March 2-September 10, 2010
Rosenberg Library, 4th Floor Reference Case
A collaboration with the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University
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In the 1930s, the garment industry was the largest employer in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Here the workers continued to toil under sweatshop conditions, earning wages ranging from $4 to $16 a week. Sue Ko Lee, a button hole machine operator, worked in the National Dollar Store factory for 25¢ an hour. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) began an organizing drive in Chinatown to stem the flow of work from union shops to Chinese manufacturers and established the “Chinese Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 361.”
Under the skilled leadership of ILGWU organizer Jennie Matyas, a successful union election was won at the National Dollar Stores factory for better wages in 1938. The owner, a prominent Chinatown businessman, promptly sold the facility to Golden Gate Manufacturing, a “new” company headed by the factory manager and another former National Dollar Store employee. The change of “ownership” allowed management to set aside the hard won contract. Seeing this move as an attempt to break the union, the workers went on strike, picketing the factory and its three retail stores in San Francisco for 15 weeks. During the struggle, Sue Ko Lee and the other women workers actively engaged in the strike – walking the line, organizing picket shifts, and speaking out publicly at meetings for the first time. When the white retail clerks supported the strikers and refused to cross the line and shut down the picketed retail outlets for two weeks, the owner finally negotiated with the workers to settle a contract.
“The strike was the best thing that ever happened.
It changed our lives.
-Sue Ko Lee, As quoted in Unbound Voices by Judy Yung
The workers won a 5 percent raise; a forty-hour workweek; enforcement of health, fire, and sanitary conditions; and a guarantee that Golden Gate Manufacturing would provide work for a minimum of 11 months of the year to its workers. Despite these protections, one year after winning the contract, Golden Gate conveniently went out of business. The ease with which garment factories could close shop and relocate, sometimes leaving a substantial debt in unpaid wages, made it a common practice in the 1930s. This tactic remains a constant threat for workers attempting to organize a union even today.
The Dollar Store strike, though it could be seen as unsuccessful since the company closed shop, was critical in that it helped break down racial barriers in San Francisco. After Golden Gate Manufacturing went out of business, the union helped find the workers jobs outside of Chinatown, in what had previously been white-only shops. The strike also led to Chinese workers taking leadership roles in the union. Sue Ko Lee became a business agent at another garment factory, then secretary of the union local and the San Francisco Joint Board, as well as a delegate to the ILGWU national convention.
Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard College, 2004.
Yung, Judy. Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. University of California Press, 1999.
Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. University of California Press, 1995.
Find more information in the CCSF Library on Women and Labor
Women and Labor Bibliography 2010
Download the Exhibition Assignment
Sue Ko Lee Exhibition Assignment
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