Members of the 1938 National Dollar Store Strike
In the 1930s, the garment industry was the largest employer in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Here the workers continued to toil under sweatshop conditions. 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.”
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 workers won a 5 percent raise; a forty-hour workweek; enforcement of health, fire, and sanitary conditions; and a guarantee that the factory would provide work for a minimum of 11 months of the year to its workers.
The Dollar Store strike was critical in that it helped break down racial barriers in San Francisco. 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.
(Source: adapted from City College of San Francisco Library exhibition)