Ethel Tulloch Banks believed in miracles. For years she fought for miraculous changes at her workplace — and may have lived one herself.
Tulloch was a clerk at the San Diego Post Office. In January 1919, she was appointed fifth vice president of the National Federation of Post Office Clerks, the first woman so honored. Upon hearing the news, she telegraphed: “Stunned but game. Will accept and do my best.”
They wanted her to attend the national convention in Washington D.C. that September. She’d go, she said, but not for personal glory. She preferred to be a secondary figure: be the frame, not the painting. Nor did she fear being the only woman among 150 men. The convention was far too important to fret about trifles.
When union secretary/treasurer Thomas Flaherty requested a photo and list of her accomplishments for the Union Postal Clerk, the national newsletter, Tulloch declined. Flaherty wrote back: “I realize you are naturally modest and will resent any feature story, but it is absolutely essential you make your official bow to your constituency in this manner.”
Tulloch sent the photo and a brief list: clerk at San Diego Post Office since 1908; secretary of Local 197 since 1917; edited (and wrote most of) the “Woman’s Page” of the Union Postal Clerk since 1917; helped organize unions in California, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
She could have added that she was the San Diego post office’s “Information Department.” She replied to every complaint that came in. There were so many, an admirer said she “probably met more people…than any other person in the city. She was known for her courtesy in the treatment of the public.”
Attending the convention was a must. But there was a problem. Tulloch would begin her cross-country trek on the eve of a railroad strike, and Ethel Esselstyn Tulloch would never set foot on a scab-run train.
She left San Diego on the last “closed” — union — train to Los Angeles. The strike began when she arrived. Instead of heading on to San Francisco, the proud unionist had to lay over for several days.
She phoned her younger sister Helen in San Diego. Nicknamed “Jitney Jenny,” Helen ran an independent taxi-like service. She began in 1914 and was the first female commercial driver in the area, much to the ire of the San Diego Transit Company.
Helen and her mother, Jessie, sped to Los Angeles in a second-hand Pierce Arrow. Although World War I had been over for a year, ruts, chuckholes, and arm-sized fissures still pocked the roads of California. Just about everywhere one looked, it seemed, someone was changing a flat tire. The three Tullochs decided the best way north was through the San Joaquin Valley. According to the San Diego Labor Leader, Helen “made the run to ’Frisco in 13 hours, which is a record, going the inside route.” They reached San Francisco just in time for Ethel to board the last union train east.
At the convention, the issues included a new wage standard ($1800 a year entrance wage per year for clerks) and time-and-a-half for overtime. Tulloch fought hard for the changes, in particular to eliminate the section in the constitution opposing strikes in the postal service.
Toward the end of the session, she declined her appointment as fifth vice president. It was an honor, of course. But she worked 90-hour weeks at San Diego: postal duties, union organizing, and volunteering for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
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When the third vice president slot opened up, a delegate raised his hand from the back row. “He rose,” wrote the Labor Leader, “and in a flowery speech placed her name before the convention.” A chorus of seconds bubbled around the hall. Before she could protest, the convention nominated her by acclamation.
Along with being the first woman to hold office, Tulloch became the only vice president of the organization west of the Mississippi. The Labor Leader (Sept. 1919) hailed her as a “live wire” and “one of the strongest workers for the cause in the country.”
Born August 11, 1885 — “within sight of the Washington Monument,” she liked to say — Tulloch came to San Diego in 1907. Her family lived at 2243 Front Street. Her father, Seymour Wilcox Tulloch, worked in the city treasurer’s office. The deeply religious family worshipped at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, then located at Eighth and C.
Twenty-two years old and single, Tulloch couldn’t find work. The Panic of 1907 made jobs scarce. She bought a touch-system text for 25 cents at a used bookstore and taught herself how to type. She took a 24-lesson home-study course in stenography. In 1908, she took the civil service exam and made top of the list. When the postmaster heard of her skills, he hired her as a clerk and correspondence secretary.
In 1908, the San Diego Post Office had no eight-hour day, pension plan, overtime, or sick leave. If someone was injured on the job, pay stopped until a full recovery.
Tulloch worked seven days a week: 12 to 14 hours from Monday through Saturday, and “only four” on Sunday. For 35 cents an hour. “There was no eight-hour law, so the supervisor didn’t have to think about planning the work; you just worked until it was done.”
When she started, horse-drawn wagons hauled the mail to the Maryland Hotel and dumped it on a moldy wooden floor. The “awful old building,” at Seventh and E, was “so rotten,” one time the letters and parcel posts were too heavy: the floor made an agonized, pinching sound like the limb breaking off an old tree. Then it cracked, opened up, and the mail fell through.
“These were the jungle days of the post office,” Tulloch recalled.
Bernard Hoffman, a postal worker since boyhood, was head of the register division. When his right hand became infected, “he worked some 18 hours — wrapped up and in terrible pain.”
Another man had tuberculosis. Since the mail must go out — “We didn’t want anybody to be disappointed,” said Tulloch — he worked long hours without complaint. He died “after the first of the year. Of course, no pension or anything.”