Tag Archives: San Francisco History

Sue Ko Lee and the National Dollar Stores Strike of 1938

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
Scroll to the bottom to see image credits, copyright and use.

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.

Scroll to the bottom to see image credits, copyright and use.


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

Photo Credits and Use: First 2 photographs at the top from the collection of Judy Yung. Please contact kconnell@ccsf.edu for more information. All other images from the collection of the Labor Archives and Research Center, SFSU, (415) 405-5571. These images are intended for educational use only. Permission to publish these image must be obtained from the Labor Archives and Research
Center, San Francisco State University. Copyright is retained by the original creator of the work, whose permission must also be obtained for publication. Responsibility for any use of this image rests
exclusively with the user. Please contact larc@sfsu.edu for more information.


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Brick x Brick at JAD Library

February 24, 2010- January 2011
See the new library exhibition at the John Adams Campus Library:

“Brick x Brick”

1860 Hayes Street
Celebrates 99 Years of Building Futures

A timeline of historical photographs, documents and memorabilia.Location: 1860 Hayes Street, 2ndfloor hallway outside of the library, and in the library.

Building Hours (hallway): Monday- Thursday 7:00-10:00, Friday 7:00-2:30Library Hours (inside): Monday-Thursday 9:00-6:45, Friday 9:00-12:45.

Contact: Library staff 415-561-1946

Please join the John Adams community in celebrating the completed campus renovation and 99 years of teaching and learning at 1860 Hayes Street.

After three years of moving and operating a split campus during construction, all the departments are settled back into their classrooms. In addition to a major seismic retrofit, our building now has renovated windows, doors, bathrooms, flooring, fresh paint, new classroom furniture, smart classrooms, and a new library. The remodel successfully maintained the aesthetics and historical context of the original building.

The John Adams Campus Library presents a timeline exhibition highlighting the first 99 years of our building. From its origin as Lowell High School beginning in 1911, through its evolution as the John Adams Adult School run by the San Francisco Unified School District, to becoming the John Adams Campus of the City College of San Francisco. Watch history unfold as the events, programs, and people that shaped the history of the John Adams Campus is illuminated through photographs, news clippings and memorabilia.

The history of our building is a story of the people within; the many students and teachers that have come and gone, but the goal of excellent education has remained – building futures brick by brick.

(just a few of the “bricks” of information from the timeline)

Lowell Building Dedication February 22, 1913
The new Lowell building was formally dedicated in 1913, in ceremonies witnessed by a large and enthusiastic gathering of interested citizens. February 22 was chosen because it is the birthday of James Russell Lowell. The cornerstone was laid by Mayor James Rolph, Jr. The principle addresses were delivered by Superintendent Alfred Roncovieri and Dr. A.A. D’Ancona, President of the Board of Education, both of whom had been students at Boys High some four decades before.

Lowell Centennial 1865 – 1956

Lowell Alumni Newsletter , Spring 1961

1963 John Adams Adult School
The Adult / Occupational Division of the San Francisco Unified School District moves to the old Lowell High School Building.
The first graduating class includes 72 students and 17 servicemen.
Edward H. Fowler is the first principal.
John Adams Adult School received $48,137 under the Manpower Development and Training act to train 30 unemployed persons for 24 weeks as clerk-typists.
It was one of four northern California schools to receive this award.

Vocational Nursing Program
The Vocational Nursing Program has been dedicated to nurse education since 1948. It was initiated as a result of a shortage of nursing services in the Bay Region. At that time, the program was called Galileo Vocational Nurse Education Program and classes were held at the Marina Adult School. The program relocated to John Adams Center in the 1960s. In 1970s, the program became part of San Francisco Community College and the name was changed to Galileo-Adams Vocational Nurse Education. The curriculum was designed to develop and graduate a vocational nurse who is capable of functioning as a skilled member of a nursing team.

1960s and 1970s Transitional Studies

The study of basic skills and the opportunity to take high school courses has existed at John Adams since the years of the Adult School in the 60s. In the 1970s John Adams Center also offered various electives for the high school diploma as photography, ceramics, weaving, dressmaking and upholstery.

When City College combined the Adult School Centers with credit courses in 1990, the basic skills and high school programs made the decision to become Transitional Studies Department, a department whose goal it was to insure a holistic approach to working with students.

ESL Faculty in library 1970s

Custodians strike 1970s

1989 October 17th earthquake heros
Student Phil Atkinson was on his way to class at John Adams, coming over the Bay Bridge when he watched two cars in front of him drop through a hole in the roadway. He used skills learned in the EMT-1A class to help the victims from the wreckage and administered CPR until an ambulance arrived. Abbie McGreevy was released from teaching to use her years of experience to establish Disaster Health protocols and procedures at Red Cross shelters opened at Moscone Center and Marina Middle School in the days after the earthquake. Chalk Talk, November 1989

Remodeled JAD Building is GREEN

  • JAD building uses 17% less energy than before the renovation
  • 96% of the building’s structural components, 80% of the non-structural components were reused
  • Reduced atmospheric pollution caused by transportation using resources from within 500 miles of the site
  • 78% of the construction waste was diverted from landfills by sorting items for recycle and reuse
  • Recycling and compost bins are on every floor of the building
  • Steel, carpet and toilet partitions in the building have recycled content
  • Cooling equipment at JAD does not use any CFCs
  • JAD building is located in a dense urban community with ample access to public transportation
  • Occupants in 90% of rooms have individual controls for thermal comfort and lighting
  • JAD building purchased 70% of its power for at least 2 years from green sources
  • 78% of the JAD building has 25 foot candles or more natural light (measure of light)
  • Linoleum flooring is a rapidly renewable material
  • JAD building uses high efficiency water saving plumbing
  • Landscaping is drought resistant and does not require the use of irrigationCity Currents article

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