71: The High-Voltage Cage

71: The High-Voltage Cage

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

The High-Voltage Cage

Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.

~Harvey Fierstein

I was working at AT&T. This was back when it ran the telephone business all over America, before the government broke it into pieces in the early 1980s. I’d started in a clerical position, like most women. Then, Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T, encouraged women to apply for jobs there in quality control. These were higher-paying jobs that had previously only been filled by men.

I signed up, as did a few other females, and the rocky ride began.

Inspecting wires can be a grueling and difficult job. Wire was often wrapped on huge reels that had to be rolled around the shop to get to the testing cage. The wire had to be stripped for testing, then attached to electronic testing kits, and this often led to voltage shocks.

My female co-workers and I learned the art of guiding huge reels of ocean cable by turning the reel while it was rolling, not while it was still. We learned how to strip a wire of its jacket and how to avoid shocks. We learned about injection molding, intermittent broken wires, conductors and the need to prevent them from touching.

The biggest lesson involved the high-voltage cage. This was where wires had to be tested in the water. Most of the wires we tested at Western Electric were used outdoors, and the wire jackets needed to be strong, to keep water from getting in and shorting out the wires. Some of the wires produced by Western Electric were even used under the ocean, to carry telephone calls from one continent to another.

The cage transmitted high voltage once the testing wires were attached, and the cage door was tightly closed and locked. The resulting electrical surge began when the tester pulled down the switch, which was, intentionally and for protection, outside the cage.

No one was to stay inside the high-voltage cage during the test. As long as the cage door was open, the switch could not be thrown. The tester would exit the cage after setting up the wire for testing, and then throw the switch from outside the cage, where huge amounts of voltage that could kill someone were sent through the conductors in the wire.

A few days earlier, a worker had been killed inside the cage. Employees in the shop would get a bit too confident and remain inside the cage during a test — a dangerous action. One such fellow was actually eating his lunch inside the cage while he tested.

That’s the backdrop for my story, which is about the backlash we women were getting from a few or our male co-workers. There were five of us in a department of about thirty people. Most of the men were fair, kind, and helpful. But they didn’t try to stop the few who were nasty. Sure, we were a little awkward as we learned our new jobs. We sometimes needed help from shop workers. We declared good wires as bad by mistake from time to time. But this happened to all the new male workers, too. With practice we would all get better and more confident.

A couple of childish males in the quality-control department thought it was a hoot to hide our tools, or to laugh at us as we struggled to roll cable reels with thousands of feet of wire upon them, or as we tentatively hooked up wires in the high-voltage cage. We were all sick of their boorish behavior.

One normal working day, my friend Betty came into our quality-control office, breathing heavily, pale and sweating. “Chuck locked the high-voltage cage,” she told me, putting her arms upon the desk and taking deep scared breaths, “WHILE I WAS IN THERE!” I was shocked.

Betty had to stand in the middle of the high-voltage cage and scream for help. We were taught that if we were in that cage and the door got locked, we were not to touch anything, and were to call for assistance. Our co-worker Chuck and a few of the other guys thought it was hilarious to watch Betty get scared inside that cage, unable to move for fear of being electrocuted.

At some point, a shop worker unlocked the cage, and all hell broke loose. We’d been complaining to our boss about this boorish male behavior, but he just told us to “man up” — that the newness of it would pass, and the guys would get bored.

Meanwhile, Betty could have been killed by what Chuck thought was some kind of funny joke. I’d had enough.

“60 Minutes,” I told our quality department’s manager. “If this doesn’t end, I am going on 60 Minutes to tell our story.”

The department manager fired our supervisor, which he deserved for ignoring that horrible situation run amok in his section. We got a new supervisor, and in due course all the men, as well as the females, asked that I run for union representative so we would have someone on the board who did what unions are supposed to do — protect the workers.

And I did! I ran for union rep. Many in the shop cheered me on and campaigned for me. They’d seen the horrible behavior of a handful of badly behaved males. Once elected, I got the union to approve transferring those males to the “wire shop.” Females had not yet been assigned to that department, and perhaps the boors would be better off nowhere around female workers.

And as such things go, females learned the jobs and all the tricks of the trade over the years. The balance of males to females became more or less even, much like the general population.

It was time to take a stand, and I did. It wasn’t easy, and along the way I made some enemies. But now, almost fifty years later, I recall the era of the maligned and mocked female worker, and how one person saying “Enough!” helped to bring about change.

~Patricia Fish

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