By MIKE ALEWITZ
Paid for striking? This is how to organize – a great example for today’s Walmart workers!
February 27, 1937 – To whistles, shouts and cheers, “salesgirls” stopped work and occupied a Detroit Woolworth’s store. Woolworths was the Walmart of its time. The Woolworth family fortune was made by exploiting young immigrant women. Barbara Hutton, dubbed the “poor little rich girl” inherited the business. Hutton lived a lavish lifestyle, owning palatial mansions in London, Tangier, Palm Beach, Cuernavaca, and Pacific Palisades – all crammed with servants, expensive art, jewelry and every possible luxury. Hutton’s motto was “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” living much like the Trumps of today.
Meanwhile, the striking sales women were fighting for a 10 cent an hour raise, an 8-hour day, time and half after 48 hours, seniority rights, a union hiring hall and no retaliation against workers after the strike. The occupation came on the heels of the Flint Sit-Down Strike and resulted in a complete triumph – the determination of the women, along with popular public support, led to victory in just seven days. The workers won time and a half for overtime and future employees would be hired through the union’s offices. Uniforms would be furnished and laundered by the company for free.
They would even be paid at 50% of their usual rate for the time they were occupying the store! Woolworth’s got nothing but a promise that union workers wouldn’t harass non-union workers. Direct action, not choreographed elections, is how you win – this is how Walmart workers could win today!
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During the strike, the lives of the workers were transformed:
“Arrangements had been made for food and bedding to be brought in, and the workers notified their families by phone that they would be away from home indefinitely. We had cots brought in and blankets, electric burners for coffee, and plenty of eats. Although there was food and other things we might have used in the store, none of our people touched any sort of merchandise during the strike.
“Two engagements were announced during the time we sat in, and we held parties. We even held a marriage ceremony there for a couple who decided to get married during the strike. The girls dressed up the bride, and the fellows groomed the groom, and we had a priest sent for, and married them. It was pretty cold, being early spring, and the blankets we had were not enough, so we had to huddle together at night. Some of the fellows slept on the counters. There were some canary cages in the store, and we kept the birds fed …They’d trill and wake us up early in the morning. We had games like checkers and cards, and we had a radio, and danced to the music.”
— an account of one of the strikers
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Image: WOOLWORTH STRIKERS
Panel: THE MARCH OF THE PEOPLE
Mural: THE CITY AT THE CROSSROADS OF HISTORY
by Mike Alewitz / 2014