Live-Blogging Women’s History: March 19, 1937

March 19, 1937: Dozens more women were arrested today both inside and outside the Woolworth store at 34 W. 14th St. in Manhattan on this third day of a strike by members of Local 1250 of the Department Store Employees Union. Strikers are seeking a 40-hour week for $20 pay and company recognition of their union.

The work stoppage began at 11 a.m. two days ago when organizers blew whistles as a prearranged signal, and 50 of the 100 women at the counters began a sit-down strike. This is a new and effective tactic, popularized by United Auto Workers at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan back on December 30 when, instead of walking out and being replaced, they sat at their stations and stopped production.

By 6 p.m., the store had posted private guards at all entrances to keep supplies from reaching those inside. But at 1 a.m. the next morning, 100 pickets suddenly climbed onto a ledge, opened some windows and began passing in cots, blankets, oranges, butter and other food items to their colleagues. Management’s attempt to isolate the workers having failed, and after business had been disrupted for the day by pickets stationed at store entrances and by the strikers themselves in the store, the police were called in at 7 p.m. Fifty-nine were arrested and dragged off to patrol wagons as the store was cleared.

Today, an attempt was made to replace the strikers, with management escorting 40 women into the store at 9 a.m. But, to their surprise, many of the women folded their arms and refused to wait on customers. They were then given three choices by the store manager: work, leave or be arrested. Most ignored him, and all who stayed were arrested. At 10 a.m., an attempt was made by other strikers to re-take the store, with 41 more arrests resulting.

The strikes at a number of Woolworth stores and those of the H. L. Green Company have become sufficiently disruptive that New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia today sent telegrams to all sides volunteering to mediate the dispute. Protests outside the store will continue, and public support is appreciated.


FOLLOW-UP : The next day there were 21 more arrests of pickets, but the union was determined not to give in. Their persistence paid off, and on March 29 a victory meeting was held at the Central Opera House. Union reps announced an agreement covering over 4,000 employees in 123 local stores: The company agreed to recognize their union, take back 80 sit-down strikers without prejudice and boost the minimum wage for Woolworth clerks  from 30 cents to 32.5 cents an hour, and from 28 cents to 30 cents for apprentices.

The work week will remain 48 hours, however–six eight- hour days. Though strikers did not achieve the lofty goal of $20 for a 40-hour week, they did raise their weekly pay 8.3 percent, from $14.40 $15.60. ($15.60 in 1937 = $243.20 in 2011.)

New York’s minimum wage law had been struck down by the Supreme Court on June 1, 1936 in Morehead v. New York, and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act–establishing a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour and a 44-hour work week–would not be signed by President Franklin Roosevelt until June 25, 1938. That means that these workers had only themselves and union solidarity to rely on to assure a living wage. Their solidarity and determination won them a partial victory despite powerful opposition and hard economic times–a lesson as relevant today as it was in 1937.

Photo of Woolworth strikers, Library of Congress.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.