Sit-down strikes by women in 1937 - Ivan Greenberg

Cigar makers on sitdown strike, Detroit 1937
Cigar makers on sitdown strike, Detroit 1937

A short account of women workers' participation in the sit down strike wave which swept the US in 1937.

Submitted by Steven. on December 8, 2015

As America faces a great recession in late 2008 and 2009, workers need to embrace their history to chart new strategies for the future. The example of strike militancy by women workers in 1937 offers hope (Yes We Can) that ordinary people will make their voices heard in these hard times.

Students of labor and working class history have searched the past to find examples of female militancy in the workplace, including strike activity. As strikers, women may be very militant, challenging authority of management and even the police, risking arrest for their activism. During the legendary “sit-down” strikes of 1937, the substantial female role largely has been neglected. First, it is important to establish a “We Were There” perspective, explicating working women’s role in the key labor struggle of the 1930s, which helped establish the CIO. What factors led to female participation? What strike demands were made? How did these strikes, which involved the occupation of workplaces for days and even weeks, evolve?

Overall, nearly 500,000 workers engaged in about 400 sit-downs between September 1936 and June 1937. The early strikes of rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, and automobile workers in Flint, Michigan, are the most celebrated, yet they present a misleading impression of the female role. At Akron and Flint, women were a small percentage of the factory work force and were sent home by the unions, forbidden to engage in the sit-down strikes. They were active only in an “auxiliary” fashion – providing food and clothing for the male strikers and rallying support in the community. As we will see, after Flint and Akron many CIO unions dropped their opposition to female workers joining male workers in sit-down strikes. The AFL also sent in organizers where women were striking on their own. Strike activity broke out in a diversity of settings: auto and electrical manufacturing, where women were a minority of the work force; cigar, shoe, and clothing manufacturing, female dominated-industries ; and the diverse service sector (among waitresses, sales clerks, and kitchen, laundry, and hospital workers). Overall, I located 115 strikes with female participation. Forty percent of the strikes were waged exclusively by women. The greatest activism occurred in the large industrial cities of Detroit and Chicago but women also organized in many small and medium-sized urban areas, with the exception of the South.

The sit-down strike captured widespread public attention. Time magazine glibly noted, “Sitting down has replaced baseball as a national pastime.” Life magazine sternly reported that these strikes were the “Nation’s No. 1 problem.” Although they gained few prominent supporters outside the CIO, and most national labor leaders declined to encourage them, the sit-down proved to be highly effective, forcing management to shut production. The technique had revolutionary implications: workers seized private property in industry to press their grievances and there was no shortage of conservative critics decrying socialism. According to early 1937 Gallup polls, about two-thirds of Americans condemned the strikes and a majority believed the police forcibly should evict the workers. Still, one-third of poll respondents favored the sit-downs, which is a considerable constituency considering that Gallup polls were known to under represent the opinion of women, blacks, and low socio-economic groups. Within working-class culture, the idea of sitting down developed as part of the insurgent “Spirit of 1937”: ordinary people organizing to make demands to reshape society. They contested the rules regulating relations of production, including the pace of work, seniority rights, equal pay, paid vacations, and, critically, reducing the arbitrary power of the foreman.

This contested context did not deter women strikers, who found several sources of support for their activism. First, many looked to Washington: strikers believed that the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt quietly supported their efforts. FDR and Labor secretary Frances Perkins declined to criticize the strike movement until relatively late in 1937 – Perkins first expressed disapproval in July, Roosevelt not until early September. Female strikers also received support among men in local working-class communities. While there were no male auxillaries, many men seemed to recognize a common class interest in supporting female unionism, if only because they could not adequately earn a living wage on their own during the Depression. We know of community support for female strikers in Philadelphia, Detroit, Bridgeport, Ct. and New Castle, Pa.

Moreover, during 1937 the sit-down tactic gained mass approval as a method of expressing grievances. Protest by sitting down entered the popular consciousness as a form of collective action and was appropriated in a wide variety of settings outside of the workplace. The mainstream press encouraged the trend, with articles about sit-down actions by children, cats, dogs, beer drinkers, sports teams, and angry widows.

Female activism could be critical in mobilizing a city labor movement. In Bridgeport, a sit-down by about 50 women at the Casco plant in early April was the city’s first and became a critical test of CIO strength. Strike leader Agnes “Scotty” Robinson recalled, “All of Bridgeport came to see the sit-down strikers. Food was brought to them, and bedding was prepared. Some of the workers [who had been locked out] managed to get in by scaling the window at night.” Many of these women were first and second generation Hungarians, and local shopkeepers donated food to the strike kitchen. Mayor Jasper McLevy, a Socialist, conferred with officials on both sides to try to reach a settlement. James Emspak, a national leader of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) union, came to town to rally support for the strikers. After the strike, women elected several of the leaders to local union office of UE 210. Robinson became business agent and was appointed to the executive board of the Bridgeport Industrial Union Council. As importantly, the strike encouraged women to run for union office in other CIO locals. I have collected data on 62 CIO officials in Bridgeport between 1937 and 1939. Women comprised a substantial 29 percent of the union leadership, most commonly elected as recording-secretary and financial-secretary of the new locals.

Several social historians suggest that female workers may be more militant strikers than male workers, though not necessarily more violent. The sit-down strikes offer support of this thesis. In Detroit, 79 women and 41 men were arrested after a 37-day occupation. The Detroit News reported, “The woman were the last to leave the plant. They came out bedraggled, weeping, screaming and singing.” In another Detroit strike, 30 women and 8 men were arrested. Before police entered the factory, several dozen women, armed with heavy wooden cigar molds, stood at the main door of the plant with a sign that announced, “We won’t weaken.” As police moved in, the women jeered them. Vorse asked, “Just what happened in Detroit to make delicate females so bloodthirsty?”

The example of five and dime store clerks in New York underscores a related point. Very few of the women who initiated the actions defected along the way and they demonstrated their labor solidarity by requiring journalists to show proof of union membership before they would agree to interviews. Strikers slept in company executive offices, and appropriated store beach chairs and blankets for their comfort. They helped themselves to company food. Management acted quickly, fearing the spread of female activism at their 2,000 stores nationwide. In Brooklyn, police evicted 20 women – and arrested 16 – soon after they sat-down. The strikers directed “loud and boisterious language” toward the store manager as police carried them away. Meanwhile, when 55 female workers in Manhattan started a hunger strike, police entered the store and arrested 44 of the strikers. A “virtual siege warfare” preceded the arrests, and the women screamed, wept and tried to hold onto counters to prevent their eviction. A variety of photographs in national newspapers depict the evictions. The Chicago Daily Tribune showed women being carried out by the police. A caption read, “Molly Kirsh tells policeman plenty as they lead her from a New York Woolworth store with other strikers.” More than 50 additional workers and allies were apprehended when they tried to seize the store the following day. A “New York Times” editorial criticized the women’s “lawlessness” and “seizure of other people’s property.”

I identify 28 sit-downs at chain and department stores. The fiercest battles occurred when the workers were the least skilled and lowest paid. An unsympathetic observer has commented: “March 1937 will long be remembered among retailers as the month when lawlessness and intimidation reached its high point in labor relations.” Women deserve much of the credit, with disorderly actions that unsettled business and middle-class sensibilities.

The response of management to female militancy changed over time. At first, management often tried to avoid confrontation. Boss paternalism tried to forestall the strikes. When five and dime sales clerks organized the first sit-down in Detroit, management’s initial response was to serve them free lunch in the hope that they would then return to their work stations. The women ate the free lunch and sat-down for a week. In St. Louis, 21 laundry workers sat-down in late February. The New Republic reported: “First, recognizing his role as host, he [the manager] sent his twenty-five year old daughter in the plant as official hostess. Beds were sent in and warm bedding…Coffee was supplied the strikers and finally a ping-pong table, lotto, checkers and cards were brought in by the hostess. At the end of three days the host himself appeared and announced he was ready to sign a contract and grant the demands of his guests.” But the women’s special treatment did not last long as soon as it became clear that the workers planned on sitting down for several days or weeks. Then management reacted to the female strikers in the same way they treated male strikers. Police were asked to evict the workers; mass arrests occurred; and neither the police nor management seemed reluctant to use force.

One scholarly debate concerns the social basis of women strikers. Do activists come from non-traditional family backgrounds? Do single women outnumber married women among strikers? It appears that both single and married women went out on strike, including women with children, although precise data is hard to compile. In addition, ethnic origins varied widely depending on the work setting. Store and restaurant workers usually were native born because management rarely hired immigrants or women of color for these face-to-face service jobs. On the other hand, female industrial workers claimed diverse European backgrounds, such as Polish, Italian, Hungarian, and Slovak, much like the working class as a whole. Some strikes were built on ethnic solidarity. In Detroit, cigar makers of Polish descent were aided by local Polish political and union leaders. But, in Milwaukee, the multiethnic work force of German, Polish, Italian, French and Scandanavian workers united to demand their rights. An important exception concerns race, with few strikes by African-American women, who often were excluded from these jobs. But, black women sat down where they could, and several of their strikes are featured in the black press. These include wet nurses that conducted an occupation at the Chicago Board of Health to demand a raise from four cents to ten cents an ounce; women on sewing relief projects occupied WPA offices to protest the end of funding; and laundry and kitchen workers sat down in several New York hospitals.

Female allies came from both the working and middle class. The UAW’s Women’s Auxiliary aided several female strikes in Michigan. Auxiliary members provided aid to Detroit cigar makers and store clerks, and organized a mid-March public forum in which strikers discussed, “Why I Sat Down to Stand Up for My Rights.” The middle-class allies included professional women and wives of ranking New Dealers in Washington, D.C, who walked the picket line in support of 375 clothing workers who occupied the National Pants company.

We also should consider if sit-downs by women advanced a woman-centered workplace consciousness or helped to increase their representation and power with the union movement? First, we know that most of their demands largely consisted of the same demands that male workers advanced: wage increases, better working conditions, regularity in hiring and dismissal, vacations with pay, and often, but not always, union recognition with either the AFL or the CIO. In fact, the question of union recognition raises a gender difference. Women were less likely than men to seek union advice and involvement. While the majority of their strikes were associated with unions, they were not reluctant to initiate them independently. In many cases, union representatives appeared on the scene only after sit-downs already began. Union interest among the women was greatest when the AFL or the CIO sent in female organizers. In several strikes of cigar workers in New Jersey, the workers turned away leaders from the AFL Cigarmakers union, which had a history of exclusionary craft unionism.

Occasionally women strikers articulated gender-based grievances. Store workers complained about carrying heavy stock and protested when management required them to wash their own uniforms. Textile workers demanded the end of homework. Women also interpreted standard union demands according to their own experiences. The renewed union effort to limit the arbitrary power of foreman and supervisors became a women’s issue, viewed as a means to curb sexual harassment. However, there was little discussion of wage differentials based on sex, which were written into union contracts. Perhaps this demand for equality could not have been won, and a “practical feminism” made it a low priority.

Ruth Milkman has written about the beginning of a women’s movement in the CIO during the 1940s. In all likelihood, the earlier sit-down strikes helped to increase female interest in unions and provided a training ground for new leaders. This did occur in Bridgeport Ct.

Lastly, the mass arrests of women workers raises doubt about their adherence to dominant middle-class standards of domesticity. Up until this time, women wage-earners in labor actions were arrested in far greater numbers than any other group of women (with the exception of WWI era suffragists). The sit-down strikes represent a neglected aspect of female public activism and disorderly conduct, as women played a central role in the labor insurgency of the 1930s. Yes We Can.