In 1947, as part of the National Federation of Telephone Workers (NFTW), the Southwestern Telephone Workers (STW) “struck AT&T for wage equity.” This was the first national strike on the telephone industry, the largest labor movement of the year, and it was powered by the highest turnout of women in U.S. history.
Before the strike, telephone workers in Texas struggled to earn living wages. Fifteen dollars per week was the maximum allotted income for those who had been employed for a decade or longer, but some employees received as little as nine dollars per week. Only when the Fair Labor Standards Act set forth a new minimum wage requirement of twenty-five cents an hour in 1938 did eighty-six Texas towns raise their pay scale. Even with the wage requirements, metropolitan companies like Southwestern Bell found ways to skirt the issue by changing the work week schedule and expanding the maximum allowable wages to twenty dollars per week. However, in 1947, 345,000 strikers, most of whom were women, demanded a minimum of twelve dollars per week for their labor.
Nelle Wooding led the Southwestern Telephone Workers union in Dallas. She was chair of traffic (operators) and president of the Dallas local of the STW. Even though she expressed pride that no more than fifteen workers of the 1,000 employed in Dallas crossed the picket line, the strikers still struggled with their demands. The NFTW was a decentralized union with a non-existing strike fund and little means to maintain extended action against its autonomous regional affiliates. After six weeks of striking, the cause came to an end. The American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) refused to bargain on a national level and instead, “divided and conquered.” Each regional affiliate settled individually, and “none got an increase of more than five dollars a week.”
After the strike, the NFTW reorganized into a more centralized union called the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in June 1947. At the first CWA convention in Miami, Florida, the delegates put forth a constitution that transitioned the regional autonomous affiliates of the NFTW into a three-level union. The levels included the National Union, thirty-nine divisions, and the locals. In the 1950s Texas CWA operators struck against Southwestern Bell and demanded air-conditioning installation to combat the intense heat in the work place. As a compromise, Southwestern Bell “positioned fans over tubs of ice,” which was a small victory. Nelle Wooding said “anybody working in an air-conditioned telephone building today can thank the operators….” She spent the rest of her working years as a field representative for the CWA.