Wednesday, May 16, 2018

I'd Like to Place a Call

Bell Telephone used this idealized image of the telephone
operator in its publications; World War I era

In January 1921, a trade journal called the Union Telephone Operator made its debut.  It hit the ground running, Vol. 1, No. 1, with an editorial that surely provoked J. Edgar Hoover:

The trade unionist is interested in other things than shop conditions.  Every economic, political and social question attracts him.  This type of worker is not favored by anti-union employers, anti-union newspapers, anti-union business men, anti-union bankers and their political agents  . . .  Those interests want a slave class, not in name but in fact. 

Although the FBI would not be formally established for another few years, in 1921 Hoover was chief of the General Intelligence Division within President Warren Harding’s Department of Justice.  There he dedicated himself to rooting out radical political activity and oversaw the Palmer Raids, through which more than 500 foreign nationals were arrested and deported.

In light of the focus on “Reds” – Communists, Bolsheviks, anarchists and leftists – unions inevitably fell under scrutiny.

Agitate! Educate! Organize!  The goal of the new journal was to inspire telephone operators to demand better wages, better hours, and better working conditions.  The workers were largely women and had been since 1878 when the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company hired a woman named Emma Nutt.  The job appealed particularly to women who did not wish to work in manufacturing.

But problems existed.  The women had to conform to certain body proportions because they worked in very tight quarters.  They were required to maintain perfect posture throughout nine-hour shifts.  They were not allowed to speak to each other and always had to be patient and polite, even to rude customers.  These were several of the indignities.  

Switchboard operators, 1914
(Source: Library of Congress)
In 1892, the operators became members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They had no voice, however, largely because men feared “petticoat rule.”  

Then, in 1918, activists formed a Telephone Operators’ Department within the IBEW.  Julia O’Connor, the daughter of Irish immigrants, led the new department.  A determined strategist and talented writer, she had worked as a telephone operator since 1908 until she became disgusted and left to be an organizer.   

Among O’Connor’s victories was the 1919 telephone operators’ strike in Boston.  In a way, the strike brings to mind the New York City Blizzard of 1888, which brought daily life to a dead stop for more than a week.  During the 1919 Boston telephone operators’ strike, communications ground to a halt for two days, which paralyzed New England.  

The outcome of the Boston telephone operators’ strike affected the local only, although it inspired operators nationwide. The local came away with higher wages, an eight-hour day, and the right to organize. But the strike also convinced the telephone company that it couldn’t afford to depend on the operators. 

Indeed, the heyday of the telephone operator had already passed.  Even in the first issue of the Union Telephone Operator, Julia O’Connor explained why: the advent of “the automatic” – also known as the dial telephone.

The union assured telephone operators that their services would be needed for at least another generation, as it would take a long time to phase in the automatic system.  In fact, operators continued to handle many local calls and all long distance calls.  And it wasn’t till 1954 that New York Telephone finally abandoned the switchboard, as shown in this amusing instructional film, “How to Dial Your Telephone":   

The Union Telephone Operator did not last long.  Its final issue appeared in December 1922. Julia O'Connor wrote many of the articles, expressing chagrin that American laborers lived in the "back wash" of World War I. 

1921 sketch of a telephone operator

On immigration she was ambivalent, even as the daughter of immigrants. The Johnson Quota Act of 1921 restricted immigration from eastern and southern Europe.  By and large, organized labor supported these restrictions because immigrants would work for less money than would unionized workers.

But she celebrated the Sheppard-Towner Act, which funded health clinics to provide maternity and child care. O’Connor knew from the 1920 census that more women than ever – over 8 million – occupied the workforce.  Like most labor activists, she lobbied for a safety net for women and children.  Sheppard-Towner passed in 1921.  

And Julia O’Connor was not without a certain sense of humor.  On the back page of one issue, a “Marriage Notice” appeared:

Miss Low Wages and Mr. Nonunion Worker were married at the home of the bride, Industrial Centers.  Mr. 100% Profit Employer, the father, gave the bride away without any ceremony.  Mr. Longer Hours blessed the union.

Scandal mongers are circulating the rumor that the couple are not happy because the newly wed husband has been flirting with Miss Join D. Union.  The bride’s father however is reported to be opposed to any talk of divorce.

Unsurprisingly, Julia O’Connor became a New Dealer.  She died in 1972.   

Julia O'Connor

1 comment:

  1. Oh, how things come full circle. Today's kids also would need a primer on how to dial a telephone.
    You also point up why organized labor has has such a hard time defending its gains ins this country. The pressure against it is very real.


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