Coping With the "Post-Loyalty" Corporate World

Disconnected: How Six People from AT&T Discovered the New Meaning of Work in a Downsized Corporate America

by Barbara Rudolph

Free Press, 1998 (224 pages, $25)

Cloth, ISBN 0-684-84266-1

Courageous victims of downsizing, reengineering and corporate restructuring are fighting back. Not content to view themselves as disposable workers, they're taking charge of their careers. Maggie Starley, operator turned service rep, found her CWA contract was the best weapon she had.

From the breakup of "Ma Bell" in 1984, through 1995, AT&T slashed more than 120,000 jobs. Then, in 1996, the company dumped NCR and spun off manufacturing as Lucent Technologies. AT&T got leaner still by some 5,700 positions while Lucent cut 17,000. Managers, sales executives and, yes, Maggie, were all "disconnected."

In her first book, titled Disconnected: How Six People from AT&T Discovered the New Meaning of Work in a Down-sized Corporate America, Barbara Rudolph, who has spent more than a decade as a writer at Forbes and Time magazines, follows the lives of AT&T employees cut loose by the company. All successfully, though with different degrees of difficulty, make the transition from what Rudolph calls the "old" world of work - where loyalty presumably bought lifetime job security - to the "new," driven by contingency and marketability of skills.

Rudolph lets each story tell itself, often in the employee's own words. Maggie, at age 42, loses her job in 1994, one of 5,500 such casualties as, with the introduction of voice robot technology, the company closes Binghampton, N.Y. and a rash of other operator service centers.

She struggles with feelings of betrayal and rising debts until, in 1996, she and former colleagues are rehired as temporary employees at AT&T's new customer service center in Syracuse. By the start of 1997, 58 of 100 such temps make permanent staff. Because of her CWA contract, AT&T restores Maggie's seniority for 22 years' service. Its first-hired, last-fired provision gives her relative job security. She should be able to make her 30-and-out to retire.

Maggie punches a keyboard from eight to four, setting up phone services for business customers. She's on track to earn top pay, more than $39,000 annually after one year. But the pace is grueling - painful far beyond her expectations. After tolerating exacerbated shoulder strain and carpal tunnel syndrome, her back goes out.

Maggie quits AT&T for a better-paying job with NYNEX as a residential customer service rep - in Binghamton, in the very same building where she started as an AT&T operator at age 17. Then NYNEX is merged into Bell Atlantic.

"Who can say whether Bell Atlantic or AT&T will be the safer place to work?" says Maggie. If she has to move again, she'll take her portable CWA-negotiated pension with her. After all, the year 2003 is not far away.