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Smiles as telephone workers take strike vote: 1946

Smiles as telephone workers take strike vote: 1946
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Telephone operators smile as they mark strike ballots at Turner’s Arena February 7, 1946, but they didn’t say whether the smiles meant yes or no.

The nationwide ballot was conducted by the umbrella union for the local Washington Telephone Traffic Union (WTTU)—The National Federation of Telephone Workers (NFTW), an independent union.

The year before, the NFTW called for a four-hour meeting—effectively a mini strike—where 200,000 telephone workers took part in simultaneous meetings around the country.

In 1946 the NTTW cobbled together 17 contracts of local units around the country to expire at the same time in order to try to force the AT&T system into a nationwide agreement. Many were on day–to-day extensions.

The Washington operators had just come off a week-long local strike in January over archaic and silly work rules like requiring operators to call a supervisor when changing their headset from one ear to another or before taking an aspirin.
AT&T settled on the eve of a nationwide strike.

The agreement between the NFTW and AT&T provided that the contract with the long distance operators union would provide the pattern for other telephone unions.

The compromise formula brokered by the U.S. Conciliation Service provided for a one-year agreement and wage increases based on craft. The agreement did not achieve a union shop but obtained a limited maintenance of membership.

It was the first nationwide agreement negotiated by the union.

The following year in 1947, the union was unable to reach an agreement and struck. Long distance service was immediate crippled by the walkout by 300,000 workers across the country.

The strike was ostensibly over wages and benefits, but quickly became a test of wills between the union, which sought a national agreement, and AT&T which preferred to deal with each city or geographic area separately.

The strike lasted for nearly four weeks and ended as local units began striking their own deals with the company.

The overwhelming majority of strikers were women, making it the largest labor action by women to that date.

Shortly after the strike a majority of locals of the Federation re-organized themselves into the Communications Workers of America (CWA) with a stronger national organization.

Mary Gannon led the local operators union from the time it was a company union in 1935 through militant strikes in the 1940s and up until 1950--after the Communications Workers of America was formed. She was one of the few women union leaders in the Washington, D.C. area at that time. Margaret Gilmore at the Bureau of Engraving was another.

She led approximately 200 strikes—most for an hour or two—during her career, including a one-day strike that disrupted White House communications during World War II. Many of the strikes were sympathy strikes helping other telephone unions around the country and helping to lay the basis for a national union.

She was in the late stages of pregnancy with her son Tommy during the long 1947 strike, and put in the long hours and picket duty required of a union leader. Her son was born shortly after the strike collapsed.

She continued to work after giving birth helping to form the Communications Workers of America later in 1947 in the aftermath of the failed strike.

Gannon said of her decision to resign at age 38 in 1950, “I was torn between two children, for I feel like the union was my child too. But in the end I felt like I must give more attention to Tommy.” During her tenure, the telephone operators were known as “Gannon’s girls.”

For more information and related images, see

The photographer is unknown. The image is a Washington Daily News photograph that is courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.
Date: 2018-01-30 05:32:30

Washington Telephone Traffic Union National Federation Workers WTTU NFTW strike ballot vote walkout authorization work stoppage job action 1946 Turner’s Arena D.C. operators switchboard Chesapeake Potomac Company AT&T

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