Chump Changed

The pay was low, but working for Ma Bell meant a worry-free retirement. Now Qwest is sending out the pension checks, and local retirees say they're getting the wrong number.

When Shirley Zach graduated from high school in the spring of 1948, she landed a job with Northwestern Bell. The pay was just 95 cents an hour, but being a telephone operator promised security. She learned the ropes quickly, donning a bulky headset and taking up a post at a "cord board," routing calls from Midwestern cities and towns to destinations all over the country.

The board consisted of two metal consoles: a boxy one for incoming calls that sat upright, and another that lay flat in front of it, which she used to direct the calls elsewhere. She would receive a call from, say, Springdale, Iowa, and hold the line while she used a rotary dial to call another operator in, perhaps, Duluth. When she got through, she'd complete the connection by plugging a line from the upright console into the other.

The job sounds simple, but Zach had to master all kinds of tricks in order to meet callers' needs. She learned, for instance, how to "challenge" a connection--squatting on a line when it was tied up and waiting for a a regional operator to become available--and to put a call to New York through Chicago first because it had a better chance of being answered if it came through a big-city switchboard.

Craig Lassig

"People always say, 'Okay, you were like that Lily Tomlin character'" from the Seventies television show Laugh-In, Zach says. "But I enjoyed taking the calls from all over. I enjoyed talking with people." She worked eight-hour shifts, in a room with 100 other operators. It was, she recalls, a culture of family and dedication that was rare in most companies; everyone took their obligations seriously. "We had to be there," she says emphatically. "We were the phone company."

In exchange for that dedication, every month Northwestern Bell put away money toward Zach's retirement. Zach was positive her nest egg would always be there. After all, the money came from Northwestern Bell's parent company, the monolithic American Telephone and Telegraph Company--known as AT&T and, less formally, Ma Bell. "You had a job for life," she explains. "You worked for that salary, thinking you would get benefits and job security."

AT&T was one of the first companies to offer such a pension, starting way back in 1913. That pension fund, AT&T and its subsidiaries always promised, was untouchable. "The trust funds are dedicated solely to the payment of service pensions and death benefits," promised an article in a 1974 issue of the company's Bell Telephone Magazine. "Not one dollar can be touched for any other purpose." Like her colleagues, Zach envisioned the fund as a kind of savings account that was earning interest for her. Whatever the future brought, there would be money for her when she retired. And the more interest the fund returned, the more money there would be.

Zach, who's now 70, put in more than 32 years with Northwestern Bell. As she sits in a booth at a New Hope McDonald's a few days after Christmas clad in a green Santa sweatshirt that contrasts festively with her reddish, semi-bouffant hairdo, the memories she relates about her career are pleasant. Though she took time off in the 1950s to raise four kids, mostly as a single mother after a divorce, the work allowed her a flexible schedule and gave her a stable environment. "I always say that my kids were raised by the telephone," she says. "I called them at home when I couldn't be there."

Zach stayed with the company until she retired in 1990. In 1980 she transferred to a job in Bell's Plymouth accounting office. That's where she was working in 1984, when federal officials concluded that her employer's parent corporation, AT&T, held too powerful a monopoly over telecommunications. AT&T was split into several smaller companies. Zach continued to report to work, but her employer became U S West. Six years later the office she worked in was closed, and Zach searched for a different job within the company. She decided to try her hand at her old vocation as an operator and sought a transfer. Despite her 32 years of service--22 of those as an operator--the new company required her to take a test in order to get the transfer. It didn't go well.

Instead of testing Zach on her proficiency at connecting customers' calls, U S West asked her a barrage of questions designed to probe her personality. "I flunked the written test," Zach recalls. "The questions didn't even pertain to being an operator. They took all the people questions out of it. I took it personally, because in the old days you went over the top to get somebody connected to somebody else." Insulted, Zach opted to retire five years earlier than she had planned. "I figured I could live on the retirement I was promised," she explains.

When her first monthly pension check arrived, Zach got her second unpleasant surprise. The check amounted to just over $700--far less than she had expected. She lives frugally in a no-frills apartment complex that abuts Highway 169 in New Hope, but even so, were it not for the social-security check she receives for roughly the same amount, she would have to find a full-time job. "There's only been one increase since I've retired, which amounted to a $10 raise [per month]," she says. "And there's no way you can justify that as taking care of an employee." Recently Zach learned that she won't get any more cost-of-living increases, nor would any increases in the cost of her health care be covered.

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