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Remembering the Female Sit-Down Strikes of the 1930s

Lessons for Today

On March 8, 2017, the International Women’s Strike is organizing an international day of action, planned and organized by women in over 30 different countries. This day, in the spirit of solidarity and internationalism, will focus on “women who have been marginalized and silenced by decades of neoliberalism directed towards working women, women of color, Native women, disabled women, immigrant women, Muslim women, lesbian, queer and trans women.” To advance this cause, activists should be aware there is a buried history of female strike militancy in the United States from which they might draw inspiration. Here I discuss the “sit-down” strikes of the late 1930s, when women made their voices heard in hard economic 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 role of women workers has largely 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 Congress of Industrial Organizations (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 workforce and were sent home by the unions. 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 American Federation of Labor (AFL) also sent organizers where women were striking on their own. Strike activity broke out in a diversity industries: where women were a minority of the workforce such as auto and electrical manufacturing, where women were the majority of the workforce such as cigar, shoe, and clothing manufacturing as well as where the workforce was mixed such as the service sector (among waitresses, sales clerks, and kitchen, laundry, and hospital workers). In my own research I have located 115 strikes with female participation, forty percent of which were exclusively waged 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, mostly negative, 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.” According to early 1937 Gallup polls, about two-thirds of Americans condemned the strikes and a majority believed the police 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 underrepresent 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 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. Despite their limited support outside the CIO and the fact that most national labor leaders declined to encourage them, sit-down strikes proved to be highly effective, forcing management to shut production.

In some cases, female activism was critical in mobilizing a city labor movement. For example, 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. 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. As importantly, the strike encouraged women to run for union office in other CIO locals. After the strike, the women elected several of their leaders to local union office of UE 210. 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 eight 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. Labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse asked: “Just what happened in Detroit to make delicate females so bloodthirsty?”

This militancy was apparent in sit-down strikes at chain and department stores. The fiercest battles between management and workers occurred when workers were the least skilled and lowest paid. An unsympathetic observer 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 avoided 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 a 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 and it is reported that management provided beds, bedding, coffee and games. But the women’s special treatment did not last once 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 that reflects contemporary questions of intersectionality in women’s movements concerns the social basis of the 1930s women strikers. Did activists come from non-traditional family backgrounds? Did 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, local Polish political and union leaders aided cigar makers of Polish descent. But, in Milwaukee, the multiethnic workforce of German, Polish, Italian, French and Scandinavian 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 who conducted an occupation at the Chicago Board of Health to demand a raise, women on sewing relief projects who occupied WPA offices to protest the end of funding, and female laundry and kitchen workers in several New York hospitals.

As we look to the future, important lessons can be learned from these militant sit-down strikers, who formed an integral part of the fierce class struggles of the 1930s. Rarely are reforms for a better workplace and living conditions handed to working people without an organized fight. In the history of the labor movement, it is critical to highlight the story that women played, so they can be encouraged to play an active role today organizing on their own and also with allies. Facing hard economic times and repressive power structures, women of diverse backgrounds can unite to advance a common agenda. The experience of resistance to unjust power may further radicalize local activists, creating new leaders and groups directed at challenging the control of neoliberal corporate managers. As women strikers proclaimed during the 1930s: “We need to sit down to stand up for our rights.”

Ivan Greenberg

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