At 6 a.m., on this date in 1947, East Coast telephone workers walked off their jobs and went on strike against one of the country's largest industrial monopolies, AT&T, including - in this region - Northwestern Bell Telephone.
As the deadline of 6 a.m. marched its way west through other time zones, the strike effectively closed down telephone operations across the country. It was led by the National Federation of Telephone Workers, an organization of some 630,000 persons, mostly women who worked as operators. In fact, it was the largest walkout of women in U.S. history.
Although telephone strikes were not new, it was the first time a telephone walkout went nationwide. As the deadline approached, Attorney General Tom Clark threatened to invoke the Smith-Connelly War Act, allowing the government to take over crucial industries. However, WWII had ended, and President Truman preferred to remain a spectator if possible.
Some 18 million dial phones were mostly unaffected, but the majority of calls back then still had to be handled by telephone operators. Operators' job conditions had been deteriorating due to new legislation and post-war economics. They had one other important issue, as well. Their male counterparts were receiving higher pay for equal work.
In our region, the strike came at a particularly bad time. A crippling snow storm had downed telephone lines in North Dakota and Minnesota, but maintenance workers refused to fix them. To get the news to Bismarck, Associated Press reports had to be re-routed by teletype through Helena MT.
AT&T supervisors took over the operators' positions, but for weeks, fewer than one out of four long distance calls went through. When asked if his call was an emergency, one Jamestown man replied, "Wouldn't you call it an emergency if you had to let your mother-in-law know you'd be late for dinner?"
In Chicago, another man used his pet carrier pigeon to deliver messages to his wife.
AT&T refused to negotiate on a nationwide bases, saying workers in states like North and South Dakota could manage just fine on lower salaries. Instead, the company focused on dividing and conquering the 49 individual unions represented by the telephone workers' National Federation.
On April 28th, North Dakota workers still unanimously opposed Bell's nominal offer to increase wages by $2.50 per week. The following day, however, New York City workers accepted a separately negotiated contract, and the unity of the Federation fell apart. Within days, the strike was over.
By Merry Helm
Cobble, Dorothy Sue. The other women's movement: workplace justice and social rights in modern America. Princeton University Press. 2004:21.
A Horse in a Hat. Time Magazine. 14 Apr 1947. HP-Time.com. (24 Jan 2009)
Van Horn, Carl E. and Herbert A. Schaffner. Work in America: An encyclopedia of history, policy, and society. ABC-CLIO. 2003:89.
The Bismarck Tribune. Mar 1, 26, 27 1947; Apr 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14, 25, 26, 28, 29 1947; May 1 1947.