Telephone Traffic Union: 1944-47
The Washington Telephone Traffic Union was born out of a company-sponsored employee association that was spun off from the Bell System in 1937 after the Wagner Act was upheld by the Supreme Court, making such company unions illegal.

The association was composed primarily of women who worked the switchboards before direct dial service became dominant. There were about 3,000 in the Washington union at that time.

The newly independent association continued to play a subservient role to the AT&T system as it had since its roots as a company union formed in 1927.

Things changed, however, when Mary Gannon took over leadership in 1935. Gannon was one of the few (perhaps the only) women to lead a District of Columbia union during the mid-1940s. Males led even the few unions that were predominantly female.

The local branch of the Bell system—The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company—maintained Jim Crow for its operators. The 14th and U Streets facility was staffed entirely by African American operators.

However the union, while predominantly white, was integrated unlike some unions at the time that required separate units for African Americans.

From 1944 to 1950, Gannon led the union to become a militant force against the autocratic monopoly of the Bell system.

Gannon led over 200 work stoppages of the fledgling union—most for four hours at a time.

The Washington telephone operators quickly became known during this period as “Gannon’s Girls.”

In 1944, she led a one-day wartime sympathy strike that disrupted communications across the country, including cutting off the White House. It was centered on the issue of the giant “Ma Bell” importing non-union workers into a union shop in Dayton, Ohio. At least five other cities joined the walkout.

The Washington union used its key location to aid other units around the country—and helping to build the case for a national union.

Eleanor Jane Palmer, the secretary-treasurer of the local union at the time recalled later that Gannon how worked to aid telephone workers around the country:

“Whenever anybody in the country was out! I remember at one time in St. Louis the traffic girls were trying to get some air conditioning put in, and the only thing the company would offer were the tubs of ice. You’ve heard about them. In order to get some satisfaction on their grievance, they could have had a work stoppage, but they weren’t in the prime position where they were really disturbing the country or upsetting the country. So what they did was call to Washington and ask our president if she could give them some help.”

Gannon would lead the union on strike for eight days in 1946, calling for “an eight-day continuous meeting.” That strike centered on “sweatshop practices” like rules that read, “Do not change your headset from one ear to the other without calling a supervisor,” and “Don’t take an aspirin without being relieved from your position.”

The National Federation of Telephone Workers (NFTW) was a loose federation of these associations and local unions and taking on the Bell System required everybody agreeing—something that was difficult at best.

The national union worked to line up contract expiration dates for 1946 with many of the local unions working on day-to-day extensions. They cobbled together 17, including Washington, D.C., and set a strike deadline.

The Bell system caved and signed a first national agreement without a strike; although they would they later denied that it constituted a nation-wide contract.

The following year, the Bell System insisted on local negotiations and the national union led 325,000 workers out on strike.

AT&T refused to negotiate a nationwide agreement and only offered a “pattern” wage increase after workers had been on strike for three weeks. Four weeks into the strike, 17 local contracts had signed local agreements. The nationwide strike collapsed and it marked the end of the NFTW.

However, the Washington operators continued their strike until May 18, 1947, holding out for written guarantees that there would be no reprisals.

The strike, however, succeeded in making a stronger national union the issue with the Washington traffic union one of those pushing hard.

In June 1947, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) was formed as a national union, incorporating most of the locals of the NFTW, including the D.C. unit. Similarly the union later voted to affiliate with the Congress of Industrial Organizations with the support of the Washington unit.

Palmer said Gannon was:

“…a very dynamic woman, who commanded both respect and a following. She had the people working right with her, and we had so much regard for her that you might call it blind faith. I think if she said, ‘jump,’ we’d jump and then ask later.”

The local Washington Telephone Traffic Union helped lead the way to the formation of what became a powerful union. Without Gannon’s leadership, that task would have been much more difficult.

--The quotes in this description are from Communications Workers of America: The Story of a Union by Thomas R. Brooks.
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