Posted by: kokoro | 10th Feb, 2009

Babson, Chapter 3; Frank, Three Strikes, Detroit Woolworth Strike

Babson discusses how workers entered the 1930s with unemployment, starvation, and violent suppression of protests, and ended the decade with a larger and more inclusive labor movement, support from the federal government, and recognition and legitimacy of labor concerns.

The Great Depression resulted in massive layoffs, which the government and businesses were quick to deny. The AFL was slow to act on the shared misery between whites and minorities and the growing resentment towards business leaders and government officials. Radicals stepped forward to take advantage of these feelings and organize people into nationwide protests and networks of mutual aid among the jobless. While this did not increase a shift toward radical politics, it did signal the reemergence of working class communities’ solidarity and organization for common purposes.

In 1933, FDR created the National Industrial Recovery Act, which allowed industry trade associations to establish codes of fair competition, permitting price fixing and restriction of production. Under Section 7 companies were also forced to comply with minimum wage and maximum hour regulations prescribed by the president, and workers were given the right to organization and collective bargaining. Union membership grew and there were successful actions against companies in coal and clothing industries; however, most unions lacked the strength to make employers comply with the law.

The 1935-37 period proved to be the most victorious in labor movement history. Despite holds on the National Labor Rights Board, the Wagner Act of 1934 provided validation of Section 7 rights, sanctioning them by law even without government enforcement. The AFL stopped dragging its feet and the Committee for Industrial Organizational (CIO) was created; it used locally based organization efforts and was willing to work with radicals. The economy was temporarily on the rise. The 1936 elections lead to the ratification of the New Deal and a political trend against business leaders, and union followers became more involved in yearly politics.

Union growth and success stopped in 1937 for several reasons. Despite success against large companies like GM and US Steel, unions encountered violent resistance form companies like Ford and Republic Steel, which were huge companies less concerned with public image and less prepared to compromise. There was an economic recession making workers more cautious and companies less accommodating. Public opinion towards the strikers became less positive due to the continuous disruption of the strikes and the recession. Factionalism also split the workers, and craft distinctions and organizational rivalries reemerged. The CIO became an independent federation (called the Congress for Industrial Organization).

Despite this, the NLRB was back in action and was able to provide support for unions, particularly industrial organizations. It was able to help retain the gains of 1937, but it also created a dependency on government intervention, which was fine as long as the government supported union growth, but it could compromise the union’s autonomy.

One example of the successful 1937 strikes is the Detroit Woolworth Strike, discussed by Dana Frank. On 27 February 1937, Floyd Loew, an organizer for the Waiters’ and Waitresses’ Union of Detroit, called for action, and the 108 women began their tightly coordinated plan for a sit-down strike. The women demanded union recognition, a ten-cent hour raise, an eight hour workday, time and a half for overtime after 48 hours a week, 50-cent lunches for soda fountain workers, free uniforms and free laundering of them, seniority rights, hiring new workers only through union offices, and no discrimination against strikers once they returned to work.

These women were occupying one of the largest transnational companies in the US. However, Woolworth had a series of public relations problems that proved to be useful to the strikers. During the 1920s there was a rise in chain stores, and a reaction against them grew in the early and mid-1930s to the point that the federal government became involved in investigations. Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton also showed how much money the company was making and just how offensively it was being spent. Hutton’s frivolous spending was especially repulsive to a nation going through the Great Depression. The public was also aware of the conditions workers faced. The company deskilled sales operations to keep down labor costs, and it employed young women with few labor choices, assuming they would be working temporarily and less likely to unionize. The women often worked over 50 hours a week, 6 days a week. They were standing for over 9 hours a day and had to always be doing something, and their managers were often unpleasant and sexist.

The Woolworth women were inspired by the successful UAW (United Autoworkers) sit-down strike against GM. Sit-ins were extremely successful because they prevented scabs from being employed. They prevented violence because the company was less wiling to cause harm to their property, and dragging people out by force could create bad publicity. The strikers were able to avoid bad weather conditions. Sit-ins were also successful in raising the morale of strikers by putting them in close contact with one another as opposed to isolation. This was able to create further solidarity, a key to keeping the strike going. By 1937, unions had worked out a strong support system which kept the strikers well supplies with food, bedding, and other necessities.

From the beginning of the strike the women were able to enjoy themselves. They made themselves at home in the Woolworth store. The media jumped on the story instantly. Though the media did not take the strikers seriously, the “silly girl” image gave the women power and protected them from violent action.

The strike spread to a second Woolworth store, and other Detroit service workers and factory workers sat down. Employers even raised wages to prevent strikes from starting. Negotiations with Woolworth began and by the seventh day of the strike on 5 March, an agreement was reached. Though the women did not get a vote to approve the agreement, all of their demands were met and were applied to all 40 Detroit Woolworth stores. The women were partially paid for their striking time, and the non-striking male cooks had their wages increased and given shorter hours also. Woolworth got a small clause saying union employees were not allowed to coerce non-union workers. The Woolworth strike had a ripple effect throughout the nation, where store and restaurant employees went on strike during the following year.

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