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The Women of the Telephone Company

Daily life on the job at the New York Telephone Company, where I recently worked as a Customer’s Service Representative, consists largely of pressure. To a casual observer it might appear that much of the activity on the floor is random, but in fact it is not. The women moving from desk to desk are on missions of retrieving and refiling customers’ records; the tête-à-têtes that look so sociable are anxious conferences with a Supervisor in which a Representative is Thinking and Planning What to Do Next. Of course the more experienced women know how to use the empty moments that do occur for social purposes. But the basic working unit is one girl: one telephone, and the basic requirement of the job is to answer it, perhaps more than fifty times a day.

For every contact with a customer, the amount of paperwork is huge: a single contact can require the completion of three, four, or even five separate forms. No problems can be dispensed with handily. Even if, for example, you merely transfer a customer to Traffic or Repair you must still fill out and file a CF-1. At the end of the day you must tally up and categorize all the services you have performed on a little slip of paper and hand it in to the Supervisor, who completes a tally for the unit: it is part of the process of “taking credit” for services rendered by one unit vis-à-vis the others.

A Representative’s time is divided into “open” and “closed” portions, according to a recent scientific innovation called FADS (for Force Administration Data System), of which the company is particularly proud; the innovation consists in establishing how many Representatives have to be available at any one moment to handle the volume of business anticipated for that month, that day, and that hour. Under this arrangement the contact with the customer and the processing of his request are carried out simultaneously: that is, the Representative does the paperwork needed to take care of a request while she is still on the line. For more complex cases, however, this is not possible and the processing is left for “closed” time: a time when no further calls are coming in.

This arrangement tends to create a constant low-level panic. There is a kind of act which it is natural to carry to its logical conclusion: brushing one’s teeth, washing a dish, or filling out a form are things one does not leave half done. But the company’s system stifles this natural urge to completion. Instead, during “open” time, the phone keeps ringing and the work piles up. You look at the schedule and know that you have only one hour of “closed” time to complete the work, and twenty minutes of that hour is a break.

The situation produces desperation: How am I to get it done? How can I call back all those customers, finish all that mail, write all those complicated orders, within forty minutes? Occasionally, during my brief time at the job, I would accidentally press the wrong button on my phone and it would become “open” again. Once, when I was feeling particularly desperate about time, I did that twice in a row and both times the callers were ordering new telephone service—a process which takes between eight and ten minutes to complete.

My feeling that time was slipping away, that I would never be able to “complete my commitments” on time was intense and hateful. Of course it was worse for me than for the experienced women—but not much worse. Another situation in which the pressure of time is universally felt is in the minutes before lunch and before five o’clock. At those times, if your phone is open, you sit hoping that a complex call will not arrive. A “new line” order at five minutes to five is a source of both resentment and frustration.

Given the pressure, it becomes natural to welcome the boring and routine—the simple suspensions or disconnections of service—and dread the unusual or complex. The women deal with the pressure by quietly getting rid of as many calls as they can, transferring them to another department although the proper jurisdiction may be a borderline matter. This transferring, the lightening of the load, is the bureaucratic equivalent of the “soldiering” that Taylor and the early scientific managers were striving to defeat. It is a subtle kind of slowdown, never discussed, but quickly transmitted to the new Representative as legitimate. Unfortunately, it does not slow things down very much.

As Daniel Bell points out in his extraordinary essay, “Work and Its Discontents,” the rhythm of the job controls the time spent off the job as well: the breaks, the lunches, the holidays; even the weekends are scarcely long enough to reestablish a more congenial or natural path. The work rhythm controls human relationships and attitudes as well. For instance: there was a Puerto Rican worker in the Schraffts downstairs whose job was to sell coffee-to-go to the customers: he spent his day doing nothing but filling paper cups with coffee, fitting on the lids, and writing out the checks. He was very surly and very slow and it looked to me as if the thoughts swirling in his head were those of an incipient murderer, not an incipient revolutionary. His slowness was very inconvenient to the thousands of workers in the building who had to get their coffee, take it upstairs, and drink it according to a precise timetable. We never had more than fifteen minutes to get there and back, and buying coffee generally took longer. The women resented him and called him “Speedy Gonzales,” in tones of snobbery and hate. I know he hated us.


The women of the phone company are middle class or lower middle class, come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (Polish, Jewish, Italian, Irish, Black, Puerto Rican), mainly highschool graduates or with a limited college education. They live just about everywhere except in Manhattan: the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, or Queens. Their leisure time is filled, first of all, with the discussion of objects. Talk of shopping is endless, as is the pursuit of it in lunch hours, after work, and on days off. The women have a fixation on brand names, and describe every object that way: it is always a London Fog, a Buxton, a White Stag. This fixation does not preclude bargain-hunting: but the purpose of hunting a bargain is to get the brand name at a lower price. Packaging is also important: the women will describe not only the thing but also the box or wrapper it comes in. They are especially fascinated by wigs. Most women have several wigs and are in some cases unrecognizable from day to day, creating the effect of a continually changing work force. The essence of wiggery is escapism: the kaleidoscopic transformation of oneself while everything else remains the same. Anyone who has ever worn a wig knows the embarrassing truth: it is transforming.

Consumerism is one of the major reasons why these women work. Their salaries are low in relation to the costs of necessities in American life, ranging from $95.00 to $132.50 before taxes: barely enough, if one is self-supporting, to pay for essentials. In fact, however, many of the women are not self-supporting, but live with their families or with husbands who also work, sometimes at more than one job. Many of the women work overtime more than five hours a week (only for more than five extra hours do they get paid time and a half) and it seems from their visible spending that it is simply to pay for their clothes, which are expensive, their wigs, their color TVs, their dishes, silver, and so forth.

What the pressures of food, shelter, education, or medical costs contribute to their need to work I cannot tell, but it seems to me the women are largely trapped by their love of objects. What they think they need in order to survive and what they endure in order to attain it is astonishing. Why this is so is another matter. I think that the household appliances play a real role in the women’s family lives: helping them to run their homes smoothly and in keeping with a (to them) necessary image of efficiency and elegance. As for the clothes and the wigs, I think they are a kind of tax, a tribute exacted by the social pressures of the work-place. For the preservation of their own egos against each other and against the system, they had to feel confident of their appearance on each and every day. Outside work they needed it too: to keep up, to keep their men, not to fall behind.

The atmosphere of passionate consuming was immeasurably heightened by Christmas, which also had the dismal effect of increasing the amount of stealing from the locker room. For a period of about three weeks nothing was safe: hats, boots, gloves. The women told me that the same happens every year: an overwhelming craving, a need for material goods that has to find an outlet even in thievery from one another.

The women define themselves by their consumerism far more than by their work, as if they were compensating for their exploitation as workers by a desperate attempt to express their individuality as consumers. Much of the consuming pressure is generated by the women themselves: not only in shopping but in constant raffles, contests, and so forth in which the prize is always a commodity—usually liquor. The women are asked to participate in these raffles at least two or three times a week.

But the atmosphere is also deliberately fostered by the company itself. The company gave every woman a Christmas present: a little wooden doll, about four inches tall, with the sick-humor look that was popular a few years ago and still appears on greeting cards. On the outside the doll says “Joy is…” and when you press down the springs a little stick pops up that says “Extensions in Color” (referring to the telephone extensions we were trying to sell). Under that label is another sticker, the original one, which says “Knowing I wuv you.” The doll is typical of the presents the company distributes periodically: a plastic shopping bag inscribed with the motto “Colorful Extensions Lighten the Load”; a keychain with a plastic Princess telephone saying “It’s Little, It’s Lovely, It Lights”; plastic rain bonnets with the telephone company emblem, and so forth.

There were also free chocolates at Thanksgiving and, when the vending machine companies were on strike, free coffee for a while in the cafeteria. The women are disgusted by the company’s gift-giving policies. Last year, I was told, the Christmas present was a little gold-plated basket filled with velour fruit and adorned with a flag containing a company motto of the “Extensions in Color” type. They think it is a cheap trick—better not done at all—and cite instances of other companies which give money bonuses at Christmas.

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.

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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