In June, 1975 I was hired at the age of 19 to work at the Michigan Bell telephone company’s Flint branch office building as a long-distance telephone operator.
When I was newly hired, half of the telephone calls that were placed could be completed without the help of a telephone operator.
The other half needed the assistant of an operator for the following types of calls in 1975.
If you were in a hotel or motel room, any calls you made, whether it was a local call to order a pizza or a long-distance call to your family in another state, those calls had to go through the telephone operator.
Depending on each individual hotel or motel’s choice of how to handle local and/or long-distance calls, either the customer contacted the operator or the clerk would contact the operator.
All those calls would come into a specially labeled “Hotel/Motel” section of the switchboard. Then the operator would know that a “Time and Charges” type of call would be necessary to make.
In any Time and Charges call, the telephone operator would fill out a special computer card that listed what hotel or motel, the name of the caller, what room number, and what telephone number was called.
While the number was ringing, the operator would slide that card into a time-stamp machine and when the number was answered, the operator would flip a switch that cut off overhearing the conversation and would simultaneously move a lever that would begin the timing of the call.
Lights would flash above the connected telephone call indicating that the conversation had ceased. Then the timing of the call would end when a lever was pulled that stamped the end-time information on that card.
Using a distance and rate book, the operator would figure out the charge of the call and would then report that back to the clerk. The hotel/motel guest would then be charged for the call upon check-out.
If you traveled a lot or made a lot of telephone calls during your business or personal day, sometimes it was easier to use a telephone company-issued phone card that was similar to a credit card.
Wherever you were and you wanted to make a telephone call that would be billed to either your business or your home telephone number, you would call the telephone operator and ask them to place a “phone card” call for you.
The telephone operator would use those same special timing cards, fill it out with your name, your phone card information, the number you were calling from and then the number that you wished to call.
Those phone cards had special number and alphabet letters in a particular sequence that immediately let the operator know that it was a genuine phone card. Fraudulent phone card numbers were posted above each operator’s station on the long switchboard.
The timing card was inserted into the time-stamping machine and the timing of the call would begin when the number called would answer.
If somebody wanted to make a “collect call”, then the operator would fill out another card indicating that this was a collect call, write down the number that the collect caller was using, as well as the called number, and then write down the name of the caller.
When whoever answered the called number agreed to accept the collect call from the caller, then the timing of the call would begin and then end when the lights indicated that their conversation was over.
A “person-to-person” call meant that the timing did not begin until the particularly wanted person was actually on the phone.
Long-distance calls from pay phones were a bit trickier. These calls also came in on specially designated areas on the switchboard.
A timing card would be made out listing the pay phone telephone number, the desired telephone number, and hopefully the correct name of the caller.
The callers were expected to remain on the line after the completion of their call to talk to the operator who would tell them how much money was owed for the call. Then the caller would insert the correct coins.
Sometimes the caller would simply walk away after the call, refusing to answer the pay phone when the operator would repeatedly call it back.
But the telephone company never lost that income; it simply would bill the called telephone number. Then whoever that number belonged to would have to recoup the money from whoever it was who had originally called them.
The telephone operator would remain on the line with the person who had made the call from the pay phone and could tell which coins had been inserted by the different electronic tones made by each denomination of the coins.
The denomination of the coins and their total number were indicated by the operator on the timing card. That way the total amounts of money in each pay phone’s bin could be tallied up against the amounts listed on these timing cards.
Most people were honest and remained on the line with the operator and inserted the correct change for their calls. Some people would just walk away and some people would try to scam the operator with how much money was actually inserted into the pay phone.
Callers could never understand how the operators could tell how much money had been inserted. Several times I would get some pay phone callers who, for example, would insert six nickels for a 60 cent phone call and would then argue with me that they had inserted the correct number of dimes.
After the correct amount was inserted, the operator would press a special button that would make sure that the coins would drop into the pay phone’s bin before the caller could hit the coin return lever on the pay phone to get their money back.
I learned early on what not to do on pay phone calls. One time I was waiting for a person to call back from a particular pay phone’s location because they had to go and get more change before placing their call.
I was holding the end of the special telephone cord that we used to connect to incoming pay phone calls, when I accidentally leaned on that special button we pushed to make the coins drop into a pay phone’s bin.
I received the worse electric shock of my life! I dropped that cord, jumped up and started waving my hand around. The group chief operator ran over to ask me what was wrong and she started laughing as I told her what I had done.
She said that is the most common rookie mistake all operators make at some point and she congratulated me on graduating from being a rookie because she knew I would never make that mistake again. I whole-heartedly agreed with her because that had hurt like hell!
She explained that that special button sent an electric signal to the pay phone through that special connection cord to drop the coins into the bin so that they could not be retrieved by the caller or anybody else using the pay phone after them.
After a few minutes the tingling stopped and though I never did that again, I always irritably wondered why our training supervisors never told us about not mistakenly doing that. Maybe it really was considered a “rite of passage.”
There were two big switchboard operator rooms in the Flint Michigan Bell office building. I worked in the more modern West Office while the East Office still used the older switchboards that my mother had used when she had worked for Michigan Bell as an operator in the 40’s and the early 50’s.
The East Office had higher-placed switchboards that used tall chairs that I, being short, had to literally climb up to sit down on.
The West Office used shorter switchboard stations that used normal rolling office chairs.
In the East Office was also a special round switchboard center that could seat about 8-10 operators sitting in a circle.
I can no longer remember the name of that special switchboard center but it was used for the gradually decreasing numbers of local telephone users who still had to contact an operator to place any kind of long-distance telephone calls.
When we had first moved out to the boonies in Flushing Township in 1965, any long-distance call we made meant that we had to give our home telephone number to an operator and then the call would be placed. That operator sat at that special round switchboard center in the East Office.
This kind of long-distance calling system, along with the “party line” telephone situation that we had for the first two years we lived there, was what was in place for many years in the more rural areas.
Michigan Bell was slowly installing new telephone poles and wiring to the newly developed areas in the suburbs that would allow for more modern methods of placing local and long-distance calls.
Our very first telephone at our new house in Flushing Township was on a “party line”. In other words, we had to share using the telephone service with about 5-6 other households.
Each household on a “party line” had a specially designated incoming call ring tone. Only that designated house for whom the call was trying to reach was supposed to pick up the phone.
But nosy people perennially being nosy people, those telephone calls could still be overheard if their telephone was quietly picked up and the nosy people remained as still as a mouse to hear every word of everybody else’s phone conversations.
Sometimes you would pick up the telephone to place a call and you would inadvertently interrupt whoever else was using the telephone. Then you would have to wait until they were done, picking up the telephone every now and then to see if they had completed their conversation.
After a few years of putting up with that very annoying “party line” system, there was finally enough new wiring installed. That allowed our family to have our own private telephone line and not have nosy people eavesdrop on our conversations anymore.
But we still had to give our telephone number to the switchboard operator whenever we needed to make a long-distance call until a few years before I started to work at Michigan Bell in 1975.
When I was a teenager, the kids all knew that they could “hide” long-distance telephone calls from being put on their parents’ telephone bills by simply giving a wrong number instead of their own telephone number to the telephone operator who sat at that special round switchboard.
Those fraudulent schemes did not work for long because Michigan Bell would always follow up on the complaints of wrongly listed charges on telephone bills.
Simply by contacting the called number and finding out who it was that had called on what day and time would reveal the culprit. Then the kids would have to deal with their angry parents when the corrected charges would appear on their bills.
A long-distance telephone call was an interesting and mis-leading thing back then. Calls made from state-to-state, as well as international telephone calls, were of course considered long-distance.
However a telephone call made from one very close and nearby town to another could also be considered long-distance.
People who lived in Flint could make phone calls to just about every small town in the entire Genesee County for free.
However each small town could only make free calls to telephone numbers within that small town, to the city of Flint, and to just a very few nearby areas. All others were considered long-distance.
Those local and long-distance areas were determined by the Michigan Bell telephone company and sometimes strange and bizarre situations did occur.
My Uncle Arnold and Aunt Hope had bought a big farm in the Otisville area, a small rural village northeast of Flint. They had an Otisville telephone number.
When their eldest son, my cousin, Darrell, was married in the late 1960’s, my uncle deeded to them a few acres of his farm so that Darrell and his bride could build a house of their own.
Unfortunately the way the telephone areas were determined, that corner of my uncle’s farm where my cousin was now living was considered to be a Lakeville telephone area and they had a Lakeville telephone number.
Michigan Bell had long ago determined that to call from Otisville to Lakeville, and vice versa, was a long-distance telephone call.
So that meant that every time Darrell wanted to call his mother or his father it would not be a free call but it would be an expensive long-distance rated call for every minute they chatted, even though they only lived a mile apart.
It was so much cheaper for them to just get into their truck and drive down to chat with them, even considering the rising gasoline prices in the mid-70’s!
Working as a switchboard operator for Michigan Bell was a lot of fun. I got paid to chat with people and help them out! It was always so satisfying helping different people out every day in such a wide variety of situations.
It could be by helping out somebody calling from a pay phone whose car had conked out on them and they had no change with them to make a phone call. But it was always free to call the operator and then I could send the police out to assist them.
It could be to help out an elderly person whose vision made it hard for them to use their telephones and I would place calls for them.
After I had been working for Michigan Bell for only a few months, I was goofing around in the break room carrying on a comical conversation with a co-worker using the very few Spanish words I knew.
One of the Group Chief Operators, who were mid-level supervisors, had overheard me and the next thing I knew all of the occasional requests for long-distance calls to any parts of Mexico were given to me.
That was very interesting since I was supposed to start timing those phone calls when the correct people were on the line but with all of their jabbering in Spanish that I didn’t understand, I never knew when to begin and end the telephone calls!
Half of the time I could never have any of the local Mexican telephone operators even answer their switchboards so that I could try to connect a call because they were always taking siestas. They seemed to take a lot of long breaks down there.
I was so very glad when a Spanish speaking guy was hired about a year later who then took over those calls. I was always afraid of being yelled at for never being able to do those Mexican phone calls correctly.
I met a guy, John Munsell, shortly after I started working there and we quickly became good friends. We were both dedicated smart-asses.
John and I soon figured out a way to drive the G.C.O.s batty. The switchboard operators, who could total up to 30 or 40 during the very busy daytime rush, were all lined up next to each other in a very long row.
John would sit as close to the end of that row as he could and I would sit at the other end. Then in between phone calls we would alternate making all sorts of very realistic bird whistles.
Sometimes during the summer months the large and heavy windows in the East Office would be opened and occasionally a real bird would fly in and create havoc before being caught and released back outside.
Birds have a tendency to poop on people and if they got behind the switchboards, they could get into the many numerous wires and put switchboard stations out of order. So hearing a bird in the room was a big deal.
John would start up a bird whistle and the G.C.O. on duty would frantically run over to his end to locate where the bird was. I, on the other end of that long row, would begin my whistle, and the G.C.O. would then run down to my end.
John and I would keep that up for at least 5-10 minutes making that G.C.O. run back and forth trying to figure out where that damned bird was, while the other operators were trying hard to not giggle and laugh.
Finally in frustration, the G.C.O. would call the maintenance department to have somebody come up to find the bird and shoo it back outside.
So of course when the maintenance men arrived, the “bird” would magically become completely quiet until they left. Then sometimes the “bird” would reappear, depending on how much John and I wanted to torture that particular G.C.O.
Most of those G.C.O. supervisors were very nice but there were a couple of jack-asses who liked to throw their weight around and make our lives a living hell just because they could. So those were the ones John and I would torture occasionally.
Twice a month one of the G.C.O.s would do observations on each switchboard operator. One of those observations would be a direct one where the G.C.O. would plug their head-set in next to yours, stand behind you, and listen in for 15 minutes to everything you did and say to the customers.
The other observation was an indirect one where the G.C.O. would sit at one of the end stations and remotely listen in to a particular operator. Then they would ask you to leave your station while they went over their results with you in a little room.
I always had excellent observations although shortly after I was hired, I was baffled during one of those meetings.
The G.C.O. had just made an indirect observation on me and she was going over the results. She said that I had made no mistakes, had excellent communication skills, that I was exceptionally polite and helpful but that I had taken too many calls during that 15 minute observation.
I was taken aback. I felt like I was being reprimanded for being a hard worker. I asked her to please explain how could taking too many phone calls be a bad thing?
She explained that the standards were such that, according to my seniority, I had been working at the pace of a much more experienced and senior telephone operator.
Michigan Bell’s reasoning apparently was that I would be more prone to make mistakes by taking more calls than my seniority allowed for.
I then questioned the G.C.O. that perhaps my training had been more thorough or perhaps I was just a better worker than my seniority indicated so was I still really being reprimanded for being a hard worker who had made no mistakes?
She said that she was just repeating what the company guidelines suggested and that maybe I just needed to pace myself better to make sure that I continued to make no mistakes in the future.
She said that that policy was to ensure that lower seniority employees didn’t try to take on too much and then the potential for mistakes would more than likely occur.
I sat there, confused and perplexed. I had made no mistakes except for being a hard worker yet I was being told to not be a hard worker just in case I made a mistake. Such was the logic of many things at Michigan Bell.
I also found out that Michigan Bell had its own branded bottles of “aspirin”. One time I had a killer headache and I asked the G.C.O. if by chance she had an aspirin.
She brought out a large brown bottle that had a white label on it with the Michigan Bell logo, opened it up and handed me a green pill.
I suspiciously looked at the pill in her hand. I asked the G.C.O. what is that? She replied an aspirin. Aspirins are white so why is that pill a disgusting green color? It’s Michigan Bell aspirin. Now why would Michigan Bell make their own aspirin? What else is in it? Nothing else is in it, it is just plain aspirin.
So I reluctantly took the green pill and my headache definitely disappeared. But I also noticed a dramatic increase in my energy levels as well. Hmmmm.
So on my lunch break I began to quiz the older telephone operators about that mysterious Michigan Bell aspirin and they laughed and laughed.
Everybody was suspicious as to what else was in those little green pills because they did relieve headaches but yes, they also increased people’s energy levels.
They also cautioned me that those pills could become addicting, that if I began taking them, I would soon have to begin to take two, then later on three or more to get rid of my headaches.
I snorted as I asked if they were saying that Michigan Bell was putting speed or something else in those little green pills but everybody said no one knew for sure but obviously something was in them other than just aspirin.
Another operator who had hired on after me had a friend who owned a pharmaceutical laboratory. She had one of those pills chemically analyzed. Yes it was aspirin but there was also an extremely high amount of caffeine in them as well, equivalent to 20 cups of coffee.
So those little green pills didn’t contain an illegal substance but they were addicting, just like those operators had warned me about. I worked at Michigan Bell for 2 1/2 years and I had to take three of those pills to get rid of a headache by that time.
Because of my low seniority I had to work different shifts. One time I had to work a two week stint on the third shift.
Each shift had its different customers and calls. First shift consisted of mainly business related calls and it was the busiest. Second shift was primarily slower with more calls from pay phones, homes and hotels and motels. Third shift was boringly dead except for calls from perverts and drunks and the occasional bored kids.
One time a kid, who sounded like he was about twelve or thirteen, called in from the Grand Blanc area and I answered his call. He then proceeded to cuss me out with every nasty thing he could come up with.
I told him that I would not release his telephone until I talked to his mother or his father because he had such a filthy mouth.
That was the power that I, and every telephone operator, possessed. If you called the operator, we could literally hold your telephone line hostage by just not pulling the cord from the switchboard.
You could not place a call or have a call come in until that cord was released. You and your telephone line were our prisoners.
Scared, the kid tried to hang up his telephone but I patiently waited until he picked it back up again to meekly say, “Hello?” I told him, “I’m still here, and I’m not going to get off the line until I talk to your mother or your father.”
Then with a frightened gasp he slammed down his telephone, only to repeat the same thing with me a few minutes later.
Hey it was late and I was bored, what can I say?
So I amused myself by playing this game with this disrespectful kid. But then after about 20 minutes, I got another phone call that came in from the Fenton area and this time it was a man who wanted to know what type of underwear I was wearing and then he proceeded to tell me all the deviant sexual things he could do to me.
I held up his telephone line as well. So I was sitting there, looking at these two phone calls I had corded up and I decided to connect the disrespectful kid with the pervert and see how their combined conversations would go.
Did I mention that it was late and I was very bored?
I connected the two callers and put my headset on mute. The disrespectful kid was now yelling with anger how dare I try to rat him out to his parents and that I was a bitch for not giving him back his telephone line. The pervert was still whispering all of the dirty details of what he wanted to do to me.
After a few seconds they both stopped their end of their conversations as they realized it was not me they had on their telephone and each of them then asked, “Who is this?”
The pervert, now hearing a boy’s voice, yelled at the kid for somehow being on his telephone line, and the kid then began yelling at the pervert for saying those nasty things to him.
And I was almost doubled over with laughter listening at them now yelling at each other to get off their telephone.
I finally unmuted my headset and I began chastising them both for being so disrespectful and rude to the telephone operator and that I wanted an immediate apology from them or they would never be able to use their telephones again.
The kid finally mumbled a half-hearted apology and the pervert then gave a much better and polite one.
So I told them to get off their phones and if they ever did this again, I would have the phone company disconnect their telephones forever.
They agreed to be nice from now on so I disconnected the cords and released their telephones.
The pervert, however, immediately called me back and he tried to disguise his voice. He then told me that he had a 10″ dick and that he wanted me to give him a blow job.
I started laughing so hard! I told him that I didn’t believe him, that he more than likely had a dick no bigger than a baby’s and furthermore, if his was really that long, he could just lean over and give himself a blow job. And I began laughing even harder.
The pervert gave a shocked gasp and then he hung up on me and he didn’t try to pick up his phone again. I was pretty pleased with myself! I had actually made a pervert hang up on me! Maybe I had hit a sore spot.
But I still held up his line until it was almost time for me to go home, just to teach him a lesson.
Those kinds of activities were severely frowned on, officially, but unofficially they were tolerated, especially by the G.C.O.s on the third shifts when we got the majority of those types of calls.
But other than those rare occurrences, I was usually quite courteous and polite and helpful. I was given six commendations for excellent service by the time I had quit after only 2 1/2 years and apparently no one with the little amount of seniority as me had ever had that many before.
People usually will take the time and trouble to file a complaint but people will rarely take the trouble to call back and speak to a supervisor to compliment an operator.
The first time I was hauled off the switchboard and told to go to the little meeting room, I was shaking because I thought I had somehow did something wrong.
When the G.C.O. came in and handed me the little commendation certificate and told me that one of my customers who I had helped in a person-to-person call earlier that day had called back afterwards to say how nice and efficient and pleasant I had been.
That made me feel so good! I always tried to do a good job of helping everybody who called because I always wanted to treat them the way I would like to be treated.
But having somebody take the time and the trouble to call in and say nice things about me, well, that was really neat!
And then when those additional commendations happened those other five times, I heard through the grapevine that some of the older operators were grumbling that I must be bribing people or begging them to call in to say nice things about me.
I just giggled because that was never, ever the case. But some of those older operators, who were just keeping their chairs warm until they could retire, could be a bit crabby and it showed in a lot of their conversations with the customers.
When I began to work for Michigan Bell was also the first time I had ever belonged to a union. Our local was a part of the much larger Communications Workers of America union, also called the CWA.
Unions were a big part of my family’s history. My grandfather, Harvey Pillen, my great-uncle, Edson Templeton, and my great-aunt, Elsie Garland, were all a part of the infamous Sit-Down Strike in Flint against General Motors in 1936-37.
At the conclusion of that strike, General Motors and the United Auto Workers signed their very first contract together.
Many other family members, including my dad, were currently working in the various auto-related factories in Flint in 1975 when I began working for Michigan Bell and they were all long-time union members.
I had grown up with many horrible tales of the abuses done against the workers by the foremen and the owners in the auto industry before the UAW was finally recognized.
I also was taught that a union was only as strong as its members’ participation so I went to as many union meetings as I could and tried to vote whenever I could.
I had put in a transfer request to work in the Business Office and in late June of 1977, my transfer was approved and I was scheduled to begin training in early July.
The Business Office had much nicer hours and more pay. You worked 8:30 am to 5 pm with every weekend and holiday off.
In the Business Office, you dealt with complaints and took orders for new phone services or the cancellation of phone services, as well as the sales of advertising space in the Yellow Pages business section.
I had only had a week of training in my new job when our local union, disgusted with the proposed contract that the national union had worked out with the combined Bell companies across the United States, had voted to go on a wildcat strike. A wildcat strike was a non-union sanctioned local strike.
I was told by my new supervisor that because I was still in a probationary status situation in the Business Office, if I participated in the wildcat strike, I would lose my transfer and I would be sent back down to the switchboard after the wildcat strike was over. I could not be fired but I would have to wait two more years before trying to transfer to the Business Office again.
So I was personally stuck between a rock and a hard place.
If I crossed the picket lines to preserve my job transfer, I would be labeled a scab and I would be a pariah in the union and amongst my co-workers.
If I refused to cross the picket line, I would lose my new job transfer with the extra money and the better hours.
Family history and union loyalty won out. I refused to cross the picket line and I was kicked back down to the switchboard after the strike was over with.
So I lost my new transfer but I was proud that I had stood up with my union brothers and sisters and made our views known. Sometimes you do have to sacrifice what may be good for you for the greater good of everybody else.
I saw what happened when people crossed the picket line. There was a woman who was about 10 years older than me named Goldra who worked with me as a switchboard operator.
She had well-known hopes of one day being promoted to Group Chief Operator, although the majority of the operators believed it would never happen because Goldra was very weird and strange.
She crossed the picket line on the first day and slept on a couch in the employees’ lounge for a few hours at a time and helped the G.C.O.s man the switchboards the rest of the time.
For being a scab, Goldra was ostracized by the switchboard operators, primarily the older ones. She was ignored or treated with disrespect and rudeness. And as far as I knew, she was never promoted either.
When I had been working at Michigan Bell for only a few months, a blood drive was held in our large employee lounge by our local area Red Cross unit.
So I donated blood for the first time. I indicated on the information sheet they gave me to fill out that I would be interested in donating during emergency situations.
And since I had O+ blood, which is almost as good as the universal donor blood of O-, the Red Cross began calling me at work to immediately go to their building and give blood.
And per the agreement Michigan Bell had with the Red Cross and the union, my supervisors had to let me leave and I had to be paid for my time away from work.
They called me so often that one of the G.C.O.s called the Red Cross back just to make sure that I wasn’t having somebody call and pretend to be the Red Cross. The Red Cross reassured that G.C.O. that yes, me and my blood were most urgently needed and needed now.
So of course I took my sweet time in driving there and back. And after my blood donation, I hung around longer than necessary eating cookies and drinking orange juice at the Red Cross building.
While I worked at Michigan Bell is when I joined a bowling league for the first time.
I had previously bowled several times but I had never been on a league before. That was a lot of fun hanging out with my co-workers, drinking beer and cheering them on.
Becoming a regular bowler each week did wonders for my average too. I earned a trophy that first year in the Michigan Bell league for Most Improved Average.
As much fun as my job at Michigan Bell was, technology and the United States government began to change things for so many of the workers.
As technological advances in more automated telephone call connections were made, the switchboard operator’s job became more and more obsolete. Then hiring freezes were instituted.
There was soon a decision made from the upper management level that people hired for switchboard positions after a certain date would be told to not expect to have a job after the next three years. They would be considered temporary employees.
The switchboard operators, information operators (they gave out individual, family and business telephone numbers) and the Business Office employees in the Flint, Saginaw and Bay City areas were going to be combined into working out of the Saginaw Michigan Bell location at the end of that three year time.
People were being urged to take early retirement packages or to put in transfers to other departments, such as the installation and repair departments, if they absolutely could not follow their jobs to the Saginaw location.
I was lucky in that I had enough seniority so that I would not lose my job and I could follow it to the Saginaw building in that future time if I wanted to.
But before the time came for me to make a choice in either trying to put in for a different department transfer or follow the switchboard operator work to Saginaw, I was married to Hal Hilliard in July, 1977.
He had just been hired as a switchboard operator in January of that year, and so he was one of the new-hires that were told he would not have a job after three years.
We soon began dating after he was hired and two months after we were married, he was fired for being mouthy with a customer. Hal of course denied that he was being mouthy; he claimed that he was merely being “humorous”.
Because Hal was a “temporary” employee, technically he wasn’t considered to be represented by our union. But after pleading with Chris, my union representative, to see if there was anything he could do, Chris gallantly was able to get Hal his job back.
Hal stupidly and stubbornly worked only a week and then walked off the job. He just wanted to make a point is what he said. I never understood what point he was trying to make unless it was to prove what a total jerk and an asshole he could be.
Chris, my union rep, never forgave me, and I don’t blame him in the least. I was personally very, very embarrassed by Hal’s juvenile behavior.
But then the nagging began from Hal. How could I work for a soul-sucking company who had fired him for no good reason?
Why should I work for a place that was just going to force me to drive an extra 35 miles for my job in a few years? I needed to quit working for them, period, according to my husband.
Things were really getting tense at work for everybody now. Complaints over the most trivial things were made, and people were being reprimanded and/or fired over those things.
Michigan Bell was cleaning house and it was using the most cruel ways to do it, while suddenly, our union became paralyzed and ineffectual in stopping these guerrilla tactics.
My marriage to Hal was already in deep, deep trouble and I was constantly stressed out and tense from the situations at work and from the endless nagging and complaining at home from Hal.
It finally came down to I either quit my marriage or I quit my job. I chose to quit my job. In hindsight I have often wished I had quit Hal then instead.
Half of my work friends either transferred to other departments in the Flint area or followed their switchboard operator jobs up to Saginaw in a few years after that.
Things were never the same at Michigan Bell after that. Even the name was lost after the huge Bell System all across the United States was broken up in the early 1980’s. Michigan Bell soon became Ameritech and then SBC and then finally AT & T.
The few people I kept contact with who had stayed long enough to retire after the breakup of Michigan Bell and the entire Bell System said that it no longer was a job that you could take pride in doing well.
It simply became a job they wearily did, day in and day out, until they could collect their pension and then eagerly leave.
There was such a new cut-throat mentality, not only between the employees and their supervisors, but between the employees themselves. That is what my friends said was occurring while working throughout all of the changing of the names of the same business.
I wasn’t aware until many decades later that I was a participant of the Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods) of the Bell System all across America and of the switchboard operator’s waning days. I was truly a part of the beginning of the end of an era.
And what makes me most angry is that the majority of the jobs that were lost in the break-up and in that new cut-throat mentality of the now competing telephone systems were the ones that women primarily did.
Some of the jobs in the installation and repair, the linemen and the frame maintenance were lost but nowhere near as many of the jobs as long-distance and information switchboard operators or in the Business Office.
The paychecks of those remaining jobs done primarily by women were quickly dropped down to just a few hairs above minimum wage. Full-time positions? Benefits? Retirement packages? Women, be thankful you have a job at all became the new mantra.
But while it lasted, being a switchboard operator at Michigan Bell was literally a once in a lifetime experience.
I’m glad I was once a part of the huge Bell System, I’m glad that I got to experience the last of the glory days of an important part of Michigan Bell and I’m also proud that I did such good work for them in the relatively short 2 1/2 years that I worked there.
Image of the formerly named Michigan Bell Building, Beech Street in Flint, MI. Please click on the images for a larger view.