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Rose Finkelstein leads successful strike

April 20, 1919

On April 20, 1919, the young women who worked as telephone operators at New England Telephone and Telegraph walked off the job. One of the strike leaders was Rose Finkelstein, a young Jewish worker, who had emigrated with her family as a young child from Kiev, Russia.

They settled first in largely Irish-American East Cambridge. After enduring violent anti-Semitic attacks there, when she was a young teenager, she and her family moved to a Jewish neighborhood in Boston. She left high school in her senior year and took a job as an operator with the telephone company.  

Working conditions were highly regimented; operators were closely monitored at all times. They had to meet physical standards such height, weight, and arm length so they could work efficiently in close quarters. They were expected to greet every customer with a cheerful “Number, please.” 

Male union leaders had little sympathy for and offered meager support to the women workers. With the help of the Women’s Trade Union League, the operators initiated and led the strike themselves, and they won.

The strike spread throughout New England and involved 8,000 women. The cost to the company was so high that in less than a week, the strikers prevailed: they gained a raise in pay, change of the split shift (whereby they were required to take a three-hour unpaid break in the middle of the day), and collective bargaining rights.

In 1921 she married Hyman Norwood, a former streetcar conductor turned small businessman who, like Finkelstein, had emigrated from Russia to Boston as a child. As a married woman, she was forced to quit her job at the phone company even before the first of their two children were born.

Over the next decades, Rose Finkelstein Norwood was involved with numerous other issues facing women workers. She organized for the right of married women to work and keep their paychecks, and fought for the right for women to serve on juries.  She campaigned to unionize domestic workers, actively participated in the Sacco and Vanzetti defense, and was a member of the NAACP. She worked on the Books for Workers project, which brought library books into union halls and onto factory floors.

In her long life, she worked for numerous unions, including AFSCME (where she unionized librarians at the Boston Public Library), SEIU, ILGWU, and the Retail Clerks International Union, walked on countless picket lines and participated in numerous strikes. She became president of the Boston Women’s Trade Union League and served in that role until the League disbanded in 1950.

Her favorite organizing experience was her successful attempt to unionize the clerks at Jordan Marsh department store in 1949. “I’d go upstairs to the dining room where there ‘s 5000-7000 workers and start handing out literature,” she told a reporter in 1976. “The private detectives spot me, they escort me out, one on each side, and I just go in the other door.  At one point store detectives were paying so much attention to me that somebody made off with a couple of TV’s. When I saw a detective coming, I’d hide in the coats.  Or I’d go into the Ladies Room.  They’d be waiting outside for me though. When they saw the girls getting a raise in pay they came over to me and said, ‘hey, how about organizing us?’”

By the time she died in 1980, she was better known as an advocate for Boston’s senior citizens than for her skill as a labor organizer. She served on Boston Mayor Kevin White’ s advisory council to the Commission on the Affairs of the Elderly.

Sources

Stephen H Norwood, American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2000; Jane White, “Women Workers’ Struggle Didn’t Start With ‘9 to 5.’”  The Ledger, June 11, 1976, page. 4.

Telephone switchboard operators at work
Full image
Women telephone operators at switchboard, circa 1915. (Wikimedia Commons.)

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rose Finkelstein leads successful strike." (Viewed on July 26, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/20/1919>.

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