Labor Activist Myra Wolfgang Organizes Detroit Woolworth’s Sit-down Strike
On Saturday, February 27, 1937, organizers from the Waiters and Waitresses Union of Detroit walked into a Detroit Woolworth’s five and dime store, blew a whistle, and declared the beginning of an 8-day sit-down strike. Strikers presented a list of demands including union recognition, a 10 cent per hour raise (from a 25 cents per hour wage), an 8-hour work day, free uniforms and laundering, hiring only through a union hiring hall, and more. One hundred and eighty women occupied the store with the intention to stay as long as necessary, organizing into committees (including a Cheer-Up Committee for keeping spirits high) and using the lunch counter kitchen to prepare meals for the strikers.
One of the organizers was 23-year-old Myra Wolfgang (née Komaroff), recording secretary of Detroit’s Local 705 of the Detroit Waiters and Waitresses Union. Two days after the strike began, Wolfgang met with workers at a second Woolworth’s location in downtown Detroit and it was not long until they, too, went on strike. News of the strike spread through Detroit to other retail stores like Stouffer’s, where 60 waitresses and kitchen workers occupied their restaurant in the middle of the lunch rush, and to Huyler’s Cafeteria, where workers sat down and barricaded the doors. Detroit’s strikes sparked a wave of copycat actions at retail stores across the country, from New York to San Francisco. The women of the Detroit Woolworth’s strike won their entire list of demands, inspiring even more action in the coming years. Dr. Dana Frank, a historian at UC Santa Cruz, explains, “Unions today…all over the county, owe their existence in part to the Woolworth’s strike.”
Myra Wolfgang was born in Montreal, Quebec to Jewish Eastern European immigrants. She began working for the Union in 1932 at the age of 18. By the 1940s, she became an International Vice President for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union and ran the Detroit Joint Council. Wolfgang was instrumental in passing Michigan’s 1966 minimum wage law, led a 1964 negotiation with Hugh Hefner to improve working conditions for Playboy Bunnies at Detroit’s Playboy club, and testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments in 1970 to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment on the grounds that it could hurt lower-class single mothers. In 1974, she co-founded the Coalition of Labor Union Women and served as the presiding officer at their first conference, attended by over 3,000 women from 82 unions. At the height of her local union work, she was nicknamed the “battling belle of Detroit” by local media. Myra K. Wolfgang died in April 1976, just before her 62nd birthday, from a brain tumor.
This entry was created for This Week in History as part of a course on the history of American Jewish women taught by Karla Goldman at the University of Michigan, Winter 2019.
Sources:“Myra Wolfgang,” Jewish Historical Society of Michigan; The Labor Origins of the Next Women's Movement,” New Politics (New Politics, Vol. X, No. 3, Whole Number 39); “The Detroit Woolworth's sit down strike, 1937 - Marc Norton,” libcom.org, December 8, 2015; “Myra Wolfgang Wikipedia.”
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