A month or two later, I was fortunate enough to obtain a job with the Western Electric Company through an employment agency. The company’s management began hiring blacks to work in the central telephone office, at 9th and Race St, in downtown Philadelphia. I began their training program and eventually joined the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union.
My job was to install electromechanical trunk links and line links. The most frustrating thing about the job was that company plans were already in place to dismantle all the equipment we had just finished installing, due to a gradual phasing in of computer technology. Computers were already being rolled in on upper level floors. This technological progress was disappointing, because I figured I had finally built something to last for posterity. It was all happening too fast.
The following statement is taken from the original 1957 Western Electric advertisement:Those dangling cables with their thousands of wires are pre-cut to the right length so that each one will meet the right spot in the 11.5 foot high banks of complex dial equipment – some 300 tons of it – now on the way here from our factories.
The following is another statement taken from the original 1957 Western Electric advertisement:Well, the wires are. And soon the dial switching equipment will be up too as [the] Western Electric installers transform the confusion here into the orderly scene you’d expect in a Bell telephone central office.
When working in the equipment rooms with other installers, we would listen in on telephone conversations and even play them over loud speakers for everyone’s entertainment. Adulteress couples could be heard scheming ways to cheat on their spouses; moreover, the pornographic dialogs were enough to cause most of the guys on the floor to blush with embarrassment. The word came down that the women operators would sometimes do the same thing on another floor. This is why anyone should be careful about what they say over the phone, because you never know whose listening.
The employees were a mixture of blacks, Italians, Irish and Polish; with a number of them being heavy drinkers. Many of them would hit the local bar during our two 15 minute breaks and at lunch time. Once, when we walked out on strike, I and some of the guys were tickled, because we had time off to hook up and hit the local taverns.
At another time, the secretary and a bunch of us went out to a local restaurant on a hot muggy Friday afternoon, and didn’t return to work on time. While we were drinking and scarfing down spaghetti and lasagna, our boss, a former Western Electric movie sound engineer, came to get us. He entered the tavern and began wolfing—threatening and demanding we return to work. Then Sheila, his Irish-American secretary who had gotten tipsy, blessed him out and sent him packin’. After he left, all of us conspired to hang together, and return at our leisure. I and most of the other recent hirees eventually returned after about an hour, while Sheila and the others stayed and took the rest of the afternoon off.
Fortunately, none of us were fired. Rumor had it that the boss dared not make such a move; because he knew it would have caused an inconvenience for the company, and possibly a walkout of the rank-and-file. The installation was already behind schedule. Meanwhile, not wanting to get into a union conflict, management just deducted the hours from our paychecks rather than fire anyone.
Western Electric along with Bell Labs was an arm of AT&T that provided hardware and installation of telephone equipment. In 1996, Western Electric became Lucent Technologies.