Labor Review Centennial, 1907-2007
Declaring 'submission to wrong is not patriotism,' local telephone operators went on strike in 1918
From the Minneapolis Labor Review, April 19, 2007
By Elizabeth Faue
Only a few days after the Armistice that ended World War I, Twin City telephone workers met to discuss the low wages and poor working conditions that came with the war. On the morning of November 15, 1918, newspaper headlines announced that the “Hello Girls” were out on strike. A parade of 1200 strikers marched through the streets that day. They used horns, rattlers, automobile sounders, and “everything else that would make a noise.” Carrying the American flag, they showed themselves enthusiastic patriots and strikers. The telephone strike began in a spirit of patriotic celebration as workers voiced their grievances. Backed by local labor unions, the telephone workers stayed out on strike for the next several weeks. In doing so, they defied the order of Postmaster General Albert Burleson that strikes in government service “were not permissible.” Labor newspapers had predicted that the electrical workers conflict with the anti-union Burleson. The November telephone strike of Local 89(A) of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers fulfilled that prophecy.
Under the leadership of local labor organizer, Myrtle Cain, the telephone operators who went on strike that day were loyal Americans. They bought Liberty Bonds. They gave to the Red Cross. Their family members fought abroad to save the world for Democracy. During the war, operators and linemen kept the lines of communication open. But the peace allowed workers the freedom to protest the ceiling on wages. After all, there was something un-American about a company that made profits during the war and yet had held workers’ wages below the poverty line. The wages of telephone operators were “an insult to the best traditions of Americanism.” They now asked for “decent justice” from their employers and the public.
Parading through the cities and blocking traffic, the striking operators showed their anger at the telephone companies and the Postmaster General. Workers saw how the labor force had shrunk during the war, and they knew that one worker was now doing the work of two and three. During the war, however, Burleson had kept tight control over labor in the telephone industry. The arrangement served telephone companies by limiting wage increases and ignoring labor unions. By 1918, Burleson’s role in censoring the mails already had made him an enemy of the labor movement. His refusal to meet with workers and union representatives only deepened their dislike of him. As Thomas Flaherty of the Federal Postal Employees declared, Burleson was “an implacable enemy of organized labor” and a “destroyer of morale and security and efficiency.” Workers condemned the actions of this “reckless autocrat” who “held the views of a seventeenth century feudal baron.” With the end of the war, it was time to put an end to “Burlesonism.” Despite opposition, Burleson to used his authority in telephone strikes to defeat unionism.
By the second week of the strike, the telephone companies began to threaten prosecution of striking workers and withheld their Liberty Bonds. Facing these threats, striking operators and linemen were active and visible at the telephone exchanges. Strikers cut telephone lines, jeered scabs, and played hide-and-seek with those who sought to return to work. One night, a group of pickets broke into the main Minneapolis exchange through a window in the women’s room. They cut the building’s wiring and closed the heating vents. The building soon filled with smoke. As the strike went into its fourth week, fourteen strikers and sympathizers and two boys from the community were arrested and then released. The Minneapolis Labor Review reported that the arrests showed the trickery of companies that double-crossed their workers.
The strikers had a tremendous amount of community support. On one occasion, when police threatened to carry off a woman picket from the line, the crowd rescued her. Parades of strikers were cheered. The head of the Northeast Neighborhood House arranged for meetings with the women strikers, as did teachers, university professors, and women engaged in the struggle for the women’s vote. Labor unions and ordinary workers gave generously to the strike funds. Local newspapers printed letters from “Hello Girls Friend” and “Central Park” which praised the loyal and patriotic operators. Other letters slammed the society girls who “kindly volunteered as strike breakers to try and deprive the working girl of what was not even a living wage.”
While telephone company ads earlier showcased the patriotic efforts of operators as “the front ranks of our national ‘army of women,’” the companies now condemned the strikers as unAmerican. Praising the operator who remained at work while her coworkers went on strike, the company wrote, “Hers is patriotism applied. She is performing her part with enthusiasm and fidelity.” They argued that the failure of women to perform their part, that is to protest rather than work, was a failure of patriotism. The striking telephone workers had their own answer: “Submission to wrong,” they said, was “not patriotism.” The strike, just like the nation’s war effort, was “a struggle for freedom and True Americanism.”
After twelve weeks, the telephone strike ended in a stalemate on February 8, 1919. Although the company agreed to arbitration, the government intervened and blocked settlement. Eventually, those strikers who could returned to work. The militancy of the telephone operators had surprised the labor movement even as it blocked government efforts to curtail the growth of unions. Tooting horns and shaking rattlers, singing and walking the picket line, and showing the American flag as symbol of workers’ freedom, the new women of the telephone strike wove together the strands of class and nation in their protest. Nationwide, the image of women workers on strike promised a new political and industrial democracy.
Elizabeth Faue is associate professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit. This article is drawn from a longer paper she presented at the 2007 Organization of American Historians conference which met recently in Minneapolis. Faue is the author of Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
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