April 15 Women Stand in Solidarity

April 15, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1919. 

That was the day the telephone girls, as they were called, walked out on strike against New England Bell, essentially crippling communications in five New England states. 

It was considered the most massive strike of women workers since the ‘Uprising of the 20,000’ in 1909. 

They were members of the all-women National Telephone Operators’ Department of the IBEW. 

Historian Stephen Norwood devoted many pages to the strike in his book, Labor’s Flaming Youth.

The government had taken over the nation’s telephone and telegraph industry during World War I and placed it under the control of Postmaster General Albert Burleson. 

Just days earlier, thousands of angry women who worked in the Boston exchanges packed Faneuil Hall, demanding immediate strike action. 

Julia O’Connor, the leader of the telephone operator’s union, called the strike at 7 a.m. 

The union demanded a 60% wage increase and full scale to be reached after four years instead of seven. 

Union and non-union alike responded to the strike call and walked off the job, establishing 24 hour picketing. 

On the second day of the strike, over 1000 striking telephone operators marched through the streets of Boston and were cheered on by returning soldiers. 

O’Connor organized picketing around the Boston hotels where out-of-town strikebreakers were housed. 

Unionized service workers across the city denied services to the strikebreakers. 

Postmaster Burleson smeared the striking women as unpatriotic and threatened to replace them with returning soldiers. 

The soldiers however, sided with the telephone operators.

After five days, the union won direct bargaining rights and a $4 a week raise.

The strike was considered one of the few postwar World War I strikes to end in victory.

 

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