In response to the release Boots Riley's film Sorry to Bother You in 2018, I wrote this piece about my own experience working in a call center -- and how it took place against the backdrop of my own political radicalization. I post it today in honor of Juneteenth, where my former union, ILWU, will shut down all 29 ports on the U.S. West Coast as part of protests against racism and police violence.
Predictive Dialing For Dollars: Phoning at the Cutting Edge of Technology
[quote=Karl Marx]Within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power… Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.
--Capital, volume 1, p. 457.[/quote]
In July 2018 I went to the cinema for the first time in years to see Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, set in Oakland, California. I wanted to see it on the big screen because I had worked decades before in a call center in nearby Berkeley. Although I grew up elsewhere, I was politicized in the same San Francisco Bay Area crucible of radical politics as Boots. We have only met in passing, but our paths have so many parallels that they crossed several times – most recently during Occupy Oakland – and led to nearly identical conclusions.
When I worked in a call center in the early 1990s, which was pioneering the new technology of computerized predictive dialers, they were called “phone banks.” Since we were fundraising for progressive causes, we were “phone canvassers.” I first heard the term “call center” when I was in Germany in 1999, visiting an old comrade, and we discussed a few terms for an English-language questionnaire being translated for a workers inquiry in the Ruhr Valley. These organizing experiences were later compiled into the book Hotlines: call centre, inquiry, communism. My own work at a call center was during a pivotal period in my life, set against the background of a tumultuous period of local and world history.
As I watched the film, those memories came cascading back. The earliest was the tail-end of the anti-apartheid movement in Berkeley when I first moved there to attend university in 1986. Then a few years later, in 1990, sitting in the fifth row of the 58,000 in attendance at Oakland Coliseum hearing Nelson Mandela, recently released from prison, thanking workers in International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU Local 10) for refusing to unload South African ships and contributing to the fall of apartheid. My first full-time job in the Bay Area was in 1988 as a canvasser for a statewide ballot initiative to reform the insurance industry for an organization called Voter Revolt. When I could take time off, I began participating in civil disobedience actions at the Nevada nuclear test site. My comrades and I were glued to our TVs in 1989 watching the student democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, only learning later that it spawned a strike wave by rank-and-file workers across China which resulted in its murderous suppression. Being anti-authoritarians, we cheered on the thawing of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall. As overt U.S. imperial ventures ramped up, we responded by organizing teach-ins and street protests against the First Gulf War in 1991. As deindustrialization started to hollow out the domestic economy, the wrath of cops and massive prison-building was the response to increasing impoverishment and misery. In 1992, my comrades and I threw ourselves into the explosive nationwide urban uprisings in response to the Rodney King acquittal of the Los Angeles cops who nearly beat him to death the year before.
My political evolution was commensurate with events I lived through: institutional racism is the greatest handicap to unifying social movements; electoral politics are a dead end, having seen Voter Revolt’s victorious ballot initiative watered down to nothing with court challenges; passive-resistance arrests are futilely ineffective and counterproductive – and pacifism is a dogmatic non-issue that does more harm than good; symbolic protests are a sign of weakness, no matter how large or well-intentioned, because they do nothing to exercise power; neoliberal-era activism went from calls for reforms to the commodification of dissent, which only sustains itself with bureaucratized organizations based on the logic of capital; the critique of unions requires a nuanced position where what is really important is whether they take on a class dynamic and truly challenge the boss; lastly, I gained a nascent understanding of technology’s role in disempowering workers. Riley’s film reinforces the lessons I learned through direct experience during the heady days of my young adulthood living in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.
Shortly after watching the film, I was guiding a walking tour of the sites of the 1946 Oakland General Strike for the Tech Workers Coalition. We began the walk in the shadows of the Cathedral Building on Latham Square, the setting in Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You where Cassius Green, the protagonist, gets dumped by his girlfriend. The scene was shot from the interior of his luxurious apartment in the Cathedral Building; she leaves him because he scabs during a strike at a call center. As an African-American, he finds success using a white voice for telemarketing, resulting in nearly instant success. No sooner does he get a promotion to an elite department for high-level sales than he buys an expensive car and rents the posh pad overlooking Latham Square. Yet he continues to provoke the scorn of his lower-tier co-workers by continuing to cross their picket line. In contrast, the ’46 strike was propelled by a militant working class whose solidarity was so united on the picket lines that they were “as effective as a barbed wire fence.” Which is a strange paradox in gentrifying Oakland today, where class lines are much more blurred. Sorry to Bother You is a fictional attempt to bring clarity to those class divisions.
During the walking tour, a young comrade asked me how I became interested in labor history. I told him it was when I worked at a call center in the early 1990s, which was the last time I was represented by a union at my workplace. I worked at Frontline Campaigns in Berkeley, which was organized into International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6, becoming a union shop soon after I was hired. I explained that the union’s origins were in 1934 San Francisco General Strike and that we were given a dose of ILWU history whenever we interacted with any of the union staff. The union’s history is one of the most inspiring to be found anywhere, but my experience with the union was not very favorable. This began my passion for studying local labor history, mostly in order to see why my ILWU experience did not live up to its formidable reputation.
When I worked at the call center, our workstations were on long tables, divided by carpet-covered plywood partitions, and we used headphones – with a built-in mic – and faced a keyboard and a CRT computer monitor. A centralized CPU in a desktop tower housed the brand new, cutting-edge, computerized predictive dialers, connected to the monitors by countless cables. This system operated on metrics insuring both that the phone was being answered by a live human and that it was seamlessly patched through to the next available phoner with the least possible break between each of their calls. None of us had ever experienced a set-up like this before. Since we were called “phone activists,” management used techniques that manipulated the myth that we were participating a “campaign” (hence the company name), rather than the truth that we were telemarketers peddling an ideological commodity. The union offered no challenges to management’s manipulation of progressive issues to guilt-trip us into the illusion that we were activists first, who just incidentally happened to be raising funds for supposedly righteous causes.
Years later, in 2012, my critique of the ILWU sparked a confrontation with a stalwart union veteran, who had been on the docks in 1984 when longshore workers at Pier 80 in San Francisco refused to unload a ship from apartheid South Africa. In that struggle, dockers had refused to be dispatched to work the Nedlloyd Kimberley, then had fought the riot police for ten days to defend their boycott. It was an exemplary act of militancy, based on rank-and-file initiative. In online discussions, I had been critical of more recent “community pickets” at the Port of Oakland where activists had gathered at the entrances to terminals at the port in the hope that an arbitrator, chosen by both the union and management, would invoke a health and safety clause in the union contract and send the rank-and-file longshore workers home, ostensibly because the rowdy protest made it “unsafe” for the dockers to pass. In cases where the arbitrator declared the situation unsafe, these activists would broadcast to the world that they – and the longshore workers – had “shut the port down,” which I found disingenuous. Since I had referred to my membership in ILWU Local 6 in my critique of this symbolism, the older Local 10 militant challenged whether I had actually been in the union, quizzing me about where I worked and who my business agent had been. When I answered correctly, he backed down and has given me the cold shoulder ever since. When ILWU loyalists and their allies have chastised me for critiquing these media-savvy pseudo-protests, I respond “you can’t achieve radical ends with symbolic means.”
I worked at Frontline Campaigns from 1991 to 1993. But my connection to the founders of Frontline predates that, as I had been as a canvasser for the successful California ballot initiative, Proposition 103, in 1988 led by the non-profit group Voter Revolt. The founders had been part of the New Left, as far back as the drafting of the Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962. They participated in the whole spectrum of sixties activism, from Civil Rights to anti-war activism, but had morphed into more mainstream electoral politics at the left fringes of the Democratic Party when I first encountered them. Voter Revolt owed its success to an even more money-driven refinement on Saul Alinsky’s model of community organizing, with the added twist of direct mail appeals for fundraising to supplement the canvassing offices in every major population center in California to promote the ballot initiative by knocking on doors throughout the state. As official spokesperson, Ralph Nader boosted the popularity of the ballot initiative. Prop 103 aimed to regulate the insurance industry by requiring that an elected commissioner approve any rate hikes, as well as providing consumers with a 20% rate rollback. The initiative won against three other corporate-sponsored counter-initiatives that spent a combined $99 million to Voter Revolt’s $2 million. The connection with Frontline Campaigns was that its founders had taken Voter Revolt’s database, using phone numbers we gathered during the Prop. 103 campaign, to launch the call center’s operations. In the call center, a system of predictive dialers was used to attempt to tele-fundraise from these contacts.
I had gotten the job at Frontline with a handful of friends who had met in the anarchist milieu in the Bay Area, often at rowdy demonstrations. I was working there during the Rodney King Rebellion in 1992 and many of us were involved in that uprising, covering for others when they missed work to participate in militant actions or because they had been arrested. Most of our fundraising at Frontlines was for liberal efforts that were innocuous, although our informal group was critical of this commodified form of politics. The predictive dialer was loaded with contact info for groups like the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Medical Aid to El Salvador (created by one of Voter Revolt’s founders), Citizens (now Communities) for a Better Environment, Greenpeace, and Red Cross fundraising to aid disaster relief, among many other efforts. Most of our calls were for non-profits, to previous subscribers or donors, to solicit membership renewals or new contributions. We had monetary quotas, where we received nightly cash bonuses for credit card donations; pledges, which we were constantly reminded had a very low percentage of return since they had to be mailed back, were confirmed by someone manually dialing back to confirm the pledge amount. It was here that we had pacts to deceive our bosses, through our comrades falsely entering into the computer database solid confirmations on high pledge amounts, bolstering our quotas.
Sometimes we collectively and individually fell into slumps, often due to being distracted by the events of the outside world. We were on the West Coast and generally called the whole country after normal working hours (9-5), so we started in the afternoon to reach the East Coast after people got off work and sometimes a small crew of us finished at 10:00 p.m. for calling up until 8:00 p.m. in Hawaii, which is two time zones away. In the later hours, most of our managers left and we only had lower-level supervisors on site. Since several had been promoted out of our ranks, they usually sympathized with us on bad nights. The computer administrator, a young guy who maintained the single CPU which ran the whole system, could be relied on to kick the computer case when we persuaded him, crashing the hard drive and giving us at least a half hour break while he slowly rebooted. Others found ways to monkeywrench power or computer cables, shutting off power and crashing the computer, another method of creating paid breaks.
Working at Frontline was also an education for me about political principles, especially concerning rank-and-file agitation. I fell into a tight-knit social group, including several of my housemates, who were thorns in management’s side and were active in the radical milieu outside of work. Once all the legalities of unionization were complete, someone put an announcement soliciting candidates for shop steward on the employee bulletin board. Someone, still unbeknownst to me, put my name on the list. I was apprehensive because I was not impressed by the way union staff had approached our conflicts with management; at times I felt they took the bosses’ side and were too willing to enforce what we perceived as arbitrary work rules. One of our co-workers had passed around a copy of Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! and many of us became influenced by its uncompromising class-war-from-below perspective, equally influenced by the anti-capitalist politics of our outside organizing activities. One day, during a break, I was sitting on a couch on the other side of a partition from the water cooler and coffee machine where the staff bulletin board was located. Some of my older, more mainstream and liberal, fellow workers were looking at the list of potential shop stewards, but could not see me, and one of them commented on seeing my name. She said that the union business agent advised her not to vote for me because I “would piss management off.” I was flabbergasted, realizing that the business agent had obviously been talking to management, and at the end of the break erased my name from the list. I cannot remember who got elected, but can vividly remember that whomever it was seemed to be a proxy of management. My comrades and I continued to do our counter-planning of workflow with covert sabotage, but we had to be more careful because management had more eyes and ears in the union helping to keep the breakneck pace of work from slowing down.
In the summer of 1993, I took a leave of absence from Frontline, never to return. With a group of comrades, I took a political roadtrip across the continent, attending six gatherings, four of which were explicitly anarchist, and I helped facilitate a couple of workshops asking radicals to choose “lifestylism or class struggle.” It was a rhetorical device, but it did lend itself to spirited debates. I clearly sharpened my polemical skills, as well as making friends and meeting working class comrades from across the continent. I returned to the Bay Area at the end of that summer and by the next one I was living and working abroad in Asia and Europe, only to return seven years later – but that is another story.
Perhaps it was youthful naivety or myopic wishful thinking, or both, fostered by living in the radical milieu in the Bay Area – what was, and remains today, the most left-leaning region in the U.S. – but my comrades and I thought we were at the cusp of a revolutionary upheaval. We saw the events from 1989-1992 as a rupture in social relations which we felt would inevitably lead to the collapse of capitalism. We were simply wrong. But our introspection as this phase drew to a close also allowed us to see our place in a historical trajectory that gave rise to an awareness that we were living in the belly of the beast of an entrepôt that was not only a vital hub in trans-Pacific – and global – commodity chains, but had risen to be the world’s key site of technological innovation for the digital revolution. The ruling class developed the intermodal system of transporting commodities in response to the power of dockers at all the ports on the West Coast, which forced the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement of 1960, basically a productivity deal. It was a compromise where the union surrendered control over the introduction of future “labor-saving” devices, implementing cargo containers, based on the twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU), which can readily be transferred between modes, whether ship, truck or train. The technology uses machines that dictate the pace of work, rather than the break-bulk system, which it eliminated, where skilled rank-and-file work gangs labored autonomously, with near-complete control of the work process. Over a generation it reduced the workforce by nearly 90% while increasing productivity by a similar amount. Using highly automated machinery based on this new technology, fewer workers were doing significantly more work, shifting more of the wealth created to the bosses.
Similarly, I had experienced a similar “productivity” deal when the door-to-door canvassing I had done for Voter Revolt, allowing autonomy and near-total control over the work process in the field, was replaced by Frontline Campaigns’ predictive dialers at a fixed location. Call center work was being transformed into a process based on computer algorithms defining the pace of work, eliminating as much wasteful time as possible and amounting to a ruthless digital speedup. Ironically, ILWU was the legal representative for both workers on the docks and in our call center, whose workplace power and lives were degraded by these technological transformations.
Radical acts, where we refuse to perform wage-labor – with methods of class struggle, like slowdowns, strikes and sabotage – are our primary weapon in overthrowing capital. Given the similarities of my telemarketing experience at Frontline Campaigns with his fictional depiction of it at RegalView in Sorry to Bother You, I cannot help but agree with Boots’ conclusion when he says:
[quote=Boots Riley]Fighting capitalism needs the working class struggling against the ruling class… What’s fighting against capitalism is getting people to organise collectively, so they can withhold labour in strategic and tactical ways that can advance a class struggle.[/quote]
Originally posted on the Notes from Below issue on The Call Centre Seen from Below (#4.3)