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The More Things Change: 97 Years Ago, The Phone Company Was Also Dealing With A Strike

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Female telephone workers on strike, Boston, 1919
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd
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0422-OPERATORS-ATC.mp3

This week, Verizon workers on the east coast, including about 5,000 in Massachusetts are out on strike. The more things change, right? Nearly a century ago, on this same week, The New England Telephone company was dealing with...you guessed it. Striking workers. It was – of course – a different time, and a different struggle. And while we don’t know how this current labor dispute will play out, we do know how that one ended. 

Just a few short decades after Alexander Graham Bell's 1873 breakthrough, the telephone had become a ubiquitous and indispensable means of communication. But back in the early 20th century, every single phone call needed to be connected by an operator. In Boston, that job fell to some 8,000 single women, most in their teens or early 20s with, at best, a high school diploma.

"They were largely Irish women. They were, according to the company, which made a big deal about this, respectable young women," said Duke University history professor Sarah Deutsch, author of Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940.

"They had a high pressure job, they had a job that was hugely important to the national communications network and national security, because they connected all calls," she explained.

But their wages were low, grueling split shifts were the norm, and worse.

"My grandmother used to tell me there was a lot of physical abuse. There was also sexual abuse," said Oklahoma University history professor Stephen H. Norwood, author of Labors Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878-1923. His grandmother, Rose, was a Boston telephone operator during this period. 

"Sometimes they would make you sit in a special punishment room without pay. Just degrading practices like that," he said.

But Deutsch pointed out that these women also had some unique advantages. Most watched their Irish fathers, brothers and neighbors partake in the bourgeoning labor movement, and gain increasing political power on the police force and at the ballot box. And Boston was an epicenter for the intensifying woman’s’ movement, home of the Women’s Trade Union League, which helped the operators organize in 1912.

"It was a mix of, on it's board, about half more elite women and half working women. And it was explicitly so those elite women could help organize and work on behalf of the working class women in the organization," said Deutsch.

Still, by 1919 conditions had worsened for the operators. And on April 15, despite not having the support of the male telephone unions, despite the urging of legendary labor leader Samuel Gompers that they not, the telephone operators went out on strike.

"They take this enormous risk, knowing that if they lose their jobs are gone," said Norwood.

The New England Phone Company mobilized to break the strike. But the operators were ready, and mobilized their own powerful coalition.

When replacement workers were brought in from other cities?

"Cab drivers and hotel workers refuse to take scabs anywhere," said Deutsch. 

When local college students, mostly young men of means  who were sympathetic to management, were enlisted to work the phones?

"At the strike rallies the leadership would call out, 'Who are these college students?' And they get this huge roar from the assembled strikers, 'Lizzies,' meaning they’re not really men," said Norwood.

When management turned to soldiers, back from the war overseas, to man the lines?

"The strikers have a hundred soldiers in uniform, who are their brothers and their boyfriends, who join them in a parade behind the service flag of the union," said Deutsch. 

Parades, pickets and rallies were held in front of the telephone exchanges and on Boston Common. The largely Irish police force arrested not a single picketer or protester.

"They totally control the streets. You have the whole city of Boston backing these women," said Deutsch. 

After five days, with phone service essentially crippled, management caved. The women received a pay increase and recognition of their right to collectively bargain. It was a heady, but fleeting, victory. Just four years later, another strike failed miserably. By 1938, their union was no more.   

"It was this profound victory, and instead of being followed by decades of successful women's organizing, it's followed ultimately by isolation," said Deutsch. 

Still. Norwood says that many of the women who led that 1919 strike would make grass-roots labor organizing their life’s work –  including his grandmother, earning victories large and small for laundry workers, domestic employees and department store clerks.

"They affected a lot of lives. They did a lot of great things for people; often people that could not defend themselves. And that was something that they carried forward form the old telephone operators union," said Norwood. 

The 1919 Boston telephone operators strike, when 8,000 single young women took on the New England Telephone Company – and won – 97 years ago this week.

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