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Telegraph Strike

8/16/2017:

On this date in 1907, the country faced a communication crisis. The telegraphers working for Western Union and for the Postal Telegraph Company had gone out on strike. Since 1900, telegraphers had worked to organize. In 1903, several of those organizations came together to form the Commercial Telegraphers Union of America. There were approximately 8,000 members in 60 locals. Goals of the union included equal pay for equal work and improved working conditions, as well as the end to sexual harassment of women employees. Another issue was the cost of typewriters. Typewriters had become vital to copying down messages, but telegraphers were required to buy their own machines.

Telegraphers in San Francisco went out on strike in June. The U.S. Labor Bureau Commissioner negotiated a settlement, and it seemed as if the local strike was nearing an end. But in July, Western Union fired a telegrapher who refused to work with a nonunion employee hired to replace a striking worker. The strike exploded, and almost overnight it spread across the entire country.

The Devil’s Lake Inter-Ocean reported that the impact of the strike was likely to be extensive. Communication had been disrupted with major cities like New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. These larger cities were described as being paralyzed, as many businesses had become dependent on the telegraph.

While an estimated 30,000 telegraphers had walked off the job, the situation was different in North Dakota. Many telegraphers in the small offices around the state were also managers, and they couldn’t very well go on strike. They would be financially responsible as they were under bond to handle all the business of the office. If they walked off the job, they would forfeit their bond and, in addition, they would not be reinstated once the strike was resolved.

Although the strike disrupted communication, the union was unable to hold out. Workers deserted the strike or were replaced by nonunion employees. The CTUA called off the strike in November, 1907 without achieving any of its aims. With telegraph companies suffering losses, the newspaper characterized the situation as “an ill wind that blows no good.” However, the ill wind that blew for the telegraph company blew good for the Bell Telephone Company. The disruption of telegraph service increased telephone usage.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Sources:

Devils Lake Inter-Ocean. “Telegraphers in Gigantic Strike Throughout the United States.” 16 August, 1907.

The Telegraphers Webpage. "http://www.mindspring.com/~tjepsen/Teleg.html" http://www.mindspring.com/~tjepsen/Teleg.html Accessed 2 July, 2017.

The Smithsonian Institution. “Guide to Western Union Telegraph Company Records. "http://sova.si.edu/record/NMAH.AC.0205" http://sova.si.edu/record/NMAH.AC.0205 Accessed 2 July, 2017.