Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bay Area Revolutionary Union

Red Papers 3: Women Fight for Liberation

Ma Bell Has Fleas – and a lot of angry workers inside the phone company

In the city where I work the phone company employs over 14,000 people. Approximately half are women–clerical workers, service representatives, and operators. These are the women who shuffle thousands of papers and soothe irate customers, day after day. As in any workplace, women are relegated to the dullest jobs, paid substandard wages, and treated like both small children and slaves. The women telephone operators are the most exploited of all phone workers. They make the lowest wages and suffer the worst working conditions of any group of employees in the Bell System. And they shall be the first to rise.

Inside the phone company buildings, hundreds of operators sit in poorly-lit, stuffy rooms. The equipment is backed against the sides of the room, so the operators sit in two long rows, facing the wall. Behind them, down the center of the room, desks are evenly spaced. Supervisors sit at these desks, staring at the backs of operators’ heads, watching to see who is working too slowly, or who is turning to speak to the woman next to them.

Rapping is forbidden between operators, even when the calls are coming in slowly and there’s no work to do. Rapping is also forbidden between operators and customers, although it’s more difficult to suppress. The company expects operators all over the country to repeat, word-perfect, special phrases for every situation. These phrases: are carefully programmed to communicate the most information in the fewest words. But even though they’re designed to be efficient, they’re often clumsy and hard to understand. For example, when a customer calls up and wants to know if a line is busy or out of order, an operator is expected to say, “In order to check I may have to interrupt the conversation and indicate you have an urgent reason to secure the line. Do you wish that done?” Most often the customer won’t catch all that and begins shouting impatiently at the operator to get on with checking the line. It would be far simpler and less aggravating if operators were allowed to tell customers in their own words what could and couldn’t be done about checking the line. If operators decided how operating would be done, this phrase and all the others would be abolished. But the company decides, and the phrases remain, because greater “efficiency” means greater profits.

Operators cannot be late or sick without endangering their jobs, no matter what the personal situation might be. When operators come in to work, they must walk into the room with their headsets on, and answer a call before they sit down. From that first moment they have to answer call after call, as quickly as possible, for as long as three and a half hours without a break. And they can’t make any mistakes. All the calls an operator takes are carefully checked by computers in the Central Ticket Investigation Bureau and all errors are recorded. Eventually each operator is confronted with her computer transcript. Each error is treated as a serious mistake.

Recently the company bought a new machine that will enable one operator to handle six times as many calls. Within a few years, these machines will eliminate most of the operators’ jobs in the city. Today operators are being forced to automate themselves out of their jobs, while the company continues to rake in huge profits! However meager operators’ wages are, the company would rather not pay them at all.

Operators’ pay begins at $2.15 an hour, unless she went to college. Then she’s paid about 50$ more a week. As in any workplace, women are barred from the higher paying jobs. By forcing women into the dullest, lowest paying jobs, the phone company makes millions of dollars in extra profits each year. And they successfully divide the men from the women in the work force. This division makes it difficult for the workers to get together to wipe out the differences between men’s and women’s wages, to raise them both and to fight against lousy working conditions.

If the operators weren’t watched so closely, they wouldn’t go along with the company’s schemes, like automating them out of work. Now^ when people call up and ask for help, operators must tell them to dial direct and give them dialing instructions. This just irritates most customers, who insist on being helped anyway. This puts the operators uptight – even more uptight than they already were, sitting still all day, getting hoarse giving dialing instructions time after time, instead of putting the calls through like they were trained to do.

Operators suffer the worst working conditions of all phone workers. When they start work they are assigned to work continually changing hours, sometimes staying on the job until midnight and having to be back the next morning at eight. Even after several months of work an operator never knows what days or what hours she’ll be working the next week until Thursday afternoon, when the schedule is posted.

While on the job, operators are constantly harassed. They’re told to work faster, to stop talking and to get into their chairs from the left and out from the right. In addition they’re warned against ever sounding irritated. An operator can be fired any moment for a “bad tone of service” or for a ”bad attitude.” The company knows how an operator sounds because they listen in, secretly, while she handles calls. Occasionally, a supervisor will catch someone chatting with another operator or becoming angry when she’s insulted by a customer. The supervisor will then walk up behind the operator and plug her headset into the equipment. Stepping back she’ll talk to the girl through the equipment, and accuse her as she’s sitting head down, watching the equipment. An operator is far-bidden to turn her head to face her accuser, and forbidden to defend herself, for that would be “insubordination.”

Most operators are fired this way, and many more simply quit. Out of 200 women in one office, 24 are replaced each month. The union will make no defense for the ones who get fired if they haven’t worked six months. The company has a free hand to keep on replacing operators who’ve worked a few months with new people. This way the company has been able to break up the friendships and close ties that form between operators, before the women can develop an organization capable of fighting back.


In spite of this heavy turnover, rumblings of discontent continue and occasionally even surface. Outside the operating room where I work, someone printed “I didn’t join the army” underneath a rule posted about not eating in the room. And inside the room women would write “I want out” or ”Help” on the cards used to signify they were going on a break. Other operators saw the cards and added to them. For example, one card started out with a screaming face drawn on it. After a week someone had written “Ma Bell has fleas” underneath the face. A week later someone else had added, “Ma Bell has fleas, rats, lice, supervisors and a chief. Ugh.” This put the company uptight, so they made one operator scrub the writing off all the cards. This didn’t stop the operators from writing on the cards but the drawings weren’t solving any of the problems on the job either.

Most of the operators took a very defeatist attitude towards ever solving these problems. When I asked one elder woman about the fleas, she admitted she’d been bitten for years. But, she said, “The fleas were here before I came and they’ll be here after I’m gone.” The fleas breed in the old equipment and on warm days they come out and feed on the operators’ blood.

One warm day a friend of mine was bitten over twenty times on each knee. She complained to management, but nothing was done. So she and I got together and put out a cartoon of operators scratching frantically, with the caption “Ma Bell has fleas.” We posted it up all over the workplace, and eventually sent a copy and a short note about the fleas to a newspaper columnist. Soon afterwards he wrote in his column, “If the voice with a smile sounds a bit scratchy, it’s because Ma Bell has fleas...” That very night the company paid an exterminator to come in and knock our all the fleas. Operators all over the city were stunned. The mood changed, and some of them became optimistic about solving other problems they faced on the job. In any struggle it’s important to fight for things you can win.

In this city, more and more of the women who are getting hired as operators are young former students. Many of them come here in search of a hip paradise, and end up at the phone company because they need to eat and the phone company is always hiring. When they come to work they bring with them ideas that things are profoundly wrong with this country, without) knowing exactly why. After a few months they’ve learned that the phone company, like all corporations, is run for the profit of a handful of company executives and stockholders, not for the benefit of the people who use the phones or the workers who build and maintain them. The company’s drive for greater and greater profits is the source of all the problems they face on the job speed-up, automation, insufficient lighting, and all the others. Those of-us who went to work knowing in our heads that imperialism destroyed working people soon developed deep gut hatred for the entire system.

In addition to young white women, the phone company hires some black and brown women, and some older women. (The number of women who continue to work for the company year after year is very small.) Altogether this makes up a relatively large progressive group among operators, a large middle group, and a small reactionary group. The differences come out clearly in operators’ attitudes toward customers who claim they’ve lost money in phone booths. Progressive operators take their word for it, middle forces hesitate, while reactionaries argue about it, identifying the company’s money as their own.

Mao teaches us that everywhere we should unite the progressive forces and rely on them, win over the middle forces, and isolate the backward forces. Inside the phone company this meant first rapping with the people, finding the most progressive forces, and getting them together. It also meant listening to the people, working with them, and finding out exactly what the problems on the job were.

Rapping to people, we learned that operators were most uptight about having to tell customers to dial direct. So a friend and I put together a comic strip beginning with the company’s plot to increase profits at the expense of operators’ jobs, showing how this affected working conditions, and ending with operators walking off their jobs. The comic was printed on the back page of a working class newspaper. We passed it out to our friends on the job. People dug it. Comic strips are a far less alienating form of agitation than long-winded, single-spaced leaflets.

The dress code was another burning issue. The company insisted that the women wear dresses to work on weekdays, even though they were far away from any contact with the public. On cold rainy days, it was absurd not to be allowed to wear pants to work. So a couple of women simply wore them one morning. The company sent one of the girls home to change and told the other one she was “unfeminine” and no one would sit next to her. But the rebels continued to wear pants, and others joined in. After three days over 25 people were showing up in pants. The company reacted by putting up an intimidating announcement stating that after January 21 anyone who wore pants to work would be “dealt with.” We countered with a People’s Policy on Dress, stating that after January 21 everyone should dress as they please, for warmth or comfort. As the deadline approached the struggle tightened up. It had begun as a spontaneous rebellion against the arbitrary company rule, but as it progressed it became organized. Everyone agreed to continue wearing pants after Jan. 21. And they would have, even if the company hadn’t backed down at the last moment. “Everyone must dress clean and neat” became the new rule, and although the people wearing pants continued to be hassled, no one was fired. Women wearing pants continued to say “Right on Sister” when they met in the cafeteria, and talked to each other about taking on new issues. Winning a struggle based on real needs and grievances is the only way to combat the defeatism holding back most working people.

WORKING AS A COMMUNIST: the importance of being open

By this time I’d been working in the building ten months. Another comrade had joined me a few months after I started and the two of us worked closely together. We were both taking karate at the time, and occasionally we’d run through the exercises during our breaks. The other women dug it. Many of them didn’t like feeling so afraid when they left the building after dark, and wanted to be strong and self-reliant, even though they’d been taught, ever since they were small, that they should be weak and dependent. People affectionately called us the ”karate kids” and a few of them even joined our class.

Everyone was also very interested in the other things we were into – everything from street fighting to motorcycles to backpacking in the mountains. Most working women, especially the older ones, just move back and forth between their homes and work; their lives are boring. Consequently, even the women who insisted they disapproved of student radicals would listen eagerly whenever I told stories of the street actions I had been in, and explained the issues behind them. From the very beginning, I was out front about my politics and my former involvement in the student movement. This opened me up to a lot of SDS baiting.

Occasionally some people would even ask me if I were a communist, and I’d answer “yes,” It was important to expose myself before the company or the union got round to it. The women reacted strongly against this at first, but after a while their reactions were tempered by the fact that I was one of them, that I worked hard at the same job, and shared the same problems.

It’s always important to relate to people as friends, not just political organizers, Mao emphasizes this when he says cadre should “learn from the people,” “serve the people” and “become one with the people,” For me this meant a lot of personal changes. At first it meant listening to the other women, coming to understand credit problems, the complications involved in raising kids and holding together a family, and the discipline of having to go to work everyday, even when sick. As time passed I got more into some of the things they were into, like cooking, and tried to help out when problems came up. Simple things, like going to baby showers, and giving away ear cushions for the headsets do a lot to counter the image of communists as brainwashed people, sneaking around, blindly carrying out orders from Russia. One day I told an elder woman I was a communist, and she jumped. “Card-carrying?” she asked, I told her no, that I was a revolutionary communist, and she looked relieved. “That’s nice,” she said. Most of the women who knew I was a communist thought at first I was crazy, but they also thought I was nice.

A few women, however, took the ideas I put forward very seriously. I constantly tried to link their hatred for the job with an understanding that the problems stemmed from the fact that the company was run for private profit, not according to the workers’ needs, It made sense and they agreed. The next step was getting them to agree not to quit, but to stick around and organize everybody else. A few of us couldn’t change, much, but all of us, once we got it together, could change everything.

Once a friend and I sat down to talk about it, we decided there were ten things we wanted to change–things ranging from paid sick leave, to an end to secret observations, to free day care. I took the program to my next collective meeting, and a comrade suggested I read Lenin, What Is To Be Done, about the dangers of economism. After the meeting I stayed up all night studying chapters three and four. I’d tried to read these chapters before, but hadn’t been able to wade through them, because I hadn’t reached a point in my practice where it was necessary to use this theory to guide my practice to a higher level. When I got back together with my friend we wrote a militant, anti-imperialist preamble for the program, and added four demands–including an end to the 10% surtax on phone calls and the institution of free local calls from phone booths.

Lenin also tells us in What Is To Be Done that communists should work in the trade union movement but that they should also build support among workers for an ongoing struggles against the state. In this country that means building support for struggles of black and brown people, and support for colonial liberation struggles, like Vietnam, It also means opposing the growing fascization of the state, and opposing the oppression and exploitation of women under imperialism. And it means unifying all working people, men and women, white and third world. Inside the phone company a handful of us began to build this united front by forming a radical caucus. We were men and women, communists and non-communists, from all the different locations, A fighter for one became a fighter for all. For the women it meant not only organizing among operators to oppose their exploitation as women, but organizing all phone workers to oppose the exploitation of all oppressed people.


Our first project was building support for the people of Vietnam, We put out a leaflet asking people to join us in the October Moratorium march and held a meeting where a Vietnam veteran showed his slides and rapped, A small group of new people came to the meeting, and we continued to have them, picking up a few contacts each week.

From the beginning we attended union meetings, and raised issues from the floor. But, except for one meeting, where we were able to pass a resolution supporting the Indians on Alcatraz and donated union money to them we were usually outvoted or ruled out of order. The union wasn’t about to let us turn it into a revolutionary organization, so more and more we turned to our own projects. We wanted to build solidarity between all working people, and we began by raising money and canned food for the GE strikers, and going to the picket line outside the local appliance store ourselves.

We are also trying to build support among the workers for third world struggles, including the right to self-determination. After the Indians moved onto Alcatraz and it was in the newspapers, we put out a leaflet titled, “Who Owns Alcatraz?” In the leaflet we tried to explain how the U.S. cavalry had slaughtered the Indians and pushed them off their land just as the modern imperialist army is attempting to slaughter the Vietnamese today. Response to the leaflet was good, but isolated leaflets, coming out irregularly, don’t make much of an impact on workers. What’s needed is a newsletter that comes out on a regular basis and links up issues less haphazardly.

At its peak thirty phone workers came to caucus meetings. Mostly they were people we met on the job, although some saw our leaflets and sought us out. We wanted the caucus to grow and encouraged everyone to come to our meetings and help out with our projects. Eventually this led to serious problems. It’s hard to integrate new people into an ongoing group without stopping everything, going back over the history of the group, and answering questions. It was necessary to define our unity principles and tighten up the organization of the caucus. We did this by setting up a steering committee, which met often and systematically tried to sum up the practice of the group. For example, when we were collecting food and blankets for the Indians we got permission from the company to place the boxes inside the buildings, where we set them up. Later we decided it had been a mistake to collaborate with the company, and from then on stood outside the buildings whenever we made collections.

Another more complex problem developed around a decision to disrupt a union meeting because the union had suspended stewards who were fighting back against racist discrimination in their office. Some caucus members had second thoughts about this tactic, so we discussed it again, this time stressing Mao’s principle that correct ideas come from practice, and that the only way to know whether a decision is correct or not is to carry it out wholeheartedly, and then sum up the effects. If some of us disrupted the meeting, and the rest of us calmly raised issues from the floor, we’d have no way of knowing which tactic was correct. From past experience, we already knew that when we raised issues from the floor, we were quickly ruled out of order. So we decided, once more, to disrupt the meeting, and did it. Later we summed up the effect of this action, and decided it had been the correct thing to do.

Then people began to ask about where they could read about where correct ideas come from. In this way some people came to appreciate Mao as a guide to action and began to read Mao.

As communists working in the caucus, another woman and I constantly put forward Mao Tsetung Thought as a guide to solving the problems we faced. We wanted to organize all the operators in the city, and we wanted all the other phone workers to support them. So keeping in mind Mao’s principle that you should investigate a problem thoroughly before attempting to solve it, we organized a fact-finding meeting of all the operators we knew in the city. At the meeting we collected numerous stories of severe harassment and injustice operators faced on the job. Later we printed up the material and distributed it widely among all phone workers. Investigating and then exposing the operator’s problem was the way to solve it, because all the other phone workers could see the need to line up behind the operators, even if they weren’t there already. Operators are the most oppressed sector of the phone workers, and any struggle that develops against the company will have to be based on them.

At one point, the caucus organized a one-day picket-line outside the company employment office, to protest the policy of barring women from jobs as installers, and other exclusively men’s jobs. In organizing this demonstration around the real needs of working women, we were able to win the support of several women from NOW, National Organization of Women. NOW is made up of middle class women and has mainly concerned itself with the problems of middle class and upper class women. In this case, the NOW sisters followed the leadership of the caucus, and even got two male contacts they had to apply for work as operators the same day as our demonstration. The company did not change its hiring practices but this action did change the thinking of a lot of women, and men, working at the phone company, and of a number of NOW women, who began to see the importance of basing the struggle for women’s liberation on the working class.

Working closely together enabled RU comrades to develop our work as rapidly as we did. We criticized each other careful because we wanted to correct our mistakes and serve the people better. Other comrades working on other jobs helped out by summing up their experiences and telling us about it. We tried to avoid each other’ mistakes and adopt each other’s successful methods of work. All of us were attempting to build caucuses in our workplaces, and eventually we planned to bring them together into a city-wide Workers’ Committee. Drawing on the experience of comrades in nearby cities, we tried to avoid a narrow trade union approach to our work, and planned to branch out into an organization of working people where Third World men and women would plan a leading role.

The phone company caucus was about half men, half women. The women had played a leading role from the beginning, but in forming the caucus it was important to unite men and women. The primary struggle is class struggle. Throughout this country working women are exploited for huge profits, and all women are socially oppressed. These are basic components of U.S. imperialism.

As communists, we have continually pointed out, through all our work with women in the phone company, that the liberation of women is bound up with the freedom of the entire working class. That women will only win complete freedom when the workers overthrow the dictatorship of the imperialist bosses and establish our own state: socialism. And revolution lies in combining the struggle for women’s rights with all other struggles against the imperialist enemy, under the leadership of a real Communist Party representing the true interests of working women and all working people.