Working the Night Shift

04/24/2009 - 00:00 AM

  • Working the Night Shift
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The switchboard ladies began work at 7 a.m. in the morning. Blue-collar workers clocked on an hour later at eight, and the office workers arrived at 8.30. At 10 p.m. it was time for the night shift to take over from the “switchboard ladies”, until the start of the following day. Strangely enough, the word “notturinisti”, used in common Italian parlance to denote these workers, is not to be found in any of today’s main Italian language dictionaries, even though the term is still used to indicate night shift workers at factories which work around the clock – as was the case with telephone companies. Until the late Seventies, all of these workers were male. A rigid separation of female operators by day and male operators by night had been enshrined in law (law no. 818 of November 10, 1907, Italy’s first ever Unified Law to protect women from exploitation at work), and there was a blanket ban on women working at night.

From 1907 to 1977: Gender-separated laws, contracts and practices

The first legally-binding provisions for the telephone industry, drawn up following national bargaining by private companies and unions, came into effect on April 19, 1922. Among other things, they included an explicit exclusion of women staff from night working: “Night work may not be undertaken by female employees except on an exceptional basis, when it is impossible for alternate provisions to be made.” It may be seen from documents attached to these provisions that “exceptional” use of women workers was a customary practice at a handful of companies across northern Italy, including the concessionary companies for the Cremona and Mantua phone networks, where one woman who supplied nighttime switching services. Most companies, though, had male night shift operators, who were hired on a “worker” contractual classification basis. Their daytime female counterparts were hired under the “telephone operator and accountancy” category. The Casale (Piedmont region) telephone network, run by the Ing. Bormida Company, was one such outfit. The term “notturnisti” appeared in the 1934 TETI collective-bargaining contract, in which switching employees were divided into “Female Telephone Operators” and “Male Night Shift Telephone Workers”, who, later in the text, were referred to as “notturnisti”. The 1945 STIPEL collective bargaining contract also used the term “notturnisti”, which it defines as “3-A1 category personnel, namely: “switching and special services staff”, who were employed on the same terms and conditions as clerical staff and typists. Night shift workers, however, received a 30% supplement over their daytime colleagues’ regular salary. Law no. 903 of December 9, 1977, which ushered in workplace equality for men and women, swept away all of this status quo. It was now possible for women to work night shifts, and to receive the same pay as their male colleagues.

Supplementary night shift workers: students and employees

In the 1950s and 60s, a large number of university students were hired as “supplementary night shift workers” on the two-hour shift between 10 p.m. and midnight – the last part of the day when the exchange handled a large enough call volume to warrant keeping a higher number of staff on duty. From the STIPEL archives, it may be seen that the company preferred to hire either university students for the two-hour supplementary night shift, or full-time public sector workers who wanted to make a little extra money on the side. If the company took on public sector workers who already had a job, it did not need to pay INPS, INAM and INA-Casa social security contributions. As a consequence of these hiring policies, most night-time shift workers were rather well-educated. For example, in 1960/1961, all bar one of the 33 applicants (average age 23) for the night shift at the Turin long-distance exchange had completed their middle-high school studies; nine of the 33 were at university. In addition to its complement of standard and supplementary night shift workers, phone companies also maintained a roster of “substitute night shift workers” to stand in for the regular staff.

Connecting calls, and other duties

Like their daytime female colleagues, the “notturnisti” provided long distance call services (until 1970, when the national direct dialling network was completed), and “Special services” (wake-up calls, time of day, directory enquiries, taxi hire, sports information, etc) – special services expanded rapidly from the 1950s onwards. Night workers were also involved in the daily routine of updating telephone directories. Every night, on the basis of hand-written documents supplied by the company’s commercial arm, night shift workers corrected the telephone subscriber directory, removing subscribers who had moved house or cancelled their phone, and adding new subscribers. The practice continued until the late 1960s, when the paper archives were replaced by an automatic system (and, later, a computerized system). In 1960, 187 female operators worked in Turin on switching, and a further 133 on Special services. At night, the whole exchange was run by 33 night shift workers, who performed all of the above tasks.