Today in Women’s History: Woolworth clerks strike for 40-hour workweek

Women store clerks raise their fists and raise a sit-down strike sign demanding a 40-hour work week for Woolworth workers.
Women store clerks raise their fists and raise a sit-down strike sign demanding a 40-hour work week for Woolworth workers.
Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection

Today in Women’s History, March 18, 1937, New York City police evicted and arrested striking Woolworth’s store clerks — mostly women — who had occupied stores demanding a 40-hour workweek. Police were met with huge protests at both the stores and the precinct where the workers had been taken.

Once freed, the women returned to the store and re-occupied it. More arrests and protests ensued. Faced with such a massive movement, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia intervened and forced Woolworth’s to offer a one-year union contract, an eight-hour day, six-day workweek and 32.5 cent per hour minimum wage.

The New York City clerks went on strike after Detroit women retail workers had begun a sit-down strike at Woolworth’s there. They demanded a ten-cent-an-hour raise, an eight-hour day, lunch breaks, recognition of the union and that the company pay for their uniforms.

Inspired by the Akron, Ohio, rubber workers and Flint, Mich., autoworkers who first used the sit-down strike as a tactic, retail clerks at Woolworth’s and other stores — starting in Detroit and then to New York City — did the same.

The strike wave spread to other chain stores, led by the mostly female workforce, to smaller towns and big cities alike, including Providence, R.I., East St. Louis, Illinois, Superior, Wisc., St. Paul, Minn., Centralia, Wash., San Francisco and Seattle.

New York-based band Apocalypse Five and Dime created a musical about the strike. You can view the band’s performance here.

Writers interpret the world in various ways, the point is to change it.

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