Marion Brown and the Department Store Employees Union

Rosenberg Library, 4th Floor Reference Case
February 1-September 9, 2011

In 1936, Marion Brown, a 19 year old clerk at Woolworth’s Department Store, was radicalized by the unjust firing of several workers and went on to found the Department Store Employees’ Union. Drawing by Giacomo Patri

Photo Left: Marion Brown, photographer unknown
Photo Right: Emma Adami, Rose Lancilotti. In an effort to tell their story  to a maximum number of passersby, these two strikers used placards understandable to many a patron of the five-and-ten-cent store at 1343 Stockton St. where the two are on picket duty along with 450 other striking employees of Woolworth and Newberry stores. In case you haven’t guessed, one sign’s in Chinese; the other in Italian. Aug. 13, 1937. Photographer unknown.

The 1934 San Francisco General Strike inspired a wave of union organizing in the city: unions spread to the city’s warehouses, hotels, street cars, garment workers, and department store clerks.  Women played key leadership roles in many of these struggles.

In 1936 the F.W. Woolworth Company warehouses were organized by the International Longshoremen’s Association.  When the company refused to recognize the union, warehousemen went out on strike and also set up an informational picket outside the main San Francisco Woolworth store at the corner of Fifth and Market.

Invited by I.L.A. strikers, nineteen year-old Marion Brown and six other store employees attended a Sunday meeting at the San Francisco Labor Council to hear more about the issues.  Observed by a Woolworth’s assistant manager, all seven were summarily fired upon returning to work Monday morning.  An angry Marion Brown promptly joined the picket line outside.

When the Woolworth Company decided to end its warehouse strike I.L.A. negotiators made re-employment of the seven fired store employees a settlement condition.  But Marion Brown recalled years later that F.W. Woolworth Co. and she were in perfect agreement at that point in time – they didn’t want to put her back in her old job and she didn’t wish to go back, “under any circumstances.”  She went on instead to help found the Department Store Employees’ Union (later Retail Clerks Local  1100)

Chartered in 1937, the Department Store Employees’ Union rapidly organized the major department stores in the city, including the biggest, the F.W. Woolworth Store at Fifth and Market Streets.  Union’s often used street theater to capture public attention and support for their cause.

On the line in front of Penny’s Department Store, 1939, Photographer unknown

Check out Giacomo Patri’s pioneering graphic novel “White Collar”

Download a List of Library Resources on Women and Labor

Download Marion Brown Assignment

Exhibition and all photos from the Labor Archive and Research Center at San Francisco State University. Check out their Facebook Page.

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