Myra K. Wolfgang
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
|Profession||Women's Rights Activist and Labor Leader|
Myra K. Wolfgang (May 1914 – April 1976) was a labor leader and women's rights activist in Detroit from the 1930s through the 1970s. She was most active in the labor movement, advocating for the working poor and for women in the workforce.
Myra (Komaroff) Wolfgang was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in May 1914 to Jewish Eastern European Immigrants. Her parents, Abraham and Ida Komaroff, raised Myra and her two siblings in a politically liberal environment that valued independent thinking and their Jewish culture. Her parents did not emphasize religion, and chose to marry in Montreal's labor temple rather than a synagogue. Wolfgang was often quoted as saying she was, "a union-made union maid."
In 1915 the family moved to Detroit where her father started a business selling real estate. After World War I he opened an office in downtown Detroit and move his family into a larger home on Westminster Avenue. After making her way through the Detroit school system, Myra went to study commercial art and interior design at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After only completing one year of school the Great Depression hit. This made continuing her education in Pittsburgh impossible. In the summer of 1932, Wolfgang returned to Detroit to live with her family.
Also in 1932, while looking for work, Myra became involved at Detroit's Local 705 of the then Detroit Waiters Union. She was hired the same day, working for Louis Koenig, secretary-treasurer of the Local 705, as a receptionist. Koenig noticed Myra's enthusiasm for her new job, and began to instruct her in union history and procedures. She henceforth was referred to by Koenig, as "my protégée."
She saw her first Union success in 1934 and was then elected to Local 705's executive board as its recording secretary. In 1936 Governor Frank Murphy recognized her for her efficient oversight of the Local 705 and appointed her to the Domestic and Personal Service Department of the Michigan Employment Security Commission. In 1937, 23 year old Myra helped organize and participated in a successful sit-down strike at the F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store in Detroit. This effort was significant in that it represented striking the first store and public building.
In the 1940s and 1950s Myra K. Wolfgang ran the Detroit Joint Council and became the Vice President of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union. After Louis Koenig retired, Mrs. Wolfgang became the Secretary Treasurer and Chief Executive Officer of Detroit's Local 705 while also continuing her position as Vice President of the International Union. In the 1960s Myra was active in the enactment of the 1966 Michigan minimum wage law. The law required all employers to pay each employee a minimum $1 an hour wage.
In 1974, Myra chaired and was integral of the organization of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). For their first meeting more than 3,000 women came from over 82 labor unions across the United States. The CLUW focused on helping women become leaders in their own unions by instructing them on how to present issues and craft arguments during contract talks. She was also lifelong member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and insisted on racially integrated crews created by her union's hiring hall.
Just before her 62nd birthday, Myra K. Wolfgang died in April 1976 from a brain tumor. Nicknamed the "Battling Belle of Detroit" by Detroit's local media and championed "the most important woman unionist in the country" by the Detroit Free Press; she devoted her entire life to the Labor and Women's Rights Movements continuously pushing forward for the rights of the working class.
The Myra Wolfgang Papers are held by the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit. This collection consists of .25 linear feet of records relating to her work for the Hotel, Motel, and Restaurant Employees Union and her involvement in the women's rights movement.
The Walter P. Reuther Library also holds the Coalition of Labor Union Women Records, which contains 88 linear feet of material documenting the group's activities from 1972 to 2001.