Sue Ko Lee
Despite earning just 25 cents an hour, Sue Ko Lee, a mother of two, was glad to find work as a buttonhole machine operator at San Francisco’s National Dollar Stores, the first retail chain in the West Coast, where her husband worked as a bookkeeper. There were few opportunities for Chinese women at the time and white-owned companies refused to hire them. Founded by Chinese-Americans, National Dollar Stores welcomed them, but kept their pay low and their working conditions substandard.
Eventually, the sweatshop conditions led Lee to organize a 15-week strike in 1938 where she and co-workers won pay raises and other concessions.
The work stoppage broke new ground in the garment industry. In 1937, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) began to organize Chinese women for the first time. A year later, Lee and her co-workers voted to join ILGWU using ballots written in English and Chinese, forming the Chinese Ladies’ Garment Workers Union Local 341.
The union demanded a contract, a wage increase to $20 per 35-hour week, and better working conditions from the National Dollar Store factory managers. After signing a preliminary agreement, the factory decided to sell to a group of managers.
Fearing this would end their tentative contract, Lee and some 150 of her co-workers decided to go on strike. This was the first time Chinese women in Chinatown fought against poor working conditions in the garment industry.
During the nearly four months of the work stoppage, Lee and other leaders organized picket lines outside the factory and retail stores, made speeches, and provided donuts and coffee for the strikers.
“In my opinion,” Lee later said, “the strike was the best thing that ever happened. It changed our lives. We overcame bigotry, didn’t we?….I know it was a turning point in my life.”
The factory closed the following year, but Lee and other workers managed to find jobs in white-owned businesses that paid more, and Chinese workers began taking leadership roles in the union.
Lee went on to become the first Chinese American Business agent for a garment factory, and a secretary and delegate of San Francisco ILGWU’s board, working as a union organizer for the next 20 years before leaving to work for California employment services.