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The Women of the Telephone Company

This is not to say that the women think their working conditions are good: they object to the salaries; they hate the pressure; they dislike Observation; and they resent the internalized time clocks which control their lunches and breaks. But the women’s trust remains with the company and their hopes for escape are mainly fixed on the individual’s upward mobility into managerial ranks. “Worker solidarity”—the consciousness that all workers advance through collective action—is weak.

The Union of Telephone Workers, which “represents” the Commercial Department, reflects this condition. It is an “independent” union lineally descended from the company-sponsored employee organizations that existed in the Bell System before the Wagner Act. It belongs to an Alliance of Independent Telephone Unions composed of similar unions in Bell companies along the Eastern Seaboard. The UTW explicitly rejects the philosophy of “international” or “big” unionism in favor of a company-oriented approach “close to the problems” of workers and management. Its successes are precisely those modest concessions and policy changes which any remotely modern management would have had to make in recent years to maintain its work force.

The UTW’s role is to stamp those concessions into the language and mold of “negotiated” agreements. It swings into action readily enough when it is attacked—a large part of the machinery of the Alliance exists for precisely this purpose—but it is generally a sleepy beast content to nuzzle in the bosom of Ma Bell. Numbers are irrelevant to its strength—only about 40 percent of the women belong—and it does not seem interested in recruiting. As a new employee, I had to seek it out. Similar company unions represent the telephone operators in the Traffic Department (the serfs of the system) and the Accounting Department. The only AFL-CIO Union in New York Telephone is the Communications Workers of America, which represents the Plant bargaining unit—installers, repairmen, switchmen, and so forth. CWA has a reputation for company-mindedness elsewhere in the labor movement, but despite recent challenges it has long been the only “real” union with which New York Tel’s management has had to deal.

This divided labor force (in addition to the four unions there are seven contracts, no two of which expire simultaneously) is crucial to management for three reasons. First of all, the work rules and sensitivities of the CWA would drive any rational management crazy. In the Plant department, a clerk will not answer a Foreman’s telephone unless she is reclassified as a secretary; the men will not work “alongside” management even when—as now—a manpower shortage has created acute emergencies. And the men in the union not only obstruct a “rational” flow of work: they have interfered with management’s efforts to expand its work force by hiring new employees at more generous starting salaries than those of the old employees. That—in addition to an undercurrent of racism—was a key issue in the telephone strike last fall. If that mentality were transferred to other departments, the company would be in far greater difficulty than it is now.

Second, it is precisely the absence of solidarity between departments that gives management the leverage to break or control the frequent strikes the men provoke. When CWA strikes occur, they are usually ignored by the other unions, and lower-level management from the other departments is sent around to Plant to help with repairs, handle complaints, and so forth. If their departments were also on strike, these junior executives would have to attend to their own jobs: they could not be used as scabs against the CWA.

Third, though more remote, is a larger threat: the possibility of a single militant union of telephone workers, perhaps nationwide, actually stopping, or more fancifully, seizing, the network of telephone communications. For all these reasons, it is clear, management prefers the present arrangement to a more unified one.

In any event, the union question, normally static, uncharacteristically sprang to life during my stay at the telephone company because at the end of November the CWA opened a raid on the UTW. Its ultimate intention was to begin to assemble all company employees into a unified body. In this plan was a measure of wishful thinking, if not deception. CWA is not so popular within the company and though it recently won an election in the city Plant department (over a teamster-inspired challenge) it has also lost several others (against company unions) in upstate New York and in New England. Nevertheless, consolidation was its chief arguing point: in unity there will be strength.

CWA’s problem was that members of the Commercial bargaining unit were spread out in small clusters in dozens of locations throughout New York. Their efforts, however, seemed particularly lackluster and should make New Left organizers take heart: the old dogs have no new tricks to teach.

They began their campaign in my area by calling an after-work meeting of Commercial Department women in a small working-class bar close by several of the Commercial offices downtown, attempting to lure people there by desultory leafleting the same morning. From my office—that is from among the one hundred Representatives who worked with me—no one came but me, though there was a handful of women from other Commercial units in the same building.

From another office, however, whose function was identical to mine, about forty women came, and in exploring why I discovered subtle differences between offices in the relations between managers and women. It seems that a manager at the other office had just held a meeting with his women in which he complained that they were stretching their breaks too long and cheating on their closed time. They found his remarks threatening and reacted with hostility. I later learned that this office is particularly understaffed and has an intracompany reputation of being one of the more tense places to work. I believe that the ethers of solidarity that float between our manager, Y, and the women in my office would have prevented such an exchange from taking place there.

At the meeting the CWA was represented chiefly by shop stewards who had jobs as installers, switchmen, repairmen, and by one somewhat puffy and intellectualized bureaucrat from the International. The men were plain, decent, and serious, and had an intelligent point to make: if we stood together we would be the stronger for it. CWA dues were higher than UTW’s, they admitted, but they paid for real union services: hard bargaining by trained negotiators, grievance procedures, fringe benefits, and so forth; most of the gains made by Commercial employees were the results of CWA pressures elsewhere in the Bell System.

The women’s reaction to the sales pitch was pure Gomperism: what about free dental care, medical checkups, low cost car-purchasing programs? Some issues were raised that were more basic. They were women and they were being raided by men. They would be asked to walk out to support the men. Would the men walk out to support them? Why were there no women in top positions in the union when 45 percent of the members were women? Why did women’s salaries in the company start at $79.50 when the lowest amount paid to a man was $95.00?

Back at my office it developed that the women were not nearly so uninterested as their nonattendance had made it seem. Nor were they as anti-union as their lack of interest in the UTW suggested. It was more that they were not meeting-goers, on the one hand, and that they were disgusted by the UTW on the other. A group of women I talked to in the cafeteria one day told me that every time a UTW contract came up for approval, they and others they knew voted “no” but that somehow their votes didn’t get counted. They were seriously interested in the CWA alternative, discussed it a great deal among themselves, and began filling out the cards required to petition the NLRB for an election.

The union issue stirred up the most serious conversation I had heard at the company, and, for a time, I had private fantasies about the possibilities involved in a CWA takeover: could the women be made to see their women’s interests in some opposition to a male-dominated union, once they were in it, more clearly than they could see them opposed to the company, which was always holding out the carrot of personal advancement? Would the union, simply because it was in motion and in some way organized, because consciousness in it was more free-floating, be the right forum in which to raise war-related issues such as AT&T’s involvement with the ABM? Could the racism inherent in the union’s opposition to the company’s new policies of hiring what it always referred to as the “hard core” possibly be overcome? For a time, these things seemed possible to me. Then management began its counterattack.

By early December management was calling private meetings of Supervisors to feed them anti-CWA propaganda, which they in turn would feed back to the women. Sally came back from such a meeting filled with grisly facts: “The President of CWA makes $35,000 a year,” she said; the top officials recently voted themselves a $4-6000 salary raise; top pay in New York is higher than top pay in places represented by CWA; it’s true there’s a dental plan but you have to use CWA dentists.

The main point of management’s message was, if you’re dissatisfied, reform the UTW. Is the President too old? Throw her out and get a more modern President. But don’t throw away the union that has gotten you eleven paid holidays and all your other gains; don’t throw out the baby with the bath. Later these arguments were repeated (almost word for word) in a similar chat which my floor supervisor, Laura, had with the women in her unit. The company also began to engage in all sorts of other activities, turning over the payroll lists to the UTW at an early date for propaganda mailings to the employees’ homes, and at one point even circulating a UTW phone number which we were advised to call for “unbiased” information on what the raid was all about. The recorded message went like this:

This is a message to all Commercial Department employees. Your independent union and all of you are being raided by CWA. They are trying to mislead you into believing that the raid is for the sake of unity. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They want you only for your money. CWA dues run from $5.50 to $10.50 a month to support their Washington fat cat. The dues you pay to your independent union, the Union of Telephone Workers, are not wasted for Washington offices and fat cats. CWA claims to represent a lot of telephone workers in the United States but not a single contract for Commercial workers can meet your contract for wages. Your independent union, the UTW, has negotiated the highest wage rates for Commercial Department employees, anywhere in the United States.

Your intelligence will caution you not to become a tool of CWA’s misleading tactics.

Your desire for effective and orderly representation will caution you against buying CWA’s walkout, wildcat strike sellout policies, and the constant loss of wages over ridiculous disputes.

Your experience and knowledge of human nature will keep you from getting fouled up in foolish frustrations and the hopeless fury of CWA’s ineffective puppets.

A step toward CWA is a costly step downward: more dues, frequent assessments, loss of autonomy and less take-home pay.

This does not make good sense, does it?

Stay with your independent union, the Union of Telephone Workers.

This propaganda was later multiplied in individual mailings, and I believed it was likely to be effective, particularly when communicated to the women by Supervisors whom they trust. At least in my department (a small fraction of the overall bargaining unit) the women did not have enough class consciousness to suspect it merely because it was coming from the company. In addition, the CWA’s rebuttal campaign—conducted through mailings—did not deal solidly with these concrete objections. In the election, held in mid-February, the CWA lost by about seven to two.

My ultimate conclusion about the CWA-UTW issue as I watched it struggling to its finale was that it simply did not matter. Images were left in my head: Dan, a fat CWA chief steward, driving me to an appointment uptown in a car decorated with American flags and an antique Veterans Poppy; a later meeting with him in which he described the company’s new employees exclusively as tramps, pushers, and smelly apes; an interview with a union official after I quit in which he sighed and remarked. “The trouble with people today is that they want change for the sake of change.” I thought: CWA does inspire something more closely akin to true “consciousness” than the company unions, but the consciousness it inspires is not close enough to what is needed. In view of the top-down control and inflexible ways of the CWA, and the marginal role of any union in the women’s lives, the women’s immediate interests probably are better represented by the UTW; and the CWA does not offer the compensation of initiating fights for larger political objectives, or even for objectives that have to do with the quality of life within the company. Thus the issues of dues, strike pay, and socialized dentistry become real.


Perhaps the best way to think about the women of the telephone company is to ask the question: what reinforces company-minded behavior and what works against it? It is a difficult question. The reinforcement comes not from the work but from the externals of the job: the warmth of friendships, the mutual support, the opportunities for sharing and for gossip, the general atmosphere of company benevolence and paternalism; not to mention the need for money and the very human desire to do a good job.

I never heard any of the women mouth the company rhetoric about “service to the customer” but it was obvious to me that a well-handled contact could be satisfying in some way. You are the only person who has access to what the customer needs—namely, telephones—and if you can provide him with what he wants, on time and efficiently, you might reasonably feel satisfied about it. The mutual support—the sharing of closed time, helping one another out on commitments—is also very real. The continual raffles, sales contests, gimmicks, and parties are part of it, too. They simply make you feel part of a natural stream.

Working in that job one does not see oneself as a victim of “Capitalism.” One is simply part of a busy little world which has its own pleasures and satisfactions as well as its own frustrations but, most important, it is a world, with a shape and an integrity all its own. The pattern of co-optation, in other words, rests on details: hundreds of trivial, but human, details.

What is on the other side? Everyone’s consciousness of the iron fist, though what they usually see is the velvet glove; the deadening nature of the work; the low pay; what is going on in the outside world (to the extent that they are aware of it); the malfunctioning of the company; the pressure of supervision and observation. There was a sign that sat on the desk of one of the women while I was there, a Coney Island joke-machine sign: “Due to Lack of Interest, Tomorrow Will be Postponed.” For a time I took it as an emblem and believed that was how the woman really felt. But now I am not sure.

I think that for these women to move they would have to have a sense of the possibility of change—not even to mention the desirability of change—which I am certain they do not feel. They are more satisfied with their lives than not, and to the extent that they are not, they cannot see even the dimmest possibility of remedial action through collective political effort. The reason they do not have “class consciousness”—the magic ingredient—is that in fact they are middle class. If they feel oppressed by their situation, and I think many of them do, they certainly see it only as an individual problem, not as something which it is their human right to avoid or overcome.

How one would begin to change that, to free them to live more human lives, is very hard to know. Clearly it would require a total transformation of the way they think about the world and about themselves. What is impossible to know is whether the seeds of that transformation lie close beneath the surface and are accessible, or whether they are impossibly buried beyond rescue short of general social convulsion. It is hard to believe that the women are as untouched as they seem by the social pressures which seem so tangible to radicals. Yet I saw little evidence that would make any other conclusion possible.

I have a strong feeling of bad faith to have written this at all. I know the women will not recognize themselves in my account, but will nonetheless be hurt by it. They were, after all, warm and friendly: sympathetic about my troubles, my frustrations; helpful in the work; cheerful in a businesslike way. Betty, at least, was a friend. It is almost as if a breach of the paternalism of the company is involved. I fear a phone call asking “Was that a nice thing to do?” and I would say, perhaps not, perhaps the intellectual and political values of my life by which I was judging yours make equally little sense. Perhaps the skills which give me leverage to do it allow me only to express alienation and not to overcome it; perhaps I should merely be thankful that I was raised as an alpha and not a beta. Sometimes I am not sure. But I know that however it will seem to them, this piece is meant to be for the women of the telephone company, and that it is written for them with both love and hope.

(This is the second of two articles)

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