1937 Department Store Strike

Historical Essay

by Michael B Reagan

Aug 20 1938 Striking workers from Kress and Newberry stores relaxing on the roof of the Retail Department Store Employees Union headquartersAAD-5429.jpg

August 20, 1938: Striking workers from Kress and Newberry stores relaxing on the roof of the Retail Department Store Employees Union headquarters.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

The Department Store Employees Union Local 1100
and the 1937 and 1938 San Francisco Retail Strikes

On a September day in 1936, nineteen year old Marion Brown came to work at the Woolworth store on the corner of Fifth and Market in San Francisco only to discover she had been fired for attending a union meeting the night before. Enraged at the injustice of being fired for what she did on her own time, Brown walked out of the doors and immediately joined the Longshoremen’s picket line, which had been informing customers of the Longshoremen’s campaign to organize the Woolworth warehouse out on Bryant Street. Brown’s experience of being fired, and her time in the store working long hours for low pay, fueled her two year campaign to organize all San Francisco retail stores. In 1937 Brown ran a stealth drive to unionize the city’s retail workers and in 1938 she helped fight off an employer attempt to crush the upstart union. Her skill, energy, and intelligence were vital to the eventual success of the organizing drive and the establishment of the Department Store Employees Union local 1100. A personal moment of triumph came in late 1937, a year after she was fired, when Brown helped represent the Union in contract talks. At the negotiating table the company representative confessed to her that the Woolworth Company’s one regret was “that they [had] ever fired Marion Brown.”


1937 Costume picket line outside J.C. Penney's.

Photo: Labor Archives and Research Center, SFSU

2 Striking-employees-of-the-Department-Store-Employes-Union-picketing-in-front-of-the-Emporium-Dec-4-1941-AAD-5522.jpg

Striking employees of the Department Store Employees Union picketing in front of the Emporium, Dec. 4, 1941.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library AAD-5522

The significance of the origins of the DSEU 1100 and the department store strikes of 1937 and 1938 is not limited to the introduction of Marion Brown to San Francisco labor history. The story of the DSEU helps fill in gaps on working women in the Great Depression and contributes to answering Alice Kessler-Harris’ question about an earlier period but relevant to the 1930s, “where are the organized women workers?” Of the existing studies regarding women and work during the Great Depression, most works rightly highlight the difficulties working women faced in unionizing and attribute low unionization figures to a combination of factors: the discriminatory nature of federal and state employment policies, the segregation of occupation by sex, the seasonal or cyclic nature of work in industries dominated by women employees, unions’ negligence of working women, and patriarchal cultural attitudes regarding work and women. Few studies highlight working-class women’s trade unionism, and when they do it is often as adjuncts to industrial style organizing drives like those of the emerging Congress of Industrial Organizations or other left unions.

This lack of attention to working women during the Great Depression is remarkable given the centrality of women’s work to the contemporaneous debate regarding employment and the very nature of the Depression itself. With anywhere from a quarter to a third of workers unemployed, working women were viewed as a threat to men’s employment. Patriarchal notions of a “family wage” necessarily implied that income was to be supplied by the male head of household. Married women in particular were singled out for attack, with claims that married working women used their earnings for “pin-money,” to purchase frivolous consumer goods, keeping needy working men out of a job and unable to support their family. As a solution to the depression, one commentator went so far to advocate the dismissal of ten million working women. The idea being once those jobs were vacant employers would hire the estimated ten million men on the unemployment roles.

Yet despite the public hostility toward working women, many women managed to maintain their employment and even made some gains. Throughout the thirties working women accounted for roughly a quarter of the workforce; the figure of twenty-four and a third percent in 1930 inched up to just over twenty-five percent in 1940. At the same time only three percent of working women were in unions in 1930. However, by the end of the decade the number of union women more than trebled, rising from 260,000 in 1930 to 800,000 in 1940. By that year women workers represented 9.4 percent of all union members, and six percent of working women were unionized. Compared to men these figures are low: in 1939 seventeen percent of all working people were in unions. Yet they represent a significant increase for unionized women and one that hasn’t been fully explored in the work currently available on the subject.

The Department Store Employees Union demonstrates a case in which working-class women largely organized themselves and it helps to shed light on the problems and potential working women faced in unionizing. One of those problems was patriarchy, as Ruth Milkman has pointed out, “minimally any successful struggle to organize women had first to challenge the ideology of ‘women’s place’ – a problem that did not arise in organizing men.” While the focus of San Francisco’s women retail workers was undoubtedly on creating a successful union, their methods and tactics were necessarily feminist. Retail women asserted their right to unionize as working women, used feminist networks to do so, and were eventually victorious.

A New Hope

The story of the Retail Department Store Employees Union Local 1100 begins in 1936 with the International Longshoremen’s Association’s “march inland.” As part of their attempt to unionize warehouse workers in the Bay Area, the Longshoremen had targeted key warehouses including the ones operated by retail chains, like Woolworth’s massive warehouse at 33 Bryant Street. The only Woolworth warehouse on the west coast, it supplied nearly 400 retail outlet stores throughout the region. In August of 1936 the Warehousemen felt they were sufficiently strong to begin negotiations with the company for recognition. Quickly the Warehousemen began to believe their employer was stalling; after three weeks of negotiations the company representative admitted he did not have the authority to recognize the union. “8 o’clock the next morning picket lines were thrown around the Woolworth warehouse, the 13 Woolworth five and ten cent stores in San Francisco and the 6 in the east bay.”

Aug 12 1937 Helen Kurtz serving food in a soup kitchen for striking 5 & 10 cent store workersAAD-5374.jpg

August 12, 1937: Helen Kurtz serving food in a soup kitchen for striking 5 & 10 cent store workers.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

When the Warehousemen brought their informational picket to the Woolworth outlets they met several allies. In Berkeley 40 picketers, including 13 University of California students were arrested for picketing, and in San Francisco 57 were arrested for violating the city’s anti-picketing ordnance. The warehouse strike was completely successful in stopping the flow of goods to the retail outlets and Woolworth resorted to mailing itself products, using the postal service to circumvent the warehouse blockade. The Warehousemen’s drive provided the perfect opportunity for other unions who had been attempting to unionize the retail and culinary workers of Woolworth, and it opened the possibility of organizing “the Woolworth stores 100 per cent.” Hugo Ernst, head of the Local Joint Executive Board of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, claimed its’ culinary union had been struggling to organize the cafeteria and restaurant workers at Woolworth stores for the past six months without gaining any traction. Similarly the Retail Shoe and Textile Salesmen’s Union local 410 had also been attempting to organize the department stores’ retail clerks without any success. Local 410, which represented mostly shoe salesmen and a few commissioned salesmen in men’s specialty shops, joined with the Warehousemen and members of the culinary union on the picket lines. As it turned out the Warehousemen’s campaign would not benefit these unions, and they would continue to fail to gain the support of retail workers.

Part of their failure had to do with the skepticism on the part of the established labor unions about the prospects of organizing white collar workers. Strategically, retail workers were in a precarious position at the tail end of the production and consumption chain: giving them little leverage with employers. Furthermore, retail work, especially in the five and dime stores, was considered unskilled and employed mostly women, making it easier for employers to discharge unruly employees and quickly find cheap replacements. The workers’ gender was significant, as both employers and unions viewed women as more willing to compromise, pliable and yielding then men - not ideal qualities for militant trade unionists. Unionists felt justified in their perception; as the experience of local 410 and others attest, unions could spend a lot of time and energy on the department stores and win few gains. Retail workers were notoriously hard to organize.

The union picket at the Woolworth store at 5th and Market streets attracted the attention of Marion Brown. She describes the union men coming into the store and talking with her and her co-workers:

"Some of the organizers came into the store and went around to the counters and started talking to the employees telling them why there was a picket line there and asking them to a meeting to hear more about what was going on for themselves that they might be able to organize a union for themselves. And they set a meeting at the [American Federation of Labor’s San Francisco] Labor Council for a Sunday. I heard about it. They had two women working at this one counter. And we said we were going to go to hear what it was all about. We didn’t know a thing about unions and we decided that we wanted to hear more about it. So seven employees went from that store. There were hundreds of employees. It was the biggest store in the city. So seven of us went to hear the union story. And as we came to the labor council at 16th and Mission at that time we saw our assistant manger who was right outside. And he said hello to all of us. We said hello, you know, and we went in and we listened to the meeting."

The next day they were all fired. Marion immediately walked out onto Market Street and joined the picket line. Outraged over what she considered an unjust firing, the nineteen year old Brown would henceforth be a key figure in the campaign to establish DSEU 1100.

By the end of September the Warehousemen had won recognition and withdrawn their boycott of Woolworth, reserving their right to reinstate it in support of “a house on strike.” Marion Brown had in the meantime begun attending Labor Council meetings every Friday night, and talking with people in the labor movement about the possibility of realizing the goal of 100 percent organization in the city’s department stores. Working conditions inside the stores were difficult like anywhere else and Brown knew there was widespread dissatisfaction. The biggest grievance amongst employees was the long hours and low pay; Brown worked forty-eight hours a week, six days, for $16. Forced overtime was also common, as managers would often come to their employees with special projects just before quitting time. Additionally department stores employed a large contingent of part time workers with flexible hours to meet the exigencies of unpredictable sales rushes. These workers would wait for hours for work, sometimes only to be sent home. Alternatively department stores employed some contingent workers every day in place of hiring full time workers to avoid paying for perks like in-house discounts and end of year bonuses.

In a 1977 interview Marion Brown indicated that department store employees were receptive to the idea of forming a union both because of poor conditions and because of basic workplace issues of status, respect, power and control. She said women department store workers were open to unionization:

"Because their conditions were miserable; because they had no conditions of hours, in terms of wages, in terms of anything they had. Everything was set for them, and they didn’t have any say, because if you objected to a condition it was very easy to get rid of one person or two persons or three persons. And people didn’t have any say at all. Anything went. So this is why it was ripe [for unionization] "

Brown indicates that retail employees were dissatisfied with more than just lousy working conditions. Retail workers recognized the inherent unfairness of not being able to do anything about poor conditions – of not being able to influence one’s own workplace. Brown emphasized that “the employer had much more power on the job than you [the employee] did,” and that:

"[The employers] wouldn’t even consider talking to their working people. Employees were, you know, just nothing. There was just never – equality. Oh my God, they never even heard of the word equality. Only among themselves, amongst the upper echelons is there equality. But the working people do as “we tell them to do” that was the kind of attitude that existed . . ."

Brown considered her firing for attending a union meeting the epitome of employers’ arbitrary power; she had been an exemplary employee, what she did on her own time was her own business.

When the Warehousemen’s Union settled their strike, they offered to refuse to go back to work until Brown and her coworkers had been rehired. But Brown declined, she had decided to devote herself to organizing the San Francisco retail trades. Over the next several months Brown ran a stealth campaign relying on networks of coworkers to facilitate organizing. She met with individual workers in their homes to get them to talk up the union shop with people they trusted and then bring them along to the next secret meeting. In this manner the department store workers were able to get agents in all the major stores throughout the city right under the nose of the companies. In February of 1937 the workers issued a pamphlet called “What every Department Store Employee should know” which laid out the case for the benefits of unionization and called for an open meeting of department store employees. Based on pre-established covert networks 100 people showed up for the first meeting. By April membership was up to 2000 and the union was waiting to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor.


Picketing on Market Street for a 40-hour week and union recognition, late 1930s.

Photo: Labor Archives and Research Center, SFSU

Brown was also able to utilize the resources of the labor movement to benefit the workers’ organizing drive. Interestingly most of Brown’s closest and most supportive contacts within the trade unions were with union women. Carmen Lucia of the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers International Union, and Jennie Maytas of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union were instrumental in providing support for the upstart union. Maytas and Lucia gave the retail workers space in the Milliners union office on Market Street, and resources like access to their mimeograph machine. Just as important they served as advisors for the workers, sharing ideas gleaned from years of experience. Lucia and Maytas also provided a kind of legitimacy for the retail clerks in the eyes of the mainstream labor movement and the Labor Council. Through this contact, Brown became part of a growing cadre of what Dorothy Sue Cobble has called “labor feminists;” women in the trade union movement who acted out of feminist motivations, although their articulation may not have been explicitly feminist, and their activities usually geared more toward labor organizing.

For example the key issue of the 1938 strike was storewide seniority, an issue that was essential to the survival of the union but that also strengthened the position of women within the organization. Storewide seniority opened up opportunities for female department store workers by breaking down the barriers to moving into male dominated positions. The most lucrative sales positions were in home appliances, men’s suits and furniture, departments that were traditionally staffed by men. By creating storewide seniority women could more easily move into those departments without fear of loosing their seniority.

However in 1937, most of the AFL leadership was less than enthusiastic about the prospects of unionizing white collar women workers, even though they recognized the importance of having the workers organized. Marion Brown summarized the attitude of the labor movement toward white collar workers in this way:

"[union officials] said “ you can never organize white collar workers: it wasn’t possible. They were too individualistic and most of them were women who were only working temporarily.” That was the story, they were only working temporarily because they had some bill to pay, or other, and were helping their husbands. Just temporarily, that they would come and go, and it was an impossible situation. It couldn’t be done. They tried, they said, and it was impossible."

Brown pointed out that in fact “most of the members of 1100 [had] worked in the trade thirty and forty years.” With her connections to Maytas and Lucia, Brown was able to use a network of women organizers within the trade unions to overcome labor’s pessimism and throw the weight of San Francisco’s unions behind the clerks’ campaign.

Aug 12 1937 Dolores Soper eating in a soup kitchen for striking 5 & 10 cent store workersAAD-5373.jpg

August 12, 1937: Dolores Soper eating in a soup kitchen for striking 5 & 10 cent store workers.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Brown was also able to gain the trust and support of her coworkers, something outside unions were unable to do. As already mentioned the culinary workers union had spent six months trying, and had little success with their drive in the department stores. Retail Clerks local 410 had also been attempting to organize in the stores since March of 1936 with no real gains. That month local 410 published an article in the Labor Clarion, the organ of the Labor Council called “Assist the Clerks,” in which they asked for help from the labor movement for their organizing drive. While the article highlighted the tough conditions found in the stores, it demonstrated labor’s condescending attitude toward the workers they were trying to organize: “The salespeople can be of valuable assistance to our movement in the way of boosting union-made products once they are educated along trade union lines . . .let’s give the salespeople a helping hand. We need them in the labor movement.” The reason the union wanted to “educate” the workers and lend them a “helping hand” was ultimately self-interested, so the clerks could assist in the movement’s union label campaign. The overall tone of the article indicates a patronizing attitude and is indicative of a broader paternalism within the labor movement that may have been off putting to the clerks.

Paternalist attitudes could be found throughout the labor movement. In an editorial published in the Labor Clarion just two weeks after the end of a militant strike led by the working women of the department stores, the author appealed “to the ladies” to support the labor movement through their purchasing power, and not through their power as workers. Again a heavy patronizing tone dominates the editorial: “The good living standards of the workers of America were brought about by the efforts of working men, banding together, to force better wages from manufacturers. This is called organizing . . . this [editorial] is an appeal to the women . . . to help improve living standards . . . through their buying power.” The author closed his didactic piece by encouraging women to “let not indifference or weakness of will lead you to follow the line of least resistance . . . Buy American! Buy union made.” This editorial appeared a short two weeks after striking female clerks displayed militancy both on the picket line and the negotiating table, holding out for more union power against the advice of the male dominated leadership. By tapping into networks of labor feminists, Brown was able to circumvent the labor movement’s paternalism and still harness the resources of the established unions.

Indeed labor paternalism was not limited to a condescending attitude. In April of 1937 with a membership of 2000 female clerks the DSEU 1100 held elections and was waiting to be chartered by the Labor Council. Here the inexperienced workers were most reliant on the aid of longtime union organizers to establish a constitutional framework and an organization able to negotiate with the companies. A constitution was adopted wholesale from the Retail Clerks International Union, and the candidates for leadership positions were all men and longtime AFL stalwarts. Interestingly Marion Brown was ineligible to run for a position with decision making powers. Months before the election, and well before the creation of DSEU 1100, she was persuaded to apply for membership in the Retail Shoe and Textile Salesmen’s Union local 410. Once a member of 410 she was precluded from holding constitutional office in DSEU 1100 and instead Brown was elected as the union’s first business agent, a kind of shop steward and campaign organizer or as Brown says “the tired employee of the union.” Stanley Scott was chosen for president and Larry Vail became the union’s first field secretary. Sidelining Brown was a manifestation of labor paternalism, but it also reflected immediate political goals of the conservative unionists in the AFL.

From the perspective of the AFL leadership there was good cause to limit Brown to marginal positions. Brown had proven herself as a rank and file leader, and a militant trade unionist. That militancy was developing into communist sympathies and eventual Party membership. Worse, she had become friends with Harry Bridges and Louis Goldblatt of the International Longshoremen’s Association who would “help with ideas, and in any way they [could].” That friendly alliance came just as the jurisdictional schism between the ILA and the AFL affiliated Teamsters, who were battling over the right to organize the region’s Warehousemen, was heating up. Their fight would bring the AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ split to the west coast, and sooner or later the retail clerks would have to pick sides. While Brown herself was uncertain if her restriction from office was by design or circumstance, the maneuvering for the leadership of the union and the sidelining of Brown would help to ensure the clerks remained under the sway of the AFL and the Labor Council.


Women sales clerks picketing Sears at Mission and Army in the 1940s.

Photo: Labor Archives and Research Center, SFSU

Sears-picket-line-CLS-collection-Labor-Archives-c-1948 6474.jpg

Sears picket line c. 1948.

Photo: Labor Archives and Research Center, SFSU

Indeed there was some tension between the union leadership and the rank and file membership who would go on to prove themselves’ militant and savvy trade unionists beyond anyone’s expectations. In April, using negotiators from the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau and delegations from each store, the Union began negotiations with the major retail companies. The talks were engaged on two tracks; one with the department stores, like the Emporium, Hale’s, the White House, and Weinstein’s, the other with the five and dimes like Woolworth and J.J. Newberry. The union was asking for an increase in the minimum wage from 16 to 20 dollars a week, an eight hour day and five day week with time and half pay for overtime, and union recognition. In June the membership rejected an offer of $18 for a 48 hour week, voting to authorize a strike if its terms were not met. In July the union had reached a tentative agreement with Woolworth and the other five and dimes that met the union’s goals. The negotiators took the agreement back to their membership and recommended that they approve it. The vote was overwhelmingly to reject the proposal because it did not include preferential hiring for union members. Members saw the lack of a hiring clause as a possible wedge by employers and a threat to the strength and very existence of the union. The employers simply walked away from this demand, calling it the closed shop and on August 9th the working women of Woolworth and J.J. Newberry’s walked out on their jobs. According to the Labor Clarion, “A picket line was immediately placed around all the stores . . . the girls attracting wide interest and attention from the public with their enthusiasm and jollity.”

The strike lasted a brief five days with the striking women’s militancy and the assistance of the Warehousemen key factors in its’ eventual success. On the first day of the strike Labor Council president John Shelley pleaded with the strikers to “tone down” their lively and disruptive picketing on the sidewalks. Hundreds of picketers had blockaded the entrances to the Woolworth and Newberry stores, disrupting pedestrians on the sidewalk who found it “necessary either to elbow their way through the jams of girl pickets, or take to the streets to get past.” Marion Brown’s allies in the ILA Warehousemen’s Union local 38-44 also helped by honoring the women’s picket lines and shutting down the Woolworth warehouse on Bryant street. With hundreds of workers out on strike, more than 6,000 members in the union, the solidarity of the Warehousemen, and a threat to spread the strike to other cities, the chain stores folded. All union terms of employment were met including better working conditions, benefits, union recognition and preferential hiring. Soon after the settlement of the five and dime strike, the city’s department stores also agreed to a contract similar to that of the chain stores. Interestingly, these contracts were drawn up on an industrial basis, meaning all the employees in a given store, from gift wrapper to seasoned salesclerk, were covered by the DSEU.

As Marion Brown points out, the power of the retail clerks union was found in its rank and file militancy:

"You see our union was really organized by people in the industry. It really was. Not that we didn’t get help form the Carmen Lucias and the ILWU and so forth. But it was really done by the people in the industry. We had a knowledge of the industry. We knew what it was like and took certain precautions in terms of protection of people so they wouldn’t stick their neck out so far that they would get fired."

The retail workers success in the ’37 strike was in part based on its’ rank and file militancy, but also on the strength of the San Francisco labor movement in general, in particular that of the ILA and its’ Warehouse Union. The workers’ militancy and success defied expectations and demonstrated that women and white collar workers were as strong and sophisticated as anyone in the labor movement.

The Retailers Strike Back

At the signing of the of their first contract, the union and the retailers issued a joint statement that read in part “we hope this signing of this agreement marks the beginning of long and continued pleasant relations between the employers and the employes. [sic]” But this was not to be. As Marion Brown noted in her 1977 interview, during the first negotiation and strike in 1937 “We took that industry by surprise. They were shocked when I tell you what happened. They were caught completely unawares. They were unorganized. We caught them with their pants down so to speak. They didn’t have anything. But within a year they had their own organization.” By the time of the 1938 contract negotiations the department stores had formed the Retailers’ Council and were ready to do battle with the union. Again rank and file militancy proved pivotal in the ability of the union to survive the attack and emerge from the battle bruised but not beaten.

When negotiations began in June for the contract which was set to expire in August of 1938, it was clear the Retailers were taking a much harder line with the union. First they attempted to divide their workforce’s support for the DSEU. Emporium sent a letter to the home of every one of their employees highlighting the liabilities of union membership, and portraying the companies’ insistence on the “open shop” as a defense of freedom of choice for their employees. The letter gently reminded its’ readers that these issues were “matters affecting your job and, therefore, of importance to you, your family and your store. [sic]” The Retailers also obtained Milton Marks to represent them in negotiations, a tough minded anti-unionist who called the union shop “vicious and indefensible.”

For its part the union was attempting to build on the gains obtained in 1937; it was demanding a 35 hour week, storewide seniority and to move to a full union shop. In August the employers walked out of negotiations demanding that the union drop all three issues before talks could be resumed. Faced with this ultimatum the employees voted by a 9 to 1 margin in favor of forcing the issues through a strike. A week later the union amended its proposal, dropping the 35 hour week and the union shop but holding firm to its seniority clause, offering a contract that was essentially unchanged from that of ’37. Here the clerks dug in and stood poised ready to strike,

But the Retailers were prepared to battle on the picket lines and were determined keep their stores open. On September 7th workers struck at twenty-seven outlets throughout the city, with the strikers demonstrating the same vivacious spirit on the picket lines as they had in ‘37. But this time the pickets were much more violent. Management hired security companies who, along with the police, would escort strikebreakers and customers into the store. Fights usually were the result and fisticuffs were a common occurrence throughout the strike. In one instance a store manager received a badly lacerated ear. In another a slight 102 pound woman named Beatrice Smith slugged 235 pound Sergeant Clarence Byrne of the Police Department after he shoved her. Smith explained to the judge at her arrangement that she “was just picketing quiet like, out at Twenty-sixth and Mission streets, but when he shoved me as he told me to move on, I guess it made me mad.” The judge accepted Smith’s apology and she was released.

The department stores tried to capitalize on the violence on the picket lines by portraying the picketers as radicals who were attempting to transform San Francisco into a totalitarian workers’ state. On September 8th they took out a full page advertisement in the Chronicle that argued the strikers were trying to “sovietize” the city through their demands for a union shop which were undemocratic because they took away the employers unilateral control of the workplace. The workers fired back with a pamphlet entitled “It’s Our City Too,” in which they emphasized their respectability in the community and their courteous relationship with customers. They insisted their demand for a union shop was not undemocratic because it did not call for a hiring hall and left the employers in control of hiring. Their union shop proposal, they insisted, had employees apply for union membership only after they were hired. The union also accused the retailers of being undemocratic for walking out of the negotiations and for insisting some issues could not even be discussed.

And here the two sides remained at an impasse for the next eight weeks. The union saw the employers’ demands and their willingness to precipitate a strike as evidence that they were attempting to break the union. In particular the union perceived the companies’ refusal to accept storewide seniority, a condition accepted in the first contract, as a direct threat to the very existence of the union. If negotiations failed to secure a union shop, then employers could use the departmental seniority system to transfer union members into new departments, whereby they could loose their seniority, and fire them more easily. Storewide seniority was essential for protecting union jobs and keeping the union alive.

At the beginning of September Mayor Angelo Rossi tried to mediate a settlement in his office without success, later commissioning a “committee of ten,” composed of business and labor representatives, to craft an agreement. Employers held on to their department seniority demand for another two months, recognizing the union was hindered by the loss of their ally, the ILA. The Longshoremen were engaged in a “hot cargo” dispute with employers and the Teamsters over the region’s warehouses, and were in no position to come to the aid of the clerks. The DSEU meanwhile turned to the public for support, staging a town-hall meeting at Dreamland Auditorium at the end of September in which 10,000 people participated, and keeping up a steady stream of propaganda through a barrage of brochures and pamphlets.

At the very end of October, after nearly two months of pickets, the Retailers’ Council agreed to the terms proposed by the union on September 1st. On Halloween 1938 the clerks voted 1068 in favor, and 1014 against, to accept the contract and go back to work. The close vote and low turnout indicate the fatigue of the rank and file after the long strike, but it also indicates the hope, at least for some, that the union shop might yet be within reach and that the workers should hold out. During the ’37 strike Marion Brown wanted to hold out for a closed shop, but she was placated with the promise of obtaining it in ’38. When the vote finally came to the membership at the end of the 1938 strike, without a union shop clause in the contract, she remembers feeling defeated: “so when the vote was taken, I know that I went backstage and I cried like I never cried before in my life. ‘We lost. We lost.’” It is easy to imagine how Brown could have seen the settlement as a defeat; she had given up her job and spent the last two years fighting to build the union. But the ’38 strike was more of a mixed bag than a straight defeat. The employers’ attempt to crush the DSEU had failed; the union managed to keep its seniority clause and it survived the most significant challenge to its existence until the Reagan years and the business push of the 1980s.


The success of the Department Store Employees Union local 1100 at the specific time it was established is quite remarkable. As low paid and “unskilled” workers the retail clerks had little bargaining power with their employers, replacements were easy to come by and the Great Depression made many feel they were lucky to have any job, unionized or not. The strength of the San Francisco labor movement, in particular that of the ILA and the union culture around the AFL’s Labor Council, certainly contributed to the success of the retail clerks in forming their union. But the assistance the established unions offered the clerks was usually couched in paternalist and patronizing attitudes. Marion Brown and the other female clerks were able tap into a network of trade union women that were willing to aid the retail organizers on their own terms, in a way that wasn’t patronizing or condescending. With the aid of established trade unions and through their ingenuity and determination, the working women of San Francisco’s department stores created an organization that could fight in their own interests to better their working conditions and standard of living.

This accomplishment is undoubtedly feminist. Overcoming a political environment hostile to working women and the paternalist attitude of their trade union allies, required asserting feminist demands for women’s equality. Whether this was done consciously or not is irrelevant, as the effect was to place working women’s needs for organization as equal to those of men. However, the argument for the DSEU unionization as a feminist campaign should not be overstated. In the available record few clerks, if any, articulated feminist justifications for their actions. Nor did the DSEU become a rank and file union that incorporated women’s concerns into their contract demands like other unions were able to do, for example the workers of the United Canners, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America as shown by Viki Ruiz. Mostly the case of the DSEU is significant because it sheds light on the surge of unionized women at the close of the 1930s. San Francisco’s retail clerks had to organize themselves and faced cultural hurdles to unionization that male workers did not. Their case indicates that unionized women should in no way be considered adjuncts to the overall growth of the union movement in the Depression decade. Working women faced difficult and different challenges to unionization than men did. These considerations make the accomplishments of the clerks all the more admirable.

Bibliography Primary Sources:

Department Store Employees Union Local 1100 Records, courtesy of the Labor Archive and Research Center*
Labor Clarion
Marion Brown Sills interview with Dorothy Sue Cobble; June 27th, 1977 San Francisco, California
San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Examiner
Voice of the Federation

  • Very special thanks to Catherine Powell and Susan Sherwood of the Labor Archives for their assistance, resourcefulness and conversation

Secondary Sources

Benson, Susan Porter. Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890-1940. Chicago: University of Illinois Press 1986

Bolin, Winifred D. Wandersee ”The Economics of Middle-Income Family Life: Working Women During the Great Depression” The Journal of American History 65 (June, 1978)

Chafe, William Henry 'The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970 New York: Oxford University Press, 1972

Cobble, Dorothy Sue. Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991

Cobble, Dorothy Sue. The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004

Davies, Margery W. Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter: Office Work and Office Workers 1870-1930 Philidelphia: Temple University Press, 1982

Deslippe, Denis. Rights not Roses: Union and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism, 1945-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000

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Ewen, Stuart. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1976

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