Interview from January 2001 between Kolinko and anarcho-syndicalist magazine "direkte aktion" explaining their reasons for the call center-inquiry and are intervening in the workers' discussion through leaflets and websites.
1. Could you introduce your initiative shortly, please?
We are people from the Ruhrgebiet. Our political perspective can be summarized as this: We are seaching for the power that overcomes capitalism and creates a new society without exploitation. This power lies in the self-organising of workers within the sphere of exploitation. Our task is to participate in workers' struggles and to support the communist movement within. As kolinko (collective(ly) in communist movement) we started an investigation of call centers in autumn 1999. We have collected information and discussed it. We got in contact with comrades in Germany and other countries. We have made interviews with call center-workers and we began to work there ourselves. Since October 2000 we have started to hand out a series of leaflets and we have set up a website on these issues.
2. Not everybody knows what kind of work is done in call centers.
Can you explain that in a few words!? Behind the expression "call center" stands a relatively new working method: people work on telephones, with so-called headsets, that is a pair of headphones and a microphone. The incoming calls ("inbound") are automatically transferred by a computer system to the workers who have no call at that moment. In most cases they work on a personal computer which is part of a computer network. They extract information from databases and type in new information.When workers call up customers that is called "outbound".
Call centers are being built in most sectors: in banking, where the skilled branch workers are getting replaced by the unskilled - and by far less paid - "call center agents"; in insurances, were the marketing is rationalised; in many industries (customer service, logistics), in commerce (marketing, order handling), etc. There is a call center sector as well. That is firms offering call center services to other companies.
3. What is your motivation for the investigation?
Investigation means first of all to find out how we can fight against work and exploitation together with other workers in a particular place and how we can develope a form of power at the same time. We concentrate on a certain method of work or a certain sector in order to understand the situation there well and find definite starting points for an intervention. Nevertheless, we do not see that as a "struggle in one field" in the autonomist sense. At the places of exploitation all social relations are coming together and have an effect. Only in the struggles there, in which the workers learn to fight as class, a form of power can develope that gets rid of the hierarchical division of work, the gender-split, nationalities, etc. We propose that other collectives investigate other sectors, intervene there and contribute their experiences to the discussion on the perspectives of class struggle.
4. Why call centers? Because you are working there? Or are there other reasons?
In the last few years we have seen a massive building-up of call centers in Ruhrgebiet/Germany - sponsored by state subsidies. Politicians and bosses present that as the future of capitalism - and of work itself. Similar things happen in other european regions, for instance in England, the Netherlands and Ireland. Meanwhile call centers exist in nearly all western-european countries, in North America and elsewhere. They represent a broad rationalising and taylorising of office work. Futhermore, in our region there was a strike at Citibank in Bochum and Duisburg as a sign of struggles in this sector. Those were reasons for the investigation. Besides, all the "leftist" drivel about the end of the class struggle - not just in the so-called New Economy - played a role. Another reason was the revival of unionist concepts with the aim to push through "minimum standards". We are sick of this conscious ignorance when it comes to class relations and the unionist capitulation. The decision to start working in call centers was based on two things. Sure enough, we need money for survival, too, and call center-jobs are relatively easy to get in Ruhrgebiet. But it was more of a political step: We think it is important to make a definite decision on the areas we want to investigate and where we want to intervene. We do not want to hang around in whatever sectors, isolated, and "do something, wherever you just are". No, it is decisive to investigate those sectors which have some economical and political importance and where we see new conflicts and struggles develop. When we noticed, that thousands started working in that sector in Ruhrgebiet - sometimes hundreds under similar conditions in one building - we decided to find out more and to intervene.
5. With whom do you cooperate? Do you have contacts to people in other countries who do something in the same sector?
In Germany we are in contact with some groups of the left that focus on class struggle and revolution. Some support us with information or help with the distribution of the leaflets. Through the proposal for an investigation we have also got new contacts to groups from abroad that send us information and also distribute the proposal for the investigation and the leaflets. The group Colletivo Rete Operaia that investigates the factories around Bologna/Italy and intervenes there has taken over the proposal and built contacts to call center-workers in the region. A group in England does something similar.
6. How did you do it? How do you get the leaflets to the workers?
As mentioned before, first we collected information on call centers, investigated the method of work, machinery and organisation of work in call centers and concentrated on the workers' behaviour and the conflicts there. Then we decided to make a series of leaflets under the name hotlines, in which we take up the workers' discussions and bring in our own positions. We have divided that into four leaflets: 1. extension of working hours, 2. intensification of work, 3. sense and nonsense of work, 4. self-organising. The first two are already out. We distribute them with comrades in call centers in the region, send them to workers we know, etc. On top of that we have made two leaflets on conflicts in specific companies: on the planned elections of a works council at Medion/Muelheim (Medion builds and sells computers for the Aldi-supermarket chain) and on the "standard phrases" at Quelle (mail-order company), where workers are told word for word how to handle phone-calls. For further distribution of the leaflets and other contributions and in order to support the workers' discussion we have created a website and e-mail-address (see below) which is also used by the comrades from Italy.
7. What kind of reactions did you get so far?
Different ones. In some call centers the leaflets were discussed and distributed further. The workers said that at last something was happening and were glad that the bosses started sweating. Some workers have also written to us - and people from works councils. Apparently the managements were seriously irritated, came out while the leaflets were handed out, threatened and wrote internal letters to all workers. Usually nobody gives out leaflets in front of or in call centers. In some cases members of works councils and union leaders have become nervous because we asked for self-organising and for "wildcat strikes". They just want to regulate the conflicts and grap a few new members. We did not expect that the leaflets would start a wave. The conflicts in call centers are numerous but the workers do not handle them in a very open way. We can put a mirror in front of their and our eyes and show which methods for the intensification of work and for the division of workers are being used against us. And we can point out that individualist forms of work-refusal - calling in sick, working slow, etc. are based on a fundamental contradiction which can only be solved collectively and in a revolutionary way.
8. At least in one case, at Medion in Muelheim, the union hbv (union for commerce, banking and insurance) has tried to react to your leaflets by forming a works council. What have you done about that? What do you think of works councils?
A few days after we had handed out our first leaflet the union hbv invited the workers to an assembly in order to organise the election of a works council. Allegedly that was planned long before. We have distributed another leaflet against the illusions that are connected to a works council. It does not matter whether a works council is controlled by the management - as it seems to be the case at Medion - or presents itself as militant. Works councils have the function to represent the interests of the workers, that is: controll them and calm them down. People should go there when they have problems and moan, so everything goes its orderly and legal way - and the management realises immediately whenever something is going on and can react to it. In order to get through a few minutes of break or new potted plants that might work, but we want something else.
9. Which forms of organising do you think of?
The self-organising of workers in their departments, companies, schools, etc. The strength of the workers lies in their ability to come together quick and immediately - on the base of their co-operation at work - and fight against work conditions and management-measures. That can happen in an open manner, as a wildcat strike, or hidden as "work-to-rule". For the bosses the time and form of the reaction is not predictable and often they do not have a contact person for negotiation. On the basis of this form of self-organised actions a basic critique of work and exploitation can develope which rejects the mediation through works councils and unions and discusses the perspective of a different form of production and living. The does not happen automatically, but here is a chance for it.
10. What do you do about collegues who respond to your leaflets?
It depends: we discuss with workers in the companies where we work and see how we can start something with them. To workers from other companies we propose to get together with workers there and find a way to change the situation. But there is no general answer to this. When people are interested in a certain co-operation, we meet them for discussion.
11. How do you define your own role?
As mentioned before, we do not want - and cannot - produce struggles out of thin air. We can organise the distribution of accounts of experiences and information on struggles, we can support certain behaviour or forms of struggles of workers, criticize and make proposals. That is what we are trying to do with the leaflets and the website.
12. Maybe there are readers who work in call centers and who want to support your initiative. Do you need support and if so, where and how?
We propose three things: firstly, that people write reports on the situation in their companies, departments, etc. and contribute them to the discussion. We focus on call centers but we just have published a leaflet on the situation in a pen-factory in England because we want to bring together experiences from different sectors. Secondly, we need information on call centers - or other companies: newspaper-cuttings, leaflets, photos, etc. And thirdly, people should distribute our leaflets in call centers and pass them on to call center-workers, discuss the leaflets with them, etc.
13. How can people reach you?
The easiest way is through email at: [[email protected]]---[pgp-key hotlines]. The leaflets, reports on call centers and further contributions to the discussion are on the website [www.prol-position.net]