Telephone Workers' Strike
On this date in 1968, just over two weeks after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, telephone workers in North Dakota and across the country were out on strike. When Dr. King died, he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. He believed that workers rights and racial justice were “closely intertwined.” The telephone workers’ strike had been postponed a week to give space in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination.
He probably would have supported the 200,000 members of the Communication Workers of America who walked off the job. Among them were members of CWA Local 7303 in North Dakota. They were mostly telephone installers and operators. In case you don’t remember, telephone operators were the ones sitting at switchboards saying “Operator! Where can I direct your call?” Being a switchboard operator was considered mostly a women’s profession, and that was reflected in the leadership of Mrs. Florence Fluegel, who served as the local's president.
The pickets were going 24 hours a day for 18 days. Needless to say, this was a major operation that involved coordinating schedules, food, childcare, and more. On the third day, the union had to supply members with “giant rain coats” to fend off the weather, but according to president Fluegel it “didn’t slow the pickets down a bit.”
On May 5, the strike ended. Employees went back to work with a 20% raise over 3 years and an agreement that AT&T would pay their full healthcare premium.
This 1968 strike was bolstered by uprisings that came before it, ranging from previous telephone operator walkouts, to the historic protests for racial equality that made up the ongoing Civil Rights movement. And it paved the way for women and people of color to demand more from major companies like AT&T, and from society at large. In 1973, AT&T was forced to pay $15 million in back pay and $30 million in wage adjustments to women and men of color after it was proved the company systematically kept them in the lowest paying positions and didn’t allow them to advance.
And in 1973, the Communication Workers of America started committees to address gender and racial bias within their own organization. One of the changes this led to was the first CWA National Women’s Conference in 1978 in Minneapolis. It’s likely that women from North Dakota attended and shared their two cents on the future of the labor movement.
Dakota Datebook by Leewana Thomas
Fargo Forum 1968 April 17, April 18, April 19, April 21, May 6
CWA history timeline: https://cwa-union.org/about/cwa-history
History Television Network: “The rise and fall of telephone operators” https://www.history.com/news/rise-fall-telephone-switchboard-operators
CWA Local 7303 still exists in Fargo: https://cwa-union.org/cwa_local_7303