The CONDUCTORS' STRIKES OF 1918-1919 was a series of both threatened and actual labor strikes that pitted organized women – the female streetcar conductors’ union, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), and leading suffragists – against the powerful CLEVELAND RAILWAY COMPANY and Local 268 of the Amalgamated Association of Street, Electric Railway & Motor Coach Employees of America (the Amalgamated).
After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the Federal Government asked the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to allow women workers to join its affiliated unions to spur the war effort. Although the AFL agreed in theory, its president, Samuel Gompers, publicly argued that women’s primary role as mothers, not war-time necessity, should determine women’s work. The 1908 Supreme Court decision, Muller v. Oregon, holding that women’s maternal responsibilities justified special protections in the workplace, made this a politically viable argument. In practice, the AFL also allowed affiliated unions like the Amalgamated to bar women, and they did, fearing - not without reason – that women would lower wages and weaken unions.
In April 1918, John J. Stanley, president of the Cleveland Railway Company, requested that the Amalgamated’s Local 268 recognize the company’s right to hire women streetcar conductors (“conductorets”) on the same basis as men because of a shortage of qualified men. The request was temporarily set aside while the union negotiated a wage dispute, which was settled in its favor.
In August, the company began to advertise for women conductors. The ad read: “Wages will be same as paid men employees. Working Conditions Ideal. Light Work.” Eventually, the company hired 190 women. Women already worked for the company, selling tickets and cleaning the streetcars. But those were low-paying, non-union jobs. In contrast, conductors were unionized, and their pay was high.
Local 268, taking its cue from the national organizations, publicly opposed hiring the women, claiming that they would become pawns of the company, and barred them from union membership. Some conductors refused to train them. The union also threatened a strike over the issue. The threat averted only at the last minute when the question of hiring women was referred to the National War Labor Board. Its two investigators backed the union, claiming there was in fact no shortage of men and on September 21, recommended that the conductorets be dismissed by November 1, 1918.
In response, the conductorets held a spirited open meeting on September 24 at the Windermere streetcar barn, when they decided to form their own union, the Association of Women Street Railway Employees, electing Laura Prince as president. Prince, a former member of a waitresses’ union, had left that job to work as a conductor to support her two children while her husband was serving in the armed forces.
The women’s union got support from suffragists, led by FLORENCE ALLEN, ELIZABETH HAUSER, and Rose Moriarty, who eagerly joined the fray. Harriet Taylor Upton, president of the OHIO WOMAN SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION, wired President Woodrow Wilson that the board’s recommendation was unfair to working women, asking him to intervene. Principles aside, suffragists saw political advantages in backing the conductorets, as they needed support from working women, many of whom did not see the advantages of having the vote.
The WTUL, who advocated for union membership for women, helped to prepare the conductorets’ public defense, arguing that they had been wrongly dismissed by the company simply because they were women. They claimed that the conductorets had responded as patriots to the war-time emergency in good faith, had competently performed their jobs, had been refused union membership that would have protected their jobs.
As the National War Labor Board dragged its feet on a final decision, the men of Local 268 ordered a partial strike on December 1 and a complete shutdown of streetcar service on December 3, 1918, effectively paralyzing a city almost entirely dependent on public transportation. Mayor HARRY L. DAVIS himself then appeared before the board, pleading the union’s case. The board then ordered the men back to work and recommended that the conductorets be removed from their jobs by December 8 because the Armistice on November 11, 1918 had ended the wartime necessity of their employment.
This was a temporary setback for the condusctorets but the fight was not over. Already in October 1918, Allen, the women’s union lawyer, had won permission to lodge a formal complaint before the Board on the women’s behalf. In March 1919, prominent labor attorney and former Board member Frank Walsh argued that case, using the defense put together by the women’s union, the suffragists, and the WTUL. According to him, the investigators had refused to even meet with the women on their visit to Cleveland, the union had refused to admit them, contrary to the federal government’s directive, and the Board’s decision threatened whatever workplace gains women had made during the war. Witnesses included Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, the former president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who argued that women should be allowed to do any kind of work they had showed themselves capable of doing.
The board then reversed its earlier decision and ordered the 64 remaining conductorets reinstated. The women rejoiced: they had won their case in court.
Local 268 and the company, however, defied the National War Labor Board. The men’s union claimed the Board’s jurisdiction had ended with the Armistice, and threatened another crippling strike. Stanley and the company went along with the union. Although the conductorets had won a legal victory, they lost their jobs.
The unlikely alliance between the company and the men’s union was short-lived. Local 268 struck again on July 6, 1919, demanding a wage increase and sparking some sporadic violence directed at the strikebreakers running the streetcars. These included a handful of laid-off conductorets. The strike lasted only a day. The conductors got a raise, and the company got a raised dividend and the promise of a rate increase. The conductorets got laid off again.
In April 1920, as if to confirm the union’s initial suspicions, Stanley raised the possibility not only of hiring women conductors again but of an open shop for streetcar conductors. The union described those two issues as non-negotiable but called off still another strike when the men got another raise. The conductorets disappeared from public view.
Women streetcar conductors achieved partial victories in other cities, but in Cleveland, their fate illustrated that women workers might be necessary in wartime, but they were expendable when they threatened men’s jobs.
Updated by Marian J. Morton
Scharf, Lois. “A Women’s View of Cleveland’s Labor Force: Two Case Studies,” in The Birth of Modern Cleveland, 1865-1930, ed. by Thomas F. Campbell and Edward M. Miggins (1988)
Foner, Philip S. Women and the American Labor Movement (1979)