Julia Sarsfield O'Connor
Born: 09 September 1890
Telephone operator and union organizer Julia Sarsfield O’Connor was born on 9 September 1890 in Woburn, Massachusetts. She worked as for a short time in 1912, but after working in the hectic telephone office for a short time, she became dissatisfied with working conditions, where the work was conducted at what she described as an “intensely nervous pace” during the normal nine and a half hour workday.
O’Connor left her position, and from 1912 until her retirement in 1957 she worked as a trade union organizer intent on improving the life of telephone operators. One of her first confrontations was with the Bell Telephone Company of Boston. After demands for better working conditions by individuals proved fruitless, she and other dissatisfied employees began organizing a union. Along with a group of senior operators and long-distance “toll” operators, she consulted with the Boston Women’s Trade Union League. This group in turn helped her make connections with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, an existing all-male union. She was able to organize an IBEW telephone operator department for the largely female operator constituency, and within five months had recruited over 200 workers to join this new organization.
After drawing up a list of demands and presenting them to the Bell Company, O’Connor threatened the company with a strike in June 1912 if they did not comply. The company initially agreed to the demands, but by 1913 still had not complied, so O’Connor threatened them with another strike. The company brought in 1200 strikebreakers—new employees who agreed to work outside the union. But ultimately the company backed down and reached an agreement with O’Connor’s union. The success of the strike led to the unionization of nearby towns including Lynn, Springfield, Worcester, New Bedford, Framingham, Fitchburg, Salem, Lowell, Lawrence, and Haverhill. An even larger strike in April 1918 involved over 6000 women telephone operators in five New England states. By this time, the telephone system was so important as a communication medium that the strike paralyzed business in the region. However, another strike in 1923 was not successful, and the union disbanded.
O’Connor acted as the union’s director from 1912 to 1938. She was also president of the Boston Women’s Trade Union League from 1915-1918, and worked with the large National Women’s Trade Union League at same time, gaining recognition for women electrical workers. Starting in 1939 and lasting until her retirement in 1957, she worked as a union organizer for the American Federation of Labor, one of the large national unions. She died in 1972.