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1891-1920 IBEW vs. The Corporations


When It Works

When strikes are conducted successfully, they can have far reaching effects on not only the strikers, but on succeeding groups of members. A successful strike by Local 84, Atlanta, lasted from August 1916 until March 1919. But for the next nine years, the company was strongly unionized with almost-continuous signed agreements with the local.

The strike began when 18 men were fired for union membership. The 150 linemen were joined by the street railway and gas workers. Although a wage increase was negotiated, the primary reason for the strike was the right to organize. The members won that right and also reinstatement of the original 18 fired workers and preferential listing for those strikers desiring reemployment. Two reasons for the success of the strike were the leadership of the local’s business manager and the support given Local 84 by organized labor in Atlanta and throughout the country.

The April 1919 strike by telephone operators against New England Telephone Company was one of the most massive strikes in history involving mostly women. It resulted when the Post Office Department didn’t provide a wage-adjustment procedure for the demands of the operators, instead using a system omitting union bargaining with management. Alter attempting to follow this system, but receiving no reply from Postmaster General Burleson and after working for several months without a contract, the operators were ready to strike.

Strike Committee meets with Boston Mayor Andrew Peters. Seated are Mayor Peter and IBEW Telephone Operators' Department Director O'Connor; standing are, from left, Bridie Powers, Mary Mahoney, May Matthews and Mary June. (The Boston Globe, as it appeared in Labor's Flaming Youth, Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878-1923, Stephen H. Norwood.)

The IBEW leadership was concerned about attacks on telephone workers’ right to organize and bargain, but it urged the operators to wait until the results arrived in May on a referendum for a nation-wide strike of telephone workers. Since March 1919 Julia O’Connor, head of the IBEW Telephone Operators’ Department, had trouble preventing the 4,000 Boston operators from striking. But in April the operators’ patience ran out.

More than 2,000 Boston telephone operators and representatives of every IBEW operators’ local in New England jammed Faneuil Hall on April 11. Vice President Gustave Bugniazet attended the meeting with instructions from acting President James Noonan to try to prevent a strike. Brother Bugniazet’s efforts failed, and the motion to strike passed unanimously. Subsequently, Sister O’Connor issued orders to leave the job at 7 AM on April 15 and presented the workers’ wage-increase demands.

The strike shut down telephone service in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. But the women didn’t at first have the support of the male telephone workers in the five states; and AFL President Samuel Gompers, supporting the IBEW leadership, sent a telegram opposing the strike. Nevertheless, the women set up 24-hour picket lines, very likely a first for any women strikers. Workers, such as taxi drivers, belonging to unions coming in contact with strike-breakers refused their service to the strikebreakers. The police in Boston and other New England cities were exceptionally sympathetic to the strikers, even to lending raincoats during a storm and getting lunch for the strikers.

The strike lasted five days, with the IBEW male telephone workers joining the women the third day. Postmaster General Burleson relinquished his opposition to bargaining, and a settlement was reached which included the operators’ right to bargain with the company’s general manager.

The strike was considered a potent victory for the telephone operators, who also returned to their positions with full seniority. In addition, they demonstrated their ability and determination, while challenging established male trade union authority, to secure better wages and conditions for telephone operators.

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1891-1920 IBEW vs. The Corporations

1848 Mexican war ends; gold discovered in California.

1849 British Columbia miners strike at Port Rupert.

1850 First organization of U.S. black workers, American League of Colored Laborers.

1854 Hamilton, Ontario, tailors strike to protest mechanization.

1856 Gold discovered in Fraser River (Canada) basin.

1860 Some Canadian unions begin to affiliate with U.S. organizations; first labor organization pension plan set up by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (members in Canada and U.S.).

1861 U.S. National Molders Union organizes Montreal molders; American Miners Association is founded; U.S. Civil War begins.

1862 First use of prevailing wage in U.S. (federal navy-yard workers).

First U.S. union of federal employees is New York City letter carriers.

1865 Civil War ends; the Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery; President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated.

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