Don Warsavage - Person to Person

In the “Spirit of Service” – Remembering strikes

The following was originally published in the 2017, Issue-3, of the AUSWR CO/WY Guardian. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.

Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

In the “Spirit of Service” – Remembering strikes

“Mr. Watson, come here,” said Alexander Graham Bell back in 1876. And just look at what followed. Copper, steel and iron wires were strung everywhere. We were all hard-wired together. Electro-mechanical switches and people called operators moved the words we spoke to the ears that listened. That’s how we talked to our relatives, our businesses and friends. AT&T, Bell Laboratories, Western Electric and 23 operating companies employed us—about a million of us. We were called The Bell System, and we were the best.

The system became essential to our daily lives and national security. So much so that draft deferments were granted to some technicians during wartime, and heroic efforts were mounted when service outages occurred that were caused by flood, storms and other disasters. We were ordinary people, just doing our jobs, and, along the way many were cited for “Noteworthy Public Service” (about 1,400 Vail Medals) for rescuing others in harm’s way.

After World War II, when strikes shut down the system, the whole country was affected. Hundreds of thousands left their jobs all at once.

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Joseph Beirne, President of the Communications Workers of America appeared on the radio version of “Meet the Press.” The announcer introduced him saying, “Because of our national dependence on the telephone, his union has great power and great responsibility.”

Mr. Beirne was also called to testify before Congress in 1947 to justify mass picketing and why he was asking for a 15-cents-an-hour increase, when the going rate across the industry was 10 cents an hour.

The Bell System companies responded to the strikes by backfilling the vacated jobs with a variety of management people. In some cases, adversarial behaviors occurred. Sometimes unexpected things happened — some weird, some extreme, some funny — all certainly different.

During a strike in Illinois Bell, seven major cables were cut, shutting down service to Chicago’s south side.

In 1972, in New Jersey, management people, serving as repairmen were stopped in their trucks while crossing picket lines. The gas caps were removed by picketers, and cigarette lighters held over the open tanks. The trucks were rocked back and forth, terrifying the drivers. In downtown Newark, where the wreckage of former riots was still evident, two “repairmen” entered a bar to fix the pay phone. The patrons, some of them strikers, turned on the two, calling them scabs and threatening them. The bartender produced a large billy club and whacked the bar, spilling glasses of beer. He told his patrons, “leave these boys alone!” The two were not slow returning to their truck and speeding away.

In April 1968, Pauline Foster, union steward in Pueblo, Colorado, and more recently a member of the board of AUSWR Colorado/Wyoming, stood at the back of the operator services switchboard room and blew a whistle. The shrill sound signaled the 30-some operators who unplugged and removed their headsets, got up from their chairs and walked out en masse. The abandoned switchboard immediately lit up with unanswered incoming calls. Some management people who’d been forewarned, and who’d had minimal training, ran to the switchboard to start answering calls. Dorothy Murphy, the Chief Operator, just shook her head as she watched her finely-tuned operation descend into a well-meaning chaos.

Comments were heard across the room like: “Well, you see, Ma’am, I’m not a regular kind of operator,” or “Well, if you don’t know how to spell it, I sure don’t know how to find it!” “Well, it’s not my fault you’ve been waiting so long.”

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Marketing Manager Neal Simpson was assigned to fill in as an information operator. It couldn’t be too hard he thought. All you had to do was answer the call by saying, “Information.” The caller would then say a name and what he had to do was look it up, alphabetically, and give the caller the number and move on. And, so he did. Once he got going, he felt he was doing just fine. The next call came in, and he said, “Information.” The caller said, “I’d like the phone number for Neal Simpson.” Neal hesitated for quite a pause, and then said, “uh… speaking… I think.”

Companies placed ads in local newspapers like this one from The Idaho Daily Statesman: “PLEASE CONTINUE TO PLACE ONLY EMERGENCY CALLS.”

The relative animosity of the strike often reflected the work atmosphere before the strike. Pauline Foster asked her District Traffic Superintendent if he would like a broken leg as he crossed the picket line one morning. The picketers and the superintendent all laughed. Pauline had wrangled with him during many grievance meetings in the past.

Jody Georgeson, currently of the Telecommunications History Group, was the Motorized Mail Supervisor in Denver in the strike of 1983, where Director Audrey Hargrove pitched in, delivering box lunches to the Central Offices. As management, they both had to cross crowded picket lines in Denver. Jody had a secret weapon when she approached the picket line. The drivers on the picket line who worked for Jody, told their fellow picketers, “That’s Jody. She’s cool, so don’t hassle her.”

In the strike in 1968 in Trinidad, Colorado, the management-replacement operators were surprised to find homemade pastries at their switchboard positions, left for them by the operators when they’d walked off the job.

When managers were called on to do the work of the absent, striking employees, they often came away with a new appreciation for the front-line folks of telephone work. The telephone operator’s job could be pretty complex, especially handling calls from pay telephones. Consequently, whenever lights came in on the board from pay phones, they were deliberately avoided by the ‘novices’ at the switchboard.

One customer standing in a phone booth in a small town in western Colorado had dialed “O.” It was raining. As the rain came down in buckets, and as the audible rings kept repeating, his temper kept rising. Finally, a brave man on his first experience as an operator, plugged in to the flashing pay phone light. The man in the booth exploded, shouting the name of a Christian deity. Our hero at the switchboard didn’t miss a beat. He quickly responded in his most courteous tone: “Yes sir, will that be person-to-person?”

Today’s scene at a weekend family gathering finds several older adults talking to each other. The younger folks are concentrating on 2 by 6-inch rectangles in their palms called Galaxy something or other. Their fingers are flying. One is texting his cousin in Topeka. Two others are having a text conversation with each other. Their words are passing between them and a satellite somewhere above the earth. No wires. No operators…. What’s a picket line anyway?”

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