One unidentified unioner said it best in the middle of the meeting that led up to it: “It took the Yankee Division to lick the Kaiser. Now let the Yankee operators lick Burleson.”
The mystery member was, of course, drawing a direct comparison between the boys in battle across the sea who had defeated Kaiser Wilhelm — the last German Emperor, King of Prussia, and the central antagonist of World War I — and them, the beating heart of the New England Telephone Company, who now set their sights on Albert Burleson — the Postmaster General who held unquestioned power over all U.S. telephone companies during and after the war
As the papers later reported, the woman’s chutzpah empowered her fellow union members “like a flame to gunpowder".
With that, some 8,000 telephone operators — most of them single Irish women — put down their headsets, demanding higher wages and working conditions that didn’t involve such cramped spaces, overbearing managers, and stringent regulations around their physical measurements and overall appearances.
Now, this strike was different from most other strikes of 1919, the year that saw one-fifth of America’s industrial workers walk off the job over similarly terrible conditions. Unlike the strikes of the Boston Police Department (BIG @todayinboston #throwback to 9/9) and other male-dominated industries, the boys’ club of organized labor refused to get behind the operators’ insistence on negotiating new contracts with Burleson.
But Boston’s telephone operators knew their value to the New England economy. The telephone was now central to a day’s work — especially for the high-powered executive crowd.
Without these women at the switchboard to connect people, business busted in Boston.
Their grit paid off.
After being shamed by politicians far and wide, today in Boston, 1919, Burleson gave the New England Telephone Company permission to haggle with the operators’ union.
In 2 days, the women went back to their desks with higher pay, a new policy for splitting shifts, and a guaranteed right to organize.