# 1: DETERMINED IN DETROIT ~ On a chilly February morning in 1937, one of the worst years of the Great Depression, a union organizer stood in the middle of the Woolworth’s store, blew a whistle, and shouted, “Strike, girls, strike!”
A cheer went up and immediately 150 uniformed saleswomen hurried their customers out of the department store and locked themselves in.
Determined not to leave until management responded to their demands, they occupied the store for one week.
PEOPLE, NOT PROFITS
Frank Woolworth, the store’s founder, knew how to turn a profit, the way Walmart does today. He said, “We must have cheap help or we cannot sell cheap goods.”
The Detroit women weren’t buying it. They needed to make enough money to feed and clothe their families. They demanded a ten-cent-an-hour raise, eight hour day, lunch breaks, company pay for uniforms, and recognition of the union.
The “sit-down strike” garnered media coverage and became a national sensation. Family and friends, proud of their “girls,” provided blankets and other supplies. Members of a cooks’ union came with meals; a musicians’ union supplied entertainment; other workers joined a picket line in solidarity.
By all accounts, the week-long occupation was more fun than bother for the young women, many of whom had never spent a night away from home. They formed committees, including a “cheer-up committee” in charge of morale. They played cards, danced, knitted, and made up a song about Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, whose lavish débutante ball in the midst of the Depression had secured the disdain of the strikers:
Barbara Hutton’s got the dough, parlez vous.
We know where she got it, too, parlez vous.
We slave at Woolworth’s five and dime,
The pay we get is sure a crime. Hinky dinky parlez vous.
The occupation was a PR disaster for store management. Unwilling to test public sentiment with a police action, the retail giant gave in to the women’s demands. While the workers’ victory was short-lived, they were successful in inspiring other labor actions. In the following months, workers staged store occupations all across America and won labor victories.
#2: AGGRESSIVE IN GREENOCK
On another wintry February day, this one in 1981 in Greenock, Scotland, women workers at a Lee Jeans factory learned that the American owners planned to move the plant to Northern Ireland.
Determined to save their jobs, 240 workers shut out the managers, stacked cafeteria chairs against the doors, and barricaded themselves inside the factory.
The women had heard rumors for months, but the actual day of the closure had come as a surprise. By evening, they were ravenous, with nothing to eat.
Like something out of an action movie, two workers climbed through a skylight, then shinnied down a drainpipe and ran to buy fish, chips, and Irn-Bru, a Scottish soft drink, enough for everyone. Stopped by police as they returned with 240 fish suppers, they explained that the workers were occupying the factory to save their jobs; the cops helped them with the doors.
For seven months, they worked in shifts, maintained the machines, and kept watch over the jeans in stock. At night, they slept on camp cots and folding chairs.
To raise funds, two women travelled across Scotland speaking to trade unions. Everywhere, they got standing ovations.
In the end, the factory was saved for a couple years, and the women got their jobs back. The occupation is still celebrated as a bright spot in Scotland’s labor history.
TO GO DEEPER
“UFCW Traces Roots to Determined Band of Temperamental Women” (about the Woolworth’s Strike) from UFCW324/ United Food and Commercial Workers
“Woolworth’s Sit-Down Strike in 1937 Detroit: Lessons for Today’s Low-Wage Workers” by Marc Norton in Talking Union, December 18, 2013
“The 1981 Lee Jeans Occupation: Women Showed How to Win” by Pat Clark in the Socialist Worker, March 26, 205
“Lee Jeans Women Remember Seven-Month Sit-In Success” by Reevel Alderson, BBC News: Scotland, February 4, 2011
“We Shall Not Be Moved — The Musical” (one scene) Sept. 19 2011 by Apocalypse Five & Dime (4:30 minutes)