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September 25, 2013

Unrest, meaning worker unrest, not our lack of sleep here at the B.A.B.. The first purpose of this building was as the Riverside Central Office Exchange for Southwestern Bell. Female operators connected calls.  We’ve done some research into the phone company history, but I came upon some interesting new information about some of the operators that worked here. In June 1919, there was a short-lived operators strike for increased wages and the right to form a union.

This image is from which shows some very stylish strikers.

This image is from which shows some very stylish lady operators on strike.

Operators were paid $9 per week, which, adjusted for inflation is about $6,300 per year in today’s dollars. Their work week was made up of six working days with no vacation, paid or otherwise. That amounts to about half of the current poverty level. World War One ended in 1918 so it is reasonable to guess that some of the operators were widows with families to support. The working conditions were quite challenging. It sounds to me that the workers had reasons to be unhappy. Here are the articles (click on it to make it readable) where I learned about the strike:

Post DIspatch article from June 17, 1919 with some Riverside operators mentioned.

Post Dispatch article from June 17, 1919 with some Riverside operators mentioned.

Here’s the gist of the article- two operators from Riverside joined the strike. When they returned to work the following day, they were told to go to the Bell headquarters downtown to reapply for their jobs. They went to the union headquarters instead and filed a complaint. They were reinstated.

Follow up article in the Post Dispatch, June 18, 1919.

Follow up article in the Post Dispatch, June 18, 1919.

The part of this second article that caught my eye is Bell’s response to the strike. They said that ‘union would do them no good’ and that the ‘company had their interests at heart.’ Unions weren’t new but this was a period of expansion of their influence. These days, Right to Work is being debated in our legislator which is mostly a way to weaken labor unions.  Like the big owners, unions haven’t always behaved well, but maybe it is time for a history lesson about why they came to be in the first place.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephen Scurletis permalink
    September 26, 2013 3:49 pm

    There were telephone operators’ strikes all over the country in 1919, I think the biggest was in Boston. These had an interesting significant effect on Bell Telephone.

    Prior to 1919, although “automatic” (i.e.: user self dialing) equipment was in use by other telephone companies, Bell management insisted that subscribers preferred the personal touch of being served by human telephone operators to connect their calls. Bell management also claimed that users would find it too complicated to understand how to dial their own calls correctly. (On the contrary, in all the communities served by other companies who had users dial calls themselves, the subscribers liked it so much that they refused to return to “manual” human operator connected service.)

    But the operator strikes in 1919 is the thing that ended Bell Telephone’s reluctance to implement “automatic” user dialing. Whereas the operators at manual exchanges, like Riverside, could go on strike and literally paralyze telephone service, automatic telephone switching machines could not go on strike!

    Bell immediately started to develop automatic switching equipment, and had quickly started to convert from manual to automatic machine switching in many cities in the early twenties. In St. Louis, about 1924, the first dial exchanges were PRospect (77x) and LAclede (no longer active), housed in the building on south Grand, a block north of Tower Grove Park. The Riverside manual office would eventually be replaced by the FLanders (35x) exchange on Eichelberger, a couple blocks east of Hampton.

    Thanks for keeping up the BAB news updates. I enjoy seeing how things are progressing.

    • Sue permalink*
      September 26, 2013 4:18 pm

      Thanks for the information, Stephen- very interesting!

  2. Maurine Pruchnicki permalink
    September 26, 2013 1:57 pm

    Sue, your union advocate, Grandpa Jim would have been proud of your interest and research. Love, Mom

    • Sue permalink*
      September 26, 2013 2:06 pm

      I tried to find the picture of you that was in the paper where you were holding the banner. I think it runs in the family!

  3. September 25, 2013 11:06 pm

    Sue – Right on, girlfriend!

    • Sue permalink*
      September 26, 2013 10:48 am

      I love thinking we had some tough chicks working here!

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