THE BLOG
11/19/2014 11:30 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Sit-Down Strike at Walmart and Win? It's Been Done

This past Thursday, November 13, 28 brave employees staged a sit-down strike at a Walmart store in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles, protesting Walmart's retaliation against co-workers who spoke out for a $15 wage and for stable, full-time hours. Sitting down in a giant store might sound far-fetched, but there's a successful precedent: In Detroit in 1937, 100 very young women sat in at a Woolworth's five-and-dime store -- the Walmart of its era -- for seven days in a famous sit-down strike and, astonishingly, won all their demands. It's been done. Will the Los Angeles sit-downers, carrying signs evoking the Woolworth's strike, now inspire a successful national uprising by retail workers like the earlier strike did? And will this Walmart sit-down help spark the national movement in outrage against ever-growing inequality?

During the Great Depression, Woolworth's was a giant engine of both wealth and poverty, just like Walmart is today. By 1937 it had expanded to 2,829 stores in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and Cuba, plowing under small businesses in its wake and provoking a nationwide movement in the U.S. against the "chain store evil." Like Walmart, it catered to working-class customers, luring them in with an array of small, useful objects like hair clips or pie plates, and to its infamous lunch counters, which refused to serve African Americans.

Like Walmart, Woolworth's was also famous for exploiting workers. Those useful objects were cheap in part because Woolworth's scoured the world for sweated labor. Most famously, Woolworth's stocked its stores with young white women who stood on their feet for nine hours a day, six days a week, at low pay.

Just as we know today that the total wealth of the Walton family that owns Walmart is as large as that of the entire bottom 43 percent of the U.S. population, everyone knew at the time where the Woolworth's fortune went: Barbara Hutton, a Woolworth heiress, was all over the headlines as she spent her fortune on obscene excess right in the middle of the Depression -- including a 157-foot yacht, two ten-car garages, two pools, a bathroom made of marble, gold, and crystal, and 31 servants. Her counterpart today, Alice Walton, just bought a luxury apartment in New York City for a mere $25 million.

In the 1930s, the contrast between Hutton's wealth and the Woolworth workers' poverty spawned contrasts embedded in American popular culture to this day, including the phrase "poor little rich girl" and the hit song, "I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store."

The Woolworth's strikers were asking for a 20 percent wage increase, shorter hours (they were working fifty or more hours a week), time-and-a-half for overtime, free uniforms, and no retaliation against the strikers; today, the Walmart workers are protesting the company's retaliations against co-workers who have called for a $15 an hour wage and stable schedules with full-time hours. At Woolworth's, the women were brave enough to sit down because they knew the iron was hot at that exact historical moment. Just two weeks before, in nearby Flint, Michigan, the new United Auto Workers' union had defeated General Motors, the biggest corporation in the world at that time, in a sit-down strike for three months.

The Woolworth's strikers camped out in their store for seven long days, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Newspapers blasted their story sympathetically all over the nation's headlines; Life magazine ran glossy tabloid photos of them combing their hair and washing clothes. On the strike's third day, other workers sat down at a second Woolworth's store in Detroit, while unions threatened to shut down the entire chain nationwide.

Although the Woolworth's women clearly had a lot of fun inside the store, it was also scary. No one knew when the cops might rush in and drag them all out by their hair; and they could have all lost their jobs. But the Woolworth's strikers also knew they had public opinion on their side, at an extraordinary moment in history when outrage over the extremes of wealth and poverty during the depression made it possible to challenge the prerogatives of corporate property in unprecedented ways.

Woolworth's management knew that, too. On the strike's seventh day, it completely capitulated to all the strikers' demands -- including 50 percent pay for the time they'd been in the store. Union enthusiasm swiftly spread to chain stores all over the nation, not just at Woolworth's, where additional sit-downs obtained a union contract covering all 2,500 of its workers in New York City, and spread unionization in the next few years to Sears, J.C. Penney's, Kresge's and many other chains.

Walmart is far larger and more global that Woolworth's ever was, with enormous resources as its disposal with which to manipulate public opinion and intimidate its employees. But its very enormity is precisely what makes it so vulnerable as a symbol of corporate greed. Today, the disparity of wealth and poverty in the U.S. is just as outrageous as it was during the Great Depression. Let's hope the courageous sit-downers in Los Angeles inspire a mass protest in our own time, too.