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The Washington Telephone Traffic Union and its Leader Mary Gannon: 1935-47

8 Feb
Gannon leads telephone workers on wartime strike: 1944

Mary Gannon, leader of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, in 1944.

By Craig G. Simpson

The Washington Telephone Traffic Union had its roots as a company-sponsored association, but by 1944 was the most militant local union in the Washington area and one of the fiercest telephone operators’ union in the country.

The union staged as many as 200 mini-strikes—most only an hour or two long and were often sympathy strikes in support of other local unions across the country, usually winning victories because of Washington, D.C.’s location as a strategic communications center.

Their leader Mary Gannon was the first woman to lead a sizable and influential District of Columbia union.

The 3,000-plus member overwhelmingly female operators union was also a forceful advocate of equal pay for women and of a strong national organization to take on the monopoly Bell system. It was a powerful voice for women within the larger union at a time when union leadership was a near exclusive men’s club.


1920 ca C&P Telephone switchboard enhanced

C&P Telephone Co. operators worked side by side connecting calls from one line to another.

In an era with no mobile phones, e-mail, messaging or social media, the telephone reigned supreme for one-to-one communications.

Operators worked at rows of switchboards to connect a call from one telephone number to another. Rotary dial phones were introduced in 1918, bypassing the operator for local calls, but by the early 1940s about half the country’s local calls still had to be connected through an operator and all long distance calls went through operators.

American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T, the Bell System or “Ma Bell”) was a monopoly that controlled nearly all the phone service in the country as the sole provider of long distance calls and its local phone company subsidiaries in urban and suburban areas.

Locally the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. (C&P) was a wholly-owned subsidiary of AT&T that served the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland and Virginia. There were three other AT&T subsidiaries with the same name serving three other areas–the rest of Virginia, the rest of Maryland and West Virginia.

In Washington, D.C. during the 1940s there were between 2,500 and 3,000 operators who worked side-by-side in a regimented environment where permission was needed to take off a headset to scratch your ear.

Early Unionization

Like most large corporations, the AT&T system was long hostile to labor unions. Near the beginning of the 20th century the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) gained a foothold of about 20,000 members by the time of the U.S. entry into World War I in 1917.

In December 1917, President Woodrow Wilson nationalized U.S. railroads and set up national adjustment boards in each industry with representatives from both labor unions and management. But the Bell System was put under the Post Office—an anti-labor organization—that set up a Wire Board that took little action initially.

Nevertheless, phone operators in New England went on strike and were joined by cable splicers, test room technicians, and other workers from the electrical union. Elsewhere telegraph workers walked out in the South after the discharge of 300 of their co-workers. As other areas threatened strikes, Postmaster-General Albert Burleson was forced to act.

Burleson issued a directive to the telephone companies to permit union organizing without retaliation and charged the national Wire Board with enforcing the order.

The Company ‘Union’

Cartoon lampoons company unions: 1934

A Rubber Workers Union cartoon slams company unions as puppets of management.

Two days later, AT&T issued its own directive that a company union—The American Bell Association—was to be organized among its employees. Chapters were to be set up in each local area around the country and in larger cities multiple chapters were organized. Where multiple chapters existed in a local area, there were representative meetings from each chapter.

Such was the case in Washington, D.C. where installers and telephone operators had their own chapter, sending delegates from different job classifications to a city-wide meeting. It is not clear if other classifications such as the C&P cafeteria workers or office workers also had their own chapter.

Thomas Brooks writes in Communications Workers of America: The Story of a Union that a company official in Pennsylvania, Harold Porter, explained that employees elected as representatives to larger councils should be “only those who are ‘simon-pure’ employees.” Foremen and other supervisory personnel were encouraged to be a “big brother and boss to his people.”

Porter counseled that individual grievances were to be avoided, but, “All questions are decided by getting the facts. No change in our working practices governing carfare, vacations, hour of work, etc. is made without full discussion with the employee committees and gaining their agreement.”

Early dial telephone: 1920 ca.

A circa 1920 dial telephone that made bypassing the operator possible for local calls.

Meetings were chaired by management, but efforts were made to, “make them [employees] feel they are part of the works in their proper sphere.” Further, “it is better to discuss wages…in the committees than on street corners.”

However, the reality was these associations didn’t discuss wages and benefits and functioned only as a way to forestall real workers’ unions.

William Walsh, a worker with Ohio Bell, recalled that things worked a bit differently in practice than Porter set out. He described the local Bell Association by saying that, “…once in a while you’d have a so-called membership meeting, but if anybody talked about anything other than about the pencil sharpener needed replacing or was dull, why, there [would be] some reprisal very shortly thereafter.”

AT&T’s efforts paid off for the company. Legitimate unions were staved off by the associations and the IBEW lost most of its members in the telephone industry during the period the American Bell Association was active.

Growth of Unionism

Sen. Wagner celebrates labor law win: 1937

Sen. Robert F. Wagner celebrates Supreme Court upholding a labor law in 1937 that bore his name.

This was the system that Mary Gannon stepped into as a young woman in 1935 when as a new employee, she became active in the local Washington, D.C. association.

The time was in the midst of the Great Depression where a series of major industrial work stoppages around the country resulted in clashes between police and workers.

In response to this growing and uncontrolled unrest, Congress passed the 1935 Wagner Act setting out an orderly means of unionization and collective bargaining.

The Committee of Industrial Organizations was also formed in 1935 and set itself to the task of organizing millions of workers in basic industry across craft lines into a single union for each broad sector of the economy—auto, steel, rubber. electrical and other large sections.

One of the provisions of the Wagner Act made it illegal for an employer “to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it.”—effectively outlawing the American Bell Association.

AT&T and its subsidiaries began cutting ties with the American Bell Association and their chapters, although some awaited the outcome of a court challenge to the law. Many in business believed the Wagner Act would be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court like a number of other New Deal laws, believing it to be a violation of their property rights.

True Unions in the Bell System

The Telephone Worker: 1945

The National Federation of Telephone Workers was formed in 1939 and published The Telephone Worker. Here, Mary Gannon is featured on the cover of the April 1945 issue.

In 1937 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act and the Bell System severed all formal ties with its employee association while attempting to continue to utilize them to blunt any unionization drives by old-line crafts of the American Federation of Labor or the new CIO industrial union organizing drives.

While some associations quickly began acting like a union, particularly in the southwest and in Ohio, most continued close ties with management. Many newly independent associations were initially given seed money by the Bell System and some continued to be allowed to meet for free on the company premises.

Washington, D.C. phone workers followed the old American Bell Association organizational model with a federation—the District Federation of Telephone Employees–with branches in at least two crafts; installers and operators.

Telephone operators, supervisors, installers clerical employees, accountants, elevator operators, rest room attendants and food service workers at C&P numbered perhaps 6500 in total.

However, women were the vast majority of 2,500 telephone operators, 500 food service and 200 clerical workers while nearly all the 3200 installers and many accounting clerks and customer representatives were men. The majority of telephone operators reported to the headquarters at 13th and G Streets NW, but also worked at some 30-odd satellite facilities around the city and close-in suburbs.

In 1935 Mary Gannon was an activist in her new local union and although the District workers were now organized, those working for the same Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company in northern Virginia were not.

Gannon, along with others, set out to organize the northern Virginia workers into a union and beginning in 1937, Gannon served as traffic (telephone operator) chair of the Northern District of the Virginia Federation of Telephone Workers and in 1940 she was elected president of her home union, the Washington Telephone Traffic Union.

At the same time as Gannon was taking the reins of the operators in Northern Virginia, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was had an eye on unionizing the telephone system, across craft lines into a large industrial union and ultimately established the American Communications Association that picked up the Northern California Telephone Traffic League.

The established American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was largely organized along craft lines, was also eyeing telephone workers. It held a meeting of Washington, D.C. telephone operators in June 1937 of its fledgling National Telephone Operators Union that attracted 35 women, but the effort failed to gain traction.

However the number of true independent unions that arose from the former Bell Associations grew and in December 1937, The Ohio Federation sent out a nationwide call for a conference to be held in St. Louis.

Helen Ward from the District of Columbia Traffic Union was sent to attend this first national conference in St. Louis.

Eight women and 21 men from across the country representing perhaps 60,000 workers attended the first meeting. A proposal was put forward to form a loose federation with a national office. The measure was voted down and the first attempt to form a national union failed.

The following year, two more conferences were held in Chicago and New Orleans that finally launched the National Federation of Telephone Workers in New York in 1939 with a national office, but with each local union running its own affairs.

Women and the NFTW

Pansy Harris--1st woman on board of national phone union: 1942

Pansy Harris from the Southern California League was the first woman vice president of the NFTW–elected at the founding convention in 1939.

Men from the plants, installation and repair facilities were suspicious of women and weren’t sure women could be real trade unionists.

However approximately 62 percent of telephone company employees were women and the percentage eligible for the union was higher since the nearly all-male management was excluded from membership. The traffic unions were almost entirely composed of women.

The new constitution at the founding convention of the union in 1939 provided for seven board seats from which three would be elected as the officers. Pansy Harris of the Southern California Traffic League was the only woman elected to a board seat.

The convention elected men to all three officer positions–president, vice president and secretary-treasurer.

The 1940 convention of the NFTW passed a resolution recognizing that “the nature of the problems and interests of…women workers differ in so many ways from the problems and interests of the male workers represented in the federation” that “in order to most equitably represent the will of women workers and to best serve their interest, the elected feminine member of the executive board shall be in attendance at all conferences where the opportunity may present itself to plead their cause.”

The 1940 convention expanded the number of executive board seats to nine and Harris was re-elected. However other women running for executive board slots were defeated, causing a wave of resentment among the telephone traffic units.

The following year, women met before the annual convention and the traffic unions threatened to withdraw their locals from the NFTW unless they had more representation within the national union and their concerns as operators were addressed.

Nationwide telephone operators panel: 1942

The 1942 traffic panel at the NFTW convention.

During the 1942 convention of the NFTW, a panel discussion was held on the appropriate number of women that should serve on the executive board.

At one point in the discussion, Gannon in exasperation, angrily declared:

“Why shouldn’t we have three women on the board if it is necessary? What difference does it make if the president, perhaps, should be a woman? I am afraid I don’t see things from the man’s point of view alone. I think there are intelligent women in the world.”

The traffic units put forward a resolution that three representatives from the operator local unions should sit on the executive board. But men dominated the number of delegates and voted the constitutional amendment down.

A compromise was ultimately reached and the convention voted to reserve another seat on the executive board for traffic units, allowing for two in total. Theresa Donahey of the Ohio traffic union was elected along with Harris.

Equal Pay

At the meeting before the 1942 convention, women also sought to place “equal pay for equal work” as a demand and it was adopted at the convention.

AT&T was constantly taking job duties from a higher paid, predominantly male classifications, and transferring those duties to lower paid predominantly female classifications without any increase in pay.

Further, many AT&T subsidiaries listed different pay scales for the same job for men and women with the male jobs paying more.

As a result the NFTW became one of the pioneer unions in advocating for equal pay for equal work

A 1944 study by the federal Women’s Bureau found that the top pay of some women’s clerical classifications in the telephone industry was below that of the starting pay for similar male classifications.

Three women leaders of the telephone union: 1945

Top NFTW women officers in 1945: traffic panel chair Mary Gannon, executive board member Anne Benscoter, and executive board member Frances V. Smith.

Gannon, the national chair of the union’s traffic panel during that period editorialized in The Telephone Worker, the NFTW periodical, for equal pay for equal work.

The traffic panel sponsored a successful resolution at the 1944 NFTW convention that encouraged local unions to end separate job classifications for men and women.

The National War Labor Board endorsed the policy of equal pay for equal work.   During World War II, strikes in defense-related industry were illegal and disputes were settled through the federal Labor Board.

The telephone union often made the demand for equal pay when a contract dispute went before the Board. As a result many telephone labor contracts contained “equal pay” provisions.

Similarly Congress took up the Equal Pay Act of 1945, supported by the NFTW, that provided for equal pay between “comparable” jobs. But despite strong support from powerful elected officials, the Act failed to pass.

Faced with the problem of the loss of telephone operator jobs through conversion to direct dial, the traffic panel also sponsored a resolution that was endorsed by the NFTW convention to encourage local unions to increase severance pay for operators who were laid-off.

Another demand of the traffic panel was urging the Labor Department to re-categorize operator work from semi-skilled to skilled in order to bolster their case for higher pay in cases before the War Labor Board. The union provided reams of data to the the Labor Department on skills and training. After a lengthy study period the Labor Department found in 1946 that the operator position met the criteria for “skilled.”

The War Labor Board had since lapsed, but the finding was useful to the NFTW and later Communications Workers of America (CWA) in making the case to bolster telephone operator pay.

Despite having a majority of members, no woman ever served as an officer of the NFTW and women had only one executive board seat when there were seven total and later only two of nine. However, even with the domination of men, the NFTW women were able to successfully advocate for women workers.

Washington Comes into its Own

D.C. Western Electric building: 1949

Western Electric’s D.C. headquarters at 1111 N. Capitol St.  

It’s not clear how Gannon underwent a transformation from the “simon-pure” employee described by Porter to a militant trade union leader, but the roots probably lay in the turbulent times of the Great Depression and her exposure to other trade union leaders through initial meetings of the efforts to form the local and national telephone unions.

The regimented, military-style command structure of C&P Telephone with its micro-managing, invasive rules probably also played a role.

It’s not clear exactly when the Northern Virginia District of the Virginia Federation of Telephone Workers became part of the Washington unit, but it probably occurred in 1940 around the time Gannon was elected president of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union.

The Washington union’s first brush with a possible strike came in 1941 when 8,000 phone and equipment installers at Western Electric, a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T, threatened a nationwide strike over wages. Western Electric in the District of Columbia had about 600 workers in a separate unit of the NFTW.

The fledgling NFTW, with 150,000 members, announced that its operators and service personnel would honor picket lines. The dispute was resolved without a strike through the intervention of federal mediators, but marked a new militancy by the independent union.

Another strike was threatened by the NFTW long lines union—direct employees of AT&T—who could shut down long distance service across the country if they walked out. This too would have affected the Washington unions if the long lines workers set up picket lines at local facilities. The NFTW constitution required affiliate local unions to respect the picket lines of other affiliates.

It is not clear when Washington, D.C. telephone workers obtained their first labor contract, but an article in The Washington Post mentions a contract with an effective date of April 1942.

In August 1942, with the United States now at war against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and their allies, Ohio telephone installation and repair workers staged a strike over wages that spread across the state to Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron and Canton. Telephone operators refused to cross picket lines, disrupting communications across the state.

The World War II War Labor Board, instituted by executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt to settle labor disputes in broadly defined defense-related industries, quickly settled the Ohio dispute, but the strike reflected a rising militancy on the part of Ohio telephone workers–and of the NFTW as a whole.

In October 1942, the Washington Federation of Telephone Employees sought negotiations for improvements with C&P ahead of the April 1943 expiration of their contract that covered 6,500 workers in the plant, traffic, commercial and accounting departments.

The WFTE membership covered Washington, D.C., Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland.

However the company refused to bargain other than to demand an extension of the current labor agreement.

D.C. telephone workers win wage increase: 1943

The Washington Post covers the arbitrator’s recommendation for a $2 per week wage increase.

A federal arbitrator was appointed in February in an attempt to settle the dispute and recommended a $2 per hour pay increase in March 1943, retroactive to January 1, 1943.

The War Labor Board upheld the arbitrator’s finding in June 1943 applying the $2 increase to about 4,400 of the workers and granting increases to about 1,300 other workers to maintain differentials. One of the suburban facilities in Silver Hill, Maryland, had their pay equalized with other telephone workers covered under the contract.

In September 1943 the WFTE again asked to open negotiations for a new agreement asking for pay increases, a reduction in the time it takes to reach top pay, arbitration of grievances, a union membership requirement for traffic workers, and seniority rights.

Once again the War Labor Board took jurisdiction over the dispute. After hearings were held, a panel recommended no general wage increase, a voluntary maintenance of union membership and a shorter wage progression plan.

Separate Bargaining

Sometime between 1943 and 1944, the two unions comprising the Washington Federation of Telephone Employees each began pursuing their own contract negotiations.

There seems to be no record as to the cause of the split, but it was likely the tensions between the predominantly male installers and the predominantly female operators.

Venus Green writes in her book Race on the Line, “According to male and female organizers, plant men often resisted women unionists and feared operators’ militancy.”

Later, the conservative nature of the local installers union was clearly revealed and contrasted sharply with the militancy of the traffic union.

Gannon headed the Washington Telephone Traffic Union while Helery Robinson served as president of the C&P installers’ Federation of Telephone Workers of D.C.

Representation of other classifications were split between the two unions with the traffic union containing cafeteria workers, clerks, rest room attendants and general helpers while the Federation had the accounting clerks, elevator operators and service representatives.

C&P Telephone, Black Workers and the Union

African American telephone union members: 1946

Black union members mix with white union members at Turner’s Arena during the Jan. 1947 “continuous meeting.”

Like many companies in Jim Crow Washington, D.C., C&P Telephone openly practiced discrimination against Black people. Black people were hired only for the most menial jobs, including janitorial, food service and window washing. Elevator operator was the top position open to African Americans.

Black workers were not permitted to eat with White workers in the eight company cafeterias, according to one person whose mother worked for the company.

There doesn’t seem to be records covering Black participation in the earlier employee association in the District, but when the District Federation of Telephone Employees was formed, predominantly Black classifications were covered and Black workers in those classifications were signed up as union members. This positive step avoided establishing separate Black and White Jim Crow unions like the postal workers had at that time.

In response to a threatened march on Washington organized by Black labor leader A. Phillip Randolph, President Franklin Roosevelt issued executive order 8802 in June 1941 that barred discrimination in defense and defense-related industries based on “race, creed, color or national origin” and quickly established a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to enforce desegregation orders.

In 1942 the Committee on Jobs for Negroes in Public Utilities was formed to challenge Jim Crow in publicly regulated utilities that included Capital Transit, Chesapeake and Potomac (C&P) Telephone, Washington Gas Light Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco). Leaders included William S. Johnson, of local Communist Party and the leader of the cooks union, Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and Ralph Matthews ,of the Washington Afro American newspaper.

Pressure on C&P

An FEPC investigation into public utilities in 1942 and pressure from the Committee on Jobs spurred the company to establish a business office at 14th and U Streets staffed by Black employees.

The jobs included a Black manager, service representatives, consumer representative, accounting and toll clerks and typists—about 25 workers in total. These were first Black workers hired into these positions.

However, no Black operators were permitted and Black workers were not permitted to transfer to all-White facilities elsewhere in the city and suburbs.

Fighting Jim Crow at Capital Transit: 1942

William S. Johnson (center)  Ralph Matthews (standing), and Dorothy Strange (2nd from right) at a Committee on Jobs for Negros in Public Utilities meeting in 1942.

Johnson and Mayme Brown of the Committee on Jobs sent a letter to the company protesting the move as a “dodge” to evade training Black workers for operator and other jobs in the phone company across the city.

“Your company’s long-time policy of racial discrimination in employment is now quite untenable. This fact is in no way altered by the segregated business office you now propose to establish,” the letter to the company said.

“Your public responsibility requires the supplementing of your staff of operators with the large number of competent colored girls now available for employment. This we call upon you to do,” it continued.

Citing President Roosevelt’s executive order, the group stated that “whether to employ colored operators is no longer solely a question of social ethics, but an established policy of the government.”

Most of the jobs created at the facility at 14th and U Streets were covered by union contracts. The telephone traffic union covered clerical employees and helpers while the installer’s union covered accountants and service representatives.

One of the first to integrate C&P Telephone: 1944

Gloria Ricks, one of the first eight Black workers hired at the all-Black facility at 14th & U Sts. NW is shown with her husband Ulysses in 1944.

The unions signed up most of those employed at the facility for union membership.

The national union was not a loud voice for desegregation of the operator job. But the NFTW ran a short favorable article in their national publication The Telephone Worker on the 1944 FEPC-sponsored agreement in New York to hire 26 Black people into telephone operator positions for the first time in a major metropolitan area.

The article noted that the local Traffic Employees Association took part in the conference and quoted the union as saying that they “did not anticipate any problem in the union because of the employment of Negro operators.”

The article had some additional significance because it appeared shortly after a long unionization drive and subsequently tough contract negotiations in the south that brought many new workers into the national union in an area where Jim Crow held the strongest sway among the White population..

Union meetings

With Washington, D.C. still a Jim Crow town, there were few large facilities that permitted mixed-race seating so a decision had to be made as to whether to hold separate union meetings for Black and White members, establish Jim Crow seating in a facility that permitted Black and White to gather in the same hall or to hold meetings with no seating restrictions in one of the few halls that permitted open seating..

Gannon took the issue head on and held mass strike meetings in facilities with no seating restrictions–Black and White workers mixing together in 1944-45 at the Hamilton Hotel and in 1946-47 at Turner’s Arena.

However, a joint meeting of six D.C. area NFTW local unions sponsored by the national NFTW was held at the Uline Arena, a Jim Crow facility, for their 4-hour work stoppage in 1945.

The FEPC lapsed in 1946, failing in its attempt to desegregate C&P telephone operators.

During the 1947 nationwide strike by telephone workers, Black union members marched together with white workers on picket lines at the various locations around the city in addition to the all-Black facility at 14th & U Streets NW.

Renewed Pressure on C&P

After World War II, the Urban League pressed the White House to act on integrating public utilities while the NAACP filed suit against C&P Telephone in 1953.

1952 ca Mary Church Terrell Tomlinson Todd

Civil rights icon Mary Church Terrell being interviewed by Dr. Tomlinson Todd for his One America program circa 1952.

Dr. Tomlinson D. Todd was a key figure in the desegregation of Washington, D.C. Jim Crow restaurants, along with civil rights icon Mary Church Terrell.

Todd had in 1943 first discovered and publicized the 1871 and 1872 “lost laws” in the District that prohibited discrimination in public accommodations. They were called “lost laws” because they were removed from the city code without being repealed.

Regular pickets and boycotts of Jim Crow restaurants were held 1949-53 and a lawsuit was filed where in 1953 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the District’s so-called “lost laws” and outlawed segregation in public accommodations in the city.

However, employment was not covered by those 19th century laws. Todd had a radio show in 1953 and interviewed C&P Telephone officials about their refusal to hire Black operators.

The Washington Afro American reported a C&P official said:

“The telephone company would never hire colored operators…until other things in Washington changed such as the integration of the school system.”

“When children learned through the schools to live and work together, then industry would be willing to accept them on an integrated basis—this would take time…within the next two or three generations.”

Suit against C&P cites lack of black operators: 1953

Pressure on C&P to desegregate its workforce included a lawsuit by the NAACP.

However rights activists were not waiting and were now pressuring the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, which was the agency charged with ensuring that firms holding government contracts did not practice discrimination.

In February 1954, C&P agreed to begin desegregating clerical employees and transferred two Black accounting clerks from the 14th & U Streets office to the downtown office.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its Bolling v. Sharpe decision May 17, 1954, ordering desegregation of District of Columbia schools.

First Black Operators

By 1956, the company permitted some Black clerical employees to train as telephone operators and ultimately transferred some into previously all-White facilities, beginning a slow process of desegregation that would continue long after the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in employment.

In contrasting the role of unions in desegregation, the Capital Transit Company in the District barred Black bus and streetcar operators until 1956, citing union opposition and the fear of a wildcat strike whereas C&P officials were never able to blame the union. When it comes to union organization, the WTTU admitted Black members on an equal basis with no Jim Crow seatings at members in contrast to the postal unions that expelled Black members early in the 20th century, forcing Black postal workers to set up separate unions and locals.

But there is no record that the WTTU was a forceful advocate of desegregation in contrast to those CIO unions and the AFL cooks and laborers that championed abolishing Jim Crow during the same period.

However it can be said that Gannon and the WTTU were not an impediment and that Black members that were hired by C&P were enrolled in the union as equal members.

Use of the ‘Union Meeting’ Strike

Telephone union calls work stoppage - 1944

The Washington Star reports on a planned walkout by telephone operators Sept. 29, 1944.

It was during World War II that Gannon began to use the mini-strike as a weapon to obtain workers’ goals and build solidarity nationwide.

Gannon called her first city-wide job action September 29, 1944 when she summoned union members to an “emergency meeting” at the Hamilton Hotel during working hours.

The War Labor Board had again taken charge of a wage dispute between Gannon’s union and C&P Telephone and Gannon feared another long, drawn-out process.

One of the issues, besides a wage increase, that was of paramount concern to the union was the company’s practice of recruiting out-of-town operators and paying them a living expense in addition to regular wages. Local operators resented this because they faced the same expenses.

The practice began in 1941 after the U.S. entered World War II. The number of these out-of-town operators had decreased from around 400 to about 200, but still nagged at the local workers whose pay also lagged behind other industries.

Learning of the meeting and potential strike vote, the Board sent a telegram to the union which read in part that, “The New Case Committee of the National War Labor Board has today voted to refer the dispute for immediate hearing to a national panel of the board.”

The Board went on to say, “We would appreciate it if the union would make known to those attending the meeting the fact that this dispute has been referred to a national panel. In view of the untold damage that would be done in the National Capitol to the Allied war effort should any interruption of its telephone service occur, the board expects the meeting tonight to be conducted in such a manner as not to result in any interruption or impairment of vital telephone service.”

More than 1,200 members heeded Gannon’s call and a tumultuous union meeting followed where at one point several dozen women chased away news reporters. At the conclusion of the two-hour meeting, the women voted to return to work since the Board had expedited hearings on their dispute with C&P Telephone.

Nevertheless, the two-hour meeting served notice of just how effective even a short strike could be.

The Washington Post reported:

“Long distance telephone service was delayed last night and in some of the outlying exchanges operations were seriously disrupted. Residents in the Capitol Heights (Maryland) area and Falls Church (Virginia) section reported they were almost completely cut off for a time. Even connections to fire and police departments were affected, it was said.”

“Serious disruptions in service were also reported by telephone subscribers using the Alexandria and Locust exchanges.”

It was far from the last time that Gannon would use a “union meeting” as a type of strike.

Wartime Strike

Striking telephone operators pass by their boss: 1944

Telephone operators picket the main C&P office on 13th Street NW Nov. 23, 1944 during a sympathy strike with Ohio workers.

During World War II, strikes in defense-related industries were barred and disputes settled by the War Labor Board. Telephone workers fell under this umbrella.

Operators in Dayton, Ohio walked off the job November 17, 1944 in defiance of the Board over the issue of a pay premium for workers imported from out-of-town.

The night before the Thanksgiving holiday, a mere two months after her last “emergency meeting, Gannon called another and this time telephone operators voted to stage a sympathy strike with the Ohio workers.

Hundreds of operators, including those on the night shift, crammed the assembly room and halls of the Hamilton Hotel for a meeting that was held in two shifts because of the size of the crowd of workers.

Upwards of 2,000 of the 2,500 operators struck and were joined by other workers who refused to cross picket lines at the downtown offices as well other locations around the city and suburban locations.

C. A. Robinson, vice president and general manager of C&P Telephone released an appeal to employees that said in part, “We need not tell you that Washington is the communication center of the entire Allied world—that fast and dependable telephone service is vital to the war.”

The Washington Star reported that, “R. A. Morgan, city commercial manager of Western Union, said the telegraph company began to feel the effects of the strike about the middle of the morning when messages increased and many of them carried the notation that the senders had been unable to put through telephone calls.”

Gannon said that special crews had been authorized by the union to handle calls from War and Navy Department and the White House. Most defense agencies already had their own direct long-distance lines and were unaffected by the strike. However, long distance calls from private lines to the government facilities, including the White House, were interrupted.

Strike Begins to Spread

Detroit, Mich. workers also walked out while a dozen local unions in other cities scheduled meetings to consider joining the strike.

Gannon told reporters, “We want it made clear that we are not striking for a raise…All we want is equality. We want them to send these imported workers home or raise us to their pay level. We should have come out before Ohio. This has been pending for a long time. All we want is fairness.”

The Washington Post reported a conference of federal officials was held to consider seizing the companies and resuming telephone operations using the Army Signal Corps.

The local Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) urged a return to work, but also laid the blame for the strike at the feet of the company.

Oliver Palmer, head of the Cafeteria Workers Union, and Henry Beltacher of the United Federal Workers issued a statement that the C & P Telephone “must bear its share of responsibility for the strike because of its consistent policy of not hiring qualified Negro telephone operators in the District of Columbia.”

“Instead, it has imported operators and paid them extra subsistence pay,” the statement said.

Strike Called Off

Union leaders end wartime phone strike:1944

Robert Pollack of The Ohio Federation and Mary Gannon call off the strike.

By 6 pm on November 23rd, Robert Pollock, president of the Ohio Federation and Gannon held a press conference where they announced they were calling off the strike. The two had become convinced that federal seizure of their companies would freeze wages and working conditions in place, preventing any ruling on the “imported worker” issue.

One outcome of the strike was the National War Labor Board set up a separate panel to hear telephone disputes—cutting the wait time for hearings in the industry.

Gannon was pleased with the strike.

“I’m sincerely glad that it didn’t do any more harm to the war effort than it did. We’re glad to return to work. But we’re more than glad that we supported Ohio,” Gannon told the Washington Star.

Labor Board Findings

Striking telephone operators: 1944

Pickets in front of the main C&P building on 13th Street NW Nov. 23, 1944.

The War Labor Board issues its preliminary findings in the Washington case in December raising the wages of telephone operators with less than 10 years of service by $4 per week and those with more than 10 years of service by $3 per week and left in place an agreement to end imported workers by February of 1945 provided that there was no effect on telephone service.

The recommendation was blasted by the union as insufficient, which filed a brief that said in part,

“Certainly if the telephone company paid better wages it would not have been required to import hundreds of operators into the District and pay them an incredibly inflationary rate of $18.70 [per week] above the local rate.”

The union went on to charge that “the company deliberately undertook to pay these extraordinarily high wages to relatively few employees …in order to keep from being required to raise its general wage levels to a point where it would be able to recruit labor in Washington.”

In a victory for the union the War Labor Board made its final ruling in March 1945, granting a $4 per week increase to all employees.

The strike demonstrated both the strengths of the fledging national union and its weaknesses. The solidarity strikes by Washington and Detroit with other local unions poised to join them demonstrated the strength of telephone workers nationally.

But it also demonstrated their weakness—there was no central decision-making means of calling a nationwide strike and any action was left to local decisions against a company that held a monopoly in the telephone industry.

Gannon, already influential in the national telephone union, was propelled into near stardom among telephone operators for her role in taking out the high-profile Washington, D.C. union on a solidarity strike.

Sit-Down Strikes

Company ad claims 13th work stoppage: 1946

C&P ad responding to January 3, 1946 sit-down strike.

Gannon used all the direct action tactics at her disposal and perfected the use of mini sit-down strikes over grievances beginning in 1943.

Sit-down strikes where workers remain at work, but refuse to perform their duties had been outlawed by the National Labor Relations Board and a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1939 affirmed that they were illegal.

Despite the unfavorable legal ground, Gannon called sit-down strikes anyway.

Information on these mini-strikes is scant, but the company published an advertisement in the Washington Star in January 1946 that claimed a 1-hour sit-down strike was the 13th work stoppage in the past two-and-one-half years.  Brooks’ book puts the number of mini strikes by the D.C. traffic union at around 200 in the post-World War II era.

Madge Giles, a steward and later president of Washington Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 2300 described how it worked, according to Brooks in his book.

“On getting the word from Mrs. Gannon, the stewards would go and ask a friendly service assistant, ‘May I get in position?’ I would pick up the SA stand (a ring would follow on everyone at the same time). ‘We have a work stoppage. We’ll explain later.’ and it would be explained later,” Giles is quoted.s

Conflict Over Supervisor’s Duties

The issue of the company using supervisors as supplemental operators was one  flash-point for these strikes.

Supervisors were union members and were more akin to lead personnel in the industrial setting and had no power to discipline employees

On February 19, 1945 when supervisor Hazel Woodville refused to handle calls at around 7 p.m. at the central office on 13th Street NW, management suspended her and upwards of 100 operators responded by sitting at their consoles and refused to connect calls.

After a conference between Gannon and the management, Woodville was returned to work and the protest ended.

Gannon told the Washington Star that a meeting would be held with company officials later to clarify the duties of supervisors. She asserted that supervisors had in the past been required to assist during peak periods, but not during times of normal traffic.

Before the meeting with company officials was held, C&P suspended another supervisor who refused to handle calls at the Woodley exchange office. About a half dozen women out of 17 operators on the evening shift refused to answer calls at the facility.

C&P Telephone main office: 1940 ca.

The C&P Telephone main building at 725 13th Street NW circa 1940.

However, the issue remained unresolved.

The January 3, 1946 job action was called when supervisors were again ordered to perform the duties of operators. Gannon called a one-hour sit-down strike between 10 and 11 a.m. where some 600-700 workers, including supervisors, sat at their consoles but refused to handle any calls.

Gannon said the job action was “a demonstration against sweatshop practices and a drive on the part of the company to break the union,” the Star reported.

She charged that the company had been calling employees in one-by-one and in small groups to discuss issues that were a matter of collective bargaining.

The company was by-passing the union on matters of grievances, working conditions and discipline according to Gannon.

“Supervisors are constantly having to plug in on operators because service is not 100 percent perfect. The reason for this is that the company pays such low wages turnover is high and it cannot obtain a sufficient number of operators,” Gannon explained as quoted in The Washington Star.

The mini-strike slowed long distance service and halted service at seven local exchanges where local calls hadn’t yet been automated.

The sit-down ended when management agreed to meet with the union on the issue.

The Mini-Strike as a Sympathy Strike

Strike hits Hotel Washington: 1946

Pickets at the Hotel Washington during the Oct. 1946 city-wide strike. The WTTU refused to put telephone calls through to the hotels during the strike.

Chicago telephone workers walked off the job November 19, 1945 in a dispute over wages. As the strike took hold, upwards of 9,000 workers were involved.

The Chicago union was challenging a War Labor Board award of a $4 per week wage increase and demanded a $6 per week increase.

Gannon responded to the Chicago strike by instructing telephone operators in Washington, D.C. to refuse to handle calls into the telephone exchanges served by the Chicago union.

As the Chicago strike entered its sixth day, Washington telephone leaders announced that they expected a call from Chicago—one way or another—for a support strike from D.C. area workers and that they would honor the request.

NFTW president Joseph Beirne alerted local phone unions around the country to be on alert for a national strike call to support Chicago.

However the Chicago strike was settled through intervention of federal mediators and the union agreed to an increase retroactive to January 1945 of $4, an increase of another $2 per week in February 1946 and negotiations with the company over other wage items. This precluded any further action by the Washington telephone union.

Hotel Strike

In another example of a solidarity job action, Washington’s telephone operators refused to place calls to the 18 Washington, D.C. hotels during a 21-day strike by the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union in October 1946.

The Washington Post reported, “The telephone action, ordered by Mrs. Mary Gannon, president of the telephone operators’ union, halted the incoming and outgoing long distance service of all hotels through hotel switchboards…”

“The company has not authorized or agreed with the union to refuse to handle any calls. Our operators are instructed to answer calls in order of their appearance,” the Post reported a hotel spokesperson said.

The use of the sympathy strike was a powerful weapon in building solidarity among workers across the country.

Eleanor Jane Palmer, the secretary-treasurer of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union at the time, recalled how Gannon staged sympathy strikes to aid telephone workers in other areas and helped to lay the basis for a real national union. Brooks quotes her in his book:

“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.”

Sympathy strikes were later outlawed by the 1947 anti-labor Taft-Hartley law.

First National Work Stoppage

First nationwide telephone strike: 1945

Washington area telephone workers mill outside the Uline Arena October 8, 1945 during a 4-hour meeting that served as a nationwide work stoppage.

Two major challenges faced the national NFTW in October 1945.

The first involved the CIO’s United Electrical Workers challenging the certification of the NFTW as a bargaining agent.

A National Labor Relations Board agent subsequently made a recommendation to de-certify NFTW affiliates at the massive Kearny, New Jersey manufacturing facility and at facilities throughout New York and New Jersey covering 30,000 workers–claiming the local unions were company unions in violation of the Wagner Act. The recommendation was widely seen as a tilt by the Board away from independent unions and toward the CIO.

A final decision would surely be followed by other unions challenging the NFTW certification as the collective bargaining representative at units across the country.

The other major issue the NFTW faced was the fragmentation of bargaining by local units in different geographical areas that resulted in widely disparate wages and benefits for those doing the same job.

4-Hour Union Meetings

NFTW president Joseph Beirne called for simultaneous four-hour national union meetings October 8, 1945 across the country as a show of strength to address the challenges.

Workers at the Kearny facility were the first to walk off the jobs for the meeting followed by the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, which left their jobs two hours early before the meeting of all Washington NFTW locals scheduled for 2:00 p.m. at the Uline Arena.

“By 1:00 p.m. a phone company official said the walkout was virtually 100 percent effective,” reported The Washington Post.

The response across the country was similar with operator-assisted service halted in hundreds of towns and cities as 200,000 workers quit their jobs to attend the meetings.

It was the first national telephone work stoppage in history.

In Washington, D.C. 6,000 installers, operators, repair personnel, cafeteria workers and office workers from six locals in the District, Virginia and Maryland jammed the Uline Arena and unanimously voted to authorize the national NFTW to call a strike.

The Washington meeting and those around the country voted to pass five resolutions:

• Authorize the national federation to seek an NLRB strike vote.
• Authorize the federation to call other meetings like the one held October 5th.
• Give the federation blanket authority to act in the Kearny, N.J. case that involved a recommendation by an NLRB examiner that federation-affiliated unions is 22 Western Electric Co. plants in New York and New Jersey be dissolved as company-dominated.
• Write to congressional members and government officials seeking justice in the Kearny case.
• Send presidents of local NFTW unions to Washington to confer with officials who might help in getting a reversal of the recommendation in the Kearny case.

Union Reaction

Union leaders were euphoric with the response of their members.

“It’s like a dream come true,” said Gannon.

NFTW’s Dunn named to War Labor Board: 1944

William M. Dunn, an NFTW representative on the War Labor Board.

William M. Dunn, the labor representative on the War Labor Board Telephone Commission responded to a reporter’s question about the members losing pay as a result of the meeting:

“Let me tell you this. For every dollar it costs in wages, it costs the telephone company $5 in income.”

The Washington Star reported that all calls that were operator-assisted were halted along with long distance service, NBC and ABC teletype service and telephone communications to some countries.

In smaller cities and communities in Maryland and Virginia where automated local calls had not yet been introduced, service was non-existent. Those included Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Suffolk, Staunton, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg in Virginia and Frederick, Hagerstown and Cumberland in Maryland.

Beirne was asked by a reporter why the union called for a meeting and a strike vote before filing an exception with the NLRB or seeking a hearing on the Kearny case.

“It is senseless,” Beirne replied, “to wait until your throat is cut.”

The four-hour national strike put Beirne in a position to demand a national contract, if he could get his affiliates to go along and was a powerful demonstration that the NFTW was not company-dominated.

The full NLRB board hearings dragged on for months, but the the decision finally went in favor of the NFTW.

D.C. 8-Day Telephone Strike

Operators walk off job for ‘continuous meeting’ - 1946

Members of the D.C. traffic union leave the main C&P office on 13th St. NW Jan. 10, 1946 for a “continuous union meeting.”

Workers at the Kearny facility went out on strike over wages January 3, 1946 and the bitter dispute threatened to spiral into a national sympathy strike.

In addition, Western Electric installers were chafing over a World War II Labor Board decision that failed to grant installers “a wage structure with wage levels comparable to a wage structure with wage levels of telephone plant employees,” according to Brooks.

Beirne received a letter January 9th from the national installers union president asking for approval for a strike that had already begun. Installers planned to picket all telephone facilities, triggering a nationwide strike.

That day Beirne told news media he was considering calling a national strike.

Gannon’s Union on Collision Course

Meanwhile Gannon was growing increasing inpatient with C & P Telephone over its use of supervisors. She had just concluded a one-hour sit-down strike over the issue on January 3rd and the rank-and-file was growing irate over “sweatshop conditions.”

Gannon’s union was on a collision course with a C&P management that in turn had grown tired of the regular work disruptions.

Brooks writes, “The Washington Traffic group took on its management in a contest over ‘excessive and dictatorial’ supervision.”

“Under a new ‘service program,’ supervisors were ordered to ‘observe’ experienced operators as well as trainees.”

“Systematic spying reinforced these orders: ‘Keep a plug in your hands at all times, be alert, use a courteous tone of voice at all times, keep your eyes on the board at all times, don’t talk to the adjacent operator, keep your headset adjusted one-fourth of an inch from your mouth.’”

“’Do not change headset from one ear to the other without calling your supervisor, sit up straight with both feet on the rail, keep hands on the edge of key shelf, if the customer says ‘good morning,’ don’t answer him, hold the plug at a forty-five degree angle, don’t take an aspirin without being relieved from your position.’”

The list of miniscule infractions went on and on.

Mass Meeting

Phone workers call for ‘continuous meeting’ - 1946

Washington Telephone Traffic Union members jam Turner’s Arena Jan. 10, 1946 at the start of their 8-day “continuous meeting.”

Gannon called a continuous union meeting at Turner’s Arena for January 10th at 11 a.m. with instructions for union members to leave work at 10 a.m.

As union members entered the hall, they were given a flyer asking them to honor any picket lines set up by the installer’s union.

The 11 a.m. meeting was delayed an hour as union wardens searched for a reporter who had slipped into the meeting hall. Nearly all the union’s 2,500 operator members attended according to Gannon.

When the meeting ended at 12:50 p.m., Gannon announced that a federal conciliation conference would be held that afternoon and that the meeting would be reconvened at night.

“The union members will meet briefly tonight, when I simply will report whether the conference was successful,” Gannon said according to the Star. “If it fails we will recess until tomorrow morning.”

Gannon said when the meeting would end was up to the company, which she said must meet the union’s demands.

The Washington Star summarized Gannon’s 4-point demands as follows:

• Too many “service programs” and constant reminders of rules and regulations concerning the operation of switchboards.
• The “plug in” rule requiring that an operator relieving another must have the connecting cord in her hand as the operator going off duty leaves her seat.
• Excessive observation of operators by officials
• Meetings of employees called by officials to “hammer home” directives.

“The management of the offices constantly walk up and down behind the girls at switchboards, making them nervous. Sometimes they look over operators’ shoulders and even breathe down their necks,” Gannon told reporters.

“The day chief, the evening chief, the night chief, the assistant chief and the manager of the office take turns at this.”

“The supervisors must account for every minute of their time—must be constantly checking on the girls’ work, listen to customers’ complaints and report on equipment out of service.”

“We have girls leaving the boards and going home because of these conditions. Absenteeism is terrible and the public is not getting the service it should. The people remaining on the job are doing so under terrible handicap.”

C&P Reaction

C&P ad responds to union work stoppage: 1947

C&P Telephone responds to the “continuous union meeting” in a Jan. 12, 1947 ad in the Washington Star.

H. R. Maddox, vice-president and general manager of C&P denounced the union in a statement that read in part.

“Telephone operators walked off the job today because the company requires that telephone operator supervisors perform the duties of the job for which they were hired. This is the 14th strike in the past two-and-one-half years.”

“The situation is exactly the same as it was last Friday when the union staged a one-hour, sit-down strike.”

“This matter has been discussed with the Washington Telephone Traffic Union but the discussions were fruitless. It has been apparent from the start that the union had embarked on a program of deteriorating telephone service in Washington and dictating what type of service the public should have.”

“Now the union is changing its attack and seeking to accomplish the same result by charging that the performance by employees of their traditional duties results in working conditions unacceptable to the union.”

No picket lines were set up because Gannon claimed it wasn’t a strike, but simply a long union meeting.

Once again, long distance and other operator-assisted service slowed to a crawl as management personnel, engineers and others attempted to continue service.

Even the White House was not exempt; incoming long distance calls were blocked and outgoing long distance service had to be routed through military lines.

Installers Strike

DC Western Electric workers strike: 1946

Western Electric workers set up picket lines at C&P facilities around Washington, D.C. shown here at an unidentified facility Jan. 12, 1947.

Meanwhile, telephone installers across the nation employed by Western Electric (an AT&T subsidiary company) went on strike and set up picket lines at most telephone facilities bringing nationwide long-distance service to a crawl.

Western Electric manufactured and repaired telephones and equipment and installed large equipment.

The effects in Washington were limited because operators had already called their continuous union meeting and long distance service was already halted. But the 600 installers in the city set up picket lines outside the main C&P office on 13th Street NW and at some satellite facilities.

Beirne had hoped to hold off the Western Electric installers.

He had been working to cobble together local union telephone labor contracts that were expiring over the next year in order to facilitate a national bargaining agreement.

At a Milwaukee conference in December 1945 where 38 of 47 local presidents attended, they formulated national demands of a return to the 8-hour day from the wartime 48 hour day, a $0.65 per hour minimum wage retroactive to August 1945, and a $2 per day wage increase.

Beirne undoubtedly knew many of the bargaining units were conservative and repeatedly asking them to strike was a doomed strategy.

Affiliates Split on Installers’ Strike

Phone union leaders consider nationwide strike: 1946

This January 13th meeting of the NFTW executive board called off the Western Electric strike, postponing it until other affiliates filed legally required strike notices.

A number of the NFTW affiliates rebelled against the installers strike and voted not to honor picket lines, including the large New York City union while others, including Washington, pledged to refuse to cross them.

Meanwhile the federal government made preparations to seize the nationwide telephone service to end the strike.

Beirne called a January 13th meeting of the national executive board where it was decided to announce that a nationwide strike would be called, but only after each affiliate filed the legally necessary 30-day strike notice.

Meanwhile, he announced, the installers would go back to work. Installers’ pickets were withdrawn January 14th.

Beirne still had a shot at nationwide bargaining and a pact between the NFTW and the Bell System.

Washington Strike Continues

'Gannon’s girls’ at Turner’s Arena: 1945 ca.

An undated photograph of a Washington Telephone Traffic Union mass meeting at Turner’s Arena.

Separate from the activity on the national scene, Gannon’s conference with C&P and the federal conciliator on the first day of their “continuous meeting” ended without movement by either side, Gannon announced at the evening session of their January 11th meeting.

Commissioner Richard Goodrick of the federal Conciliation Service told the press that he would not be involved further until prospects of a settlement between the two sides brightened.

At a morning meeting on Saturday, January 12th, Gannon told the members that the company had upped the stakes and filed notice to terminate recognition of the union on April 1st and that it would refuse to negotiate on the termination after March 1st.

The contractual agreement to recognize the union was one of four labor agreements between the Washington NFTW affiliate and the company, but the most important because the others were meaningless without union recognition.

Gannon told the 2,000 union members assembled that the meeting would be adjourned until Monday morning. She had a message for the press in response to the company’s termination of bargaining rights notice.

“If there are any member of the press present,” she said addressing the meeting,” I want them to know we don’t mean we will be out until Monday—we mean indefinitely.”

She later added that C&P’s termination notice was, ‘just another one of its anti-labor acts. We intend to ignore it,” reported The Washington Star.

“We don’t like work stoppages and continuous meetings”, she continued. “We don’t like strikes; the word isn’t nice. But what do you do when you have your back against the wall?”

Union Meeting Continues

Just briefly crossing the picket line! - 1946

With permission from the striking Western Electric workers, striking traffic workers cross the picket line at 14th and R Streets NW to pick up their last paycheck Jan. 12, 1947.

Meanwhile, arrangements were made with the installers for the telephone operators to cross installers’ picket lines, which were still up, in order to pick up their last paycheck for work performed before the continuous meeting.

On Monday, January 14th, a little more than 500 members came to the fourth “continuous meeting” at the arena—significantly less than those the previous week.

According to the Star, Gannon exhorted her members, “Stay with me—I know what is best. Today will bring good news.”’

“I hope you will hear from newspapers and radios that you will be returning to your jobs,” she continued.

She told those assembled that the union’s demands were just and that the company had not learned what collective bargaining is.

“I don’t need to tell you we must stick together. I assure you that when you do go back to work there will be no discrimination against you or interference with your seniority.

When the meeting concluded, she invited press into the arena and urged the crowd to show how they felt.

The crowd broke into a loud, rhythmic clapping as a demonstration of continued support for the strike.

But Gannon knew the resolve of some of her members was weakening. Some were contacting management and telling their bosses they wanted to go back to work. Others were talking among themselves asking how were they going to make it as they spent the money from their last paycheck.

Red Herring

C&P uses red herring to gain support: 1947

C&P’s most effective ad used a red herring to gain public support. This version was published Jan. 17, 1946.

After the “continuous meeting’ began, C&P published daily advertisements in local newspapers putting out their side with headlines like, “Should the union manage the telephone business?,” “Telephone strike follows long slow-down,” “No telephone strikes in 65 years,” and “Should a telephone operator be dismissed for not striking?”

The last initially appeared Tuesday, January 15th and a version ran for the duration of the strike. It was one of their most effective. The union had a security clause in their contract which required members to remain in good standing.

The company used this as a red herring to claim that the union would use this clause to attempt to have the company dismiss any member who crossed picket lines. The company then used their advertisement to announce that they would never dismiss an employee who crossed a picket line.

Editorial boards, congressional representatives and others chimed in to support the company stance over a non-existent issue that the union never raised.

But it had its effect and a trickle of operators began to return to work.

The union responded the same day by releasing details of a proposal it had made the previous Friday.

Beirne Weighs-In

Joseph Beirne; Federation of Telephone Workers president: 1945

NFTW president Joseph Beirne in 1945.

National NFTW president Beirne told reporters that local union had made a “fact finding proposal” to the company in order to end the “continuous meeting.”

The Washington Star reported Beirne explained, “When it was seen the company and union entertained a wide difference of opinion in the issues involved, the union presented a compromise, which I thought was eminently fair and would be accepted by the company.”

“The union suggested that each side appoint an equal number of representatives to sit on a committee which would function in a fact-finding manner and investigate all the issues in dispute. After a period not to exceed six months, the committee would report back its findings.”

“During this period, the company would revert to the employer’ practices in force during the [World] war and up to November 1st. It is the union contention that the company has put disagreeable practices in effect since that time.”

By releasing the proposal publicly, the union was presenting itself as reasonable and casting the company in an unfavorable light and pointing blame toward C&P as the root cause as to why telephone service was still interrupted.

Gannon scheduled her fifth union meeting for the next day, Wednesday, January 16th.

The meeting was brief—only about 15 minutes–where Gannon updated the members that a meeting was held between the company and the union and that another was scheduled in the afternoon.

General Agreement

Telephone operators begin strike: 1946

Operators walk off the job for the beginning of their “continuous meeting” January 11, 1946.

She also scheduled another union meeting for the next day at 10 a.m.

Following the meeting, union public relations spokesperson Al Herrington told reporters that “an agreement was reached on general principles which will resolve the dispute.”

“We will try to write the language that will result in a contract covering the settlement of the dispute and return to work,” Herrington told reporters.

To confuse matters, the company announced that no progress had been made and that it was unaware of any afternoon meeting.

Meanwhile C&P announced that about 100 operators had returned to work out of the 2,500 on strike.

At their sixth meeting at 10 a.m. on the seventh day of their strike, Gannon reported to the members that the union would be making a revised proposal to the company that afternoon and another union meeting, hopefully the last, was scheduled for 7 p.m. that night.

Al Kane, general counsel for the union addressed the crowd and also told them that he believed the union’s modified proposal to be placed before the company that afternoon would be accepted.

Some Dissension

There was some dissension as a few workers grumbled about missing a paycheck while one operator complained that she had two children to support and couldn’t afford to stay out, according to the Star newspaper..

“Can’t we stick together?” Gannon replied and assured those assembled that they would be going back to work soon.

But most of those assembled had sentiments were captured after the meeting by women who said, “Well, if we don’t stick together, we won’t get anything,” and “We’ve stayed out all week and lost a week’s pay, we might as well get something for it,” as reported by The Washington Star.

Members at the meeting said that company officials had been calling them at home and telling them if they didn’t come back to work they would lose their jobs.

In response, the union posted designated representatives outside each location to persuade those wavering to hold fast.


Operators vote to end strike: 1946

“Victory!” Mary Gannon stands in front of ecstatic workers at Turner’s Arena after they vote to end their “continuous meeting” Jan. 17, 1946.

At the meeting that night on the eighth day of their strike, Gannon announced, “Victory!”

For the first time—anywhere–a part of the AT&T system acknowledged that workers were entitled to “good working conditions.” That basic tenant of industrial relations is taken for granted today and is part and parcel of most union contracts, but it was an earth-shaking concession for the Bell System at the time.

The Washington Star reported, “About 1,700 operators cheered and sang in Turner’s Arena when Mrs. Gannon told them they could return to work.”

The terms of the settlement were as follows:

• The union and the company both agree that the public is entitled to the best possible telephone service and that such service should be rendered under good working conditions. The operating force will return to work and perform the duties pertaining to their employment as assigned by the company.
• The union and company agreed to appoint a committee of six, three from the union and three from the company, composed of employees other than the present bargaining agents, which committee will institute a study of the work assignments and make recommendations for any changes that may appear desirable. This committee so shall function to March 31, 1947, unless otherwise mutually agreed.
• There shall be no recrimination or punitive action or discrimination on the part of the company or the union for any reason resulting from this work stoppage. Non-payment of wages for time lost during the work stoppage is not to be considered as disciplinary, punitive or prejudicial action.

“You can’t have everything. You take what you can get and you like it. After almost nine days, you have won a nice victory. Some say women can’t stick together. I think now that some will change their minds,” Gannon told the meeting according to the Star.

Operators Ecstatic

Telephone operators return to work: 1946

Happy telephone operators return to work at C&P Telephone headquarters at 725 13th St. NW Jan. 18, 1946.

Ecstatic operators began returning to their consoles after the meeting and by morning normal long distance service had been restored.

As the union prepared for local contract bargaining, The Washington Star reported March 7, 1946 that Gannon indicated many of the issues had been resolved by the committee.

“Grievances over working conditions which brought about an eight-day operators’ strike in January will not figure in the bargaining Mrs. Gannon said.”

“These matters are being nicely ironed out by a company-union committee appointed at the end of the strike to recommend working condition improvements, the union leader added. She said many improvements had been effected in training courses and supervisor observer tactics since the strike.”

“The committee will function until March 31, 1947, and there is reason to believe most of the grievances will be settled by then,” Gannon said according to the Star.

Gannon had done what many of her male counterparts felt was impossible—unified a nearly all-women workforce and led them on a successful 8-day strike.

Seek National Bargaining 

Smiles as telephone workers take strike vote: 1946

The Washington Telephone Traffic Union votes to authorize a strike at a Feb. 7, 1946 meeting at Turner’s Arena.

Beiirne’s attempt to cobble together enough local contracts to bargain nationwide was still alive.

The union’s national executive board held a number of debates. Seven of the 17 local unions willing to go along with Beirne’s plan gave the bargaining rights to Beirne while the others pledged to “coordinate their bargaining” and honor any strike by the seven.

All seventeen units, including the Washington, D.C. traffic union, filed the legally necessary 30-day strike notices. However, the Washington, D.C. C&P installers did not join in and set about to bargain their own agreement separate from the national effort.

The national executive board settled on using the AT&T nationwide long-lines as the key bargaining unit with other local telephone company subsidiaries pledging to adopt the outcome in what’s known as “pattern” bargaining.

The NFTW executive board set a strike deadline of 6:00 a.m. March 7, 1946 if no agreement were reached. Beirne announced that seventeen units would legally strike while the remaining 33 units across the country would respect picket lines.

Union in Good Position

The country was beset by a strike wave—the largest in U.S. history by some measurements—after wages had been depressed by a ban on strikes during World War II.

Both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats and Harry Truman, a Democrat had ascended to the presidency upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, a climate relatively favorable to labor.

AT&T’s monopoly of equipment manufacture, repair, local and long distance phone service made it a possible target for nationalization or regulation. Truman had already made preparations to seize the company during earlier labor unrest under wartime rules and some in Congress were advocating a takeover.

With these conditions in the background, Beirne was in a good position.

As the March 7th deadline approached, progress toward a settlement bogged down.

Government conciliators had all but given up as AT&T dug in on their final wage offer–that Beirne rejected.

Conciliation Chief Edgar L. Warren made an announcement to the press after the fourth session involving federal mediators attempting to reach an agreement, the final session lasting 14 hours and ending at 2:00 in the morning on March 6th.

Warren said he could see no “eleventh-hour action—other than a satisfactory company offer—which can prevent a strike.”

Strike Inevitable

Washington operators strike for one hour: 1946

Washington, D.C. telephone operators walk off the job at the main C&P office in the early morning hours of March 7, 1946.

Beirne sent telegrams to local union leaders across the country saying “strike is inevitable.” Locally, Gannon prepared her troops for picket duty.

Labor Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach stayed at the ready to enter negotiations if necessary.

Brooks described what happened in his book:

“With Labor Secretary Schwellenbach ‘standing by,’ AT&T vice president Cleo F. Craig entered the Long Lines negotiations at the eleventh hour. After a brief conference between Craig and Director of Conciliation Edgar L. Warren, NFTW president Beirne was called to the Department of Labor and his arrival placed the negotiations on a national basis.”

Craig later testified before a Senate subcommittee and Brooks described his testimony,

“He [Craig]…claimed that his staff canvassed the member companies the night of March 6th as to their willingness to bargain with their respective unions on the basis of a settlement in Long Lines. And though ‘no company delegated any authority to me to bargain,’ they ‘did say that I could bind them; that they would make an offer to their union.’”

Last Minute Settlement

After a long night of bargaining March 6-7, AT&T sweetened their wage offer and Beirne accepted. Beirne and Craig initialed the document that became the first national agreement between a union and AT&T.

An hour and a half before the strike deadline, the Gannon’s members walked off the job and set up picket lines. It had been less than two months since their nine-day strike. Maryland phone service centered in Baltimore also struck early.

The strike was called off at 5:45 a.m., minutes before the nationwide strike was to begin.

The agreement was a pattern for all pending wage settlements as was to run from March 7 1946 until March 6, 1947. The increases are per week and represented an 18.2 percent increase.

The March 1946 issue of the Telephone Worker described the wage settlement thus:

• “For plant workers–$5 at starting rates, $8 at top rates.
• “For traffic workers–$5 at starting rates, $7 at top rates.
• “For clerical workers–$5 at starting rates, $7 at top rates.
• “For janitors, house service and dining room workers etc.–$5 across the board.
• “For administrative workers—engineers, staff technicians, etc.–$8 across the board.
• “For manufacturing workers 17.6 centers per hour, distributed in any way the union and company can agree to.”

Pressure From Schwellenbach Key

Telephone union president Joseph Beirne: 1945

NFTW president Joseph Beirne in 1945.

Asked later how he achieved the national agreement, Beirne said, “We were not only able to get Craig of AT&T, who was a top man, vice president of AT&T, down into Schwellenbach’s office, but we were able with Schwellenbach to keep the pressure on,” according to Brooks.

Gannon had pickets walking at 30 exchanges from 5:30 a.m. until 7 a.m. when she was able to get the official word out that the strike had been called off.

Pickets carried signs in front of the main C&P office at 725 13th Street reading, “We want $2 a Day So We can Maintain a Reasonable Standard of Living,” “Two Bucks a Day to Hike Our Pay Enough to Keep the Wolf Away,” and “The Voice With a Smile Will be Gone for a While—She’s Walking These Lines ‘Til Mamma Bell Signs.”

Gannon had to be pleased–not only for her bet on a national effort and a strengthened national union, but that she could turn her members out for a potentially long strike so soon after the last one.

D.C. Installers Look Foolish

In contrast Helery Robinson of the Washington installer’s Federation of Telephone Workers of D.C. had voted against the national effort at the union executive board meeting in February and struck a bargain with C&P a month before the national strike deadline.

“We may ask for a mutual re-opening of our contract,” Robinson was quoted in The Washington Post. “I am hoping the company will see their way clear to give us new consideration. Otherwise we are saddled with our contract until 1947. The contract now held by us in some categories is about $1 a week less than was granted last night.”

Gannon probably gritted her teeth remembering how male union leaders at national conventions had disparaged women telephone workers and in her mind the decision on the local level to split from the installers was vindicated.

In fact, Beirne had made a private verbal agreement with Craig that all previously signed contracts would have wages brought up to the national standard.

Beirne explained later, “We had stuck together and we did move the giant. But then to put frosting on the cake, we had more money put into the pockets of those who had signed off…” as quoted in Brooks’ book.


Railroad workers defy Truman; resume strike: 1946

Railroad workers at Potomac Yards in Alexandria, Va. walk off the job in May 1946 during the strike wave of 1945-47.

Internally, AT&T chaffed at the agreement they made and immediately began making preparations for the March 1947 contract expiration.

The political situation changed during the November 1946 elections when the Republican Party swept into power with a large majority in the House of Representatives and a slim majority in the U.S. Senate.

Many Republicans, along with some Democrats, had vehemently opposed the 1935 Wagner Act that put into law many union rights and helped lead to the unionization wave of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Republican leaders in both houses began putting together the elements of a bill that would become the Taft-Hartley Act, outlawing sympathy strikes, secondary boycotts, leaving the open shop decision to the states, barring radical labor leaders from serving in official union positions, making it easier to issue injunctions against strikes and a number of other anti-union measures.

Caravan to Oppose Taft-Hartley Act: 1947

A car caravan against the Taft-Hartley Act drives around Washington, D.C. in 1947 with the U,.S. Capitol in the background.

The strike wave of 1945-47, where several million workers in the mines, oil industry, railroads, steel plants, electrical plants, meat packing and auto industry and dozens of local workplaces staged strikes for higher wages and benefits, also led to a backlash on Capitol Hill–and with some segments of the public–against unions.

Further public support of union power was eroded by the growing “Red Scare” and the alleged communist leadership of 11 national unions and the influential presence of left-leaning leaders in many others.

AT&T devised a strategy to walk-back their national negotiation that had resulted in the wage settlement of 1946,

This time they planned to break union power by refusing to to conduct negotiations on the national level, making unacceptable offers at the local level and forcing the union to strike. Their objective was to peel off weaker local unions to make sub-par settlements with the local phone companies after strikers began to miss paychecks.

On the Union Side

Telephone union president Joseph Beirne: 1945

NFTW president Joseph Beirne in 1945.

Beirne had been strengthened by the 1946 wage agreement, but its weaknesses were also apparent. 17 unions had bargained for the 33 that went their own way. Beirne needed a stronger national union and went about trying to build it.

He campaigned to form a new union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) with a new constitution that would make the autonomous local unions “divisions” of the new union. Further it would grant the national union the power to approve or disapprove local contracts and strikes, appoint administrators in cases where fraud or insolvency had occurred within the local unions and designate local unions as trustees of the funds of the local union.

It set the power of the union in the national convention and the national executive board between conventions.

This meant that Beirne would have the power to lead a national strike without local unions cutting their own deals. He hoped to have the new union in place by November 1946 in order to take on AT&T in March 1947.

Beirne toured the country and pressed locals to authorize their convention delegates to approve the new union. Many local unions were persuaded by Beirne’s arguments that stronger organization was necessary to take on the AT&T monopoly, but were hesitant to give up their own power.

At the November 1946 Detroit convention of the NFTW, the vast majority of locals hadn’t yet voted on the issue. The convention voted to establish the CWA, but only on an interim basis until locals totaling at least 115,000 members had voted favorably and been issued charters.

The convention also empowered Beirne to name a coordinated bargaining committee that would determine the exact wage demands. Others such as improved vacations and pensions, union shop and dues check-off were voted favorably by the convention delegates.

Mildred Beahm of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union served on the bargaining committee appointed to formulate demands for 1947 bargaining.

Shortly after the convention the national union bargaining committee developed a 10-point demand list that included a $12-weekly across-the-board wage increase, shorter wage progression, uniform pay for job classifications across the country, along with improved pensions, vacations and union security provisions.

But Beirne seemed destined to prepare for his demand for national bargaining with the same loose structure of the NFTW.

Local unions were told to proceed with local bargaining, to hold strike votes and to file any legally necessary strike notices to be prepared for a national strike on April 7, 1947.


Telephone strike vote: 1947

The WTTU conducts a strike authorization vote at Turner’s Arena March 20, 1947.

AT&T’s strategy quickly became apparent to the NFTW. Across the country the telephone company subsidiaries of AT&T refused to make a wage offer and instead offered to extend local agreements by 3-6 months.

The Washington Telephone Traffic Union opened negotiations February 17, 1947 and the District Federation of Telephone Workers—the D.C.-area installers affiliate of the NFTW—opened earlier on January 31st.

Legally necessary 30-day strike notices were filed with the federal government on March 1, 1947 by affiliates of the NFTW in 23 states, including the two Washington, D.C. C&P locals.

Negotiations Fruitless

“Mrs. Mary E. Gannon, president of the WTTU, said no wage proposal had been made by the company although the union had asked for $12 a week wage increase for all workers,” The Washington Star reported March 2nd.

The same article quoted Beirne:

“After more than a month of continuous bargaining, not one Bell telephone company has offered a penny of wage increases. They have rejected all our proposals for union shop, shortened apprentice periods, narrowing of wage differences between large and small towns, and have refused to consider improvements in vacations and pensions.”

Gannon’s negotiations were going nowhere.

“We’re just battling back and forth and we’re getting nowhere,” Gannon was quoted in The Washington Post March 4th.

By March 10th, Gannon broke off negotiations with the company, the Post reported:

“Mrs. Gannon charged the company with insisting upon a return to working conditions which existed ‘before the union came into being’ and with refusing all wage boosts ‘notwithstanding undisputed evidence respecting the tremendous increase in the cost of living since last spring.’”

“She contended the company has ‘taken an unreasonable attitude in bargaining’ but emphasized the union is willing to resume negotiations ‘when and if the company decides to make a realistic approach to the problem.’”

Negotiations would, in fact, resume later but with little change.

Strike Votes Across the Country

C&P Telephone cafeteria at Congress Heights: 1940 ca.

The C&P cafeteria at the Congress Heights exchange. About 500 members of Gannon’s union worked at 8 C&P cafeterias across the city.

Gannon called a meeting for Turner’s Arena March 20th to hold a strike authorization vote. The secret ballot vote was in favor of a strike by a 7-1 margin–2635-390. Gannon declared that the “WTTU has voted decisively to join in whatever nationwide action is taken,” according to the Star.

Ballots across the country were overwhelmingly in favor of following the recommendations of the national bargaining committee according to the union.

Gannon broke off talks with C&P again on March 22nd and again reiterated that “in the event of a change in attitude on the part of the company, the union would be willing to resume negotiations,” The Washington Post reported.

Beirne Worried

Behind the scenes, Beirne was worried. He attempted to persuade the national policy committee to hold off on the strike deadline. He was concerned that the union lacked organizational cohesion and felt that you shouldn’t call a strike when the company is trying to push you into one.

“We should not strike, that we should hold off any notion of a strike until we got our structure that would cause us to stay together…We are not equipped financially, and we are not equipped organizationally to maintain a unified strike…the other side will clobber us, and we’ll begin to fall apart,” Beirne recalled that he told the union’s national policy committee according to Brooks.

But with AT&T’s last minute 1946 settlement on wages, many of the NFTW leaders were more optimistic and they had even more local unions on board this time.

“I won’t speak for anybody but myself, but I’m satisfied most of the people in the union felt the same way and that was the company couldn’t stand a strike. I didn’t think it would last over three days, and I thought we’d get what we wanted within reason,” D. L. McCowen a union national policy committee member from Texas recalled later as quoted in Brooks’ book.

Beirne was outvoted almost unanimously.

Pressure on Both Sides

Pressure on both sides ramped up as the April 7th deadline approached.

U.S. mediators were sent to negotiations across the country to attempt to affect a settlement. U.S. Senator Wayne Morse (R-OR), urged the company and the union to “adopt voluntary peaceful procedures” to avoid a strike and suggested arbitration of the dispute

Beirne attempted to convene national bargaining with AT&T, by sending a telegram to the company, but was rebuffed again.

“Your telegram of March 24 has been sent to Bell System companies whose employees are represented by NFTW representatives for their consideration. As you know, labor agreements with the unions affiliated with NFTW are with operating telephone companies and all bargaining matters are handled by each company with its union,” AT&T replied.

C&P Telephone echoed the same response in a statement to reporters saying that they “consider negotiations for a contract a purely local matter.”

“We have always maintained wage levels that compare favorably with wages being paid for similar work in this community.”

Congress Weighs-In

Fred Hartley of anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act: 1940 ca.

U.S. Rep. Fred Hartley (R-NJ), while crafting the anti-labor provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, introduced legislation making it easier to issue an injunction against the pending NFTW strike.

While crafting the provisions that would become the Taft-Hartley Act to limit all U.S. unions, the Republican-controlled Congress also began looking at ways to blunt the NFTW and any strike.

U.S. Rep Gerald Landis (R-Ind.), ranking Republican member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that Congress would quickly give the President the power to seize the telephone company in the event of a national strike.

Meanwhile U.S. Rep. Fred Hartley (R-N.J.), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced legislation to provide an injunction against a strike by the NFTW.

By the end of March, telephone subsidiaries of AT&T began offering arbitration of wages as a way to avert a strike. The offer only addressed one of the ten NFTW demands and was limited to a comparison of like local jobs, skills and training and excluded both any consideration of cost of living increases when inflation was then running at 8.3 percent and the ability of the company to pay higher wages while the company was enjoying substantial profit. Further there was no offer of national arbitration.

Both Gannon and Robinson, the leaders of the two D.C. area unions, separately offered to arbitrate all union proposals, but the offer was quickly rejected by the local phone company.

Strike Preparations

C&P and union strike headquarters: 1947

This 1951 photograph shows the main C&P building at 725 13th Street NW (the tallest) and the D.C. union strike headquarters (labeled) at 711 13th Street NW.

Both sides prepared to strike.

In Washington, D.C., C&P assigned 800 management personnel to handle plant, maintenance and operator work.

Cots were brought into each work place and food stocked for 24-hour operation by management personnel. Of the eight company dining rooms, the management planned to keep four open on a limited basis. Elevators in buildings with multiple floor would be reduced as the elevator operators would be on strike while restrooms would be cleaned by the management.

The union set up strike headquarters at 711 13th Street close to the company’s headquarters and pickets were assigned to 35 C&P Telephone locations. They planned for 24-hour picketing.

The union had no strike fund, but began soliciting donations of food and money to sustain the strikers.

The union offered to permit striking operators to staff emergency lines, but the offer was rejected by the company.

Virginia workers, including those represented by Gannon’s and Robinson’s unions in Northern Virginia, would not be immediately participating in the strike due to a state law requiring utility workers to undergo a waiting period before walking off the job and the intervention of the governor before any strike could be called.

Meanwhile federal conciliators attempted to move stalled negotiations across the country forward.

Move to CWA on Hold

As the strike deadline approached, the 49-member national union policy committee voted to put on hold any further moves to form the CWA.

There was a significant minority of local unions resistant to surrendering local control and some others that favored immediate alignment with the CIO. These unions included the strategic long lines division. The operators unit in Baltimore, Md. and the Pennsylvania Federation of Telephone Workers voted against joining the proposed stronger national union and the Connecticut Union of Telephone Workers left the NFTW in month of March during the runup to the strike deadline.

CIO chief meets with Labor Secretary Schwellenbach: 1946

Labor Secretary Louis Schwellenbach (right) attempted to craft a settlement at the last minute like he had a year earlier, but failed.

The news media paid particular attention to the long-lines negotiations since they had provided the pattern for the 1946 wage settlement. But those negotiations went nowhere like the rest.

Religious leaders asked the union to postpone the strike for a week and continue bargaining, with nationwide arbitration on any items not settled by direct talks. Beirne rejected the proposal out of hand saying that the company had three months to put an offer on the table and thus far had not responded in a positive way to any of the union’s 10 demands.

U.S. Labor Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach got personally involved in the final days and conferred with both Craig and Beirne by phone seeking a solution and on April 6th asked the union to postpone the strike by 48 hours. The union’s policy committee turned down his proposal.

As the hours slipped by toward the 6:00 a.m. deadline on April 7th, Schwellenbach roused the 49-member union policy committee from their beds in local hotels at 4:30 a.m. for a meeting at the Labor Department in Washington, D.C.

With union officials gathered in the Labor Department, Schwellenbach telephoned Craig. When he hung up, he had nothing to offer the union and the strike was on.

The National Strike

Nationwide strike hits AT&T: 1947

NFTW president Joseph Beirne and WTTU president Mary Gannon walk the picket line at the main C&P building on 13th Street NW on the first day of the strike April 7, 1947.

Across the country about 65 percent of the nation’s local phone service was affected and about 80 percent of its long distance service.

With broadcast television in its infancy, radio was the main means of instant mass communication. It was largely unaffected by the strike because direct connections were available between networks and local affiliates. However remote programs in areas without direct connections were halted.

However telegraph, radio, teletype and any long-distance phone calls put through by the company’s management personnel would be vulnerable over time to breakdowns because of the walkout of maintenance personnel.

Government operations in Washington, D.C. were largely unaffected because of inter-office phone lines and the ability of the government to route outgoing long distance calls through military and other secure lines. However long distance calls from private numbers into government buildings were curtailed by the strike.

The one non-dial exchange in the city serving about 5,000 lines was staffed by management personnel, as were two suburban exchanges that also lacked dial service.

Round-The-Clock Picketing

In Washington, D.C. union members began round-the-clock picketing of C&P and Western Electric facilities. Only a handful of union members crossed the initial picket lines.

Picket signs included, “The voice with a smile will be gone for a while,” “Millions for profit but nothing for workers,” and “On Strike for Union Security.”

The Washington Afro American reported, “Twenty-six colored employees of the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company joined the telephone strike in Washington Monday morning, leaving the company’s branch office at 14th and U Streets northwest to be operated by its colored manager, C. A. Robinson and his assistant, T.C. Newton.”

Black cafeteria workers, elevator operators and helpers joined other picket lines around the city.

Beirne & Gannon Join the Line

Beirne and Gannon, in the late stages of her pregnancy with her first child Tommy, paraded with the Washington pickets outside the company offices on 13th Street NW.

The strike began with 300,000 workers out—either through a strike or respecting another union’s picket line–causing delays in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The number of workers out rose to 340,000 in the next few days.

On the first day of the strike while long distance service was cut to about 20 percent of normal nationwide, it was estimated at 10 percent of normal in Washington, D.C.

Direct dial service was not impacted. However six million users across the country were still on operator-assisted local service compared to 20 million that had direct dial. The Washington area had only about five percent of local calls that were operator assisted.

The heady days early in the strike gave way to the drudgery of picket duty as time elapsed. There would be periodic rumors of progress in talks, but these gave way to the reality the company was not making any offer of substance at a national level or local level.

Managers Become More Proficient

Supervisor connects emergency calls during strike: 1947

A manager connects emergency calls at the main C&P building on 13th Street NW during the April-May 1947 nationwide strike by telephone workers.

Managers operating the switchboards became more proficient and a greater percentage of calls went through. Mechanical breakdowns in direct dial service were few and were handled by managers who had been former equipment workers.

C&P Telephone and other AT&T subsidiaries began running ads in daily local newspapers across the country pushing their side of the issues and slamming the union.

The first early contract offers by AT&T subsidiaries and their long lines department centered around proposals for local arbitration.

The first potential break in the strike came when the AT&T long lines division and the union reached a tentative agreement providing for arbitration of wages, length of schedules, vacations, and leaves of absence for union officials. The NFTW local union, which covered long lines nationwide, and the AT&T reached agreement to settle 87 other issues.

The AT&T long lines division had been the key to settling the 1946 contract as its wages were applied to AT&T local telephone company subsidiaries.

However this time, federal mediators announced that the company was only settling this one contract and was not obligating itself to apply any of its terms elsewhere.

The question remained, would the union roll the dice that a long-lines settlement could be used as a pattern anyway?

No Deal

The union’s 49-member national policy committee rejected the settlement April 11th, still believing they could attain a national agreement.

Both sides hardened their negotiating stance. Beirne demanded a meeting with national AT&T officials. Management of the local subsidiaries refused to seriously negotiate unless local union leaders would agree that they wouldn’t submit any settlement made to the national union.

Across the country, AT&T attempted to organize back-to-work movements as they telephoned individual members asking them to cross picket lines.

In Washington, D.C. as the strike entered its eighth day on April 14th, Gannon responded by holding a rally at Turner’s Arena and a march on the main offices of C&P Telephone on 13th Street NW.

Workers March on C&P

“More than 2,000 traffic department employees left the morning mass meeting [at Turner’s Arena] to form at Franklin Park, 13th & I Streets NW, and march to the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone headquarters at 725 13th Street NW,” reported The Washington Star.

Telephone workers dancing in the picket line: 1947

Dancing on the picket line in front of C&P headquarters at 725 13th St. NW April 23, 1947..

“Singing and laughing they walked in single file until they formed a complete square around the company buildings. Led by Mrs. Mary Gannon, president of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, the girls demonstrated for about 15 minutes and then withdrew as normal picketing resumed,” the Star continued.

On April 15th U.S. Labor Secretary Schwellenbach made a proposal to both sides to have a five-member national arbitration panel rule on wages and five other union demands for each of the bargaining units with the other issues to be settled in “intense negotiations,” with a return to work within three days.

Craig, the AT&T vice president, countered saying the proposal was “impractical” and offered instead 12 regional arbitrations. Bierne and the 49-member national policy committee of the union rejected the proposal saying that AT&T must make a wage offer.

At an April 17th rally at Turner’s Arena by the two C&P Washington NFTW affiliates, Bierne told the hundreds of union members present that he expected a settlement soon but to show “courage” if the walkout is prolonged.

“We’re working toward a settlement this week, but if we don’t win this year, we never will,” Beirne told reporters after the meeting.

Beirne Attempts to Call Off Strike

But behind the scenes, Beirne knew he could not hold the local unions together much longer. He urged the union national policy committee to abandon the strike and continue negotiations while threatening another strike. He received only one vote for his proposal.

On April 18th C&P Telephone made an offer to the two Washington unions that was identical to the one Craig laid out nationally, again showing Craig’s claim that each subsidiary acted independently as a sham.

The unions responded by demanding that C&P make a wage offer and making their own offer.

C&P ad on strike tries to justify their position: 1947

A C&P Telephone Co. ad in the April 14, 1947 Washington Star. AT&T subsidiaries ran ads in newspapers across the country.

“The union made an offer today which apparently was intended to cloud the issue and raise the hopes of its members in an effort to stem the tide of the back-to-work movement which is gaining momentum,” J. B. Morrison, vice president and general manager of C&P told reporters.

“We are willing to put the matter of our basic wages before such a board [of local arbitration]. We believe that the union hesitates either because they know that our employees are well paid or they cannot move without the approval of the National Federal of Telephone Workers, with which they are affiliated.

The same was heard by local union bargainers across the country and resulted in the NFTW taking out its first ads in local newspapers across the country laying out its case for a national settlement.

Meanwhile Gannon continued to rally her troops, visiting picket lines across the area and reporting “high morale.” By her count only six traffic union members had crossed picket lines since the strike began.

Flying Squadron

The following day she held another information meeting at Turner’s Arena. Out of that meeting came plans for a squad of “flying pickets” to travel by car, bus and streetcar to the different C&P facilities around the metropolitan area to bolster the morale of picket lines.

Gannon’s union, which had no strike fund, also organized a dance at the Silver Spring Armory to raise money for the union’s welfare fund that aided the strikers who were now nearly all in dire financial shape.

Across the country, aid to the NTFW began to arrive. The CIO pledged financial support and instructed affiliates not to cross picket lines.

Contributions came in from unions across the country—Cigar Workers, Ladies Garment Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, Clothing Workers, Machinists, United Auto Workers, Mine Workers and many others—totaling $128,000 or about $1.8 million in 2022 dollars.

At the national level, hope for a settlement began to rise during the third week of the strike when General Motors, U.S. Steel and Westinghouse Electric either made offers or reached agreement with their unions on $0.15 per hour wage increases—translating to about $6 per week.

While AT&T officials had indicated they would not set a pattern with their own bargaining, they never ruled out following a pattern set by other industries.

However, hopes were dashed when Edgar Warren head of the U.S. Conciliation service said that AT&T officials claimed other industry increases would have no effect on them.

“They tell us that the wage increases recently given do not affect them right now. They say these other increases have not yet affected the market price for labor and they cannot raise wages for the time being,” Warren told reporters.

Tempers Rise on Picket Line

Two-and-a-half weeks into the strike, tensions were rising on the picket lines as a few union workers began crossing the lines.

Telephone operators picket against the wind: 1946

A windy day on the picket line in front of C&P headquarters April 28, 1947.

Brooks describes some of the turmoil in his book, “Rancor soured the unfolding spring. Two strikers were injured and 22 arrested after a picket line brouhaha with police in Detroit. Police dispersed a mass demonstration in San Francisco. Someone cut telephone cable in lower Manhattan” and a dozen other places, and 250 telephone circuits were slashed near Fort Worth, TX.

Locally, pushing and shoving between picketers and scabs occurred at the main office at 723 13th Street NW, resulting in one arrest.

“Sgt. Douglas said he saw Mrs. Mary E. Gannon, president of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, kick one of the girls leaving the building on the shin,” reported the Star.

“Then he saw another picket jostle a second worker with her hip and knock her against the building, the policeman said,” according to the Star. That picketer was arrested.

Gannon denied the allegation.

“If I had kicked anyone it would have hurt me more than the person I kicked,” she told the Star. “I was wearing open-toed shoes.”

“Insisting that Mrs. Gannon started the affray with a kick, Sgt. Douglas said he would have arrested her except that ‘the kicked girl ran off and there was no complaining witness.’”

Other incidents were reported including an arrest at the Hyattsville, Md. picket line.

Managers at the switchboard: 1946

As the strike went on management personnel became more proficient and were supplemented by scabs.

C&P gave strike-breakers a whistle that could alert company officials in the event they had trouble crossing a picket line. In return, Gannon’s union gave pickets whistles to blow while they picketed to annoy management and scabs working inside.

Madge Giles of the D.C. telephone traffic union later said that the company had the police on their side.

“They’d go in the operating building, and the company was feeding them their lunch and dinners and breakfasts, what have you…I think the company had them right in the palm of their hand,” she recalled in Brooks’ book.

First Defection from Strike

The first defection from the NFTW occurred April 25th when the Baltimore, Md. installers’ union reached an agreement with C&P to arbitrate four items and negotiate the rest after returning to work.

The agreement covered 2,200 predominantly male workers while the predominantly female operators continued to honor picket lines. The Maryland installers withdrew from the NFTW after their agreement with C&P.

On April 26th, two more women were arrested for harassing a former employee who crossed picket lines to scab at the Franklin exchange at 120 7th Street NE. A third was arrested for disorderly conduct for cursing at police at the exchange on the 1400 block of Columbia Road NW.

The same day the NFTW cut its wage demand from $12 to $6 in line with other industry settlements.

Union Publishes Ad

Telephone union responds to company newspaper ads: 1947

The NFTW buys an ad in the April 27, 1947 Washington Star in an attempt to counter C&P Telephone’s ads. 

Three weeks into the strike on April 27th, the union published its side of the story in an advertisement in The Washington Star while the two local Washington unions rallied again at Turner’s Arena.

The packed arena heard NFTW president Beirne tell them that he expected “a major break in the not too distant future” in the form of a wage offer from AT&T to the long lines division whose contract “would probably set a pattern” as it had a year earlier.

Beirne characterized the settlement and disaffiliation of the Maryland installers as a “stab in the back” at the Turner’s Arena rally. He urged the gathering to “keep the walkout in full force today…Once we get together on money issues the other issues should be easy. The end may be in sight,” the Star newspaper reported.

While other companies had unofficial discussions with their unions about wages, Northwestern Bell made the first wage offer to a NFTW affiliate on April 28th in the amount of a $2.50 increase per week.

Despite the company’s public relations push, a national Gallup opinion poll in early May demonstrated that the public backed the union by a 2-1 margin of those that had an opinion.

More Local Unions Break Away

But, independent unions in New York and Pennsylvania that had been coordinating their strikes with the NFTW, broke ranks and reached settlements with their companies on April 30th. Pennsylvania settled for $3-4 increases while New York settled for $4 across the board.

After the New York rank-and-file repudiated their leaders’ agreement and continued their strike and picketing, Beirne addressed a mass rally there and urged them on while hoping to discourage others from settling.

However other affiliates were reaching agreements on April 30th and submitting them to the union’s policy board. In Milwaukee, 7,000 telephone workers reached an agreement for wage increases from $3-5 per week and Fort Dodge, Iowa a small unit reached an agreement for increases of $4-6 per week.

Despite Beirne’s and the 49-member policy board’s best efforts, strike unity crack had begun to widen.

Number of Scabs Increases

Pickets keep their eyes up: 1947

Pickets look skyward after a management employee or scab dropped an egg on them outside of the main C&P building on 13th St. NW April 27, 1947.

In Washington another women striker was arrested May 1st for spitting on a scab at the telephone company’s headquarters.

The lengthening strike and the company-organized back to work movement had some success. Most of those strikers returning to work were installers. C&P reported about one-third of the 3,200 installers were back, while only 90 of 3,400 in the traffic union had returned.

While the women of traffic union were able to hold their strike together, the predominantly-male installers’ union did not.

Madge Giles recalled in Brooks’ book, “No, we didn’t shut the phone company down completely, no, because they had a lot of their management people who were working switchboards, and then at times, we had some fellow workers from the plant department that finished their tour and went into the traffic operators’ switchboard and worked. This was one of the things that caused the trouble between the traffic group and the plant group. We thought this was wrong. We saw no reason why, if they had to be strikebreakers, why they couldn’t go home at the end of their tour and leave the traffic operating board alone…We were quite a few years overcoming that feeling, but we have.”

NFTW Abandons Nationwide Bargaining

As an increasing number of local unions were beginning to reach settlements with local phone companies, the 49-member national policy committee of the NFTW abandoned their objective of national bargaining and left Washington, D.C. to return to their home bases on May 7th.

The same day the District Federation of Telephone Workers representing 3200 installers, accountants and sales representatives settled with C&P for $2-4 per week increases, undercutting the D.C. traffic union.

The D.C. installers settled by sacrificing three employees who had been fired for picket incidents, without addressing lost company service while on strike and losing maintenance of dues. The installers’ union recommended respecting the traffic union’s picket lines, but nearly two-thirds of the installers showed up for work.

The next day, the key Long Lines division of AT&T settled for a $4.40 per week increase and telephone unions around the country began falling like dominos.

Washington Operators’ Settlement

Razzing scabs at the telephone building: 1947

Strikers express their feelings when a scab crosses their picket line May 2,1947.

As the D.C. traffic union closed in on a settlement, Western Electric workers, 600 of whom were employed in the District and had been honoring strike picket lines, were ready to call a strike of their own.

Despite the increased pressure on Gannon to get her members back to work, Gannon held firm.

The Washington Star reported on May 10th, “Mary E. Gannon, WTTU president, said the union’s policy is to respect picket lines of other National Federation of Telephone Workers affiliates, and that the WTTU members would be advised of this.”

To strengthen her hand with the company, on May 12th, Gannon put the company’s latest offer up for a vote at Turner’s Arena by the traffic union members. Despite being on strike for five weeks, the group overwhelmingly voted down C&P’s latest offer.

Poison Pills

The offer contained wages of $2-4 per week increases, similar to most being settled for across the country, but contained “poison pills” that the members wouldn’t swallow.

Gannon explained, “The company asked us to give up our present seniority and grievance procedure as well as maintenance of dues,” as reported by the Star. She added that a clause giving the company the right to fire employees for picket line incidents was also unacceptable.

The following day, C&P announced that seniority for benefit and other purposes would not be affected by the strike, removing one obstacle to settling the operator’s strike.

While it is common today for many women to continue working up until the time they go into labor, it was unusual in the 1940s. However Gannon hardly missed a beat.

After giving birth to her son Tommy, she postponed the strike of her Virginia members that had been stalled by a Virginia law and returned to the bargaining table.

Gannon settled her contract May 17th, the 41st day of the strike. With the seniority issue already settled, adding extra steps to the grievance procedure resolved that issue and maintenance of dues was replaced by the company deducting union dues from those workers who volunteered to do so at no cost to the union.

Three Members Fired

The thorniest issue was about three of Gannon’s union members who were discharged by the company for incidents on the picket line. The union and the company accepted a federal mediator’s proposal to arbitrate whether the three should be returned to work.

A C&P Telephone Co. file clerk: 1930 ca.

A C&P clerk is shown at work circa 1930. C&P clerks were part of the traffic union. 

Wages were a $4 increase for 90 percent of the unit, a $3 increase for some clerical employees, and a $2 increase for other cafeteria workers, general helpers and rest room attendants.

The contract also applied to Gannon’s members in northern Virginia, settling that issue.

The union had about 3,000 telephone operators, 500 cafeteria workers, 250 clerks, 55 rest room attendants and a few general helpers.

The contract was ratified by yet another mass meeting at Turner’s Arena where Gannon advised those present that they should report to work as scheduled the next day, but to respect any picket lines put up by Western Electric workers.

Sure enough, the pickets from the Western Electric installers were established at all C&P facilities and the operators refused to cross the picket line.

The Western Electric strike settled the same day for a $4.40 per week increase—one of the best settlements made—and the Washington Telephone Traffic Union went back to work the next day with their heads held high.

The Traffic Union

Union president Gannon pickets with her ‘girls’ - 1947

Gannon (center), in the late stages of pregnancy. when the strike was called, had her baby and returned to the bargaining table to conclude contract talks.

Gannon’s union was one of the last to return to work nationwide—fighting until the end to win as much as could be won and holding out an extra day in an expression of solidarity with the Western Electric workers.

Gannon undoubtedly thought back to the 1942 NFTW convention when men sought to limit the number of women on the national executive board in part because they were suspicious, thinking women weren’t real trade unionists.

She surely felt anger that men had led the back to work movement in Baltimore and the installers union in D.C. had 95 percent of the scabs between the two unions during the strike. But she also had to feel pride that the women unionists under her leadership fought until the end and went back to work together.

If the national strike failed in its objective, the Washington Telephone Traffic Union wasn’t to blame.

Solid, Unified, Militant Union

Gannon had accomplished building a solid, unified, and militant union by years of constant communication with members and the experience the members had with previous work stoppages. They trusted their leader and their leader could place trust in them.

Gannon had her finger on the pulse of the members at all times and knew the steps she could take—and what she couldn’t.

The tactics she used during the strike to hold her unit together included frequent mass meetings, regularly visiting picket lines, organizing a flying picket squadron to bolster morale and discourage scabs, staging a march on the company headquarters, making statements to the press that were aimed as much at the company and her members as they were to the public, and raising funds for member emergencies during the strike—all while dealing with the issues of her late term pregnancy.

National Strike Analysis

Union leader Gannon leads phone strike picket line: 1947

NFTW president Joseph Beiren walks the picket line behind Mary Gannon during the 1947 national strike.

The national strike was probably the most extensive in the country up until that point in time.

The June issue of the NFTW The Telephone Worker said, “The AT&T is the largest corporation ever to have been struck. The strike extended over more territory and into more communities than any previous strike in the history of the nation. Thousands of the smaller communities had their first experience with a strike through the telephone walkout. Very few strikes have involved so many workers.”

Few, if any, unions staged national strikes with a weaker federation of unions.

Beirne said shortly after the strike, “We were trying to make a federation of unions to do the kind of job which can only be done by one union in the telephone industry. The latter states of the strike demonstrated that the separate organizations composing the national federation would act separately and individually—based on their own autonomy—when the going got tough,” according to Brooks in his book.

Contrary to some union claims during the strike, AT&T did not set out to break the union—only to substantially weaken it. AT&T still feared that if the NFTW failed completely, they would be faced with an affiliate of the then left-leaning, militant CIO. They succeeded in the short term with their objectives—weaker unions and lower wage costs than other industries.

Alvin Loren Park wrote in a thesis on the strike:

“It was the feeling of the Conciliation Service that AT&T would accept as the final cash settlement approximately the pattern that had developed in manufacturing industries. This amounted to 11.5 to 12.5 cents per hour ($4.60 to $5 per week)( with 2.5 to 3.5 cents per hour extra for fringe issues.”

“AT&T would not accept these figures, however. It chose instead to exploit the situation [the fracturing strike] to the fullest extent, and through the subsidiary companies, it proceeded to work out, with relatively weak local unions, settlements that were lower than the manufacturing pattern,” he continued.

Telephone companies were already paying less than the national manufacturing standards and the pay structure fell further behind with the 1947 settlements.

Beirne looked at the glass as half-full when he gave a statement to telephone workers after the strike.

“The united front and singleness of purpose of the policy committee during the time of its existence served as an influence in breaking what would have been a $2 [per week] pattern,” Beirne said.

However, the defeat of the effort at national bargaining had immediate consequences for the NFTW.

CWA and the CIO

Petitions urge veto of Taft-Hartley anti-labor act 1947

CIO Vice President Allan S. Haywood (center) shows off anti-Taft Hartley Act petitions in 1947. Haywood also headed the CIIO Telephone Workers Organizing Committee (1947-49).

The issues that had divided the union over the proposal to form a Communications Workers of America immediately came to the fore again after the strike. Some even doubted whether the founding CWA convention in June would even be held given the tenuous financial position of the NFTW.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) formed a Telephone Workers Organizing Committee (TWOC) in late May and organized a convention May 31-June 2 in an attempt to beat the CWA to the punch.

The American Federation of Labor was never a real serious contender for the loyalties of the NFTW locals since they would only offer a division within the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and not their own telephone union.

The TWOC was headed by CIO vice president Allen S. Haywood and soon announced that the key long lines unit and the Western Electric plant employees in New York/N.J. would be joining the CIO along with the Baltimore-based Maryland telephone traffic union. Northern California telephone workers were already part of the CIO before the strike.

Some of the unions felt that the strike demonstrated they needed direct affiliation with a more powerful national federation. Others were enticed by the CIO’s more liberal autonomy for local unions than the CWA was offering.

Forty-three union leaders of 19 telephone unions with a membership of about 200,000 met in Atlantic City, but many were not authorized by their local unions to bind themselves to the TWOC. For example, Glen Watts of the Washington, D.C. installers union attended as an observer, but the local had already affiliated with the CWA.

CWA Convention

Telephone union president Joseph Beirne: 1945

Joseph Beirne, NFTW president, became the Communications Workers of America’s first president in 1947.

Beirne went ahead with the planned convention to launch the CWA on June 9th with 200 delegates from about 30 local unions representing about 177,000 members. Those included the two Washington, D.C. unions that represented employees at C&P Telephone.

The issue of affiliation with the CIO dominated the CWA convention. Two amendments were put forward to change the CWA constitution. The first was to permit a majority of votes cast to decide affiliation with a national labor organization instead of a majority of all eligible.

The D.C. traffic union represented by Mildred Beahm voted in favor while Robinson of the installers union voted against. Each local voted their number of members. The result was 63,900 in favor and 95,111 against.

The second amendment put forward called for a referendum of the membership to determine affiliation with a national labor organization. Again Beahm voted for the constitutional amendment and Robinson against. This time the vote was closer—71960 in favor and 85,055 against.

With the convention, the Washington Telephone Traffic Union passed out of existence and became CWA Division 50.

The CIO claimed it had recruited unions representing over 100,000 members, but Beirne says the numbers for the CWA approached 300,000 when counting local unions who affiliated, but didn’t send delegates.

“We have the members, the CIO has the claims. It is our firm belief that even those officers of phone unions who have been dickering with the CIO will eventually go along with the CWA, and will come back to the union representing most phone workers,” Beirne told reporters.

Over the next two years, the TWOC and the CWA waged representation battles across the country. CWA mostly held its ground against CIO encroachment, but the CIO picked up a number of unaffiliated unions. Instead of a single stronger union coming out of the strike, there were now two competing unions.

The bitterness of the competition for members between the two unions led to a lot of anger. Brooks writes that Washington, D.C.’s Madge Giles, who was on loan to the CWA during a representation battle in the Baltimore area, told a CIO organizer, “Mr. CIO…over my dead body would I ever be a part of the CIO.”

1948 Contract

A C&P Telephone line worker: 1929 ca.

A C&P line worker is shown in 1929. After the 1947 strike, the installers’ union was in shambles as about 1/3 had crossed picket lines during the strike and union membership was down from nearly 100% pre-strike to about 50% post-strike.

Gannon’s union began preparing the expiration of their contract in mid-May by opening bargaining with the company at the beginning of April 1948.

The loss of the long lines division to the TWOC left the CWA without a clear choice for a pattern-setting union. However Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company was a wholly-owned subsidiary of AT&T.

The installers union in the city was still in shambles. Before the strike, they had nearly 100 percent of the workers signed up in the union. After the strike, it was around 50 percent.

So the best choice to potentially bargain a pattern settlement was Washington D.C.’s Division 50.

Gannon’s union was still strong and had nearly 100 percent membership.

C&P may not have known it, but Gannon and Beirne both knew that after the long strike of the previous year that ended in defeat, there was little appetite for a strike by District of Columbia telephone operators or by telephone workers around the country.

Now there were two different fiercely competing national unions. There was no possibility of nationwide bargaining.

Further, industrial wage settlements had not yet been made for 1948 and left no clear guidepost for the weakened Bell Telephone unions.

Gannon set out to reach an agreement that would buy time to rebuild and wait for a more favorable time to challenge AT&T again.

Washington Sets the Pattern

After six weeks of nearly continuous bargaining, a three-year agreement was signed on expiration date of the old one-year agreement late in the evening on May 17, 1948.

It provided for no immediate wage hike, but contained provisions that permitted either side to re-open the contract for wage talks any time in the next year. And, provided an agreement on the first wage re-opener was reached, a second re-opener was permitted at any time after one year.

It also made some other improvements.

Mary Gannon with her ‘girls’ – 1945 ca.

Gannon (center) with union members.

Gannon told reporters that the long-term contract, the first 3-year agreement with C&P, “gives workers more liberal termination pay, ties the pensions down to the union’s contract, improves the grievance procedures and a holiday differential and clarifies the wording of the contract in a number of ways.”

The increase in termination pay was a key issue as AT&T continued o expand the use of direct dial for local calls and cut operator positions. Gannon also knew it wouldn’t be too long before direct dial was introduced for long distance calls.

The contract also provided that if no wage agreement was reached before the end of the first year, either side could terminate the agreement. The same held true for the second re-opener.

It was the first contract signed with a Bell System company that year and the right contract for the time.

Beirne hailed it saying, “Terms of Division 50’s settlement can serve as a basis for settlement of other CWA contracts and prevent the possibility of a strike in the industry. This agreement, and many others like it that may be negotiated across the country, can provide long-term stability in the industry if proper wage adjustments are made within the next 12 months and thereafter in accordance with the wage provisions of the contract,” according to Brooks in his book.

Ten CWA divisions followed with 3-2 contracts similar to Washington. The CIO’s long lines division made noise about a strike, but ended up settling along similar lines.

The battle with AT&T for a national agreement had been postponed to rebuild the unions.

CIO Again

The CWA convention followed the Washington agreement in June and the primary question was affiliation with the CIO to create one telephone union again.

After an initial vote to affiliate lost narrowly, a substitute motion was made to have the union executive board investigate affiliation with the AFL, the CIO or John Lewis’s then independent Mine Workers union. The board could then recommend affiliation and conduct a referendum of the entire membership. The motion passed.

1949 Re-Opener

Telephone union leaders plot strike strategy: 1952

Glen Watts, 2nd from right, is shown in a 1952 meeting of Washington, D.C. CWA locals. Margaret Ross, president of the D.C. operators’s union is at far right.

The two Washington C&P unions started negotiations on the first wage re-opener in their agreement September 15, 1948.

The installers union was now CWA Division 36 and was under the new leadership of Glenn Watts, a future CWA national president. Watts had set about re-building the local and along with Gannon presented a united front to C&P on the wage re-opener.

As negotiations dragged on, both unions joined to hold a series of meetings at Turner’s Arena. These were informational meetings that workers attended before or after their shifts and didn’t pull workers off the job.

This time around Washington workers were growing impatient for a raise and there were job actions in other states around contracts, including a strike in the Detroit, Michigan area.

Installers Settle

Both unions rejected “final” offers by C&P in October. Watts broke the united front with Gannon in November as his members pressed him to accept the C&P offer and he agreed to settle.

The agreement provided $2 to $6 per week increases depending on classification and seniority.

Watts said the agreement was the best he could do under the circumstances where his members didn’t want to strike and the majority favored accepting the increases.

But he said the agreement “was entirely unsatisfactory in view of the increase of the cost of living since the last wage increase in May 1947,” as quoted in The Washington Star.

Watts also called the agreement a “shocking discrimination against low wage earners” and that the company “passed up an opportunity to enter into an era of good employee relations by its stubborn determination to have its own way.”

Gannon, however, held firm in her rejection of the October offer.

On February 1, 1949 Gannon reached an agreement. The contract still contained increases from $2 to $4 per week, but far more workers were covered by the higher numbers.

Only 719 workers had been included in the $4 increase offered by the company in October. The February settlement gave the vast majority of operators $4 along with some of the clerks. The wage increases were retroactive to January 16th.

One Union Again

Beginning of 8-day ‘continuous meeting’ -1946

A mass meeting of the Washington Telephone Traffic Union.

The executive board of CWA recommended affiliation with the CIO. The next step was to conduct a nationwide referendum that passed 71,312 for affiliation and 34,419 for remaining independent.

The results of the two-month canvass were announced May 7th by Bierne.

Washington’s Traffic Clerk Division 50 put its bitter feeling aside and voted in favor of affiliation by a margin of 601 in favor and 435 against while Division 36 made up of the installers, accounting and sales representatives voted 533 in favor and 819 against.

The CIO immediately issued a charter to the CWA, but the hard work of merging the TWOC and the CWA was just beginning.

The details of the merger were worked out prior to the CWA convention scheduled for June 13-17, 1949 in Chicago.

At the convention, TWOC delegates were seated and constitutional changes to combine the two unions were approved. Beirne was elected president and other officers included two women vice presidents.

Gannon nominated Frances Smith of Michigan, the former NFTW executive board member who was not at the convention, as the first woman vice president of CWA. However, Smith, who had two children and was reluctant to move to Washington, D.C., instructed the Detroit delegates to decline the nomination for personal reasons. It was later learned she was already ill and she died of cancer in 1951.

CWA-CIO now had 228,000 members after picking up 54,000 from TWOC. This was close to the numbers of affiliated members that the old NFTW had. There were still a number of unaffiliated telephone unions and a number of unorganized units that the union would focus on in the coming years.


D.C. union president on the picket line: 1947

Mary Gannon, 2nd from right, walks the picket line during the 1947 national strike.

As Division 50 prepared for the second wage re-opener of their 3-year agreement, Gannon began to step back from day to day leadership of the union, went on leave, and relinquished the presidency to long-time compatriot Eleanor Jane Palmer in late 1949.

Gannon had fought for 15 years to uplift telephone operators and to build a union that could take on the AT&T monopoly. There is always more work to do, but Gannon had accomplished her goals—too many improvements for telephone operators to list and building a strong local and national union capable of taking on the Bell system.

The Washington Star published an article March 22, 1950 announcing that she was leaving the union and C&P Telephone altogether. Excerpts from the article:

“Mrs. Mary Gannon, for 15 years militant leader of the Washington telephone operators’ union has resigned to devote more time to being a mother—and possibly to launch a political career.

“The energetic, 38-year-old union leader made the decision on the eve of her scheduled return from a four-month leave, her first vacation in five years.

“It was a decision that also entailed quitting her job as supervisory time clerk with the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.

“’It all has been very difficult,’ Mrs. Gannon said, ‘I was torn between two children, for I feel like the union was my child, too. But in the end I felt that I must give more attention to Tommy.’

“Tommy is her two-year-old son, born in May, 1947, at the close of the 6-week national telephone strike. Mrs. Gannon put in her usual long office hours during most of the strike. As in many other strikes—she led about 20 demonstrations of various types–Mrs. Gannon frequently appeared at the picket lines to cheer the strikers.

“Mrs. Gannon said she became interested in unionism ‘by accident’ in the early 1930s when a company-sponsored employee group was active. She stepped up when the nucleus of the present union was born in 1935.

Nationwide phone strike begins: 1947

Mary Gannon (left) passes picket signs to Eleanor Palmer during the 1947 national strike.

“Since then she has been spokesman for 2,500 operators and clerical workers, now identified as Division 50 , Communications Workers of America. Other union officials credit her with obtaining a long list of gains for traffic department workers, both here and nationally.”

Another tribute was given by her successor, Eleanor Jane Palmer.

Palmer described her as 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.”

Another tribute to her leadership was a moniker bestowed on the union by the local radio and newspaper journalists. The term girl is rightly an insult today demeaning women, but back in the 1940s it was in common usage. C&P Telephone referred to operators as “Hello girls.” The news reporters called them “Gannon’s girls.”

Author’s Notes

I worked briefly at an AT&T office in Washington, D.C. as a clerk-typist during the summer of 1971 in between semesters at the University of Maryland.

The atmosphere gave me a taste of the oppressive conditions facing the Washington Telephone Traffic Union.

Everyone was seated at their desks at 9:00 a.m. and as the second hand on the clock we all faced reached 12, everyone started typing. There was no talking to co-workers permitted and the length of bathroom breaks were monitored. When it came time for lunch, typewriters ceased about five seconds before time to go and everyone was back at their seats and waited for the second hand to reach 12 before everyone resumed typing again.

I think when evaluating Gannon and the Washington Telephone Traffic Union, there probably aren’t enough accolades for what they accomplished—rising above their male compatriots to make improvements for workers in a rigidly male-dominated society.

Cafeteria Local 471 leader Oliver Palmer: 1958 ca.

Oliver Palmer circa 1958.

There are only two other local Washington, D.C. union leaders I would put in the same category as Gannon during that period—Oliver Palmer who led the Cafeteria Workers Union to organize hundreds of low-wage workers, steered the union, through a long, bitter 1948 strike that involved red-baiting and union busting, uplifted several thousand workers to obtaining living wages, health care, pension and other benefits and continued to head the union into the 1960s.

The other is Margaret Gilmore of the United Public Workers at the Bureau of Engraving who led hundreds of Black workers during her tenure heading the union in the late 1940s and early 1950s to take on the power of a white supremacist, right-leaning federal bureaucracy–and winning.

I think the power and unity of Gannon’s union can be seen in the debate over the Taft-Hartley Bill in 1947 over ending the “closed shop” – a union membership requirement.

Margaret Gilmore, leader of UPWA Local 3 at Bureau of Engraving: 1951 ca.

Margaret Gilmore circa 1950.

Alfred Friendly wrote in the Washington Post about the debate and said,

‘There is a final practical argument [against legislating an open shop]. You can legislate indefinitely against the closed shop, it is said and still be unable to achieve the desired goal. This is because in many cases, the individual employees will simply decline to work alongside a non-union man and no laws can force them to work.”

“Mary Gannon’s telephone girls in Washington, for example, have no closed shop contract, but when a switchboard operator is employed who refuses to join the union, a remarkable state in inaction sets in on the part of the rest of the hello-girls.”

I think the only criticisms that can be made of the union are twofold.

Gannon and the union could have been more assertive on the rights of Black people. It wasn’t as if there were no other union voices speaking up at that time, including nearly all the local unions of the CIO and the AFL cooks, laborers and a few others.

Further, there was a great opportunity for the WTTU to advocate for their own Black members by championing their promotion from other jobs within C&P to telephone operator as a solution to the “imported operator” issue that led to at least two work stoppages in 1944. The “imported operator” issue arose during World War II while C&P was under pressure by the FEPC and a local civil rights committee to hire Black operators.

The union’s legacy is thereby tarnished by their failure to advocate uplifting their own Black union members.

The other criticism is one raised in Venus Green’s Race on the Line. Gannon never brought up the issue of how to mitigate technological advancements that would decimate the union by eliminating the telephone operator job over time.

Gannon did press and win greater termination pay for those laid off. However, the issue of retraining as direct-dial replaced operators was never raised in contract negotiations with C&P by Gannon’s union.

The fact remains though, that when it comes to training for other jobs, there were only a few clerical jobs that were equal in pay to operator. And it would have been near impossible to train women for installers jobs at that time due to cultural resistance and the conservative local union that represented them in Washington, D.C.

But it is fair to say that the failure to take this issue on would haunt the Communications Workers of America in the coming years. In Gannon’s defense it must be pointed out that no one in the NFTW or the CWA raised the issue during those years.

Taking these two issues into account, if union leaders and rank and file members can apply the lessons of the WTTU to their own unions today, their unions will be greatly strengthened.

CWA Division 50 would become CWA Local 2300, which continues to exist representing workers at NASA, Verizon, B’Nai B’Rith, and the National Center for Social Studies.

First nationwide phone strike in 21 years: 1968 # 2

CWA president Joseph Beirne (2nd in line) joins pickets in front of C&P Telephone during the 1968 national strike.

True pattern bargaining between CWA and AT&T didn’t emerge until the 1958 and 1959 contract bargaining and the next national strike didn’t occur until 1968 when fully company-paid health insurance was obtained.

This post is hurt by two things. The first is that I was unable to review the records of the National Federation of Telephone Workers held at the Tamiment Library in New York because of the pandemic– which would surely shed more light on Gannon and the local union.

The second involves Mary Gannon’s early life and what happened to her after she left the union. My efforts to contact family members and find other records came up short.

Hopefully another researcher can fill in the blanks and widen and deepen the understanding of this remarkable woman and union.

Sources include:

Race on the Line by Venus Green, Communications Workers of America: The Story of a Union by Thomas R. Brooks, The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Afro American, CWA History by Communications Workers of America, 1953 Report by the Committee on Government Contract Compliance, 1988 Proceedings of the 50th Annual Convention of the Communications Workers of America, New York Amsterdam News, and The Other Women’s Movement by Dorothy Cobble.

Want to See More Images?

Washington Telephone Traffic Union images

D.C. Communications Workers of America images

Telephone Traffic Union Contract with C&P

1948 contract and 1950 wage re-opener between CWA Division 50 and C&P Telephone

1953 contract between CWA and C&P Telephone

Want to Check Out the NFTW’s The Telephone Worker?

1942 02 Vol. 1 No. 3

1942 07 Special Edition

1942 08 Vol. 1 No. 8

1942 12 Vol. 1 No. 9

1943 11 Vol. 2 No. 5

1944 08 Vol. 3 No. 2

1945 01 Vol. 3 No. 7

1945 02 Vol. 3 No. 8

1945 04 Vol. 3 No. 10

1945 05 Vol. 3 No. 11

1945 06 Vol. 3 No. 12

1945 07 Vol. 4 No. 1

1945 08 Vol. 4 No. 2

1945 09 Vol. 4 No. 3

Want to Read More About the 1940s?

Against the cold wind: The 1948 cafeteria workers strike

Strike wave at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Transit: 1945

A labor and D.C. civil rights leader remembered: Marie Richardson

Police raid 1948 fundraiser by Progressive Party supporters

The fight against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow hiring: 1941-55

The D.C. women streetcar operators of World War II








George Davis and the Turbulent Times of D.C. Area Transit Union—1974-80

16 Mar
George Davis, new president of the transit union: 1974

George R. Davis, ATU Local 689 president 1974-80.

By Craig G. Simpson

George Davis became president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 January 1, 1974  and headed the union during three illegal strikes.

He oversaw the opening of Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail system as well as the early stages of local jurisdictions cutting bus workers’ wages and benefits as they set up replacement bus systems in their counties and cities.

But he also successfully fought to keep a full percentage cost-of-living clause for transit workers and formed a slate that integrated the top officers of the union..

After six years of chaos within the union, he was ousted by a 2-1 margin by a rank-and-file member who had never before held a union office.

As a long-time trade unionist he initially made some good decisions, but at later critical times, he made major errors and continued to compound them one on top of the other.

George R. Davis was elected president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 shortly after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA, also known as Metro) acquired four private bus companies in 1973.

For six years from 1974-80 Davis was at the helm of the union during one of its most tumultuous periods: workers went on strike on three different occasions, defying union leadership’s directives to return to work and also staging a work-to-the-rule regarding the safety features on a bus.

Davis was a veteran bus operator who started work for D.C. Transit at its Northern garage on 14th Street NW. He was elected shop steward/executive board member and later secretary-treasurer of the union before he challenged incumbent president George Apperson for president in the December 1973 union elections.

Union and company in transition

Transit workers wildcat over Metro takeover: 1973

Members of ATU Local 1131 stage a 1973 wildcat strike over Metro takeover and merger into ATU local 689.

Streetcar service ended in 1962 and the new Metrorail system would not begin opening until 1976—meaning the transit system was an all-bus system when Davis became president. Four private bus companies were bought by Metro in 1973 to create the regional Metrobus system.

The union itself was also in transition. The two independent ATU unions at the private companies in Virginia—Locals 1131 and 1079—were merged into Local 689. A dispute over whether Local 689 or the incumbent Teamsters would represent the Prince George’s garage had just been resolved in the Teamsters’ favor.

Two of the unions, Teamsters Local 922 and ATU Local 1131, had staged wildcat strikes over the issue of that merger into Local 689.

Operator ranks were initially integrated racially in 1955, and by the late 1970s black operators outnumbered white operators—most having fewer than seven years of service.

These times were right on the heels of the militant antiwar and black liberation demonstrations and protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Further, many black veterans, radicalized by their Vietnam War experience, were also entering the workforce.  Employers across the country had begun to take on unions by trying to increase worker productivity and there was a nationwide strike wave that would last the entire decade.

1973 union election

Apperson begins 3rd term as transit union president: 1971

Davis ousted three-term Local 689 president George Apperson in Dec. 1973.

Davis put together a multiracial ticket for the top five union offices in 1973: Harvey Lee of Northern Division for first vice president, James Buckner of Southeastern Division for second vice president, and Rodney Richmond of Bladensburg Division for financial secretary-treasurer–all black men. A candidate who was the incumbent recording secretary, George Delaney, was added to his ticket.

George Apperson succeeded long-time president Walter Bierwagen in 1964 and led the union battle to obtain an exact-fare policy after the shooting death of operator William Talley in 1968 and came close to calling a strike over missed pension payments by company owner O. Roy Chalk in 1970. Apperson was politically connected and served as president of the Washington, D.C. labor council.

Apperson integrated the officer ranks by adding James Shipman, a black bus operator, to his ticket as second vice-president. Shipman left mid-term and was replaced by Richmond. However, these moves were regarded by the black rank and file as token moves. At the time, the second vice president was not full-time and had no duties spelled out in the local bylaws.

Davis attacked Apperson for “spending too much time on Capitol Hill” and not tending to Local 689 affairs.

In the first competitive election since 1951, Davis narrowly prevailed, 1398-1119. His entire slate won and Rodney Richmond became the first black full-time officer of the local union.

1974 strike

Police Clear Metrobus Strikers from Yard Entrance 1974 # 1

Workers at Bladensburg garage attempt to halt a scab bus from leaving the yard in 1974.

Davis faced an immediate challenge as the new Metro management stalled on contract negotiations–the old agreement was due to expire April 30, 1974. At the center of the controversy was a cost-of-living clause that provided for quarterly increases of the same percentage that the consumer price index increased.

The union pointed to language in federal law that prohibits the use of federal funds to diminish the pay or benefits of workers, while WMATA claimed everything would be up for grabs when the contract expired.

Davis called a mass union meeting at the Washington Coliseum on May 1, 1974. It was attended by about 2,000 members who voted to strike beginning May 2nd. The unexpected strike paralyzed the city.

Metro demanded that the union return to work and pointed to the interstate compact that created Metro which provided that “all labor disputes” were subject to arbitration and that strikes were prohibited. Further the WMATA-ATU 689 labor contract language contained a no-strike clause unless the company refused to arbitrate a dispute.

U.S. District Court Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. issued an injunction against the strike on May 3rd and ordered Davis to make a good faith effort to get the members to return to work. Davis called a mass union meeting that night at the Sheraton Park hotel on Woodley Road NW.

Davis announced that a restraining order had been issued and told the 1,000 or so assembled that, “I hate like hell to tell you this, but you’re going to have to go back to work.” He started to read the injunction, but was interrupted by shouts of “wildcat, wildcat!” and members headed for the doors before he could finish reading the judge’s order.

The following day Judge Smith angrily admonished Davis and told him he never should have used the words, “I hate like hell to tell you…” saying that those words amounted to an endorsement of a continued strike.  The judge then placed a $25,000 per day fine on the union for disobeying his order and threatened to jail Davis if he didn’t get the workers to return.

Return to work

Back to work order from the union and company: 1974

Return to work orders from the union and the company following the judge’s order to arbitrate the issues.

With the strike continuing, Judge Smith ordered WMATA and the union to arbitrate their dispute, including the cost-of-living clause, but told the arbitrators to give “great weight” to union contentions that the cost of living wage escalation could not legally be reduced. Metro offered to resume negotiations if the workers returned.

Near-normal bus service was run on May 7th and at least some union members saw the judge’s order as tantamount to victory.

It seemed like a win for Davis, who had called the initial strike, but many in the rank and file saw his order to return to work as weakness and derided what they perceived to be his fear of going to jail.

Further, Davis did a poor job of publicizing and explaining the judge’s directive on “great weight” and a number of members’ perception was that they went on strike for nothing.

Davis compounded negative feelings about the strike among the members by assessing the rank-and-file to pay the fine that the judge ordered.

Following the strike, Davis quickly negotiated an agreement with the transit authority that kept the cost-of-living clause intact. However, members voted down the agreement—largely over a paltry general wage increase—and the humiliated Davis was forced to go back to the bargaining table.

The second agreement that Davis brought back contained only minor changes, but was approved at the ratification meeting. Nevertheless, there were the beginnings of bitterness toward Davis by a section of the rank-and-file union members.

1975 safety check

ATU Local 689: No Service 1974 # 1

A bus displays a “NO Not in Service” sign with a block number “Local 689.”

The WMATA management sought to increase disciplinary penalties for workers in 1975, including harsher penalties for a number of minor offenses.

Meanwhile, the aging buses that WMATA had purchased from D.C. Transit and the other private companies in 1973 were in deplorable condition.

Basic safety features including horns and speedometers rarely worked. Some buses had no mirror on the right side and there were no convex mirrors to detect a vehicle right beside a bus.

Worse, brakes were often slack, tires were bald, and turn signals and brake lights often didn’t function.

In response to the harsh discipline and unsafe equipment and Metro’s refusal to seriously negotiate over the issues, Davis called a safety check on October 30, 1975. He put the shop stewards in charge at each division to ensure that no bus went out of the garage with safety defects.

Service put out for the morning rush hour that day from Northern and Bladensburg garages–the two largest, along with the small Royal Street garage in Alexandria–was virtually non-existent. Other garages saw delays in getting service on the street. All told about 500 buses out of 1,600 never made it into service.

An individual operator can refuse an unsafe bus, but the union acting together is legally regarded as a “concerted action,” the same as a strike–and strikes by Metro workers had already been found illegal.  WMATA headed to court to get an injunction, but the slowdown was already over.

The direct action was an overwhelming success and WMATA entered serious negotiations and modified its proposed discipline considerably. With the exception of a few disgruntled workers who wanted no change in disciplinary measures whatsoever and a few others who had neglected to fill out the proper paperwork for the day in order to get paid, Davis seemed to finally get a little credit from the rank-and-file workers.

Supplemental rail agreement

D.C. transit union president George Davis: 1978

George Davis in 1978

Davis also led negotiations in 1975 for a supplemental rail agreement to  cover the subway service that wasn’t yet operational. Besides negotiating over classifications, rates of pay, and some work and seniority rules, Davis obtained recognition language that virtually assured that all blue-collar rail workers would be represented by Local 689. Davis thereby settled any question of whether the Teamsters, who retained representation at the Prince George’s bus garage, had any claim on rail work.

Further, he solved much of the problem of disabled bus operators and mechanics. Previously, workers who were physically disqualified from their jobs had been terminated or forced to retire on disability pension if they were eligible—a small sum unless the worker had a lot of service time.

By obtaining language that permitted those disabled workers to take jobs as station attendants (later called managers), Davis enabled many workers to finish their careers as Metro employees.

It was a major victory for Local 689. Davis received little credit for obtaining union recognition for the whole subway system, but the rank and file were reassured by the designation of the station attendant position as one that could be filled by disabled workers.

It seemed as though Davis had perhaps gotten his bearings and was headed for an effective presidency.

Political challenges

Newly elected transit union officers take the oath: 1974

George Davis and Robert Delaney at the union installation of officers in 1974.

After takeover, Metro’s bus deficits began skyrocketing. The four private bus companies combined were running a deficit of about $1 million per year at the time of takeover. By 1975 Metro was running a $50 million per year deficit.

High inflation rates counted for a part of this, new federal regulations another part, unforeseen repairs on the aging buses bought from the private companies, and new, expanded bus service throughout the metropolitan area accounted for nearly all of the shortfall.

However, local political leaders focused on unionized workers’ wages and benefits—particularly the cost-of-living (COLA) clause that provided for quarterly increases of the same percentage rate as inflation in the area.

After Metro failed to modify the cost-of-living clause in the 1974 contract, its sights were set on the upcoming 1976 contract. Local politicians and the three daily newspapers in the D.C. area were beating the drum about eliminating the COLA clause.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County, Maryland began planning to operate its own bus service.

Davis testified at a public hearing against the proposed Ride On service, but unlike his predecessors Apperson and Walter Bierwagen, was only marginally politically involved or connected.

Davis also did not believe in involving the union members in this fight and did not conduct any extensive lobbying or political activity other than his testimony against what would ultimately become county or privately-run bus service in every jurisdiction in the Washington, D.C. area.

Davis also failed to grasp the dangerous effects that public opinion could have on elected leaders, and so he let the increasing attacks on both Metro and the union in the press go unchallenged.

The latter was something that began to loom large with the rank and file membership.

Caucus formed

Action Alliance formed in response to Metro attacks

An agenda from a 1976 union caucus meeting.

The dissatisfaction with Davis’s failure to respond to attacks in the media produced the first organized rank-and-file caucus in 1976.

Management contract proposals were leaked to the union membership by an unknown person(s) and if adopted would have gutted seniority rules, increased the wage progression period to five years, permitted part-time operators, eliminated the cost-of-living clause, and cut back many other pay and benefit provisions.

Not trusting the union officers to lead the fight, a few members from Western, Southeastern and Four Mile garages formed a 20-member group called Metro Employees Action Alliance.

The Alliance put union officials on the spot at union meetings by posing questions such as “I would like to know what the union’s position is regarding the poor, defective, unsafe equipment that we have been driving on the streets….?”

The caucus also raised money, formulated their own proposals for union contract changes, and hired a public relations firm to get the workers’ side of the story into the news media.

Several news features were written and printed in local newspapers as a result of caucus activity, countering some of the negative press.

However, this initial attempt at organization within the union structure fell apart within a few months due to internal dissent. Nevertheless, it spelled trouble for Davis that members were beginning to form their own organization to take on his administration.


Metro general manager Ted Lutz: 1978 ca.

Metro general manager 1976-79 Ted Lutz.

The celebration of the nation’s 200th birthday was planned for nearly a year before the July 4, 1976 gathering of several hundred thousand on the Washington Monument grounds and on the national mall.

Political leaders in the region agreed to fund special bus service to handle the volume of tourists expected to flood the city in the months leading up to the celebration. On the day itself, those attending the celebration were urged to leave their cars at home and take the special buses provided from fringe parking areas into the city.

The expected crowds of tourists never materialized prior to the celebration and most of the special buses ran empty—meaning an investment of funds that had no return. The local press hammered on this as another barb directed against Metro.

However, on the day of the celebration hundreds of thousands headed downtown heeding officials pleas to use bus service. All went fairly smoothly until the celebration ended with fireworks shortly after 9 p.m.

Metro officials had not coordinated with city officials on how to move several hundred thousand people out of the downtown area quickly. As a result traffic gridlocked and tens of thousands of people were stranded on the national mall until the early hours of the morning.

While there was plenty of blame to go around, Metro took most of the criticism, leading the WMATA board of directors to initiate discussions with a private contractor, ATE, to run the Metrobus system.

Davis was ambivalent about this development, believing the union contract would be honored. Privately he expressed that it might be a good development since labor relations had been somewhat better under the private companies immediately before Metro’s takeover of the buses.

Union members, however, were concerned this was another attack aimed at their wages and benefits, and so disgruntlement with Davis’s leadership grew.

Fortunately for Davis, a new general manager named Ted Lutz was hired and he was an opponent of privatization. Within months after being hired, Lutz made strides toward improving bus service reliability and set goals that were higher than those contained in the ATE proposal.

Lutz told Metro’s board of directors in 1977, “I think we can save money, improve performance and assure an integrated bus rail transit system” by retaining the bus service in-house.

The Metro board of directors ultimately backed Lutz’s approach and Davis was spared what would undoubtedly have been another nail in his coffin.

’76 contract

Transit union president Davis in a happy moment: 1975 ca.

George Davis, right, enjoys a moment of happiness.

Davis went into the 1976 contract negotiations intending to keep the cost-of-living clause intact.

During negotiations, WMATA proposed the use of part-time operators,  believing this would cut costs and arguing that it would prevent local jurisdictions like Montgomery County from taking over Metrobus lines with lower paid workers.

Later during negotiations, they floated the idea of a “suburban rate” (a lower hourly rate) for certain less-productive bus routes as a means of lowering costs.

Davis privately believed that such concessions were necessary to preserve the bargaining unit. However he was fearful of the reaction of the rank and file to any concessions and refused to entertain a modification of the COLA, part-time work, or a suburban rate.

On April 30, 1976, the union invoked arbitration and the matter headed to a three-member panel composed of one union representative, one company representative, and a neutral arbitrator.

When the disputed cost-of-living pay increase came due for the members in the beginning of July 1976 during the arbitration process, Metro didn’t pay it even though the labor agreement between the union and Metro provided that all terms and conditions within the expired contract should remain “undisturbed” while the new agreement was being arbitrated.

Union head and attorneys confer during arbitration: 1976

George Davis (l) confers with union attorneys during an arbitration hearing before Harry Platt in 1976.

However, Davis didn’t challenge the company’s refusal to pay, indicating that the matter would be settled in the contract arbitration.

This seemingly innocuous decision would come back to haunt Davis later in his career.

When the contract arbitration award was announced in late November 1976, the full cost-of-living clause was retained and there were no new provisions for part-time work or a “suburban rate.” There was no general wage increase, but a dental plan was added for the first time. The arbitration award provided for a two-year contract.

However, arbitrator Harry H. Platt ruled that Metro could skip paying the July 1976 COLA payment—one of those that they had not paid in the interim between the nominal expiration of the contract and the arbitration award date.

In the context of the political attacks on the union that were taking place throughout the area, it seemed like a victory for Davis. He said at the time that retention of the COLA “is obviously a victory…we think we deserved it and we kept it.”

Many of the rank-and-file held a different viewpoint. They viewed Davis as responsible for the lost quarterly payment since he did not challenge the issue at the time the payment was due, and they felt the lack of a general wage increase made this a bad contract.

In the end Davis’s victory in keeping the COLA clause produced few rewards for him politically.

’76 union election

Jim Coughlin, Bladensburg shop steward & board member: 1971

Jim Coglin sought to challenge George Davis for president.

The dissatisfaction with Davis led a shop steward/executive board member from the largest bus garage, Bladensburg, to announce his intention to run for president.

James “Jim” Coglin [some spellings were Coughlin] began a series of small meetings with key figures in the union to build support at other facilities.

Coglin came from the same division as Davis’s secretary-treasurer, Rodney Richmond, so it was not clear that Bladensburg’s 1,000 workers would back him in sufficient numbers to overcome Davis’s organization throughout the system.

Coglin was also white and Davis had integrated the top ranks of the union. Nevertheless, Coglin was a serious threat to Davis. But before the nomination meeting was held in November 1976, Coglin died.

Local 689 top officers at their installation: 1977

The five top ATU 689 officers in 1977.

Davis had struck political gold and was re-elected without opposition.

What seemed like good political fortune for Davis was perhaps the opposite. Davis was already distant from the rank and file, rarely venturing into the field. And as a result of Coglin’s death, Davis didn’t campaign and make his case to the members. With hundreds hired within the last few years, many simply didn’t know him.


Black and white version of transit union logo: 1987 ca.

Black and white version of the Local 689 logo.

The first suburban bus system to start running was Montgomery County’s Ride On in March 1975 with two routes. By late 1977 it had taken over some Metrobus routes and had about 30 operators working out of a garage in Brookmont.

Montgomery County Executive James Gleason made clear the reasons for the start-up service in a comment to the Washington Post:

“Our intention is to lower the overall costs to the feeder bus service not only to residents of Montgomery County but elsewhere in the region by running a more efficient service.”

While some savings could be obtained by forgoing federal assistance and related costly disability and safety requirements and by purchasing sub-standard buses, the only place significant savings could occur was in the wages and benefits of operators and mechanics.

Local 689 had not done any real union organizing in many years. The last attempt had been a raid on the Teamsters Union in 1973 at the Prince George’s Metrobus garage that was halted by the International union, which had a “no-raid” agreement with the Teamsters. Prior to that, no one could remember the last organizing attempt.

Craig Simpson, ATU 689 activist and officer: 1982

Craig Simpson as a rank-and-file bus operator in 1982.

The author of this post, Craig Simpson, then a young, 25-year-old rank-and-file operator at Northern Division, had a friend named Marc Miller working at Ride On who was interested in bringing in the union.

Simpson obtained authorization cards from the union office and provided them to Miller. Miller in turn obtained signatures from 28 of the 30 Ride On operators.

The cards were turned into Rodney Richmond, the secretary-treasurer of Local 689. After several weeks Miller kept bugging Simpson about what was going on.

When Simpson went to the union hall at 300 Indiana Avenue NW, Richmond told him that the International said they weren’t interested because it was “small potatoes.”

Union activists could see the writing on the wall. If Montgomery County was successful in lowering wages and benefits for transit workers, the other jurisdictions that made up Metro wouldn’t be far behind—threatening the union’s bargaining power and creating a substandard wage and benefit package that would drag down future contracts with Metro. It was nothing short of a direct assault on transit workers.

Rodney Richmond, first black full-time ATU 689 officer: 1974

Rodney Richmond in 1974 after his election as financial secretary-treasurer of Local 689.

The challenge to organize Ride On was certainly daunting. The operators and mechanics would have to be organized into a union with no collective bargaining rights.

Union resources would have to be spent lobbying on behalf of the Ride On employees, but their union would be toothless without the collective bargaining that would result in a labor agreement.

Obtaining collective bargaining would have required a political effort since Ride 0n was set up using county employees. At the time, the Maryland state legislature informally required a resolution from the county council supporting collective bargaining legislation before they would consider it.

Collective bargaining legislation would also need majority support from the state senators and state representatives elected from the county, according to the informal requirement of the state legislature.

This meant that Local 689 would have to make a political effort without the support of the International union, if it were to pursue an attempt to organize and obtain a labor agreement for the Ride On unit. To put it mildly, politics was not Davis’s strength and no effort was made at that time.

The “small potatoes” that the ATU International cited turned into one of the 20 largest transit systems in the U.S. In 2019 the Ride On system operated 500 buses with over 1,500 operators and support personnel.

The workers are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1994. While they have made significant gains in wages and benefits, they still lag behind Metro workers in total compensation 45 years after operations began.

Word began to spread about the failure to organize Ride On, compounding Davis’s woes.

’78 safety wildcat strike

SE Metrobus Operators Strike Over Safety

Workers at Southeastern Division, where the young woman who was assaulted worked, mill outside the facility during their wildcat strike.

Bus operator anger over assaults, usually during fare disputes, had been growing while Davis and the union seemingly took no action.

Brazen armed robberies began taking place where one robber would board through the front door of a bus and another through the back and they would rob the driver and every passenger on the bus. Other armed robbers pointed firearms at drivers at the end of the bus line while accomplices sawed off the fareboxes and absconded with them.

As the fear of armed robberies and assaults boiled, a 32-year old female bus operator at Ridge Road and Burns Streets SE was raped by a man with a knife.

Operators didn’t wait for the union to act. A strike began May 18, 1978 at the former Southeastern Bus Garage at Half and M Streets SE and spread throughout the day to the Bladensburg Road NE garage and the Northern Garage at 4615 14th Street NW.

Rev. Jerry Moore, a city council and Metro board of directors member, visited the strikers and promised action by the District to protect drivers. Metro’s general manager put out a letter outlining the steps he would take to address their concerns.

A meeting was organized at an RFK Stadium parking lot that evening. Striking drivers voted to suspend the strike for two weeks on the condition that a settlement was reached on the safety issue.

Committees were set up at most garages that in turn met with council member Moore.

Government, Management & Union Meet With Striking Drivers

D.C. council member Rev. Jerry Moore, Metro GM Ted Lutz, ATU 689 president George Davis and ATU financial secretary Rodney Richmond meet with disgruntled workers the day after a wildcat strike protesting the rape of a female bus operator.

Davis derided the committee saying, “Committees are fine, but they are not going to be there without union representation because 300 people do not represent 5,000.”

Davis, who had taken no previous action to reduce assaults, now wanted to lead. The slap at the 300 referred to those who attended the RFK parking lot meeting and actually produced results.

Moore, Metro and Local 689 officials met with some drivers the day after the strike. Moore also later held a city council hearing on the issue putting further pressure on the company to act.

The strike resulted in increased police patrols on buses (both Metro and District police), a plexiglass shield installed behind the driver, an emergency “panic button,” and repairs to and activation of non-functioning radios on the buses.

Davis, who was nowhere to be seen during the strike, attempted to take credit for the results and was quoted in the Washington Post, “I feel from what I’ve seen that there definitely has been an all-out effort by Metro to live up to its end of the bargain.”

Those active in the strike derided Davis for the blatant attempt to take credit for something that he had little to do with.

’78 Wildcat Over Cost-of-Living

Mechanics Organize Walkout Over Cost of Living

Metro mechanics at Bladensburg heavy overhaul shop make signs on the first day of the July 1978 wildcat strike.

The union and management had not been able to reach an agreement before the contract expired at midnight April 30, 1978 and Davis again invoked arbitration.

Metro workers remembered the previous contract where they had lost one payment of the COLA, and they blamed Davis for not fighting to enforce the contract language that spelled out that all provisions should remain “undisturbed” during arbitration.

Fresh off the wildcat strike over safety on the buses, frustration with the union bubbled over again at a July 18th meeting of Local 689.

Angry over WMATA’s failure to pay the quarterly cost of living (COLA), union members repeatedly demanded that the union hold a strike vote.

Davis pointed out that a strike would be illegal, based on their experience in the 1974 strike, that he was unwilling to lead another illegal strike, and he refused to conduct a strike vote. He was repeatedly shouted down by the members in attendance.

Davis gaveled the meeting closed and left the hall with other officers.  A rump meeting was then held by about 200 members who called for a strike at 10 a.m. the next day.

Few bus operators initially walked off the job, but a large number of mechanics called out sick while others made strike preparations at the Bladensburg overhaul shop. The afternoon Daily News reported that dozens of mechanics had been fired for halting work.

Anger flashed as news of the harsh discipline spread through the Metro system.

The strike spreads

Metrorail Striker at National Airport 1978

A striking worker pickets the Metro station at National Airport: in 1978: “No cost-of-living, No Work, No Reprisals.”

A meeting held at an RFK Stadium parking lot that evening of rank-and-file Metro workers called for a strike to begin at midnight around two demands:  Metro pay the COLA, and amnesty for all strikers.

Workers heeded the strike call on July 20th.  The vast majority of workers at all eight bus garages, including the Prince George’s garage (4421 Southern Ave) represented by the Teamsters, refused to work.  Subway trains, which ran only from Silver Spring to Dupont Circle and from Stadium-Armory to National Airport, were also shut down.

Davis, interviewed at his office by the Washington Post, failed to understand why workers wanted to fight the company and said, “You have employees who are hell-bent on hell-raising. I don’t have the answer to it.”

“A relatively small group is inciting this thing, and they’re getting followers,” Davis said. He added that he agreed with retaining the cost-of-living clause, but he seemingly forgot the lessons of the 1974 strike when he added, “You can’t support a legitimate gripe by illegitimate action.”

The workers held meetings at each reporting location and elected leaders.  In the absence of today’s cell phones and instant messaging, workers held regular meetings of the strike leaders and rank and file at an RFK Stadium parking lot. Pay phone numbers near each facility were exchanged.

William T. Scoggin Jr., an operator from the former Arlington Garage at N. Quincy Street and Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, VA, was elected spokesperson.

Metro responded by temporarily withdrawing discipline and obtaining court injunctions against three individual strikers from Judge Louis Oberdorfer.

But Oberdorfer went beyond listening to the lawyers from Metro and the union. He understood that strikers would listen to neither and appointed two labor lawyers–Charles “Chip” Yablonski (the son of slain reform mineworker president Joe Yablonski) and Charles Booth–to advise him of the strikers’ position and interests.

Future Local 689 president Golash and first woman officer Perrin: 1998

Michael Golash, one of the 1978 strike leaders and a future union president, is shown with Sandra Perrin, the union’s first female executive board member.

The strikers ultimately retained their own attorneys to represent them before Oberdorfer.

On Sunday, July 23 with the strikers holding firm, Oberdorfer ordered WMATA to post a $40,000 per week bond to ensure that the money for the cost of living increase was provided for, ordered expedited arbitration of the COLA dispute, ordered the union and Metro to take increased measures to inform workers their strike was illegal, and threatened to jail strikers who refused his back to work order.

During the hearing under questioning from the judge, Davis denied he attempted to get strikers to return to work by telling them that the cost-of-living issue would be settled by Friday, July 21st.

However, Melvin Brown, one of about 20 striking workers in the courtroom, provided a piece of paper to their counsel.  It was a message to the members over Davis’s signature stating that arbitration of the COLA issue would be completed by July 21st. Davis was caught in a lie in open court and the word spread quickly among the strikers.

Metro Workers Vote to Continue Strike: 1978

Mass meeting at RFK stadium where William Scoggin (with microphone) is replaced by Eugene Ray (just to the left of Scoggin) as strike leader.

A mass meeting was held that Sunday evening at an RFK Stadium parking lot attracting about 400 strikers—a relatively small number.  Scoggin urged a return to work, advising that the workers had won as much as they were going to win.

However, other speakers, including future union president Michael “Mike” Golash, urged a continuation of the strike until amnesty was granted. The television cameras were rolling when Golash came to the microphone and shouted, “Strike, strike, strike!”

In a voice vote, Scoggin was replaced as spokesperson by Eugene Ray, a bus operator from the 4-Mile Run yard located at 3501 S. Glebe Road in Arlington, VA.

On July 24, WMATA responded by re-opening the Metrorail system with supervisors and a few workers who crossed picket lines.  Scoggin’s Arlington Division went back to work along with a few scattered operators at other Divisions.  Management began circulating false rumors that other locations were already back to work.

Hindered by lack of communications, the strikers began to waver and by the afternoon of Tuesday, July 25, service was restored to normal as one location after another returned to work en-masse.

Strike aftermath

Discipline, but no termination for wildcat strikers: 1978

The arbitration award that reinstated four strike leaders with a lengthy suspension without pay.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Flannery fined three individual members for contempt of court for their roles in the strike.  WMATA fired eight strikers, suspended 86 for 1-9 days without pay and reprimanded 54.

The union took the disciplinary cases to arbitration, although it was reportedly a close vote by the executive board as to whether to arbitrate or drop the grievances with Davis in favor of arbitration.

Discipline was ultimately reduced for many who filed grievances through the union, including seven strikers whose terminations were reduced to long suspensions without pay–largely because WMATA had failed to notify employees after two previous strikes that they could be terminated for walkouts.  One fired striker, who did not file a grievance, was not reinstated.

Other than the discipline, the strike ended much as the 1974 strike with a federal judge giving a strong indication of the preferred outcome.  By ordering expedited arbitration of the disputed cost of living payment and having the disputed money put in escrow, Judge Oberdorfer all but assured the strikers of victory on the COLA issue.

Davis acknowledged after the strike that the union needed to implement reforms saying, “There are going to have to be some changes made…better lines of communications with its members.” He told a Post reporter that he was uncertain whether he would seek re-election.

“Undisturbed” arbitration

Labor arbitrator Richard Bloch: 1978 ca.

Labor arbitrator Richard Bloch in April 1979..

The outcome of the expedited arbitration of the disputed COLA payment was announced August 3, 1978—a little over a week after the strike ended–and proved Davis wrong and the members right.

Arbitrator Richard Bloch ruled that the failure of WMATA to pay the quarterly cost-of-living for the pay period ending July 1, 1978 “resulted in a substantial ‘disturbance’ of existing conditions and, therefore, is a contract violation.”

Scoggins, the deposed strike leader, told the Washington Post, “We’re very pleased…It’s what we expected. The union leadership allowed Metro to get away” without paying the cost-of-living increase.

Another Washington Post news analysis published after the strike found that the union leadership was out of touch with its members.

Douglas Feaver wrote that Davis “cannot remember the last time he was out to visit the union membership in one of the 18 garages and yards the in the areas vast bus and subway network.”

He reported that Davis spoke of the membership prior to the COLA strike, “I can’t control ‘em; I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

’78 contract arbitration

Davis celebrates second term as ATU 689 president: 1977

George Davis, shown in a 1977 photo, took the blame for the introduction of part-time work.

On August 30, 1978, the arbitration of major contract issues was completed with very mixed news for Davis and the union members.

The COLA clause was retained in full, but the panel ruled that Metro could begin hiring up to 10 percent part-time operators with no benefits or seniority.

Part-time work in the transit industry is not really part time. It’s underpaid full time. A person must work the morning and evening rush hour with four to six hours off in between. The length of their day is between 12 and 15 hours, meaning that employment elsewhere is nearly impossible.

The pay hours ranged from 5 to 6 hours per day with no sick leave, holiday pay, vacation, bereavement leave, health insurance or pension benefits.

WMATA believed that part-time employment would save them money, but after more than 30 years of experimentation they found it less costly to hire full time because they could hire more stable, reliable operators.

It was an open secret that Davis favored making concessions to forestall the creation of more suburban bus companies. So while it was a neutral arbitrator who ordered part-time work, Davis and “the union” got the much of the blame from the membership.

New caucuses formed

Caucus denounces union leadership following strike: 1978

At least two rank-and-file caucuses were active following the 1978 COLA strike.

Two organized caucuses flourished in the wake of the 1978 cost-of-living strike.

One was organized as Metro C.A.R (Committee Against Racism), led by Golash.

The other was organized by some of the strike leaders and supporters at a number of garages and shops and was called the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus.

Both caucuses focused their ire on two union officers, George Davis and Rodney Richmond.

In a newsletter issued after the strike, Metro C.A.R. wrote, “First of all, we should oust sellout George Davis who once again showed his true colors (yellow) during the strike.”

The Action Caucus wrote in their newsletter, “When Rodney Richmond announced the contract terms at the special union meeting August 30th at Constitution Hall, he attacked the recent wildcat strike. He stated that arbitration was the best way to resolve disputes and defended the part-time provision, saying that if we didn’t allow part-timers then Ride On type outfits would be set up everywhere…This no-win strategy of our top elected officials must go.”

Richmond’s and Davis’s position was ultimately proved wrong as part-time work expanded to 15 percent and the COLA clause was eliminated in the 1980s at the same time as private low-wage bus service expanded rapidly in the suburban jurisdictions.

Both caucuses continued to attack the union administration and Metro up to the union elections scheduled for December, 1979.

The Metro C.A.R. caucus pressed for strike preparations for the next contract and advocated against white supremacy and against imperialist war, among other issues.

The Action Caucus held a fundraiser for workers fired during the strike, proposed more democratic bylaw changes, and investigated the union’s finances.

The 5-member investigating committee released a 7-page report in October, 1979, just two months before the union election, that found:

“For the year 1978 thousands of dollars were spent for which there is no supporting documentation…In short it is our finding that the Local has been run like a Mom and Pop grocery store rather than an institution with a budget of over $800,000 which is accountable to 4,500 members.”

The committee’s financial investigation just piled on to Davis’s and Richmond’s woes.

1980 union election

Charles Boswell, one-term ATU Local 689 president: 1980

A close associate of William Scoggin, Charles Boswell, announced he would run for president after Scoggin died.

Scoggin, the former strike leader, announced early that he would take on Davis. Walter Tucker, a bus operator at Northern Division was another strong candidate who announced his intention to run for president. Tucker had been the first black shop steward/executive board member when he was elected in 1970.

Others who would announce included Golash, who had urged members not to return to work during the strike; Ray, the strike leader who replaced Scoggin; George Goodwin, another strike leader; Thomas Toomer, a Bladensburg operator; and Will Dietrich, a gadfly from Western Division.

The 55-year-old Scoggin, viewed as a pro-strike moderate, was clearly the strongest candidate to challenge Davis, but once again lightning struck for Davis, and Scoggin died prior to nomination.

A compatriot of Scoggin at Arlington garage, Charles Boswell, entered the race in his place.

As the Local 689 election committee reviewed the records of candidates in November, 1979 after nominations, it disqualified a number of office-seekers.

The local bylaws at the time required attendance at six union meetings per year each year for a two-year period prior to nomination (but including the nomination meeting).

They also required “continuous” union membership for the two-year period prior to nomination, which meant paying your dues prior to being “suspended” from membership. Suspension occurred automatically when someone was two months in arrears in their dues.

Walter Tucker, first black board member of ATU 689: 1971

Walter Tucker, the first black voting member of the union’s executive board was disqualified in his attempt to run for president.

Among those disqualified was Tucker, who had been on workmen’s compensation and neglected to pay his union dues while he was off work. Davis probably thought he’d struck gold again—two of his strongest opponents were out of the race.

Other candidates who were disqualified, including George Goodwin, went to court and obtained  a quick settlement because of their individual circumstances to place them on the ballot and postpone the election a month until January 9th with a runoff to be held January 16, 1980 in instances where no candidate received 50 percent plus one of the vote.

Davis held a strong organizational advantage because the shop stewards in each location were largely backing him, whereas other candidates struggled to identify workers trusted by co-workers in each location who could push their candidacy.

Things started off badly for Davis on election day. When the polls opened at 6 a.m. workers at Southeastern gathered in a group of about 20 and shouted “Davis and Richmond have to go” in front of dozens of other operators. There was no response from Davis supporters.

When the polls closed at 6:00 p.m. the results were brought to the union hall on New Jersey Avenue and Davis still had some hope. When the results were tallied, Davis led the pack with 977 votes or 31 percent of the vote. Charles Boswell, the substitute for the deceased Scoggins, trailed with 740 or 24 percent of the vote.

Under the union’s bylaws at that time it meant a run-off would be held the following week. Things didn’t start out on election day much better for Davis. At Northern Division, a member of Davis’s ticket, Harvey Lee, quit handing out his literature at 7 a.m. as operators tore up Davis’s palm cards and threw them on the floor. Thereafter Lee only handed out his own cards for the next 11 hours of voting.

When the runoff votes were tallied, Davis actually lost votes. Boswell, with absolutely no union experience, handily defeated him 2196-969.

Richmond, a relatively young and bright rising star, was tarnished by his close association with Davis and lost his election as Secretary-Treasurer as well by a 2-1 margin to another rank-and-file member who never held any union office–not even shop steward.

Congratulations to first black ATU 689 recording secretary: 1977

International ATU VP Walter Bierwagen congratulates James “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. in January 1977 on his election as recording secretary.

The only top officer candidate who survived the tidal wave was Recording Secretary James M. Thomas Jr.

During his 3-year term as the recording secretary, Thomas fielded phone calls from members and worked to solve their problems over the phone. He also made regular visits to work locations before and after his office hours at the union hall.  Further, Thomas was politically active in his home state of Virginia. He would go on to win five terms as president from 1983 to 1997.

During the 1980 election, two Action Caucus members won board seats and Metro C.A.R. won one board seat out of the 15 seats available. Allies of the Action Caucus on the Unity Slate, formed to support Tucker’s candidacy, won two of the top five positions: secretary-treasurer and second vice president and also won two additional board seats.

Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus – 1978-80

Action Caucus members running for shop steward in 1980.

Action Caucus members would play key roles in the union in the years to come. Maurice Waller served as shop steward/executive board member from Northern Division for about 10 years; Phillip Mayo served as shop steward/executive board member from Montgomery Division for three terms, and also as an appointed business agent; Harold Hume served as shop steward from Bladensburg Shop for two terms; James Bynum served as shop steward from both the maintenance department and later among station managers, and as 2nd vice president. Craig Simpson was elected to four terms as shop steward/board member at Northern Division, serving for about 10 ½ years, as an appointed business agent for 4 ½ of those years, and as financial secretary-treasurer for about 7 ½ years.

Mike Golash from the Metro C.A.R. caucus served as shop steward/executive board member from Northern Division, financial secretary-treasurer, and as president. Gary Young served as a shop steward/executive board member for maintenance.


Two union presidents at new transit hall: 1990

James M. “Tommy” Thomas, Jr. (left) and James “Jimmy” LaSala outside the Local 689 headquarters under construction in 1989.

Davis retired after his defeat, living in Hyattsville, Md. He remained active with the Local 689 retirees group, ultimately being elected president. However he remained bitter about his defeat and felt betrayed by those around him and refused to entertain any talk of union politics thereafter.

He is believed to have died sometime in the late 1990s without fanfare.

Richmond made a comeback. He went back to work as a bus operator at Bladensburg garage and rebuilt his base. He ran for president of the union in December 1982 against Boswell but both were defeated by James M. Thomas Jr.

Congrats to First DC Transit Union African American Officer: 1974

Rodney Richmond becomes the first black full-time Local 689 officer in 1973. Here he is shaking hands with former president and then international Vice President Walter Bierwagen at the 689 officers’ installation.

However, Richmond had support at Bladensburg and a few other locations. Instead of continuing to try to run for a top office, Richmond went back and ran for shop steward/executive board member at Bladensburg in the following election and won.

He was poised to run against Thomas again for president, but Thomas instead obtained the support of ATU International President James LaSala and offered Richmond an International vice president position. Richmond accepted and was elected at the convention that followed.

He continued to serve as ATU International vice president until his retirement and in 2020 lives in New Orleans, LA.

Davis’ replacement Charles Boswell, who had no previous union experience, was a fish out of water and struggled throughout his three-year term.

Boswell had never been late to work in his career nor received a disciplinary violation and as a result was insensitive to disciplinary issues. He was unable to relate to the new workers who had defiant attitudes toward management.

Boswell compounded his problems by appointing people with little to no union experience to key positions.

He too tried to run the union from the office and met with the same fate as Davis. Thomas, the sole survivor of the Davis-Richmond era, defeated Boswell handily for president in December, 1982. Thomas went on to serve for 15 years as the union’s first black president.


Transit union thanks riders for accepting exact fare: 1968

An advertisement in the Washington Post signed by George Apperson thanking the public for accepting exact fare and political and religious leaders for their help in settling the issue.

It was almost pre-ordained for things to end badly for George Davis. He campaigned against his predecessor George Apperson for spending too much time on politics.

From the beginning, he failed to understand that the new Metro was composed of political representatives from Washington, D.C. and the surrounding counties and engaging in politics was paramount.

Even in the days of private companies, politics were overriding—the union settled a two-month 1955 strike and forced owner Louis Wolfson to sell the company by engaging in political action.

The political pressure after the murder of operator James Talley in 1968 forced the D.C. Transit Company to adopt exact fare—the first company in the nation to do so.

Davis’s predecessor Apperson also used political pressure in 1970 to force D.C. Transit owner O. Roy Chalk to bring his payments to the workers’ pension plan up to date.

It’s not that Davis failed to engage in any political activity. He regularly attended hearings on anti-union bills and testified. Bierwagen would accompany him to meet with pro-labor legislators whom he expected to carry the ball for the union, though they had many other issues to deal with. Davis would also dole out some political donations at election time.

But this minimal level of activity was insufficient for the forces arrayed against him and he did not rise to the challenge.

Union head calls strike vote over missed pension payments: 1970

George Apperson, Local 689 president 1964-73.

Davis also compounded his initial error of eschewing intense political action by failing to learn the lessons of the strike he led in 1974 and the slow-down he led in 1975. Both of those direct action work stoppages resulted in victory for the union, but Davis rejected the tactic (or even threatening them) thereafter.

The authorities condemn the use of illegal strikes and other direct action tactics and utilize the courts to try to break them. But many workers see labor laws as unjust and favoring the employers and don’t feel bound to obey them. Attempting to defend workers’ rights solely by using legal means often leads to defeat.

Davis’s rejection of outlawed tactics after 1975 would haunt him in 1978 when without his leadership the rank and file staged two strikes that led to improvements in safety and a payment of the cost-of-living clause under the “undisturbed” language of the contract.

He made a major error in judgment when he failed to attempt to organize the Ride On workers at an early juncture. Workers in the region are plagued 45 years later with substandard wages and benefits on transit operated by every jurisdiction that makes up the WMATA service area.

The issue of making concessions in union contracts is controversial among the members. However, it’s really a matter of fighting the company with all the tools at your disposal—direct action, mobilization of members, political involvement, lobbying, public relations, organizing—before making decisions about tactical moves in contract negotiations.

If you are able to defeat the company’s or others’ adverse action, so be it. However, if the forces against you are stronger than yours, then concessions may be necessary to preserve the bargaining unit as a fighting force and live to fight another day.

Transit union president George R. Davis: 1979

George Davis at WMATA headquarters in 1979.

The problem with Davis’s actions is that he did not use all the tools at his disposal to fight the company, the political attacks and the threat of non-union bus companies. Nor did he have fortitude to make concessionary agreements to forestall hostile action against the union and risk rank-and-file ire. It was the worst of both worlds.

He might have personally survived these major errors as president for a bit longer if he had made his case to the rank and file with regular visits to work locations.

Davis didn’t understand the changes in the workforce that were taking place. Workers in the 1970s were radicalized by the experiences of the 1960s and Davis was far removed from those struggles.

But by his own admission, he rarely spent time talking to the members where they worked. Perhaps if he had, he might have gained greater insight into their thinking and altered his own decision-making. You can’t lead union members from the union office.

It was somewhat of a tragedy for a man who spent his life trying to better the lot of workers but who ended up on the wrong side of the fight. But he repeatedly made bad choices and paid the price.

Local 689 revives the strike tactic after 40 years: 2019

Workers on strike against the substandard wages and benefits of a private Metrobus contractor in 2019.

The union revived the strike tactic in 2018-19 by staging a series of mini-job actions, primarily against Metro’s refusal to seriously negotiate over disciplinary policies. These actions culminated in a strike vote by the whole membership, after which WMATA began to engage in serious negotiations.

The transit union today is confronting head-on the challenges that privatization of transit in the area brought. A strike at Metro’s privatized Cinder Bed Road division led Metro to agree to bring the work back in-house and cancel plans to privatize the Dulles Metrorail yard.

ATU ultimately engaged in organizing the private companies in the jurisdictions that make up Metro, staging a strike in 2019 at three Fairfax Connector garages. They have organized D.C. streetcar and Circulator buses and the Alexandria DASH system as well as a number of paratransit companies.

Politics is now part and parcel of ATU Local 689’s activities and they are well known in every jurisdiction, both for lobbying and for electoral work. And Local 689 regularly attempts to turn out members for actions.

Personal Notes

Longtime union activist pushes MoCo minimum wage: 2013

Craig Simpson speaking on behalf of UFCW Local 400 at a Montgomery County, Md. minimum wage rally in 2013.

I was a young headstrong bus operator during Davis’s tenure and was a member at age 25 of the Metro Employees Action Alliance in 1976 and later the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus 1978-80.

I was convinced that Davis was a sellout and the “Davis-Richmond clique” needed to go.

It was the beginning of my political involvement in the union that would result in 18 years on the union executive board beginning in 1983 before I retired in 2001–serving as shop steward/executive board member, appointed business agent and secretary-treasurer of Local 689.

As the years went by I took a more nuanced view of  George Davis.

He was trained in business unionism that emphasized grievance handling and contract negotiation and de-emphasized member mobilization for direct action, political action and organizing.

While he was a dedicated trade unionists and could be proud of the work he did maintaining the cost-of-living clause, obtaining the supplemental rail agreement and integrating the ranks of the top officers of the union, he made too many wrong decisions and failed to use all the tools at his disposal during the period 1974-80.

After I retired from Metro with 27 years of service in early 2001, I went on to do contract work for the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, Progressive Maryland, ATU Local 689 and Maryland Commons. I obtained my degree in labor studies from the National Labor College and I finished my career as executive director of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 from 2013-2016. I now administrate and write blog posts and photo descriptions for the Washington Area Spark websites.


Sources include documents of the Metro Employees Action Alliance, Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus and Metro Committee Against Racism (CAR), Local 689 newsletters, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, and the personal recollections of the author.

Related Blog Posts

The D.C. black liberation movement seen through the life of Reginald H. Booker [January 28, 2020 by Craig G. Simpson] The author takes you through the long activist career of D.C. black nationalist Reginald Booker who led the fight against new freeways in the city, for public takeover of the private D.C. Transit, for building the Metrorail system, for hiring, upgrading and promoting black people in the construction industry and the federal and District of Columbia government. A prominent member of the Black United Front, he also led fights against police brutality among a host of other rights issues.

Strike wave at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Transit: 1945 [May 10, 2015 by Daniel Hardin]: In the midst of a struggle over integration and pent-up wage demands following World War II, transit workers in Washington wage a battle to better their conditions and in the process set the stage to transform their union.

The DC women streetcar operators of World War II [March 20, 2013 by Craig Simpson]: In the midst of a World War II shortage of operators and a campaign by African Americans to integrate the operator ranks, the transit company hires women for the first time to pilot the city’s streetcars and buses.

The fight against Capital Transit’s Jim Crow hiring: 1941-55 [October 14, 2012 by Craig Simpson]: The long struggle to integrate Washington’s Capital Transit Company operator ranks—from World War II to the early years of the modern civil rights movement.

Related Images

ATU 689 officers

Hattie Sheehan

Frances Lewis

O. Roy Chalk

Walter Bierwagen

Group Health: 1959

No fare hike: 1966-72

Exact bus fare: 1968

D.C. streetcar women: 1943-60

Transit strike: 1974

ATU 689 birth: 1916-17

On the job murder at Metro: 1974

ATU Local 689: No Service 1974

Fighting Capital Transit racism: 1941-55

Transit strike: 1955

Transit strike: 1951

Capital Transit strikes; 1945

DC Metro wildcat strikes: 1978

Related documents

White Man’s Road Through Black Man’s Home – 1968

Second Rally to Re-Open the 69 Confiscated NE Homes – June 1969

Smash the 3-Sisters Bridge – Nov. 1969

Victory Celebration of the 3-Sisters Bridge Decision: Oct. 1971

WMATA & union letters ordering striking workers back to work – May 1974

Arbitration award on Metro strike discipline – 1978

Files of the Metro Employees Action Alliance – 1976

WMATA management proposals for contract changes – May 1, 1976

Questions to be asked at the union meeting  – May 18, 1976

Summary of Metro contract proposals circulated to union membership – circa May 22, 1976

Caucus meeting agenda – May 28, 1976

Draft notice to members of Metro’s contract proposals  – circa May 28, 1976

Files of the Metro Workers Rank and File Action Caucus


Vol. 1 No. 1 – Sept. 5, 1978

Vol.1. No. 2 – Oct. 1978

Vol. 1 No. 3 – Nov. 1978

Vol. 1 No. 4 – Jan. 1979

Vol. 1 No. 5 – Jun. 1979

Vol. 1 No. 6 – Aug. 1979

Action Caucus Minutes, flyers and election flyers

Caucus minutes – 7/30/78 – 10/1/78

Turn out for the arbitration hearings flyer – 8/21/78

Report of the Local 689 audit committee – 10/2/79

A vote for Mayo-Waller-Simpson is a vote for change – election flyer 11/79

Elect the Unity Slate platform – 11/79

Letter on the disqualification of Walter Tucker as presidential candidate—11/19/1979

Vote January 9 Mayo-Waller-Simpson—1/9/80

Vote Mayo-Waller-Simpson in the runoff elections—1/16/80

Attend the new officers installation—2/80

Unofficial election results—2/80

Files of the Metro Committee Against Racism (CAR)

Metro C.A.R. – August 1978 ca.

Paddy Whalen & the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade

4 Feb
Baltimore Union Leader Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen: 1938 ca.

Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen

By Daniel Hardin

On January 17, 1937, hundreds of striking seamen hiked down U.S. Route 1 from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. on what became known as the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.

The insurgents within the International Seamen’s Union (ISU) were on the ropes and desperate action was needed to save their rank-and-file caucus.

The strike began in early November in sympathy with West Coast waterfront workers. It was led by a rank-and-file committee within the ISU that challenged the legitimacy of the ISU itself.

However, by Christmas 1936 ships were leaving Baltimore harbor with full crews, and on January 14 other waterfront unions called off their strikes and ordered their members to return to work.

Only one person could have rallied the Baltimore strikers after two months of privation and the desertion of other waterfront unions. That was Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Paddy Whalen

Whalen was born in 1884 and followed his father into the locomotive engineers’ union. Whalen apparently had conflicts with the railroad companies and began a wandering period that ended with him finding work in the engine rooms of merchant ships.

Patrick B. Whalen Mug Shot: 1937 ca.

Undated mug shot of Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Whalen sailed out of New York on one of the merchant ships in the early 1930s, and Charles Rubin, a communist seaman, shipped out with him. According to The Log of Rubin the Sailor, Rubin was fascinated by Whalen’s knowledge of radical labor groups like the Knights of Labor, the Molly McGuires and the Wobblies.

Rubin recruited Whalen into the militant, communist-aligned Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) and later into the Communist Party (CP) itself. Whalen rose quickly as a leader among the seafarers. When the CP broke up the MWIU and sent its activists to work within the International Seamen’s Union, Whalen became a leader in the rank-and-file caucus.

The anti-communist Bella Dodd described Whalen in her book School of Darkness:

Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW…

Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels.

In late 1934 or early 1935 he moved to Baltimore and quickly became the head of the rank and file caucus within the ISU. Duke Avnet, a left-wing Baltimore labor lawyer, remembered Whalen:

He ran sentences together. He mispronounced words; he committed malapropism. He cussed profusely. His grammar was a classic of mistakes. But his thinking was clear; and he knew the seamen and their problems.

The Strike

The strike on the East Coast began in early November and was briefly supported by nearly the entire waterfront.

Striking Seamen Register for March on DC: 1937

Baltimore ISU headquarters during 1936-7 strike.

When the impeccably dressed Joseph McCurdy, president of the Baltimore Federation of Labor, sided with the ship owners in seeking an injunction, Whalen spoke to a rally and “denounced labor leaders who had ‘ritzy’ lifestyles and insisted on wearing ‘clean shirts,’” according to Vernon Pederson’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57,

Whalen told the crowd, “I have been involved in strikes for years and I have slept in flophouses, under viaducts and in jails—with my comrades. We have no money, and to win this strike every man must expect to suffer the hardships of his fellows.”

At a crucial point in the strike, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) local unions briefly joined in. Thousands of striking workers chased ILA President Joe Ryan back to his car when he tried to speak against the strike.

But, in the days that followed, ILA locals met separately and Ryan’s supporters were able to sway the workers to vote against officially joining the strike.

As the strike crumbled in early 1937, Whalen sought to save the insurgency from an outright defeat and preserve the Baltimore section of the organization that he led.

 Fink Books

The opportunity came as Congress was considering ship owners’ legislation that would establish a single discharge book to be filled out by each ship captain after each voyage.

Baltimore Soviet Marches on Washington: 1934

“Baltimore Soviet” marches on D.C. in 1934

Up to this point, individual discharge papers from each tour had been issued by the ship captains. Union seamen viewed the proposed single discharge book as an attempt by ship owners to blacklist them since one captain who didn’t like a maritime worker could smear them on a single discharge book. The legislation was called the Copeland Safety at Sea Act.

Also pending was a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether the rank and file caucus could challenge the ISU during federally supervised elections to represent the seamen.

It’s not clear who came up with the idea for a march on Washington but it may have been Al Lannon, a national leader of the rank-and-file committee. Lannon had previously led the Baltimore MWIU in the early 1930s and had organized a small march on Washington in 1934 demanding continued disbursement of federal relief funds through the union instead of outside organizations that were feathering their own nests.

As a result of agitation by the MWIU the disbursement of funds through the so-called “Baltimore Soviet,” continued for another year. The “Soviet” provided beds, food, barbers and other services for waterfront workers during the toughest early years of the Great Depression.

 The Midnight March

Whether it was Whalen’s or Lannon’s thoughts that led to the march, Whalen took it up with enthusiasm and the idea captured the imagination of seamen up and down the ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Seamen March in Rain in D.C. Protest #2: 1937

The “Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.”

Elizabeth Fee wrote in The Baltimore Book:

Calling it the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade, Whalen led hundreds of seamen and supporters from other unions along U.S. Route 1 through a day and night of rain and slush to the nation’s capital.

There they were joined by several thousand more demonstrators, and pickets were thrown around the Department of Commerce as well as the Capitol. The seamen visited all the principal department heads in government. One delegation even went to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

With the momentum of the march, Baltimore’s striking seamen voted to end the 87-day strike, obtaining wage increases for the sailors, according to Jo Ann Argersinger in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Shortly afterward the NLRB ruled in favor of the caucus meeting the definition of a union under federal law. The rank-and-file committee in turn established itself as the National Maritime Union (NMU) and quickly challenged the ISU, winning representation in 56 of 67 companies where elections were held.

As a result of the new power on the waterfront, the Copeland Safety at Sea Act was amended to permit either single discharge papers or new books to be utilized—effectively preventing ship owners from blacklisting union supporters.

A sweeping victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Seamen’s Solidarity

Seamen Arrested in DC Protesting Nazi Regime: 1936

Striking seamen protesting the Nazi regime are arrested outside German embassy in 1936.

The camaraderie of the sailors at sea proved a great recipe for union members in port.

During the strike, the rank-and-file committee adopted a resolution to “treat all seamen as brothers and on an equality” basis regardless of race or color according to Argersinger. A cook of Chinese descent, who was barred by West Coast waterfront unions from membership, was taken in by Whalen and his union.

Argersinger wrote that Whalen set up a “court of justice” with fines and punishments for crimes ranging from drunkenness to scabbing—the most serious offense. The “Baltimore Soviet” services were replicated with rooms, food service and organized exercise. Differing ethnic groups were encouraged to play instruments and sing their songs for all.

Elisabeth Gilman, a social democrat from Baltimore, said the strike was “the most orderly and best conducted I have ever seen.”

 Fight for Integrated Crews

Striking Seamen Stage Guerilla Theater: 1937 (2)

The Baltimore NMU fought for integration.

When the NMU was officially formed in 1938, its constitution prohibited discrimination. Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? quotes the lawyer Avnet relating an incident where Whalen put teeth into this provision:

The Captain of the vessel phoned and complained that some of the crew members were not satisfactory. There were three Negro members who had been assigned to the deck and engine departments. Previously Negroes had been segregated on the ships to the steward’s department only.

Pat [Whalen] held his ground and refused to withdraw these three crew members. Shortly afterward, the crew itself arrived at the union hall and [the white crew members] announced that they would not sail with Negroes.

Whalen called a general membership meeting for that night to try the white crewmembers for undemocratic conduct. During this meeting several seamen of color spoke against the white crew’s actions, and a number of whites spoke in favor of it. Whalen took the floor and harangued the membership on how racism created a reservoir of strikebreakers and how the enemy ISU had always stood for Jim Crow.

He spoke of trade union democracy where all were equal regardless of race, color or creed, and shook his head and vowed sadly that the new union would be better dead aborning than to follow in the old ways…The men understood him and the membership voted the crew either sail with Negro members or that they should turn in their union books.

Some books were thrown on the table. But the ship sailed with a mixed crew and this policy has since largely prevailed in the port of Baltimore.

 The Broader Fight

Striking Maritime Workers Protest Discharge Papers: 1937

Women were also members of the NMU: Elsa Landstrom, a striker at the Midnight March.

Elizabeth Fee cited a George Meyers account of how Whalen also fought for integration on the Baltimore waterfront:

The National Maritime Union always worked integrated crews, and we’d go into a waterfront bar and order up a bottle. The bartenders would serve the white seamen and refuse to serve the others because, they said, it was against the law.

So Paddy’s guys would pick the bottle up and throw it into the mirror…and that was the way the waterfront was integrated. After that, anyone could be served with no problem.

Whalen didn’t confine the fight against segregation to the waterfront. In one of the largest community based campaigns in the pre-World-War-II period, the CIO sent representatives into community meetings to raise its own demands such as housing for black workers at Bethlehem Steel and other mills, factories and shipyards.

Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? writes:

On one occasion in 1939, Patrick Whalen, head of the Baltimore Industrial Union Council, silenced a hostile white crowd at a public meeting with a passionate defense of public housing for all. The nature of the coalition emerging in the new housing movement is evident in the committee formed in northwestern Baltimore, which included representatives from the NAACP, the NNC, BUL, the CIO and social liberal groupings. Both Lillie Jackson of the NAACP and Albert Blumberg of the Communist Party were among its leaders.

 Whalen as Port Agent

Whalen was the port agent (principal union representative) for NMU in Baltimore from 1937-42 and was known for his brash and confrontational style.

Seamen Return to DC Protesting Scab Certificates: 1939

Baltimore NMU banner at 1939 march on D.C.

In a 1987 interview for the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, African American seaman Neville Sutherland recalled Whalen having a telephone conversation with Governor Harry Nice:

He wanted the governor to give something, and the governor said it can’t be done…You get him on the goddamn phone, this is Patrick Beeway Dubiss [Whalen]. So, when he got out,he told him what he wanted, and the governor said to the guy it can’t be done. He [Whalen] says, Oh, it’s gonna be done, don’t tell me what can’t be done. He [Whalen] said you full of shit, he says…that’s the way he talked [and] he [Whalen] got it.

Whalen would lead his seamen to return to Washington, D.C. at least two more times in 1938 and 1939 to demand strict procedures for issuing sailors’ certificates. As the NMU conducted strikes against particular shipping lines, the ISU or ship owners would try to bring strikebreakers aboard. The protests at the Commerce Department demanded the department halt what the NMU said was a practice of issuing certificates to unqualified scabs while denying qualified union supporters the certificates.

Maritime Union Leader Held on Gun Charges: 1938

Whalen arrested in New Jersey on weapons charges.

During this period, Whalen had his share of enemies. While en route to a meeting of the national union in New York City, Hudson County police stopped the vehicle he was riding in and arrested him and four others for carrying “concealed and dangerous weapons.”

Questions immediately arose about how the police came to know that Whalen was riding in this particular vehicle that held weapons. Speculation turned to Joseph Curran, the NMU president, who was allegedly jealous of other leaders in the union. Neville Sutherland ventured:

Actually, Colonel [Curran] was afraid of Patrick Whalen, see. And Colonel [Curran] was a big rat too, [Inaudible word(s)] Patrick leave here. Patrick Whalen was a very small man, a very, very, very, small man, see; must’ve weighed about 105 pounds, 110 pounds.

And he’d leave from here, and he knew that Patrick Whalen had a gun in the car, see. That Patrick Whalen didn’t take shit from nobody and he called the Jersey police up, and notified them that he was coming and he had it and when he hit the Jersey line, they pulled him up and they got him in the car there.

Charges were later dropped and the incident, if anything, boosted Whalen’s standing among the workers.

Whalen as a Communist

Whalen made no secret of his communist beliefs. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in What is to be Done? that the communist’s “…ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears…”

Alice Neel Portrait of Paddy Whalen: 1935

Alice Neel portrait of Paddy Whalen holding a copy of the Daily Worker.

Paddy Whalen seemed to somehow embody both. The artist Alice Neel, who painted Whalen in 1935 with a copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker and two clenched fists, said of Whalen, “Patty Whalen was the organizer on the waterfront…He was just an ordinary Irishman except for one thing: He was absolutely convinced of communism, and he could convince other longshoremen…”

Whalen hated fascism and during the 1936-7 strike, Whalen organized 50 seamen to travel to Washington, D.C. to picket the German embassy in support of seaman Lawrence Simpson who was charged by the Nazis with subversion.

While drumming up support for the 1936-37 strike, Whalen also went on a recruiting sortie for the Maryland Communist Party to Cumberland, Md. where he met and recruited labor leader George Meyers. Meyers led the unionization of the Celanese Mills, where 10,000 workers were employed. Meyers later became head of the Maryland Industrial Union Council, the state arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Meyers also went on to head the Md.-D.C. Communist Party, was jailed for three years during the McCarthy era, and later headed the CP’s National Labor Commission, demonstrating Whalen’s effectiveness in winning others to his ideas.

 Killed by Nazi Submarine

SS Illinois  - Ship Where Whalen was Killed: 1942

S.S. Illinois

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Nazi regime in Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, the Communist Party asked its members to enlist in the war effort. Despite his exemption from the draft as union port agent, Whalen went back to sea in the merchant marine, working in the engine room of the S.S. Illinois.

On June 2, 1942, as the Illinois sailed on a return voyage along the Southern Atlantic route and was about 450 miles southeast of Bermuda, Nazi submarine U-159 sent two torpedoes into its engine room. Whalen died instantly and 31 others also perished. The ship went down with 8,000 tons of manganese ore aboard. Whalen’s body, like those of most seamen on sunken ships, was never recovered. Six survivors were picked up out of the water six days later.

U-159 Shortly Before Sinking: 1943

U-159 shortly before sinking by a VP 32 Mariner.

The workers of Baltimore saw their revenge. On July 28, 1943 a PBM Mariner dropped bombs onto U-159 and sent the Nazi submarine to the bottom of the sea.

A liberty ship was launched from Brunswick, Ga. bearing the name Patrick B. Whalen in March 1945 in his memory and a small service held in Baltimore the same day. However during the Cold War the name of the S.S. Patrick B. Whalen was changed and it was eventually scrapped in Taiwan in 1967.

Writer’s Notes:

Joseph Curran took complete control of the union at a 1947 convention where the left wing of the union lost by a single vote—a casualty of the anti-communist fever orchestrated by Democratic President Harry S. Truman and a Republican Congress. Soon after, 10 years of union democracy was gone and Curran came to symbolize the worst aspects of trade unionism, building a palatial union headquarters in New York. The NMU merged with the rival ISU in 1988.

Striking Seamen Leaders to Meet Commerce Secretary: 1937

Paddy Whalen (1st row, left) and Joseph Curran (1st row holding paper) during 1936-37 strike.

The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well be 3,000. Only rarely is there cultural spillover between the two. However Whalen’s position in the Maryland Industrial Council of the CIO and his unflinching fight against discrimination inspired the same fight in Washington, D.C. as activists sought to integrate defense industries and the Capital Transit Company.

Whalen is long forgotten, except among a few scholars. Perhaps when someone views the bar scenes in Season 2 of The Wire, they’ll think of Paddy Whalen and the method he used to integrate the waterfront bars of Baltimore.

Sources for this post include the Washington Star, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Baltimore Sun, The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, The Baltimore Book, The Maryland Historical Magazine, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s Portrait Gallery, School of Darkness, A New Deal for All?, The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, among others.

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The Washington Post Strike at the Crossroads, December 1975

12 Dec

by Craig Simpson

Post Pressmen & Supporters Picket George’s Store

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 3

A mass picket line by striking pressmen and supporters in front of a George’s appliance store in Greenbelt, Maryland in December 1975. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

The International Printing and Graphic Communications Union Local 6, the pressmen’s union, was engaged in a bitterly fought strike at the Washington Post that reached a turning point in December 1975.

When the strike first began on October 1, a number of advertisers switched to the rival Washington Star as the Post struggled to publish a credible newspaper. It appeared for a time that the Star might supplant the Post, unless the strike was settled.

But the management gradually produced more and more pages per day without union workers, and advertisers began switching back to the Post. Picket lines were set up at stores around the metropolitan Washington area at George’s, a local discount appliance store, and K-Mart in December 1975, but failed to dissuade the advertisers from returning to the Post.

Origins of the Strike: The 1973 Printers’ Dispute

Post Printers Lockout

Printers’ union members picket the Post in November 1973 after union member Michael Padilla was fired for engaging in a slowdown at the paper. When printers stopped work, the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals. Photo by Michael Dresser, some rights reserved.

The tipping point in labor relations at the Post came during a November 1973 dispute with International Typographical Union Local 101, the printers’ union.

The Post was a profitable newspaper, but its margins were slipping compared to its other holdings. New management at the paper made the determination that profits could be increased by squeezing more out of fewer workers.

The Post prepared for a confrontation with its unions and trained non-union personnel at an anti-union facility in Oklahoma to produce the newspaper in the event of a strike by one or more of its unions. It also opened its own training facility in Northern Virginia where non-union staff were trained on the relatively new “cold” type press production that needed fewer workers.

The printers were the largest union at the Post and prepared the molten lead “hot” type for printing. They stood in the way of the Post’s drive to cut costs and increase profits.

The printers began engaging in a work slowdown to pressure management to back off its aggressive bargaining posture as they approached the expiration of their labor contract. The management retaliated by firing one printer, Michael Padilla, for engaging in the slowdown. The union responded with a sit-down strike and the Post evicted them from the building after calling US Marshals.

The Post management then prepared an edition of the paper with non-union staff and prepared to run the presses themselves.  Members of the pressmen’s union were made aware of the Post’s plans by other union members in the building and entered the Post’s facilities saying that they were the only ones entitled to run the presses and they intended to do so.

However, they quickly staged their own sit-down strike and some minor damage was done to a few presses. They halted the paper from publishing and took the position they would not work until all other unions returned.  The Post negotiated a quick settlement with the printers and reinstated Padilla.  All the unions returned to work with nothing said about the minor damage. The pressmen were heroes to other craft union members.

But to the Post management, including publisher Katherine Graham, they had a bulls-eye painted on them and over the next two years a number of smaller skirmishes were fought leading up to the expiration of the pressmen’s labor contract.

Pressmen’s Strike Begins October 1, 1975

Post Busts Pressmen's Union 1975 # 1

Pressmen outside the Washington Post building in the early morning hours of October 1, 1975. Photo: Pete Schmick, Courtesy DC Public Library, Star Collection, © Washington Post, All Rights Reserved.

The regular pressmen numbered about 200, of whom only about 100 were long term employees. Most of the others migrated to Washington from out-of-town papers for higher wages or because their local unions had been broken during strikes at other newspapers.

The pressmen were viewed as the strongest union at the Post and set the pace for the other nine unions.  Their contract was due to expire September 30, 1975, but the pressmen didn’t plan to strike.  Instead they planned to continue to negotiate while honoring the picket lines of the smaller machinist union at the newspaper whose contract expired at the same time.

However, the machinists were forced to back off of a strike at the last-minute when the Post invoked a binding arbitration clause in the machinists’ contract.

The pressmen’s union leadership decided not to call a strike right away, but a relatively small, organized group of pressmen began disabling the presses at about 4 am and detained and injured a manager. A small fire was set in the printing press room. The strike was on when workers left the building and set up a picket line.  The union leadership then passed out strike signs that had been previously printed in the event of a work stoppage.

The Post was unable to publish for a day, but cobbled together non-union offset print shops around the region to print a reduced version of the paper on the second day and began returning their own presses to running order. They flew the paper produced at the Post by helicopter to printing facilities located within 200 miles of Washington. Later they printed the Sunday and other supplement material as far away as Miami and had it trucked to Washington, DC.

The other unions at the Post either went on strike or respected the picket lines of the pressmen. The exception was the Newspaper Guild, which twice held fierce debates over supporting the strike. Reacting to reports of physical abuse of some members who crossed the picket lines and the damaged presses, they overrode their leadership and voted to continue working on two different occasions, although a minority of Guild members did honor picket lines.

The striking unions called for a boycott of the Post that was supported by local organized labor, but its effects were limited. The Post’s newspaper sales dropped by about 35,000 and advertising fell from about 70% of the newspaper market to about 65%–significant, but not crippling. Some major advertisers switched to the Star and others advertised more heavily in the rival paper.

The Post’s public relations successfully exploited a highly exaggerated version of the pressroom damage (The Post filed suit for $25 million, but the actual damage figure did not exceed $270,000) as an attack on the “free press.” Later the Post demonstrated its power when a grand jury was convened to investigate strike activities, further demonizing the workers.

As advertisers began to return and revenue began to rebound by late November, the Post made a final offer to the pressmen’s union, a formality before hiring permanent replacements.  The offer would have essentially torn up the expired pressmen’s contract, while providing for some nominal pay raises.  The offer was rejected by a vote of the union members and the Post began advertising for permanent replacements for the pressmen in December.

The Post also isolated the pressmen’s union from much of the rest of the city by repeatedly pointing out the lack of any significant number of African American or women press operators in a city that was nicknamed “Chocolate City” and had more women than men.

They moved to further divide the unions from the city’s working people by exploiting long-standing charges of discrimination against the craft unions and reached an agreement with the Washington Printing Specialties & Paper Products Union, whose members moved the heavy rolls of paper around the shop and performed other manual labor.

The 100 member union was predominantly African American and had been battling the mainly white craft unions over discrimination against its members before the strike and had filed suit against several–although not against the pressmen’s union. They  returned to work and joined many of the Newspaper Guild’s members  crossing the picket lines. While not essential to publishing the paper, the agreement with the paper handlers union legitimized the Post’s position and further discredited the strikers in the eyes of many African Americans.

The momentum in the battle had clearly swung toward the management.

1,000 March & Burn Katherine Graham in Effigy

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 28

Over 1,000 striking pressmen and supporters staged a march and rally on the one year anniversary of the strike on October 2, 1976 that culminated with burning Katherine Graham in effigy in front of the Post headquarters. Photo by Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

As the strike moved into 1976, the Post was effectively producing the newspaper at its own printing plant with the permanent replacements of the pressmen and non-union pressmen imported from other areas of the country. The permanent replacements were mainly African Americans along with a few women. The diversity of the replacements was showcased by the Post.

The Post unions had a support committee that worked hard to convince the broader public to back the strike. At one point a petition was circulated among prominent local residents asking that the dispute be submitted to binding arbitration.  The Post refused arbitration. AFL-CIO president George Meany held a meeting with publisher Katherine Graham, but accounts of the meeting indicate that Meany didn’t push hard and Graham was firm that the pressmen had been permanently replaced.

With defeat staring at them, the other Post unions undertook serious negotiations with management over resolving their own issues. Individual members of the various craft unions began drifting back to work.

On February 17, 1976 the mailers’ union, who sorted and bundled the newspapers, reached an agreement with the Post. They returned to work along with the printers’ union—representing about half of the 1,400 craft union workers. The other unions and their members followed shortly thereafter.

The strike was lost at this point and the pressmen’s union was broken. They were now out on their own–along with a few members of other unions who refused to go back and a committed group of supporters.

The U.S. Attorney obtained indictments against 15 pressmen while none of those who crossed picket lines and assaulted strikers were charged.

On the first anniversary of the strike– October 2, 1976–over 1,000 pressmen and their supporters rallied at McPherson Square and marched to the Post building where they burned Katherine Graham in effigy. The march was defiant, but for the pressmen it was more like a funeral.

The pressmen continued to picket the Post through the judicial proceedings. On May 20, 1977, after plea agreements were concluded in court, fourteen pressmen were given sentences that ranged from fines for most individuals to a year in jail for one pressman. The light sentences for most pressmen vindicated their account that the initial disabling of the presses was relatively minor, but it was a hollow victory.

Local 6 was decimated by the strike and ceased to exist after the Washington Star newspaper folded in 1981. The strike was one of the biggest defeats ever suffered by organized labor in the District of Columbia.

Could the Pressmen Have Prevailed?

K Graham Burned in Effigy 1976 # 30

Helicopter at Post building one year after strike began. Management used helicopters in the early stages of the strike to ferry ready-to-print versions of the paper to offset print shops within 200 miles of Washington. Photo: Reading/Simpson, non-commercial use permitted.

Most accounts written after the strike point to the initial disabling of the presses on October 1, 1975 as sealing the pressmen’s fate, but that is an oversimplification.  Even with the Post’s account of “violence” monopolizing the media, the outcome was not certain two and half months into the strike.

Certainly the property damage was a factor in the Guild’s decision not to honor picket lines and gave the Post ammunition to use against the strike. But a significant number of Guild members would have crossed the picket lines in any event and the Post intended to publish utilizing non-union labor even if no damage had occurred.

Simply pointing to the “violence” in which one person was hurt and some relatively minor damage done to property does not take into consideration that the Post settled the 1973 dispute after similar, although not as widespread, disabling of the presses.

The larger error that the pressmen made was viewing the impending confrontation as a traditional battle fought by a group of skilled craftsmen who were necessary for production against a management that was making unprecedented demands but could be forced to back down as they had in the past. The pressmen applied the lessons they had learned from previous battles, like the printers’ dispute, and believed they could prevail by withholding their labor. The rump group that disabled the presses followed this thinking to its logical–but ultimately wrong–conclusion.

Instead, the pressmen faced a powerful enemy who had negated the crafts’ advantage in earlier labor confrontations. The pressmen failed to grasp the impact that technological improvements like cold type would have on the ability to produce the paper in the workers’ absence. They further underestimated the ability of replacements and management to print a paper, despite the printing craft unions’ experience in other cities. They believed that the “liberal” Washington Post would not openly “bust” a union. Perhaps most critically, they didn’t have a winning strategy to sway the broader public to their cause.

In such circumstances, the pressmen were unprepared to cast their battle as part of a larger struggle of working people that were then vigorously resisting similar demands. Employers during the 1970s sought to reverse hard-won work rules and increase productivity while holding down wages due to increased international competition and flattening profits. Workers in the Washington area and around the country were waging strikes, both legal and illegal, over the employers’ demands for more work with less pay in order to maintain their profit margins.

The craft unions at the Post did ultimately realize their need to wage a broader struggle after the strike began. They banded together and formed a “Post Unions United” group and organized a strike support committee–gathering support from other unions and activist groups throughout the city. They launched a campaign to boycott the Post, trying to identify their struggle with broader struggles with a “No Grapes, No Lettuce, No Post” slogan. They hit back at the Post for “union-busting.”

However, these slogans did not resonate. Some accounts after the strike simply noted that Washington was not an industrial city with strong unions.  This is not entirely accurate either.  The city is not industrial in nature, but the upswing in public employee unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s actively engaged tens of thousands of workers in and around the city. Strong established unions already existed in the hotels, grocery,  communications, transit, trucking & warehouses and in construction as well as other sectors.  And, workers were in a fighting mood, like those across the country.

The problem with the campaign message is that it did not capture the reason why the workers were striking and translate it into a just cause that other working people could embrace. The message used would not override the Post’s campaign against “violence” and defense of a “free press.”

Further, the pressmen left themselves vulnerable to be divided from a large, natural ally in the metropolitan area–African Americans who supported unions in much higher percentages than other population groups.

Of the craft unions, the pressmen weren’t the worst when it came to discrimination. They were not one of the unions sued by the paper handlers at the Post. They had taken on some African American apprentices and junior apprentices and had a few black journeymen. However, that didn’t alter the fact that they were overwhelmingly white in a city that was overwhelmingly black, and the larger public didn’t make fine distinctions among the various craft unions.

Unlike the city’s transit union leadership which helped force a desegregation of operator ranks within the union in 1955 prior to a long strike with the Capital Transit Company in order to diffuse the issue, the pressmen’s union did not fully recognize the damage that would be done to their position. And that’s without considering the good will that would have been generated by strides toward full desegregation of their ranks.

It’s easy now to look back and debate what should have been done 40 years ago to prepare for this confrontation and it should be remembered that the pressmen and the other craft unions, despite whatever weaknesses they had, waged a toe-to-toe battle against a determined foe for nearly three months before the tide turned against them.

We’ll never know if a clear message linking the Post unions’ struggles with those being waged by other working people, along with a reputation as a progressive union, would have made a difference in the outcome. But we can know that doing so would have made for a more effective boycott, reducing subscribers and thereby keeping more advertising dollars away from the Post. This in turn would have strengthened the rival Washington Star, putting increased pressure on the Post to reach an agreement.

Author’s Notes:

As a young union activist, I brought the Post craft unions’ boycott materials to my transit union meeting. Some of the officers of the union removed the material from the sign-in table and castigated me for supporting a strike of unions that had discriminated against African Americans. We argued for a while and a lot of the rank and file at the meeting listened in interest, but the damage that was done to the strike’s cause by unions that had failed to take meaningful steps to integrate their ranks cannot be overstated.

Most of the material for this article came from the Washington Star, New York Times, Washington Post, Washington City Paper and flyers produced by strike supporters.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.

For more photos of the strike

For more photos of the one year strike anniversary march and rally

600 Black Women Stand Strong: The 1938 Crab Pickers Strike

5 Dec
A Face of the CIO Union in Crisfield, MD: 1938

Pauline Schofield with CIO button, Crisfield, MD, May 1938. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Working people in Crisfield, Maryland, were in desperate straits on the first of April in 1938.

The Great Depression hadn’t lifted yet, and 300 garment workers, mostly women, had been thrown out of work two weeks earlier when two factories had closed. One town official estimated that 90% of the Crisfield workforce was unemployed at that time.

Then, on top of everything else, on April 4th the town’s packing companies cut the amount paid to hundreds of crab pickers from 35 cents per gallon to 25 cents per gallon. The packers might have figured that the pickers would just be thankful to have a job.

Instead, two days later, 600 predominantly African American women crab pickers walked out on a five-week strike. They demanded that the rates be restored to 35 cents and that the packing companies recognize the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) as their union.

They defied mob intimidation and long weeks of privation, but won their strike—and a union.

Climate of Racial Fear

The town had a mixed history of race relations. It had experienced brutal racial violence, but also cooperation at times among black and white workers against the packinghouses.

Crisfield, previously named Somers Cove, had a population of about 6,000 in 1938, over one-quarter of whom were African American. The town, located near the southernmost portion of Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, was heavily dependent on the seafood industry.  It billed itself the “Seafood Capital of the World.”

The town took its name from John W. Crisfield, one of the largest slave holders in the state during the 1860s and a pro-slavery congressman during the Civil War. He was defeated in 1863 by abolitionist John Cresswell in what is widely believed to be vote fraud conducted by federal troops in the state. Crisfield secured the financing that brought the Eastern Shore Railroad to the town in 1867 and the town’s name was changed to honor him.

Lynching occurred all too frequently on the Eastern Shore up into the 1930s. One had occurred in Crisfield 30 years before and there were several others in surrounding towns in more recent years.

In 1907, James Reed allegedly shot and killed Crisfield police chief John H. Daugherty.  Reed was captured while fleeing the town by boat. He was beaten to death and hung from a telegraph pole and his body was later buried in a marsh. Unsatisfied, white rioters dug up Reed’s body, cut it up, shot it with bullets and then threw it into a bonfire.  Following this, the mob ran through the black community pulling people from their homes and beating them.

Thirty miles away in Salisbury in 1931, Matt Williams suffered a similar barbaric death administered by a mob. Again in 1931, a gang of whites in Snow Hill, 35 miles from Crisfield, beat white International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and a male and female companion when they couldn’t find their African American target Euel Lee.

Twenty miles away in Princess Anne in 1933, George Armwood was dragged from the local jail with a rope around his neck, beaten, stabbed and kicked. The mob tied him to the back of a truck and dragged him down the street to a large tree. The crowd cut off his ears, took his gold teeth, and then repeatedly dropped his lifeless body from a large limb to the ground. They then dragged Armwood’s corpse back to the courthouse in the center of town where it was hanged from a telephone pole and set on fire.

Racial Solidarity in 1931 Strike

The virulent racism that characterized some sectors of the population wasn’t the whole story in Crisfield, and 1938 was not the first year crab pickers had resisted the packinghouses’ attempts to reduce their pay.

Housing at W. T. Handy Packinghouse 2: 1940

Workers who picked crabs, shucked oysters or canned vegetables were paid little and had little. Shown is housing for permanent workers at the W. T. Handy plant in Crisfield, MD  ca 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1931, the packers also reduced rates from $0.35 per gallon to $0.25 per gallon (the equivalent of seven cents to five cents per pound) of picked crabmeat.

Leroy R. Carson, who owned one of the largest packinghouses in Crisfield and also owned a packinghouse in Hampton, VA, led the move.   In what would become a recurring practice, Carson reduced rates in Hampton and used the Virginia competition as a reason to reduce rates in Crisfield.

In response, on September 8, nearly 300 crab pickers quit working and went on strike.

The strikers marched from door to door through working class neighborhoods enlisting support. Their ranks bolstered, they marched through downtown Crisfield.

In all, between 700 and 800 crabmeat pickers—of whom about 100 were white—from 22 crab-picking plants joined the strike.

They had the backing of a racially mixed group of oyster shuckers whose season was about to begin and who feared their rates would also be reduced. The U.S. Department of Labor, US Conciliation Service’s Georgia Johnson stated, “Much solidarity is reported between all workers, white and colored…”

Johnson went on to say that, “The operators are holding out, because they wish continued wage reductions through the oyster-shucking season which opens today; and that this reduction is chiefly to fix oyster shucking wages through the autumn, winter and spring seasons.”

The owner of one of the three largest seafood businesses in Crisfield, J. C. W. Tawes, was quoted as saying that “…rather than submit to the strikers’ demands he would sell out and leave Crisfield.”

Tawes demanded that Mayor William H. Bradshaw order out the police, arm the citizens or order out the militia, ostensibly to protect black women who he claimed didn’t want to strike.  He alleged they were intimidated by a mostly white, male group of oyster shuckers.

Instead, Bradshaw brokered an agreement where some packinghouses agreed to a compromise rate of 30 cents per gallon. Both the packers and the strikers were dissatisfied with Bradshaw’s deal and the packers quickly reneged and kept the rate at the 25 cent reduced level.  The strike had ended in defeat.

Labor Unrest Continues

Women Picking Crabmeat in MD: 1940 ca

Crab pickers at Milbourne Oyster Co., Crisfield, MD, 1940 ca. Image courtesy of Maryland State Archives, educational use only.

Labor unrest continued in subsequent years and there were allegations of intolerable working conditions and of the exploitation of children. Worker advocates called for crab pickers and oyster shuckers to be classified as wage workers and paid an hourly rate.

In response to federal inquiries, the packers raised the rates back to the 35 cents per gallon level.

However in February, 1934, packinghouse owner Carson told a National Recovery Act administrator that crab pickers in Crisfield were lying about conditions.  He insisted that it was not rates that were to blame for poor conditions of workers in Crisfield, but instead the federal government: “I can prove that one family there is getting $15 a week federal aid.  The wife won’t pick crabs and the husband won’t shuck oysters.”

He went on to say that the rate for crab pickers should be about 5 cents a pound and that he was opposed to an hourly rate.   He reasoned that the crab harvest was unpredictable and thus could not be subjected to an hourly wage.

In December, 1935 the packers again unilaterally reduced rates and 100 workers struck, temporarily closing all but three packinghouses that had not reduced rates.

CIO Organizing on the Shore

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore unions were scarce and organized African Americans were almost unheard of. But by 1937, the CIO was leading a movement that organized male and female, black and white workers into single industrial unions.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937

Black & White workers at the Phillips plant in Cambridge MD unite during 1937 strike. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The first big battle in the packing industry on the Shore occurred at the massive Phillips packing plant in Cambridge, MD, during a strike in 1937. Over 2,000 black and white workers united and waged a vigorous two-week struggle demanding wage hikes and unionization.

At one point a group of several hundred white and black strikers marched on the city jail and freed a black striker. They ultimately lost the strike and did not achieve a union independent of the company, but the effort was well publicized throughout the Eastern Shore.

The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America, CIO that had been active in the Phillips strike began organizing in Crisfield.  In November 1937, three organizers of the cannery union were run out of Crisfield by a crowd of about 50 whites while trying to organize among oyster shuckers.

Leif Dahl, east coast organizer and national executive board member of the union, telephoned Governor Harry W. Nice and asked for protection for Michael Howard, secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, and his other organizers.

Crisfield Chief of Police Willard Laird claimed no knowledge of the incident but Mayor Bradshaw said he told the organizers to “withdraw peacefully” from the town because it “was not the proper time for their efforts”, according to the Washington Post.

Dahl vowed that the organizers would return to Crisfield, and the union representatives came back to organize quietly among oyster shuckers and crab pickers. Despite the intimidation, one of the smaller crab picking houses was organized in 1937.

The Strike Begins

In 1938, pickers’ pay was back up to 35 cents per gallon. At that rate many pickers earned between $1 and $1.50 weekly, although faster pickers could make as much as $5 per week or more. Out of these earnings, workers paid 35 cents weekly for removal of the crab shells they had picked.

A reduction back to 25 cents a gallon meant many workers’ already meager earnings would be cut by as much as a third.

The packinghouse owners announced the cut April 4, with the exception of Nelson R. Coulbourn’s packinghouse that continued to pay the old rate of 35 cents per gallon.

Pickers at every packinghouse except Coulbourn’s walked out April 6 and the packinghouses shut down.

The packers may have initially thought that the women would cave after a few weeks and the houses would be open in time for crab season that was to begin May 2.

The packers may also have considered the timing of their rate reduction.  The 1931 rate reductions occurred just before the beginning of oyster season and threatened the rates of oyster shuckers.  This reduction occurred near the end of the oyster season, making the oyster shuckers’ support of a strike less of a factor.

Shiloh United Methodist Church, Crisfield: 2012

Shiloh ME Church, Crisfield, MD shown in 2012. The CIO crab pickers union held meetings in the church & the grassy area in foreground is where a union organizer’s car was overturned & burned.

Local stores were pressured to cut off credit to the strikers, but Howard organized a food committee and began raising funds and food for strikers among the CIO unions and churches in Baltimore.

The workers—mostly African American women—held meetings to keep the strike organized and cope with their lack of income at the Shiloh ME (United Methodist) Church just off Route 413 on N. Fourth St. at the entrance of the town.

As the strike began its third week, Robert W. Knadler, a field examiner for the National Labor Relations Board, arranged a meeting between the packers and Howard. The conference quickly broke up when Howard demanded a contract guaranteeing rates for a definite period.

As the strikers held firm, the packinghouses, watermen and farmers combined forces. The watermen who set the lines to catch crabs were nearly all white, and the season was about to start with the packinghouses closed. Local farmers feared the cannery union would organize agricultural workers like it was attempting in New Jersey.

Mob Terrorizes Community

A white crowd estimated at between 100 and 300 gathered near a black section of town on N. Fourth Street on April 21. The mob broke into the home of two sisters who were on the strike committee, Eleanor Coulbourne and Martina Cooper.

Afro on Crisfield Strike with Headline, Article & 3 Photos: 1938

Afro American April 30, 1938 with banner headline “Troopers Halt Crisfield Mob,” story, “600 Girls on Strike” & 3 photos of strike, including Howard’s overturned & burned auto.

Mob leaders declared they would “ruin” Cooper and Howard if they found them, according to the Afro American newspaper. They broke into at least one other house on the street, but couldn’t find Cooper, Howard or another strike leader whose name they said was Terry Fowler.

Unable to find the strike leaders or the CIO organizers, they turned to the Shiloh Church on N. Fourth St. where Howard’s auto was parked. The mob overturned Howard’s car and set fire to it in front of the church.

The Associated Press reported, “The men were said to have been incensed because the organizers had been seen often in the Negro settlement.” According to oral history in Crisfield, Howard was hidden in Upturf, another black neighborhood located on Collins Street, about a half mile north of the church.

The local strike leaders stayed at home during the day, but took refuge with friends at night. Unable to find any of the organizers or strike leaders, members of the mob threatened to “burn the whole block,” according to the Afro American.

Mayor Bradshaw blamed the incident on “radical” and “hot-headed” persons, according to the Associated Press. The Afro American reported that Bradshaw said he was “not sure” whether the mob burned the car at all or whether it “caught fire itself.”

Union Organizers Forced Out of Town

Crisfield Sheriff William Dryden said he and his deputies were out of town during the car burning and when they returned did not make any arrests. The next day, Dahl reported from Salisbury that he had been “forced out of town” by vigilantes. He sent a telegram to Governor Nice requesting protection. Mayor Bradshaw denied any knowledge of Dahl’s eviction from the town.

Upturf Area, Possible CIO Refuge in Crisfield: 1938

Upturf area of Crisfield where CIO organizer Michael Howard may have been when his car was overturned & burned. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The following week, another CIO organizer was accosted. The men stopped an unidentified Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) union representative in front of Boycraft factory, where 200 shirt makers were employed.

He was taken down a dirt road to the Somerset County line and was warned not to try to organize workers.  “We don’t want to hurt you, but you got to get out of town,” said one member of the mob.  According to the Washington Post, the departing organizer stood up in his automobile and said, “I am a CIO organizer and I don’t want to get hurt, but I’m coming back.”

Federal Conciliator Evicted From Crisfield

On April 28, the same day the ACWA organizer was run out of town, federal mediator Stanley White was also ushered out.

In the morning, a group estimated at 150-200 men, who thought he was Howard, stopped White and detained him, then let him go.

When he went back to his lodging, proprietor James Byrd ordered him out of the Somerset Hotel.

“I ordered him out because back of him there was possible trouble. For three days he has been riding around town with Michael Howard and has been a bigger nuisance than Howard. He has even started more trouble,” Byrd said, according to an account in the Washington Post.

Byrd contacted US Rep. Thomas Goldsborough (D-MD) and asked him to get White recalled by the federal government.  A telegram arrived to that effect several hours later.

Before he left town, White went to a meeting where town officials, packinghouse owners and union representatives were to meet and confer.

A. Stengle Marine, Maryland Commissioner of Labor and an Eastern Shore resident, was asked by the governor to attend to help attempt a settlement. Governor Nice also dispatched Major Elmer P. Munshower, commander of the state police, to Crisfield to “report the true facts.”

Before Marine or Munshower arrived, some of the vigilante crowd began tossing firecrackers at White, the federal mediator. The situation became uglier and White left the meeting and went to his car.  When he cranked the ignition, a blast was heard and the auto rocked violently.  Someone had rigged a type of loud explosive to go off when the car was started, although no actual damage was done to the auto. White was then escorted out of town.

The crowd, unsatisfied at evicting White turned their attention to Howard. After much shouting and firing weapons into the air by the crowd, Howard was also escorted out of town.

Mob Violence Begins to Backfire

The anti-strike group had overplayed their hand. Running union organizers out of town usually didn’t attract a lot of attention, but evicting a federal mediator not far from Washington, DC was perhaps like poking a sleeping bear.

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Meeting of CIO crab pickers union at the Shiloh M E Church May 1938. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

The Baltimore Sun editorialized, “One need not pass judgment on the merits of the strikers’ demands to insist that a community has failed in its duty when its police do not protect a labor organizer or an official interested in settling the strike. The situation at Crisfield is confused by the race issue, since the crab pickers are almost entirely Negro women, but that fact, while it may explain the antics of the vigilantes, does not excuse them.”

The Afro American was more direct: “Observers here point out that the defiance of the packers is one of the most open revolts against the National Labor Relations Act and are watching to see what the NLRB will do in the Crisfield situation where both labor and racial rights have been invaded.”

“So grave is the situation that the slightest untoward happening, it is said, would act as a spark to begin an orgy of lynchings, murders, burnings and the general destruction of property,” the Afro American wrote.

An in-depth article in the Baltimore Sun by Alfred Charles, an Eastern Shore resident, was published April 30 with the headline, “Crisfield Merchants and Citizens Lay Crab Pickers Strike to CIO.” The piece gave the impression that the packers might be willing to settle the strike, but not to bargain or sign a contract with the CIO.

Food Shipments to Strikers Blocked

Vigilantes began stopping all cars coming into Crisfield and demanding that occupants state their business.

Howard had collected 1,000 pounds of food to distribute, but was prohibited by town authorities from moving it in, according to the Afro American. Dahl asked Gov. Nice to provide an escort for the food, but Nice stalled for time.

The Afro wrote, “Crab packers, who have openly defied all constituted authority, together with local officers and leaders, have resorted to the tactics of starving the striking crab pickers out in order to force them back to work.”

N R Coulbourn: Packinghouse Did Not Reduce Rates: 1938

Virginia Lankford or Jackson at N. R. Coulbourn packinghouse in May 1938. Coubourn did not reduce rates and workers did not strike this plant. Original image courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Throughout the strike, the women had not engaged in picketing and had instead organized quietly out of the public view.

Five smaller packinghouses opened back up with the start of the crabbing season May 2, one paying the old rate of 35 cents and the other four paying the reduced rate, in addition to the N. R. Coulbourn house that had operated continuously since the strike began. This first chink in the strikers’ armor now put some pressure on the strikers, although the large packinghouses remained closed.

Perhaps coincidentally with the reopening of some of the packinghouses, twelve extra state troopers began appearing in Crisfield, assigned by Munshower to keep order in the town. In any event, no arrests were reported of those involved in illegal activities designed to intimidate the striking women.

Women Head to Washington

On May 3, the striking women made their next move. Three of the striking crab pickers, along with Howard, traveled to Washington. There, Senator Robert La Follette (Prog.-WI) promised careful consideration of their request for an investigation after hearing of the deplorable working conditions and the violence directed toward the strike organizers and leaders. The women, whose identities were closely guarded, also met with Maryland’s two senators, Labor Department officials and federal conciliators.

The packers again failed to appreciate the politics of their actions. The Afro reported that “Packers have let it be known that the women sent to Washington to complain to the government won’t be safe if they return to Crisfield.”

The same day, the union filed charges that eleven Crisfield packing companies were violating the National Labor Relations Act.

Packers Change Their Tune

Now understanding for the first time that the tide was beginning to turn against them, the packers altered their public position.

Back in Crisfield, Marine reported the packers did not attend scheduled meetings on April 30 or May 3 to attempt to settle the strike because—they now claimed—the plants were closed because of unprofitable operations and not because of any refusal to deal with the CIO.

Marine went on to report that J. C. W. Tawes told him, “When we are ready to operate we will deal with the representatives of the workers.”

The women were holding firm while pressure was mounting on the packers. The widespread press exposure of mob activity and resistance to the Depression-era labor laws brought political pressure from both the Governor and the federal government to settle the strike..

As the strike moved into the crab season, watermen were forced into longer, more expensive trips to sell their crabs elsewhere and the Crisfield packinghouses were losing money to packers in other towns.

Victory for the Strikers

CIO Union Wins at Crisfield: 1938

May 13, 1938 edition of the Labor Herald, an independent Baltimore based labor newspaper.

On May 9, most of the large packers broke ranks and gave in.  Meeting at the Cambridge home of Marine, representatives of eight packinghouses and Howard agreed to the terms of a contract.

The agreement was signed May 10 to restore the rate to 35 cents a gallon and recognize the CIO cannery union as the bargaining agent for the workers.  Howard, whose auto had been burned and who had been run out of town more than once, signed for the union.

Tawes, who once said in 1931 that he would close the plant rather than accede to strikers’ demands, was a signatory.  The N. R. Carson Company, which had led the drive to reduce the rates, was another signer.  In all, the agreement signed by eight packinghouses covered well over half of the crabmeat pickers in Crisfield. It was among the first large seafood worker contracts on the East Coast.


The national cannery union had only been formed in 1937 and achieved explosive growth, particularly among African Americans in the South and migrant workers in the West. By the Spring of 1938 it had 347 locals and 118,000 members. The cannery union also made progress in Crisfield and was able to organize oyster shuckers at a number of plants in Crisfield by 1942.

The cannery union quickly came under attack for communist influence. US Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), who chaired the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities, took testimony before his committee that named Dahl as a member of the Communist Party in 1938. In 1941, the Washington Post reported that the Dies committee named Michael Howard as a communist.

Leif Dahl, East Coast Cannery Union Leader: 1936

Leif Dahl, in charge of East Coast organizing for the CIO cannery union shown at a New Jersey meeting of agricultural workers in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The American Federation of Labor, in a bitter rivalry with the CIO at the time, sent in its own organizers to try to wrest some of the packinghouses from the CIO union and organize the unorganized. They gained a foothold at several packinghouses in Crisfield in the early 1940s, including the W. T. Handy Co., one of the larger packinghouses where the CIO had not obtained an agreement.

In 1944, the cannery union became the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America (FTA) and was by then a leader among unions for the rights of women. Sixty-six percent of the contracts nationwide contained “equal pay for equal work” provisions, 75% contained maternity leave without loss of seniority provisions, and 44% of its elected representatives in the food service division were women.

However, after World War II, the FTA came under vicious red-baiting attacks by AFL unions, employers and elected officials, and it began losing units as quickly as it had gained them in the late 1930s.

By 1948, the AFL Meat Cutters & Butcher Workman’s Seafood Workers Local 453 were voted as the exclusive bargaining agent for nearly all packinghouses in Crisfield including J. C W Tawes & Son and C W. Howeth, completely supplanting the CIO union.

In 1950, the FTA was expelled from the CIO with nine other unions for alleged communist influence. Already in decline, it fell apart quickly after the expulsion and its few remaining workers were folded into the Distributing and Processing Workers of America.

Seafood Workers Local 453 continued to represent the workers in Crisfield and made significant improvement in wages and working conditions from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s. However, the ongoing decline of the Chesapeake Bay crab and oyster harvests and the related closure of nearly all packinghouses meant a long, slow decline in membership.  The closure of a Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish plant put an end to the union in March 1990.

(This post was updated 12/10/2012 to include Addendum 2 as part of this post.)

(This post was updated 12/28/2012 to include the Labor Herald image  in Addendum 2)

Author’s Notes

This 1938 strike led by black women workers that ended in a tangible victory is remarkable for many reasons and it represents one of the few victories on Maryland’s Eastern Shore by African Americans fighting against determined resistance prior to the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

The material for this article is derived mainly from resources in the Maryland State Archives, the National Archives, The Crisfield Heritage Foundation, The Baltimore Sun, The Afro American, The Washington Post, Pedersen’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, Reutter’s Making Steel, & Feltault’s It’s How You Pick the Crab.

Accounts of this strike would be strengthened by original material from the strikers themselves—oral history, letters, diaries etc.  Hopefully future researchers will bring more of this remarkable story to light.

Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College.  He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.

Addendum I: Crisfield Heritage Foundation – “Returning Home: Photographs from 1938”

In Aug. 2009, a photography instructor in California who had historical images of the Crisfield area contacted the Tawes Museum.

They are well composed, high quality images taken during or immediately after the strike (a wall calendar in one of the photos is turned to May 1938). However, the photographer, purpose and how they ended up on the West Coast are unknown.

The style, subject matter and medium are similar to US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photographs from that period and cover most aspects of life in Crisfield.

Ten of the images are on permanent display at the Tawes Museum at 3 Ninth St. in Crisfield. Call ahead at (410) 968-2501 to arrange to see all of these stunning photos (there are 88 total images).

The images shown from the collection on this site are low-resolution, distorted versions of the photos and it is worth the trip to see the whole collection and the detail portrayed in the collection. The images shown on this site do not do the originals justice.

One of photos in the collection may show the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters marching in Crisfield, while others show farm life, scenes of the town, industry and the people who lived in that period, including a number of photographs related to the crab pickers strike.

The photographs in this series are property of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation. All rights are reserved.

Addendum 2: Michael Howard – Fighter for Workers

Crab Pickers Union Meeting in Crisfield: 1938

Union meeting at Shiloh ME Church in Crisfield MD, May 1938. Speaker is possibly Michael Howard. Original photo courtesy of Crisfield Heritage Foundation, all rights reserved.

Michael “Mike” Howard (formerly Smith—he took his wife’s last name when they married) joined the Young Communist League in 1932.

By 1936 he had joined the Communist Party (CP) and secured work at the Eastern Rolling Mill, a steel plant of about 1,000 workers just outside of Baltimore. Bethlehem Steel owned the plant and was fighting unionization tooth and nail at all its locations.

Howard put the first chink in the company armor when he successfully led a strike at the mill in 1936 that led to wage and benefit gains for the workers.  In 1937, he obtained union recognition for the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers Local 1245 and signed the first contract as president of the local union.

He served as secretary-treasurer of the Baltimore Industrial Council, the umbrella group for CIO unions.

As an organizer for the cannery workers’ union, he traveled constantly through hostile territory on Maryland’s Eastern Shore . He helped guide the largely African American women crab pickers to victory in their 1938 five week strike against the Crisfield, Maryland packinghouses, despite being run out of town on several occasions and having his car overturned and burned.

In 1936, as a member of the CP, he helped a team recruit new CP members from Cumberland, MD at the huge Celanese Mill. They ended up forming much of the core for the successful CIO organizing in Western Maryland.  Howard became the liaison between the CIO and the Communist Party in Maryland.

Eastern Rolling Mill Strike Won: 1936

Howard led the strike at Eastern Rolling Mill to victory in 1936. Labor Herald, Vol. 1, No. 5, June 26, 1936.

As a CP member in 1936 he also volunteered to go door-to-door in East Baltimore to gain support for unionization at Sparrow’s Point, the massive mill in Dundalk outside of Baltimore. He worked briefly as an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America before securing employment himself at the Point.

He worked hard to persuade his co-workers to vote for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in a 1941 National Labor Relations Board election. Following the union victory, he was elected zone committeeman in charge of all grievances for 2,400 workers in the open hearth department, the biggest in the mill.  Notably while there he fought for promotions for black steelworkers. Eventually he was chosen to chair the whole mill’s grievance committee.

When President Harry Truman seized the coal mines during a 1946 strike and the Taft-Hartley anti-labor, anti-communist act passed in 1947, Howard felt Truman was moving to reverse all the gains that labor had made. He threw himself into the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 and quit attending CP meetings when he felt they were not sufficiently backing Wallace’s candidacy.

The steelworkers union was backing Truman and promptly removed Howard as zone committeeman on trumped-up charges of malfeasance. In 1951 he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) where he refused to answer questions about individuals, despite the CP expelling him three years earlier.

The company didn’t fire him as he expected, but he was stung when his coworkers, whom he had fought so hard for, stopped speaking to him. Many eventually came back around but, in a 1982 interview with author Mark Reutter for the book Making Steel, he reflected:

Really, I thought I was fighting on a different level. I was fighting on a level which went to my Marxist beliefs, and I was working for them on a level which represented only their particular interactions with the company. And perhaps it shows what a poor job I did in radicalizing and politicizing the people in my department. Perhaps I should have done a better job of bringing the two together. I’m sure I could have done a better job than I did.

Isolated from his coworkers and his comrades and frozen out of his union, Howard quit the plant in 1953, went back to school, and later worked conducting experiments with precision instruments that he had first encountered in the steel mills. Michael Howard died on June 30, 1986.