I am sure many people have never heard of the fierce Polish-American woman Mary Zuk, but her story and those who followed her needs to be shared. Mary Zuk led an entirely female run meat strike in Hamtramck, Michigan during the Great Depression. The Polish-American women of this Detroit community fought to keep their families fed and would not take no for an answer. This meat strike was so significant that the women took it to the meat packer companies in Chicago and to the federal government in Washington D.C.
The city of Detroit had one of the largest Polish-American populations in the country at this time.
Hamtramck attracted so many Polish immigrants because of the Dodge automotive plant in the community and they became the working class in Detroit. The women were in charge of the financial aspects of the household and when the Depression came the husbands began to lose their jobs and the income was gone. Eviction and lack of welfare support was rampant in Hamtramck. Families were starving and bad health was causing sickness, it was the women who stood up to protect their families and argue that the cost of living was too much.
Mary Zuk raised an “army” of strong and vocal women in the Polish community and threatened, “If we don’t get what we want watch out”. They were fighting for a 20 percent reduction in the price of meat. They began marching on July 28, 1935 with 500 hundred housewives and were going to give the butchers “till Friday to cut their prices…If they don’t we’ll start picketing again and keep it up!” The women lived up to these threats as well. The 500 housewives turned into 2,000 by July 31st and by August 20th 7,000 housewives. Eventually the strike extended to housewives in other communities of Detroit which showed the great influence they had. With the 100% commitment of the women in this community and with Zuk’s militaristic leadership butcher shops began to close down for weeks due to the boycotts and lack of sales. The women were beginning to control the economy of their local community and the closing of the butcher shops brought them into the public eye. They were breaking out of the private sphere.
Often the public newspapers in the area published articles that were biased and accused the women of attacking men, of being uneducated in the matters they were fighting for, and portrayed them as the unideal woman. Some of these portrayals do come from some of the violent tactics the women were using. The housewives were arrested for destroying stocks of meat by burning them with kerosene, physically fighting, and ripping meat out of the hands of those still purchasing at the butcher shops (including other women and children). Catherine Murda (another leader) threatened that they would block the passage of trucks in and out of the meat packing plants. This was very out of the norm for the idea of women in the 1930s, but showed how strong the women were and that they were not afraid to fight for what they believed in. They made a difference with the prices at home, but going national was different.
Mary Zuk envisioned this movement to fight for a better cost of living nationally. She even wanted to expand it into wage rights and price regulation in other industries. Zuk and other women in the community became involved in politics and were able to send a delegation to Chicago to speak to the meat packing companies. Zuk and her own delegation went to Washington where they confronted Henry Wallace the secretary of agriculture who ended up rudely ignoring them and pushing them aside. Would this have been the case if they had been a group of men?
This is an amazing story of women taking a public role they could not have before and making it to a national scale (their small Detroit strike eventually made it into the New York Times). They brought awareness to the struggles of working class families (especially immigrant families) and wrote a petition for President Roosevelt (though unfortunately nothing came of it). The women were able to break gender norms and become vocal, headstrong, and start becoming involved in politics. After her political experience from the Meat Strike in 1935, Mark Zuk became the first woman elected to Hamtramck City Council in 1936. She began to make more salary than her husband and got her family out of welfare assistance. Unfortunately, the old ways still held as she was denied re-election due to the divorce she had from her husband (and she wasn’t denied re-election because she came out as a communist either). Still, the meat strikers and Zuk gained respect, got what they wanted in their local community, and inspired others (especially the female cigar worker strikes in 1937). Can Zuk and the Polish-American women of Hamtramck still inspire women of today?
This is a short summary of the capstone project I made in during my undergraduate career. I used mostly sources from the local Detroit newspapers of the time Free Press, News, and Times. I also used the New York Times.