This Day In History: February 26

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The National Dollar Stores Strike begins in San Francisco's Chinatown on February 26, 1938. The three-month strike delivered a win for workers and became the neighborhood's first major organized labor dispute.

In 1938, the garment industry was the largest employer in San Francisco's Chinatown. Chinatown's garment factories were not unionized, in part because of the historical antagonism of American labor unions to Chinese workers. However, by the 1930s, unions like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) recognized the potential value of unionizing Chinese American workers. Employees of Chinatown's factories worked for low wages and long hours.

Sue Ko Lee, who worked as a buttonhole operator at the National Dollar Stores factory, made 25 cents an hour. She decided to help organize her coworkers into a chapter of the ILGWU, the Chinese Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, Local 341. Through bilingual bargaining sessions in English and Chinese, Local 341 came to a preliminary agreement with National Dollar Stores for improved wages and fewer hours.

Joe Shoong, the owner of National Dollar Stores, was a millionaire Chinese American businessman. Time called him "the richest, best-known Chinese businessman in the U.S." However, on February 8, 1938, Shoong sold his factory to a group of his own managers, who formed their own independent company. The workers, including Sue Ko Lee, believed that this was a tactic by Shoong and his management to avoid honoring their agreement. On February 26, Local 341 began their strike.

"The main issue at stake in this strike," the workers wrote, "is whether the workers of Chinatown are to be supplied with work, or whether they are to be deprived of their livelihood." 159 women garment workers picketed three National Dollar Store locations in San Francisco, demanding improved wages and working conditions. Finally, after fifteen months, the Chinese Ladies' Garment Workers' Union came to an agreement with their employer. They won significant concessions, including a 5% raise, a 40-hour work week, and enforcement of health and safety standards.

Their victory was short-lived, however, because the factory was shuttered the following year. Nonetheless, their successful strike helped to integrate the labor movement in San Francisco and across the United States.