Many years ago, before everything was automated, I worked as a long distance operator. We sat at a long board with repeating sets of panels, inserting cords into lights to take a call. Each of us was "the operator," the woman who answered whenever a customer dialed O. The job wasn't physically difficult but it was otherwise awful.
Every operator was a woman because those jobs were posted in the "Female Help Wanted" section of the newspaper Want Ads (in those days, the only way, apart from going to an agency, to search for a job). Our supervisors, with BAs in business administration, were fresh out of college, none older than 25. (I suppose they "interned" at the phone company and immediately went on to brighter futures.) Many of the operators, however, were over forty, some in their fifties and sixties. Nevertheless, the young snots addressed every operator, no matter how senior, solely as "Miss [whatever]".
Supervisors spent part of their day spying. They would sit at one end of the long board, listening in for breaches of protocol. Each operator was instructed to use a particular set of words as she responded to a customer's question or request. Any deviation from the established dialogue drew a stern warning. That warning was delivered in the following way: Every operator station along the board sported two jacks, the first for the operator herself, the second for the supervisor. That individual would slam her headset into the jack, simultaneously barking through her microphone: "Keep your eyes on the board, Miss [whatever]," followed by, "What did you tell that customer?" This question was, of course, superfluous, since the supervisor had come over precisely because of what had been said. But it served to further humiliate and intimidate the operator.
This form of bullying was merely half of the bully sandwich long distance operators endured daily. The other half came from customers who took advantage of what they perceived to be their own anonymity to scream and curse the operator. I encountered one such customer on a Monday. His complaint was that I hadn't picked up quick enough: "The weekend's over, bitch."
That was a very funny thing for him to say. Operators didn't get "a weekend." We worked sometimes for eight or nine days straight. Our schedules were complex, listed on sheets of paper posted on a bulletin board. The listings, in nine-point type, showed names followed by a string of four and five digit numbers in several tiny boxes. Each number had to be looked up in one of several binders, one for regular weekdays, one for weekends, one for holidays. If you made a mistake and searched the wrong binder, for some reason you might find a number corresponding to the one in the binder you should have checked, but listing an entirely different schedule. The schedule specified arrival time (often something as ludicrous as 6:43 AM), break time (ten minutes), lunch half hour, second break, and departure time. Shifts might be split so that an operator worked for four hours, went home, returned four hours later to work another four hours. Try having a life on that schedule.
Even though the number in the wrong book matched the number in the right book, the operator would arrive for her workday at the wrong time. (Every day each operator's schedule changed—she knew only what hours she would work for the immediate week ahead, once the schedule was posted.) When an operator arrived at the wrong time, she was threatened with dismissal. If she arrived twice at the wrong time, she was dismissed.
This was effective terrorism. No weapons were used (or hidden). Operators came from the lowest economic rung of the working class. Individually, they saw few options for alternative employment. Those who were over forty saw no options for alternative employment. Apart from working a switchboard, they had no skills. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph's switchboard was dead simple, which prevented operators from learning enough to make them employable at a private business with its own operator receptionists. Those boards were far more complex.
Terror was built into Pacific Telephone and Telegraph's employee management systems. Keeping a worker fearful keeps her fully compliant. Since the union had been started by the company and danced to the company's tune, there was no chance of mass action. Wages were pathetically low, harassment routine, and the phone company permitted only one person in an operator's life to wield more authority than they did: her husband.
I saw an operator sent to the "quiet room" for fifteen minutes for fainting because she had hepatitis. Another pregnant operator went into premature labor. Her supervisor rode in the ambulance with her, telling her (as she later reported) that if she didn't lose the baby, she would lose her job.
What enabled Pacific Tel & Tel to treat people like this? Let me count their advantages:
- 1) The people were women in an era when women were barred from more lucrative forms of employment
- 2) Jobs for unskilled/uneducated workers paid poorly so if a woman who built up any seniority at all was better off staying than starting all over again
- 3) The phone company ensured that its workforce was compliant by not hiring anyone who could pass a simple writing skills and math test. I know this because I deliberately flunked it in order to get hired.
- 4) Most operators lacked sufficient education to make them qualify as front office representatives for large, better paying corporations.
Challenging the wall between women's work and men's has been a major accomplishment of the last forty years, challenging barriers to black employment another. As a nation we are engaged in taking sides in class war, although so many of us (desperately hoping for upward mobility even as upward mobility ceases to be a feature of our economy) deny that.
When the Republicans held tax breaks for the wealthy hostage to help for the unemployed, the nature of the class war became more obvious. The class represented by the Republican Party has its act together. Those targeted to pay for the elite's fine dinners, furs, yachts, and European spas, are floundering, having been successfully persuaded that no class war exists.
If Pacific Tel & Tel could treat its women employees so badly in an era of low unemployment, what do today's workers have to look forward to? I shudder to think of it.