While women were preferred by customers hearing that important question “Number please?” – the working conditions and wage for these women in the emerging communication business was far from preferential. With rules and standards more rigid than those for their sisters at the loom in the 1830s, the New England telephone operators began to organize. While feeling more “professional” – they chaffed at the tight quarters, the perfect posture, the behavioral restrictions, split-shifts and worst of all – a lesser wage than men. Under the leadership of union organizer, Julia Sarsfield O’Connor – union membership was growing beyond Boston in other Massachusetts cities, including Lynn, Springfield, Worcester, New Bedford, Framingham, Fitchburg, Salem and in the Merrimack Valley communities of Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill. The area was a hotbed of union activity – so it was not surprising that in frustration over failed negotiations in Boston and elsewhere – telephone switchboard operators walked off the job. While the strike was successful the operators soon fell victim to the self-dial telephone and automation.
…in 1919, striking telephone operators in Massachusetts won the right to negotiate with the New England Telephone Company. The young, single women who had flooded into the industry in the early 1900s wanted higher wages and better working conditions. When they took off their headsets and walked off the job, they brought business in New England to a standstill. Government officials and industry executives were surprised by the women’s organization and determination. In less than a week, the phone company agreed to the strikers’ demands. The victorious operators returned to work, but within a few years, they would face a greater threat: the self-dial telephone. Manually-operated switchboards would soon be more common in museums than city telephone offices.