Hello Girls

A strike by women workers that energized Canada’s labour movement.

I recently conducted an interview with a mother, a former temp worker struggling to get compensation for a workplace injury, and her son. The stress had caused considerable trauma—debt, depression and family breakdown. In particular, the mother’s relationship with her elder son had soured: he was “union” and did not understand their ordeal. The divide between the two worlds—union and non-union—is now deeper than ever. Today, just around 15 percent of private sector workplaces in Canada are unionized, while unstable, contract and temp work is the order of the day. Those on the outside—the precariously employed—look in and resent the privileged few. Those on the inside look out and, in an age of austerity, circle the wagons around the old guard.

That is why Joan M. Roberts’s Cracked: How Telephone Operators Took on Canada’s Largest Corporation … and Won is so refreshing. It is a first-person account of a compelling moment in history when the labour movement, fuelled by a rising tide of feminist consciousness, was still on the ascendant. A high-profile and sometimes improbable drive to unionize one of Canada’s largest predominantly female workplaces, the campaign garnered considerable public and political sympathy at a time when the country’s economy was on the brink of momentous change: women were entering the workforce in greater numbers, globalization had begun to make itself felt and the primacy of manufacturing was increasingly in doubt. In the midst of all this upheaval, the campaign’s successes had a lasting impact—reshaping tired platitudes about gender in the workplace, and setting new precedents for enhanced maternity benefits and pay equity across the country.

Bell, now Canada’s largest telecommunication company, was originally incorporated as the Bell Telephone Company of Canada in 1880. Even in its infancy, questions about gender and labour relations were at the forefront of its business decisions; it swiftly moved to feminize its growing fleet of telephone operators, in part because of labour disputes happening in the rival and largely male telegraph industry. Much of this related to prevailing gender stereotypes: men were seen as boisterous and unruly, whereas women were considered pleasant, mannerly and docile. (They also had the added advantage of being cheaper to hire.) By 1912, the “Hello Girls,” as they became known, comprised two thirds of Bell’s total workforce. Although traditional accounts of the women’s movement often focus on the post–World War Two era and the entry of middle class women into the workplace, Roberts challenges that narrative by pointing to working class women’s long history of workforce participation—as well as their resistance to unfair working conditions.

Before the 1970s, the Hello Girls were not completely without representation. Bell maintained a so-called company union—an organization acquiescent to management and hostile to pushback on changing working conditions, including the steady erosion of the workforce due to technological innovation. Cracked includes a multitude of examples of this often overt antipathy—including one flyer from 1960, which reads:

Question: What is the government’s duty toward radical leaders?

Answer: The authority of the state should intervene to restrain these disturbers, to save workers from their seditious acts, and to protect lawful owners from spoilation.

By the mid 1970s workers interested in true representation had started making connections with the Communication Workers of Canada and laying the groundwork for a union drive through covert organizing. Roberts became directly involved in the campaign; she grew up in a working class Toronto family and started working at Bell in her high school years, witnessing early on petty injustices that the company union did little to resolve. Her account’s climax comes when the CWC fails to reach an agreement on a first contract with Bell and subsequently launches into strike mode. Spanning more than two months, the “Crack Bell Campaign” was extraordinary not least because it was powered largely by low-income women who were the principal breadwinners in their families and who therefore took an enormous risk to maintain a picket line. The women’s militancy (which resulted in multiple assault charges against strikers including the author) in the face of the company’s hiring of strike breakers mobilized the entire labour movement. The strike garnered national and international support, and caught the public imagination. “Suddenly it was cool to be a telephone operator. Strangers told them they admired their guts and courage,” Roberts recalls.

More importantly, the strike had a transformative effect on the women themselves, with its protagonists ultimately finding a deep sense of personal fulfillment and liberation through collective action. For some, the experience disrupted the traditional balance of power not just within the workplace, but at home as well. As one organizer remembers: “My marriage broke up a couple of years [after the strike]. When you go through something like that, there is no going back. I was given an ultimatum; I had to choose between the union and my marriage. I made my choice and you have to choose.”

For many of the one-time Hello Girls, the strike was also a launching pad for entirely new lives and careers. One organizer, for example, went on to found the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. The author founded an anti-corruption campaign that resulted in putting “a couple of municipal politicians and a developer in jail,” and she was subsequently elected to council for the City of York. One operator neatly articulated the human impact of the strike: “Backbone. That’s what the strike is giving us … We may have been a submissive bunch of women in the past, but after this strike, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”

The campaign ultimately resulted in significant tangible gains for the workers involved, including a 15 percent wage increase and eventually the first private sector agreement to top up employment insurance maternity benefits. But in busting assumptions about female workers, the strike also represented a broader change in attitude toward gender that affected the entire labour movement. Roberts cites an observation by labour historian Jan Kainer: “Women’s labour organizing contributed significantly to the building and sustaining of rank-and-file participation, developing new democratic structures such as women’s caucuses, organizing the unorganized, and forging political alliances with non-labour groups.”

Those words feel especially poignant now, given that much of the criticism launched at today’s labour movement centres on its perceived failure to reach out to the rising class of non-unionized organized precarious workers—often young people, new Canadians and people of colour. While there are undoubtedly major factions within the labour movement that have grasped the importance of that new challenge, there are also factions that would rather bargain additional perks for its long-time, core membership rather than expand the tent. With the labour movement at this fraught crossroads, Roberts’s book is a timely reminder of the risks and rewards of a truly grassroots, democratic and inclusive House of Labour.