THE TERM for the job is 'switchman,' but I am not called a 'switchwoman' - I'm called a 'switch bitch.'"
Joanne Bell, one of 36 women of 1,173 central office repair workers in the Washington metropolitan area telephon system, shrugs with indifference. "Most guys in this job say they don't want to work with a 'dumb broad.' I am the only female in a crew of eight. I don't care what they call me as long as my pay is the same as theirs."
Bell, 27, divorced and the mother of an 8-year-old daughter, says she had to "exhaust the grievance procedure" to move out of her clerical job. Her salary immediately jumped $45 a week. A telephone operator makes $229 in this area. Bell now makes $325 a week.
"The company tries to hand you this line that those 'male' jobs are super mechanical and difficult when, really, 75 per cent of the time you're tyring to monopolize your mind because you're super bored," says Bell.
Joanne Bell and other blue-collar workers, interviewed here and at auto assembly lines in Detroit, tell stories different from those depicted in public relations ads extolling a new world of women finding equality in traditionally male jobs.
In terms often raw and earthy, they tell of economic competition and sexual stereotypes. They talk not only of sexism, but of sex on the assembly line, of jealous husbands who don't want wives to work with men, of male coworkers, hostile about women taking over a "man's job," of male vs. female seniority battles, of the strong blue-colar male attitude that women should stay in the foot and pregnant, and belong either in bed or in the kitchen."
But, despite the hassles, long hours, dirt, noise and jobs of mind-breaking monotony, blue-collar work is regarded - at least financially - as the Cadillac of jobs for women with little education and no career dreams. A former waitress now working on an auto assembly line was asked if she knew any other way she could make as much money. "Not legally," she replied.
Today, 5.1 million - or one out of seven working women - are classified as blue collar. Of the 28.9 million blue-collar workers, one out of six is a woman.
Although the term blue collar includes skilled and unskilled labor, women are still all but invisible in the crafts.
A disproportionate number, 1.7 million, or one out of five, are still clustered in such traditionally female work as making apparel and other textile products. Since 1972, however, federal government pressure has forced many companies to hire women in better-paying factory jobs traditionally held by men. For expample, women now make up from 10 to 12 per cent of the Big Three auto assembly jobs - once a male preserve - and their numbers are increasing annually. "I can get a woman a job quicker'n a man today," one United Auto Workers man said, shaking his head in disgust. 40 Million Jobs
THE INCREASING number of women blue-collar workers is part of an overall trend - the continuing rush of women from homes into offices and plants - considered by economists and sociologists as one of the most profound social changes in American history. Of the 22 million people who entered the work force in 1975 and 1976, the majority - 1.4 million - were women, compared to 800,000 men. The trend shows no signs of abating. In April, almost 40 million - 48 per cent of working age females - were either in the work force or actively seeking jobs.
There are many reasons why nearly half the working age women pursue jobs. They include the drastic drop in the number of women having babies, changing attitudes about working women, the hight divorce rate (twice as great last year than a decade ago).
But primarily, women work for the same reason men do - they have to. The overwhelming majority - some 22 million of the 38 million who now work - are either singel, divorced, widowed or have husbands earning less that $7,000 a year. The vast majority of these women are still clustered in low-paying white-collar jobs - clerical, secretarial, waitress, nurse and school teacher. Equal pay and opportunity laws notwithstanding, the gap between women's and men's average earnings keeps widening by men. Three years ago, women earned more - 63 cents to the men's dollar.
While there is still, obviously, discrimination in hiring and firing practices, there is another reason why some women keep lower-paying waitress, clerk or telephone operator jobs rather than seek more lucrative "men's work."
"There seems to be a cultural drag hanging on both men and women," says Glenn E. Watts, president of the Communication Workers of America. "Women are not coming forth at the rate I expected for the higher paying jobs like lineman and telephone installer. Even in union work, the women frankly defer to the men."
TERESA SCOTT, 28, with two children, and Audrella Galery, 39, with four children and four stepchildren, fought" male chauvinist" husbands to go to work for the Telephone Company, but have no desire to follow Bell's example. Scott says, "I just want to stay where I am." As service representatives, they make around $250 a week.
Galery says ruefully, "They tell women that a service rep is a glamorous job so long that they believe it. I'm staying here to fight working conditions. Company people eavesdrop on phones to see how you handle customer calls, they time you when you go to the bathroom. Most of the women are afraid to fight these things."
While some women who shift to factories are still confined to stereotypical female work, others cling to the rigid structure of "women's jobs." In one Fisher Body plant in suburban Detroit, 60 per cent of the 4,300 workers who sew car interiors are women. They strain arm muscles, get needle gashes on their fingers, headaches and stomach pains in hot rooms. The pace is unrelenting; on some jobs, workers sew 60 pieces an hour.
Reba Williams takes home $213 a week as a sewer. She has four children. Williams and her husband, a television tube welder, know the split-shift existence of many working-class families; he works days, she works afternoons. She dreams of staying home and "baking cakes" if she could afford it. She has no career hopes for her daughters - "just for my son. I want him to be a doctor." For herself, "I don' want to be treated like a man. I don't want to do their jobs."
Those women who move into "men's" jobs often run into resentment from their male co-workers. Teresa Dorsey, who became the Fisher plant's first woman cutter eight years ago, walks back and forth (nine miles a day) laying out long strips of material on wide table, at $7.56 an hour.
Her male cutter partner grumbles: "The women don't do their work." Dorsey grumbles back: "Talk to him, you wind up with lies. The men have never really accepted us on the jobs yet."
Part of the resentment on both sides is sexual. "You got these women in the factory and I'll tell you where the bowup comes," says Jim Ellis, a Detroit UAW official. "Say [the factory has] 300 women and you got five or 10 going out with supervisors. They get special treatment on account of hanky-panky, you know. You ain't gonna stop it, but it causes a lot of trouble. The other women and men on the line really get mad."
Mary Dalton, oneof the few women on her shift in a Chrysler plant, sees it a different way. "The first day, the guy handing out materials offered me $100 if I'd go out in the parking lot with him at lunch break," she says. "I had trouble with my machine and the foreman said my problems would be handled quicker if I wore thinner T-shirts. I reported him the next day." Seniority System
MEN WHO CROSS over to traditionally female jobs in turn are hassled. "When men first started being telephone operators, everyone automatically classified them as fags," says CWA local leader Pete Cattuci. One union committeeman in an auto plant said, "The girls asked one guy on the sewing machines if he wanted to go to the bathroom with them and I thought he was going to slug them."
But anger also centers on competition between men and women for the better jobs. Some men talk with almost mystical fervor about the rights and rituals of the seniority system, believe women are favored and say the easier jobs are a worker's just due only after years on the job.
Bud Heady, a day shift committeeman at a Ford plant, says: "No woman better call me and say, 'I'm a woman - I can't do it.' She's got to do what the guy does. Why should you back off for this woman and you got 10 years in and yuu got to do it but she's got three days in and don't got to do it?"
Heady's view was given a boost by a recent Supreme Court ruling that the seniority system was not necessarily illegal even if its effect was to favor white males over less senior blacks and women in bidding for promotions, protection from layoffs and other benefits of years on the job.
A number of women, however, believe companies are discriminating against them and have gained the support of some union men in fighting it.
CWA's Cattuci says, "A girl in my office wants to be an installer.When a man applies for that job, the C and P (Chesapeake & Potomac) medical department just takes his blood pressure. When a woman goes for her physical, they feel it necessary to give her a breast exam. They don't give a male a prostate gland checkup! She refused the physical and negated her chances of getting the job. Her case is pending arbitration."
Bonnie Nation worked as clerk for a doctor until she took a job at Ford. Three years ago, she says, "I was pregnant and given a harder job, I think, just to get me to quit. I was stocking - all day bending down and lifting, I lost the baby. The second time I was pregnant, the company doctor said he couldn't guarantee my life and all I was doing was sitting at a booth, flipping over pieces of material that weighed at most three pounds. I begged to stay."
"I had to go on layoff with no benefits. I appealed it twice to the Michigan State Labor Department and won. Six weeks after I had my son, they paid me for all the time I lost."
Jim Sweat, the day chairman at Dana division, which makese truck frames, nods agreement. "I've seen supervisors deliberately put women on jobs they couldn't do, to force them out. I seen a woman pull rails until she couldn't pull no more." More Militancy
THE YOUNGER WOMEN approach their physically taxing factory jobs with more militancy than older women and with tough practicality. "I pushed my butt selling Avon products all day and wound up buying more stuff than I sold," says Joyce Williams, 27, with two children and an on-again, off-again separation from her husband.
Williams, one of about 400 women of 2,600 in the plant, now makes $250 a week. "Clerical jobs pay about $3.50 an hour. How could I afford to pay the baby sitter with a rotten, cruddy job I don't like any better than this? If they paid more, I'd gladly take a job where I don't have to wash my hair every night."
Joyce Williams' job in a noisy, oily factory is to pick up impact absorbers for bumpers and hand them on a conveyor belt. She does 510 an hour. After one layoff, with the newly hired women the first to go, men who had never worked production took their place. After three weeks, the men were up to 280 pieces an hour.
Dalton, one of millions of divorced women with children who must work, quit her waitress job of five years to work at Chrysler because "I had no benefits, was paying $60 a month on my own Blue Cross and getting $1.50 an hour plus tips. And you had to pay 10 to 12 per cent to the bus boys."
For her current $205 weekly take-home check, medical and vacation benefits, there is a price. All day, Dalton works with asbestos to make brake pads. "I started spitting up black phlegm before I began wearing a face mask." She worries often about working with asbestos. "I left waitressing to get security - now I'll probably end up getting cancer for security."
After five years, what difference have the women made in such entrenched male havens as auto plants? Some union chairmen say women miss work less often than men. And women say the resistance is breaking down. Joyce Williams says, "If you think it's bad now, you should have seen it five years ago. We've taken the heat. We're making it easier for the new women coming in today."