To the Editors:

The campaign of the New York Telephone Company to blame the breakdown of its services on its policy of hiring “under-privileged” black workers is one of the most successful instances of divide-and-conquer tactics in the history of American capitalism. Even in radical circles raconteurs compete for attention with tales of the latest incompetency encountered from a black operator. Operator jokes are one of the last forms of ethnic humor permitted to exist; they seem to be to New York what Polish jokes were to Chicago. This racism perfectly suits the company’s interests. It encourages the public to criticize the workers for the failures of the system, and it makes the public certain to be unsympathetic when—as now seems likely—the black women of the telephone company get themselves together and begin fighting.

We talked with several operators who are attempting to organize their coworkers in the offices of District 65 in early March. Their descriptions of an operator’s working conditions (apart from the few Potemkin Villages the company maintains on the upper East Side to show inquiring reporters) make clear not only the exploitation of the women but the link between their exploitation and the rape of the public through rising rates and malfunctioning equipment. The women work a scattered five-day week, with straight time pay up to forty-nine hours; Saturday is treated as a regular day (no overtime). Their schedules are posted on a weekly basis; they never know, from week to week, what days and hours they will work the week after.

Until May, 1970, starting salary for operators was $84.50; now it is $99.00. Top pay in an operator’s job—reached only after twenty-five years—is $117 per week. Many operators are taking home only $60.00 a week after deductions. Until May, 1970, the company provided these women no health insurance; now it offers Blue Cross and Blue Shield. However, a woman must have been on the job for two years before she can collect sick pay after the third day of illness and must be on the job ten years before she can be paid for sick days from the first day out. Up until two years there is no sick pay at all. At those salaries, penalties for illness are a hardship which it is difficult for most middle-class people even to comprehend. A woman is entitled to maternity leave, but if she takes it, her seniority goes by the board.

The operators told us that the operators’ positions in many places are filthy, representing a real health hazard, and they also said that the company has eliminated a previous policy of requiring physical exams. This means they never know if they are sitting next to someone, or using instruments used by someone, with a contagious disease. Old-fashioned headsets are being replaced in a few offices with more lightweight and comfortable gear; most of the operators still wear the old, uncomfortable equipment. Though conditions vary among offices, many still sit at backless high stools, their movements constantly inspected by Supervisors on the prowl. They say that it is practically necessary to raise their hands to get permission to go to the bathroom. In addition, far from being either simple or simplified, the operator’s work is more complex than formerly, with the same operator handling, for instance, local and long distance calls, with the considerable record-keeping that involves.

The operators are under a generally kindergarten-like form of discipline, with offenses gradated from Step 1 to Step 6 for various infractions such as lateness, etc. An operator is never permitted to see her own records and, after dismissal, is not permitted access to company buildings. This means that she is usually unable to find her shop steward or otherwise fight her case. Since the union (the Telephone Traffic Union) is a company union led by whites who are not even elected by the membership, not finding the steward is perhaps a small loss. Still, it is symbolic of the helplessness of the operator in even attempting to struggle for her rights in the case of unfair company practice or something going wrong.

Last fall, several thousand operators went on an unauthorized (and curiously unreported) strike. Now a smaller, but still large, number is trying to organize a more militant union to overthrow the TTU. They have turned to District 65, one of the city’s traditionally “left-wing” unions. The Communications Workers of America (CWA), a conservative, AFL—CIO union that represents many men’s departments in the company, is also attempting to organize the women. At this point a three-way election in May between District 65, CWA and the company union is one possibility; however if those favoring the election fail to gather the required number of signed cards before the NLRB deadline, the election may not be held.

The company has made organizing extremely difficult. Operators work in many shifts and at dozens of locations in the metropolitan area; militant women in one office do not know those in another. District 65 seems to have some theoretical recognition that the opening of a fight between 17,000 mostly black, women workers and the giant industry that more or less invented workers’ manipulation could be important. But the union is sniffing out the situation in its own interests, and, in any case, without help from a wealthier organization like the Teamsters it has insufficient resources to give to the women’s cause. In these circumstances, what will happen in the May election, if there is one, is unpredictable. The only certain thing is that, however difficult their struggle, the black women in the phone company are beginning to get tired of taking the rap and they’ll be heard from again, perhaps with their sisters in miserable Bell warrens across America.

While at this stage it is difficult to know how to offer useful support to the operators, people should be on the lookout for opportunities. Those who can stand it might offer money or services and skills to the operators’ committee working out of District 65 which, for now at least, is the vehicle the operators themselves have chosen for their attempt at emancipation. People who have access to the mass media should try to find out more about what is going on than we have sketched here, and publicize it. The women have a natural human impulse to do a good job for the customers; and they are very sensitive to racist accusations of indifference. They understand that it is their conditions and not their birthright which is preventing them from doing a good job. The main point, it seems to us, is to build on the idea that the women operators and the public are not inevitable enemies, as New York Tel would have us believe, but potential allies in an effort to force the company to provide service that is both efficient and humane.

Elinor Langer

Sally Kempton

New York City

This Issue

May 6, 1971