—leading to a first contract with these growers. In 1967, the NFWA combined with the AWA to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. During this time, she negotiated contracts for workers, fought against the use of harmful pesticides, and advocated for unemployment and healthcare benefits for agricultural workers. In 1973, she led another successful consumer boycott against California grape growers that resulted in the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and working conditions.

Dolores Huerta stepped down from her position at the UFW in 1999, and established a foundation where she continues her work to improve the lives of workers, immigrants and women. She has received many honors for her activism, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

To learn more about Dolores Huerta, follow her on Twitter (@DoloresHuerta) or visit her foundation’s website at http://doloreshuerta.org/.

UFCW Immigration Workshop Helps Local 75 Member Achieve Dream of Citizenship

ernestinaErnestina Aldana has been a UFCW Local 75 member since she started working at the John Morrell meat processing plant in Cincinnati in 1996. She moved to the U.S. from Guatemala with her husband and son in 1990. The family left Guatemala in search of opportunity and a better life. Ernestina and her husband, who also works at John Morrell, now have three children, the oldest of whom is in college.

“I wanted to become a United States citizen so that I could live and work with freedom and without fear. I wanted my children to have opportunities,” says Ernestina. “But it was the union that motivated me to finally do it.”

Ernestina attended Local 75’s first citizenship clinic on November 8, 2014. With the help of union and community volunteers, she completed her application that same day. On Friday, March 13, Ernestina took her oath of citizenship, along with two other UFCW members, at the federal courthouse in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A 19-year member of UFCW Local 75, Ernestina says union membership has meant more to her than higher wages and job security: “Being a union member gave me hope for the future. Having hope got me here today.”