Telephone Switchboard Operators Local 42-A

Seattle’s telephone operators, nicknamed “Hello Girls,” began organizing in 1900, walking off the job after three women were fired from the Sunset Telephone Company for attempting to unionize. This was the first women-led strike in the state of Washington. They finally won union recognition in July 1917, affiliating with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose members were supportive of women joining. Former President of Waitresses Union Local 240, Rhoda Kerr, served as their first president.

Telephone operators spent many hours sitting, working under pressure to route incoming calls as quickly as possible. This led to back and eye strain and exhaustion from the emotional labor of dealing with difficult callers. The majority of telephone operators were young, unmarried, and white. Job turnover was high as many women worked these jobs temporarily until marriage which discouraged some workers from joining the union. Although cautious because of a recently failed strike, Local 42-A voted yes to joining the General Strike in 1919.

Click images below to view at full resolution and for more information.

Two women working as telephone operators, King Street Station, Seattle, Washington, March 1907.

Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company 1917 Strike

Shortly after affiliating with the IBEW, Telephone Operators Local 42-A went on strike alongside electricians and telephone operators of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company in Washington and Oregon in October 1917. Seattle telephone operators continued to strike after men were given a raise but not the women. The strike officially ended in December 1917 when Labor Secretary Wilson came to Seattle to help negotiate.

Reproduction of “President of the Telephone Operators’ Union and Federal Mediator Who is Seeking to End Strike” news clipping from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with image of Rhoda Kerr, 1917. 
Rheinhold Loewe papers. Accession no. 5421-001, Box 1. Labor Archives of Washington, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

Reproduction of “Striking Seattle Telephone Operators Gather Near Company’s Downtown Plant” news clipping from the Seattle Times, 1917.