A brief chronology of a large strike at call centre service company Ceritex B2S in France for a pay increase.
There have been strikes against the relocation of call centres at Timing and Wanadoo in late summer 2004. In October 2004 workers at Teleperformance, a sub-contractor of France Telecom and Wanadoo went out. About 70 percent of the employees have temp-contracts which are prolonged each week, or not. Despite this significant number of temp workers, the strike participation was surprisingly high. The base union SUD estimates it at 90 percent. One of the main reasons for the conflict were the long working hours of 44 hours per week. Teleperformance has relocated parts of the service to Tunisia. Apart from Tunisia, Morocco is the other main country for French call centres to be shifted to. Timing relocated their night and weekend shifts to Morocco. It is said to be 40 percent cheaper to open a call centre in Morocco, where the average wage is about 400 Euros, compared to 1,100 in France. There are 60 call centres in Morocco phoning for the French market, employing 7,000 workers. In France 205,000 people graft in call centres. In 2003 there was an increase of 10,000 jobs in French tele-companies of which only 5 percent were created abroad. Last December 300 agents of Wanadoo struck against the consequences of a rashly introduced telephone-internet service: excessive extra stress because of annoyed clients which the management tried to burden the staff with.
The Strike at Ceritex
The following chronology is based on information of the base union SUD. Although the different positions amongst the workers are more or less excluded, it provides an good general overview.
24 January 2005: The strike kicks off at four different locations of the call centre service company Ceritex B2S, the second biggest in France. After three years without any wage increase the base union SUD now demands a 5 percent pay rise. In leaflets distributed amongst the workers the SUD admits that the economic situation of Ceritex is not a booming one, but due to sales of company owned real estate the management has got the money to grant the pay rise. They also admit that the demand for a wage increase of 5 percent won’t cover the real wage loss of the previous three years. The SUD announces that the strike participation ranges according to location between 60 and 85 percent and that mainly management people, people with temp contracts and from temp agencies are scabbing. At a general assembly on 24th of January the workers decide not to start work again on the same day, which was planned, but to continue the strike until the assembly on the following day.
25 January 2005: The call centre in Strasbourg starts working again. In Chalon the assembly decides to carry on striking, but the division between strikers and workers with temp contracts becomes ever more clear. According to SUD sources the management declared on various occasions that the strike would endanger contracts with the clients and that therefore work contracts might not be prolonged. This has allegedly lead to a situation where managers and temp workers together shouted slogans against the strikers. The FO union is accused of having taken part in the denunciation of the strikers as well. In Maison Alfort the staff votes for a strike too, and a delegation is sent to the management. The bosses refuse to talk to the elected delegation but finally agree to receive two officials from the SUD. The management’s response concerning the demands was negative, as was expected.
26 January 2005: The call centre in Chalon is receiving calls again. The remaining strikers hand out leaflets to the temps in order to undermine management propaganda. In Maison Alfort the strike is still on and the management is still spreading rumours, without any strong impact. The strikers try to make the dispute known to the public, e.g. by distributing leaflets in the neighbouring shopping malls. In Le Mans the conflict continues as well. The management calls the bailiff because the picket is allegedly using the reception area to warm themselves up and to use the toilets. Other workers spread the news in shopping streets and on access roads next to the call centre.
27 January 2005: The workers in Maison Alfort decide to stop the strike and to continue the struggle by other means which do not result in loss of wages. Despite, or maybe because of, the bosses’ repressive policy the assembly in Le Mans votes for the continuation of the walk out till next Monday.
28 January 2005: The strike in Le Mans continues, supporters deliver wood and meat for barbecues. Continuous visits by bailiffs do not spoil the good atmosphere.
29 January 2005: The bosses send security guards to the picket-line in Le Mans and the Ceritex chairman blathers in an interview that all strikers can look for new jobs if they are unhappy with their present ones.
31 January 2005: People in Le Mans and Maison Alfort are pissed off by the comments of the companies’ chairman. In Le Mans about half of the staff vote for going back to work. There are supposed to be ‘sudden and surprising strikes’ in the future. A company-wide assembly is meant to be organised in order to decide about the future of the conflict.
During the following week there are various spontaneous walk-outs in Le Mans, Maison Alfort and Strasbourg. The FO officially announces that it doesn’t support the actions. The SUD accuses the FO of negotiating behind the back of the workers about preferential treatment and privileges for the strike-breakers. The national assembly of all Ceritex workers is planned for the 7th of February. Workers who were active in the strike have to put up with severe disciplinary measures at work, e.g. their phone conversations are monitored much more frequently than usual.
7 February 2005: About a hundred workers gather in front of the company’s headquarters in Gennevilliers and demand negotiations. The bosses refuse and call the cops. Three lines of riot cops block the entrance of the building and the workers form chains and try to push the cops out of the way. The management agrees to receive six delegates. Six workers from different locations are elected. The management asks the cops to provide a list of names of the delegates. Two workers on the list are not accepted and the scuffle continues. Finally the delegation is accepted, but the bosses have nothing more to say than that a pay rise is out of the question. Parallel to these actions the workers in Maison Alfort and Le Mans start a spontaneous strike in order to put more pressure on the bosses. In the late afternoon the assembly in Gennevilliers is declared over, people have a long way back home. Some waste bins are emptied in front of the building. A union rep claims that the action in Gennevilliers helped to facilitate the communication between workers from different locations and that the attitude of the bosses only strengthened the combativeness for the disputes which followed.
[prol-position news #3, 8/2005] www.Prol-Position.net