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The Women of the Telephone Company

It is obvious that the gifts are all programmed, down to the last cherryfilled chocolate, in some manual of Personnel Administration that is the source of all wisdom and policy; it is clear from their frequency that a whole agency of the company is devoted to devising these gimmicks and passing them out. In fact, apart from a standard assortment of insurance and pension plans, the only company policy I could discover which offers genuine advantage to the employees and which is not an attempt at manipulation is a tuition support program in which the company pays $1000 out of $1400 of the costs of continuing education.

Going still further, the company, for example, sponsors a recruiting game among employees, a campaign entitled “People Make the Difference.” Employees who recruit other employees are rewarded with points: 200 for a recommendation, an additional thousand if the candidate is hired. Employees are stimulated to participate by the circulation of an S&H-type catalogue, a kind of encyclopedia of the post-scarcity society. There you can see pictured a GE Portable Color Television with a walnut-grained polystyrene cabinet (46,000 points), a Silver-Plated Hors d’Oeuvres Dish By Wallace (3,900 points), and a staggering assortment of mass-produced candelabra, linens, china, fountain pens, watches, clothing, luggage, and—for the hardy—pup tents, power tools, air mattresses.

Similarly, though perhaps less crudely, the company has institutionalized its practice of rewarding employees for longevity. After every two years with the company, the women receive a small gold charm, the men a “tie-tac.” These grow larger with the years and after a certain period jewels begin to be added: rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and eventually diamonds and bigger diamonds. The tie-tac evolves over the years into a tie-clasp. After twenty-five years you may have either a ceremonial luncheon or an inscribed watch: the watches are pre-fixed, preselected, and pictured in a catalogue.

The company has “scientifically structured” its rewards just as it has “scientifically structured” its work. But the real point is that the system gets the women as consumers in two ways. If consumption were less central to them, they would be less likely to be there in the first place. Then, the company attempts to ensnare them still further in the mesh by offering as incentives goods and images of goods which are only further way stations of the same endless quest.


Another characteristic of the telephone company is a kind of programmed “niceness” which starts from the top down but which the women internalize and mimic. For management the strategy is clear (the Hawthorne experiments, after all, were carried out at Western Electric): it is, simply, make the employees feel important. For trainees this was accomplished by a generous induction ceremony complete with flowers, films, a fancy buffet, and addresses by top division representatives, all of which stressed the theme: the company cares about you.

The ceremonies had another purpose and effect: to instill in the minds of new employees the image the company would like the public to have of it, that it is a goodhearted service organization with modest and regulated profits. A deliberate effort was made to fend off any free-floating negative ideas by explaining carefully, for instance, why AT&T’s monopolistic relationship with Western Electric was a good thing. The ideology of Service, embraced without much cynicism by the low-level managers who are so abundant, is in that way—and others—passed along.

The paternalism, the “niceness,” filters down and is real. Employees are on a first-name basis, even the women with the managers. The women are very close to one another, sharing endless gossip, going on excursions together, and continually engaging in ceremonial celebration of one another’s births, engagements, promotions. The generosity even extends to difficult situations on the job. I have, for example, seen women voluntarily sharing their precious closed time when one of them was overcommitted and the other slightly more free. Their attitude toward new employees was uniformly friendly and helpful. When I first went out on the floor my presence was a constant harassment to the other women in my unit: I didn’t know what to do, had to ask a lot of questions, filed incorrectly. As a newcomer, I made their already tense lives far more difficult. Nonetheless I was made to feel welcome, encouraged. “Don’t feel bad,” one or another would say at a particularly stupid error. “We were all new once. We’ve all been through it. Don’t worry. You’ll catch on.” In the same way I found them invariably trying to be helpful in modest personal crises: solicitous about my health when I faked a few days of illness, comforting in my depression when a pair of gloves was stolen, always friendly, cheering me (and each other) on.

This “niceness” is carefully preserved by the women as a protection against the stress of the work and the hostility of customers. “We have to be nice to each other,” Sally told me once. “If we yelled at each other the way the customers yell at us, we’d go crazy.” At the same time it is a triumph of their spirit as well. There is some level on which they are too proud to let the dehumanization overtake them; too decent to let the rat race get them down.

On the job, at least, the women’s sense of identification with the company is absolute. On several occasions I tried to bring up issues on which their interests—and the public’s—diverged from that of the company, and always I failed to make my point. It happened, for example, on the issue of selling, where I told my class frankly that I couldn’t oversell, thought it was wrong, and that people needed far fewer telephones than we were giving them. Instead of noticing that I was advocating a position of principle, my class thought that, because I was so poor myself (as measured by having only one black telephone) I just somehow couldn’t grasp the concept of the “well-telephoned home,” but that I would catch on when I became convinced that the goods and services in question were truly valuable and desirable.

It happened again during a discussion of credit ratings when, because welfare women are always put in the lowest category, I said I thought credit rested on racist assumptions. The class explained to me that “if you worked in Billing and knew how hard it is to collect from those people” I wouldn’t feel that way. And it happened another time during a particularly macabre discussion over coffee when the women were trading horror stories about tragic cases where telephone service had to be cut off because people weren’t paying their bills: they were grotesque tales about armless veterans and blind old ladies of eighty-five.

I kept saying that terminating those services was intolerable, that some way should be found for people to have services free. Instead of thinking that was an odd position, the women reported that “every new representative feels that way,” that they used to feel that way themselves, but they’d gotten over it. In other words they began their jobs with all the feelings any decent (never mind radical) person would have, and gradually learned to overcome them, because of the creeping identification with the company produced by their having to act out daily a company-defined role. Their basic belief in the legitimacy of the “make a buck” system established in their minds a link between company revenue and their own paychecks. “That’s where your money comes from” was a common conclusion to these discussions.

The women have a strangely dissociated attitude toward company operations that aren’t working well. What company policy is—that is the way they learn things are supposed to be—gets pressed into their heads so much that they get a little confused by their simultaneous understanding that it isn’t really working that way at all. I pointed that out a lot to see what would happen. For instance our lesson books say: “Customers always get Manhattan directories delivered with their regular installations.” I said, in class: “Gee, that’s funny, Sally, I had a telephone installed recently and I didn’t get any phone books at all.” Sally would make sure not to lose control and merely repeat: “Phone books are delivered with the regular installations.”

It was the same with installation dates, which, in the company’s time of troubles, are lagging behind. Company policy is that installations are made two days from the date they are requested. In reality we were making appointments for two, three, or even four weeks in advance. There are explanations for these lapses—everyone knows that things go wrong all the time—but there are no reasonable explanations which do not undermine the basic assumption that the company has everything “scientifically” under control. Thus the “policy” is that they are not happening at all.

The effect of the pressure of work and the ethos of niceness is to defuse political controversy. There is a kind of compact about tolerance, a governing attitude which says, “Let’s not talk about religion or politics.” During the time I was there I heard virtually no discussion of Vietnam, the city elections, or race. There was a single exception—an argument between Betty and myself over Songmy—after which I had the feeling that something had been breached, that she would take particular care not to let it happen again.

This is not characteristic of the men’s departments of the company where political discussion is commonplace, and I believe the women think that such heavy topics are properly the domain of men: they are not about to let foolish “politics” interfere with the commonsensical and harmonious adjustments they have made to their working lives. Race relations were governed by the same kind of neutrality and “common sense.” The black women of the Commercial Department were of the same type as the whites: lower middle class and upwardly mobile. Among the Representatives, not an Afro was in sight. There were good and close relationships between the blacks and the whites—close enough for jokes about hair and the word “nigger”—and, as far as I could tell, the undercurrents of strain that existed were no greater (though certainly no less intense) than are characteristic of such relations in the more educated and “liberal” middle classes.


Normally the question of unions is far from the interests of the women in the Commercial Department. The women do not see themselves as “workers” in anything like the classical sense. The absence of this consciousness—deliberately stunted by management personnel strategies—is a natural and realistic response to the conditions of their work. Customer’s Service Representative is the position from which lower (female) management is recruited, and promotions are frequent. Supervisors are always former Representatives and their relations with the women they supervise are close and friendly. The absence of rigid job definitions is an economic boon to the company as well as a psychic advantage to the employees. When a Supervisor is ill, for example, a “rep” will take over and handle her functions, and reps as well as Supervisors are occasionally asked to teach classes, coach new employees, or take “acting” titles: a natural managerial flow which is unthinkable under most union rules.

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