Dial Direct Action for Customer Service

For better or worse, I work for a power company. My mostly white
male union workers and I have been through cycle after cycle of lousy labor contracts. We’ve seen healthcare, retirement benefits, job security, and work practices crumble, and we dread our next round of labor negotiations. Customer service has fared no better than industrial work in this age of deregulation, outsourcing, global acquistions, cost cuts, and rising fuel prices.

The other day, I was on a job in an electric room behind a shopping mall. The door opened and in walked Lou, a co-worker. I knew Lou slightly. He had been through several job abolishments and was now a displaced worker in the Collection Department — that is, he was now the power company’s equivalent of a Repo Man.

As is customary when co-workers meet, we started to complain about how things were going. Lou’s belly-aching was even more emphatic than mine, and he told me the following.

He had been sent to shut off a customer for non-payment in an apartment building. He located the electric room, found the right meter number, pulled it, put the “boots” on, killing the power to that customer, and got ready to leave. But not so easy. The fast-acting customer saw the company car and raced down to the street. Lou explained that he was sorry but the customer would have to call the 1-800 number to restore service. The customer flew back up to his apartment and got a copy of his bill and gave it to Lou before he could leave. Lou explained again that there was nothing he could do, the customer would have to talk to Billing, and got into his car.

With that, the customer threw himself down in front of the car and told Lou that he would have to run him over, or turn his goddamn power back on. Not knowing what else to do, Lou went back into the meter room and called the police.

He had a copy of the customer’s bill in his hand, so he also called the
company, and after some digging, it turned out that the company had the wrong meter number with the wrong customer. Lou turned the lights back on.

By this time the cops had come. They told the customer to go back home, now that he had his power, and they told Lou to “just get out of here.”

When Lou finished telling me this story I said, “But Lou, if he hadn’t
stopped you, his power could have been off for days before they ever got it straightened out!”

Lou threw up both arms and said, “You see what I mean?”

Nancy Wallace

Nancy Wallace is an alternate steward in Local 97 of the IBEW-AFL-CIO.