Rose Finkelstein marries in true union style

December 25, 1921
Women telephone operators at switchboard in Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 1914.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Rose Finkelstein married Hyman Norwood, the love of her life, in a wedding gown made in the dress shop of the Boston Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). Finkelstein had a little pull at the WTUL; she would later be elected president of the organization. 

But being a married woman, Rose Finkelstein Norwood was forced to quit her job at New England Telephone and Telegraph, where she worked as a telephone operator. 

Two years earlier, Finkelstein was one of the leaders of the April 20, 1919 strike against the company for better working conditions. Male union leaders had little sympathy for and offered meager support to the women workers. But with the help of the Women’s Trade Union League, the operators initiated and led the strike themselves.

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 her long life, Finkelstein Norwood worked for numerous unions, including the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (where she unionized librarians at the Boston Public Library), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and the Retail Clerks International Union. Because of her success in interracial labor organizing, she served in the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  As Susan Ware of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study wrote, “Police dogs and clubs, tear gas, and inclement weather never deterred her.”

Her favorite organizing experience was unionizing the clerks at Jordan Marsh department store in 1949. “I’d go upstairs to the dining room where there’s 5,000-7,000 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 TVs. 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?’”

Rose and Hyman were married for 36 years until his death in 1957.  Rose was serving on the advisory council of the mayor’s Commission on the Affairs of the Elderly when she died on September 25, 1980.

Sources: This Day in Jewish History, Mitchell Levin; Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century, Susan Ware, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Rose Finkelstein marries in true union style." (Viewed on May 30, 2024) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/25/1921/this-week-in-history-rose-finkelstein-marries-in-true-union-style>.