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Labor' Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878-1923.

Labor's Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1978-1923. By Stephen H. Norwood, Urbana, IL, University of Illinois Press, 1990. 340 pp.

Labor's Flaming Youth describes the Telephone Operators' Union in the early 20th century as a celebration of "the strength and dignity of the woman worker while bringing women squarely into the center of the labor movement."

Stephen Norwood's book is good history. He is too devoted to the ideals of the labor movement and the equal role of women in society to be completely objective, but he thoroughly documents his work and presents both sides of the issues. He uses a wide range of sources, including interviews with individuals who were participants in these historical events. One of the interview was with his grandmother, Rose Finkelstein Norwood, an effective labor leader, whose idealism is shown in her grandson's scholarship.

Norwood's interest is in the female trade unionist who identifies with the goals of the working class, and simultaneously assumes a position as man's equal in the labor movement. For a few brief moments in labor history, some telephone operators' unions achieved this goal.

In the late 19th century, white-collar work moved toward feminization of lower paid jobs. Young women replaced men and boys as telephone operators. The first attempts to organize these women were led by men. But only one of these early unions survived for more than a brief period.

Female trade unionists achieved their first success in Boston in 1912, when they organized a strong telephone operator's union. New England feminists assisted female workers in organizing and also provided leadership training. Boston became home to a dynamic local telephone union, and also provided leadership for unions across the Nation. It was, Norwood writes, "in effect the only women-led international union on the continent." Norwood describes how, in 1913, working women in Boston fought the Bell system and won some of their demands.

In 1918, the Federal Government, as a wartime precaution, took control of the telephone system. Although, theoretically, the postal system was in charge of telephone service, in fact, operating telephone company officials ran the company. Wartime government occupation supposedly recognized the right to bargain collectively and join unions, but in the words of the president of the telephone operators union, "never was the oppressive, antiunion policy of the telephone company so freely and fearlessly exercises as during this period."

Following World War I, the Boston telephone operators struck when the Postmaster General outlines a settlement procedure that denied the right of telephone operators to bargain collectively. Norwood notes that the operators began mass strike meetings with a "song and dance prelude," and that the "enormous energy and brassisness of the flapper" contributed to the operators' victory over the New England Telephone Co. This "youth culture" is a theme Norwood repeats throughout the book. There was no inconsistency between young, fun-loving exuberance and labor militancy.

In 1920, the telephone company rejected collective bargaining. In 1923, the telephone operators' union struck to maintain some of its earlier gains. But the introduction of the telephone dial system reduced the need for operators. New employees replaced strikers. Strikers who wished to regain their jobs had to file individual applications for reemployment and, if rehired, were considered "junior" to their replacements.

In analyzing the problems encountered in organizing women, Norwood repeatedly notes the paternalism of the telephone company and the patronizing by male-dominated unions. The telephone company fought operators' unions by providing a wide range of benefits, including sickness disability pay, cafeterias, and lounges. The attitude of the telephone officials was that they took proper care of the young women they hired and there was no need for outside interference.

The attitude of many male unionists was equally troubling. They did not take women's unions seriously. A typical comment was that if men received adequate wages, there would be no need for their wives, sisters, sweethearts, and daughters to work and they could stay at home where they belonged.

From the inception of telephone unions, men and women had a troubled partnership. As early as 1907, Norwood states, the failure of telephone men in San francisco to support the operators "presaged serious difficulty in the future." During the post-World War I strike, the telephone men, according to a female strike leader, did not join the walkout until "the fight had been won." And, during the critical strike defeat of 1923, male unionists openly encouraged strikebreaking. Lack of solidarity between men and women was one of the root causes of the ultimate failure of telephone operators' unions.

For a brief decade, the Telephone Operators' Union had improved the lives of its members. But the union never recovered from its 1923 defeat. The aspirations of its "flaming youth" became fleeting memories which had little long-term effect on the history of the labor movement.
COPYRIGHT 1990 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Grossman, Jonathan
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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