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Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880-1980. (Reviews/Comptes Rendus).

Venus Green, Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880-1980 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001)

IN 1973 VENUS GREEN started work at the New York Telephone Company as a switchman, amongst a handful of women just entering that male-dominated field. Spending sixteen years in the industry, Green observed how introduction of new technologies kept redefining the nature of telephone work. She also noted how posts remained segregated by sex and race, with Black women clustered in low-level departments. In this well-written and important book, Green explores the connected history of such patterns in the Bell System between 1876 and 1984, "the convergence of gender, class, race, and technology in the workplace." (1) She particularly details evolution of telephone operators' roles "in the context of debates over the degradation of skills, job loss, worker's control, job segregation and segmentation, and race and labor/management relations." (2) Green contends that management deliberately manipulated the operator workforce for decades, through technological deskilling, overbearing supervision, paternalism, and gend er and racial stereotyping.

Green divides telephone labour history into three technologically-defined stages: mechanization (1878-1920), automation (1920-1960), and computerization (1960-1980). During the initial phase, the Bell System recruited female employees after boy clerks proved unruly. 19th-century operators entered a relatively flexible workplace that valued their initiative and gave them a certain authority and control over tasks. To win customers over to a still-unfamiliar technology, head off competition, and meet growing demand, the Bell System emphasized the value of personalized service. Green describes how pioneer operators offered callers individual attention while handling the complex physical chores of making different types of connections. Increasing mechanization promised to help operators juggle growing call volume; Green offers excellent explanations of how switchboard equipment evolved, including photographs to illustrate various designs.

As the 20th century began, the expanding scale of telephone communication highlighted problems of efficiency, leading managers to focus on controlling operators and raising productivity. New equipment facilitated monitoring by supervisors, who watched warning lights that signaled waiting calls and "listened in to double-check that operators followed standardized procedures. Surveillance transformed the workplace into scientifically-managed regimentation; managers divided jobs into simplified, rigid routines, removing operators' discretion to exercise independent judgment. [I]ntroduction of new machines and changes in work organization degraded the job and skills that had been so essential to the early development of the telephone industry," a process that involved "the complete feminization of the occupation, the entrenchment of a clearly defined male-dominated hierarchy ... the dissolution of operators' control over their work pace ... [N]ew technology at first enskilled and offered opportunity to women in t he nineteenth century but deskilled and limited that opportunity in the twentieth." (55)

Stress on operators increased with speedups, repetitive routine, and long hours at low pay. Countering that reality, Green maintains, Bell System managers constructed an idealized image of operators as perfect "ladies" who could placate customers. "[T]o ensure the fact that telephone operators resembled nineteenth-century servants or factory workers more than upper-class "ladies," managers fostered notions of white privilege by excluding African American and select groups of immigrant women." (53, 55) Publicizing its exclusivity in hiring only proper classes, Green concludes, the company consciously maintained a "racist hiring policy," which reinforced workplace control. (55)

Operators who embraced the "white lady" self-image and valued its status nonetheless refused to become entirely passive, joining early 20th-century strikes and slowdowns. Middle-class reformers and male union leaders behind such subversive actions, however, spoke patronizingly of protecting female operators from abuses. Focusing on short-term wage and hour demands, organizers "failed to understand the importance of addressing the technological pacing of work" and operators/ loss of autonomy. (108) By failing to correct such misplaced assumptions, Green convincingly suggests, female operators lost any chance to challenge management's introduction of mechanization or to reorient working conditions in less-stressful directions.

Ironically, fear of worker militancy and rising wages fed the industry's post-World War I determination to adopt dial-system conversion. Automation expanded management ability to monitor, reorganize, and forcibly accelerate operators' workloads. "With their personal skills diminished in value, ... operators relied more on their white exclusivity to maintain what they perceived to be an elite position." (134) The "ladies" created racially-stereotyped publications and blackface skits (documented in Green's illustrations). Meanwhile, the Bell System set up company unions and paternalistic programs to win operators' gratitude for small concessions. Loyal operators cooperated in their own devastation, since automation ultimately meant technological displacement, a fact that "AT & T deliberately distorted ... for publicity reasons." (167) Management promised that innovation would bring better-paid craft and managerial positions for men, a promise union leaders welcomed. "Low-paying [female] operators' jobs could be sacrificed at the altar of 'progress."' (169)

Green's final chapters skillfully recount how after decades-long campaigns for fairness, Black women slowly gained access to operators' jobs. By the late 1960s, that workforce had largely been transformed from White to Black women, due to both demographic characteristics of the urban labour market and the Bell System's profit-driven desire for favourable publicity. Initially excited by new opportunities, Black women failed to recognize they had landed dead-end jobs. The period 1960-1981 witnessed a 40 per cent drop in total operator numbers. "Managers deliberately hired African American women into an occupation that not only paid low wages but was becoming technologically obsolete. An enormous public relations campaign obfuscated this travesty of inclusion." (227)

In turning to Black labour, management necessarily abandoned the "white lady" identity it had constructed for operators and withdrew former benefits. With workplace degradation, Blacks found that "the job did not bring the same prestige and deference as it had for white women." (195) Black operators were harassed by customers, scorned by White colleagues, and made into scapegoats for poor service. Most seriously, Green accuses the industry of deliberately using racism as a dividing force, tricking workers into jockeying for vanishing jobs. Even as AT&T publicly courted praise for equal-opportunity surface measures, Green charges, it manipulated integration to intimidate White workers, spark an anti-affirmative-action backlash, and thus maintain workplace control.

In recent years, "[c]omputerized work measurements and strict supervision combine frequently with racism and sexism to form a virtual hell" for marginalized Black female workers at New York Telephone, Green contends. (241) Modernized equipment sends incoming calls to idle operators within milliseconds and enables supervisors to discipline workers who spend more than a half-minute per customer. "The human telephone operator is almost extinct. The few who still exist work at electronic speeds, under both human and inhuman supervision," risking stress disorders and carpal-tunnel syndrome. (261) Technological displacement and job degradation had relatively less impact on White male workers, Green argues, giving union leadership the excuse to ignore minority women's concerns.

Drawing policy lessons from her case study, Green concludes that "operators' experiences inform us about the obstacles to creating and maintaining avenues of redress in a workplace in which continuity and change occur in relation to the impact of technology." (261-2) She suggests that although "work degradation and deskilling are not inherent in new technologies," unions proved inadequate critics of industry's technical control and workforce manipulations. (7) Green's harsh indictments of unions and of the Bell System may make some readers blink, but her arguments are strongly constructed. Her book represents a beautiful model for how scholars can blend labour history, business history, and history of technology; offering benefits to all perspectives. She provides an unrivalled case for exploring complicated intersections of race and gender, power and control, and technology and employment in the modern workplace. The powerful implications of their analysis make Green's book essential reading for historians o f 20th-century labour.
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Author:Bix, Amy Sue
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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