Milwaukee sales clerks strike for wage increases, 1934

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Timing
Time Period:  
30 November
1934
to
11 January
1935
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Goals: 
To achieve a minimum wage of $25 for male employees, $20 for female employees, and receive official recognition of the union from the store management.
 

In 1934 it had been a successful year for strikes in Milwaukee, which emboldened retail clerks at Sears, Roebuck and Company, and the Boston Store to demand higher wages. At the time most clerks earned below $14 a week, which they called “starvation wages.”

In September 1934, the Retail Clerks International Protection Association (RCIPA) received an application for a local chapter in Milwaukee, which quickly grew to 600 members. The union decided to begin their campaign at the Boston Store, the largest department store in town. On 1 November, union members, 75% to 80% of whom were women, demanded that the store raise wages to $25 a week for male clerks, $20 a week for women, and that their union receive official recognition from the company.

The management refused to consider the union as a bargaining agent saying that a majority of employees were not in the union. No agreement was reached. The union began their strike on Friday 30 November, at the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. An estimated 600 to 700 pickets arrived at the store at 7:30 a.m. They dressed neatly and sang “It ain’t gonna rain no more no more” and “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.” The clerks were joined by drivers and maintenance workers who were members of the Building Service Employees International, Teamsters’, Chauggers, Stablemen, and Helpers’ Unions. Supporters joined strikers at the picket line forming a crowd of 1500 pickets. The strike gained national attention as the first large strike at a department store in the United States.

The RCIPA claimed that 616 regular clerks and 23 “extras” out of 900 were at the picket lines, but the store management claimed that only 380 of 1500 employees were on strike. Pickets were prohibited from blocking the entrance of the store, but continued to picket even in the freezing rain, attempting to persuade customers to boycott the store and strike breakers to join them, sometimes taunting and jeering them. They used a truck with a loud speaker to educate passersby about the strike.

The pickets were supported by the League of Women Shoppers, a group of middle class women formed in response the strike, who joined the pickets, advocated for a boycott of the Boston Store, provided campaigners with sandwiches and coffee, held a meeting of 700 attendees to educate the public about the strike, had a fundraising ball, and even threw a Christmas party for strikers’ children.

The strike remained peaceful and was without incident until two weeks into the strike when the police claimed to recognize four men as professional pickets, and arrested them. Hannah Biemiller, a clerk insisted to the police that if they were to arrest the four men, she would have to be taken into custody as well. All five pickets were arrested.

Tensions began to rise, and some pickets acted violently. Strikers set off stench bombs in the store overnight. Two male pickets were arrested for two broken windows, another was charged with striking a female shopper, and striker Dorothy Hartman and new hire Lucille Newman were arrested for disorderly conduct including pushing. The public attorney assigned to both women refused to represent Newman because she was a “scab.”

On 17 December, the Boston Store Management made its own attempt to educate the public on its position by running full-page ads in The Milwaukee Journal and The Milwaukee Sentinel explaining its position against the union. The Federated Trades Commission, after attending a meeting between union leaders and management, responded by adding the Boston Store to their “we do not patronize” list, and ran their own full page ad in the socialist newspaper Milwaukee Leader explaining “The Real Truth about the Boston Store Strike” and explaining the union position.

The management however did not budge. They claimed that 105 workers had returned to work since the strike, though the union countered that more strikers had joined than returned to work. The management also claimed that they had received 750 applications for positions on the first day of the strike, and 4800 by the fourth week, enabling them to make it through the holiday shopping season with new hired “extras.” They had more difficulty replacing drivers, and hired thirty from Chicago. They gave a Christmas bonus to loyal employees who did not strike.

Christmas passed, and the Boston Store management had still not conceded. The strikers had lost their strong position. The store retained its offer to allow the strikers who had not committed violence to return to work without discrimination for joining the union. On 11 January 1935, the strike ended. All pickets returned to work achieving neither increased wages nor union recognition. The store only agreed to increase merit based bonuses.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Borkowski, Kathryn. (1992). \textit{The 1934 Boston Store Strike: Sales Clerks, Union Organizing, and Community in Milwaukee}. (Unpublished master's thesis). University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI.

"Boston Clerks Union Strikes Today" The Milwaukee Journal. p. 1. 30 Nov. 1934. Web. 24 Jan. 2013. http://www.jsonline.com/historicarchive/search/?searchBy=word&searchText=boston+store+clerks&dat=&fromDate=&nid=jvrRlaHg2sAC&s.x=0&s.y=0

"Boston Store Parleys Begun" The Milwaukee Journal. p. 2. 1 Dec. 1934. Web. 24 Jan. 2013. http://www.jsonline.com/historicarchive/search/searchBy=date&searchText=&dat=19341202&fromDate=12%2F2%2F1934&nid=jvrRlaHg2sAC&s.x=0&s.y=0

"Boston Store, Unions Agree; Strike Ended" The Milwaukee Journal. p. 1. 11. Jan 1934. Web. 24 Jan. 2013. http://www.jsonline.com/historicarchive/search/?searchBy=word&searchText=boston+store+strike&dat=&fromDate=&nid=jvrRlaHg2sAC&s.x=0&s.y=0

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Jonathan White, 24/01/2013