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September 2022

Grounded in History
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A Century of Progress

On June 17, 1914, the last pole in a telephone line stretching across North America was set. A generation before it wasn't possible to take a train across the United States, but in 1914 it was possible to have a conversation with someone a continent away. Few inventions in history have altered our lives as much as the telephone, and the IBEW was involved at every step.

IBEW linemen strung the wires, IBEW craftsmen built the phones and IBEW technicians maintained the switching machinery. By 1914 the IBEW had successfully organized an enormous network of operators required to run those switchboards and it was primarily women who led the way.

In 1897, Mary Honzik of Cleveland, Ohio, formed Local 80, made up entirely of women telephone operators. But because of employee turnover and intense anti-union pressure, the local was short lived. It wasn't until 1912 that Julia S. O'Connor organized the first permanent local union of telephone operators, known as Sub Local 1 of 104 in Boston. This unique local, as O'Connor stated, "came into existence almost entirely as a result of the hardship and burden imposed by the long and irregular working hours, and the then-infamous double shift, known as the split trick," where operators were required to work two shifts in a day with a three-hour unpaid break in between.

Sister O'Connor was born in Woburn, Mass., in 1890 to Irish-immigrant parents. After graduating high school, she began working as a switchboard operator and in 1910 moved to Boston to begin her organizing efforts. By 1912, as she later recounted, Sister O'Connor and her fellow workers "decided we belonged in the IBEW and met with [organizer] Peter F. Linehan who came to the city to help organize. The spirit for organization took hold and hundreds of members were initiated at each meeting. Within just a few short weeks, seven or eight hundred girls were organized; and the union made its first demands."

The demands were high but necessary for the worker's health and safety. In 1913, with over 1,500 members to its name, Sub Local 1 of 104 pressed for the abolition of the double shift, an 8-hour day, the establishment of a board of adjustment and a pay raise. They won on all counts. With its Boston victories, O'Connor spread the organizing movement throughout New England and the Midwest. Responding to union pressure, the telephone companies were among the first in the U.S. to codify the 8-hour workday and to establish grievance review boards and standard pay scales.

This success of the telephone operators coincided with IBEW's rapid growth nationwide. Between 1913 and 1919, our union saw the greatest leap in membership in its history — from 23,500 to 148,072. During this time, the U.S. also entered World War I, which saw the American telephone network come under government control. Sister O'Connor had the honor of serving as labor's only representative to the national board, presided over by Postmaster General Albert Burleson, which set telephone workers' wages and supervised their working conditions.

At war's end, O'Connor continued the fight for better wages and working conditions. In the summer of 1919, she led a massive strike which shut down phone service up and down the East Coast for almost a week. It was a wild success and the union's demands were met. This not only accelerated local organizing activity in the telephone industry, but it prompted the IBEW to set up a department at the International Office devoted entirely to telephone organizing and support. On Sept. 15, 1919, at the IBEW's 15th Convention, the formation of the Telephone Operators' Department was announced and Sister O'Connor was named its director, a position she held until her retirement in 1939.

Always willing to promote and defend the rights of workers in electrically related fields — from telephone operators to utility workers — the IBEW had become a progressive mechanism of positive change. This Labor Day, we honor Sister O'Connor as a champion of that change.

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"Julia O'Connor was an IBEW trailblazer. Women in the early 1900s weren't supposed to be outspoken leaders, but Sister O'Connor didn't listen to conventional wisdom. Instead, she organized 800 fellow telephone operators and helped pave the path to the 8-hour workday."

– IBEW Museum Curator Curtis Bateman