8.2 Leaflets

Here we only document the longer leaflets which we have done as a series and which we have distributed in and in front of call centres in our region, the Ruhrgebiet/Germany, and beyond. You can find the other leaflets on the website:
[www.motkraft.net/hotlines]

8.2.1 hotlines-leaflet: Extension of working hours

(October 2000) We are call centre agents and other workers. With this and the following leaflets we want to give out information on the problems and conflicts in call centres here and in other countries. We will distribute leaflets on the following subjects in the next weeks and months in front of and inside call centres: 1. Good times, bad times... Against the flexible extension of working hours in call centres; 2. Call by call... Intensification of work and the worker's answer; 3. Always at your service... On the sense and nonsense of work; 4. Happy online... Possibilities and experiences of worker's resistance in call centres. All leaflets are published - together with further information - on this website: [www.motkraft.net/hotlines]. Take part in the discussion! Send your ideas, critique and reports from 'your' call centres to this email-address: [hotlines@motkraft.net]

In the Ruhrgebiet, Glasgow, Paris, Milano or Berlin... call centres have been opening up for years in many cities and regions. Already hundreds of thousands of people work in call centres in the banking and insurance industry, in technical support-hotlines, in sales and marketing, in order services... As workers in call centres we call people up (outbound) or answer their calls (inbound) using integrated telephone- and computer technology. Many of us work in shifts. The work is divided in short, precisely defined work steps. And we are controlled by team-leaders.
Lots of us work in call centres, because in some areas it is the easiest way of getting a job. Sometimes these jobs are better paid than those in factories, in cleaning or shops. But while bosses and politicians present call centres to us in their PR-brochures as a 'modern form of work', in fact, they have made us the proletariat of their 'service and information society'!
Call Centres were and are an attack on the refusal of many office workers to accept a deterioration of their conditions (in banks, insurances, the post office, telecom and other offices). For many workers call centres mean longer working hours, forced shift work, constant control and intensification of work. Working in call centres sometimes means stress, sometimes boredom, the obligation to be friendly and customer fobbing, not enough money and too many hours on the job. Nevertheless, it depends on us, the workers, which conditions we will work under in the next few years. Our behaviour and our struggles determine whether the bosses can speed up the work rhythm and force us to work overtime - or whether we take the initiative and set our own agenda!
Some conditions are in our favour: the newspapers are full of job offers and the bosses start campaigns and make announcements in football stadiums, because they can't find enough people who want to do their work or who stay 'call centre agents' for long enough. In such times we can push things through because they cannot afford to just sack people. And even if they do: We can quickly find another job.
Furthermore, often we work under similar or equal conditions together with hundreds of workers in one department. Many workers have also worked in other call centres and bring along experiences and contacts. So we are not isolated at the work place, but can organize with others against the shitty working conditions.

We do not have to put up with anything!
For collective actions against overtime and work stress!

Good times, bad times...
Against the flexible extension of working hours in call centres

End of shift. The phones do not stop ringing... and you can already see the team-leader coming over: 'Can you stay another hour?!' Shit! You had planned to go out for the cinema with your friend but that won't happen as usual. And on Saturday you won't have time either because of the compulsory extra shift. Sound familiar?

The interests of the call bosses-bosses is clear: they want to make big money with in- and outbound-calls. Therefore, on one hand they try to make us work longer: more hours a day, more days a week and as flexible as possible and 'on call'. On the other hand they want us to take as many calls an hour as possible and to avoid everything that could lower productivity.
In this leaflet we are writing against the bosses' attempts to extend our working day.

Time is money for some...
The phone wires and our ears heat up, but despite the fact that in a short time we phone in the equivalent of our wage for our boss we cannot go home afterwards. The working day lasts longer, but the rest of the time we work for the balance sheet of the company. The bosses want to extend this unpaid labour by forcing workers to work more hours, that is more than 40 hours a week, or if doing part-time, more than the previously agreed working hours. In many cases the previous working hours in branches and offices were extended with the introduction of call centres (for instance in the banking sector). Often this happened with the outsourcing of parts of companies and the usage of temporary agencies.
Furthermore, we face constant overtime and extra shifts, for instance in technical hotlines (Medion/Duisburg...) and order services (Client Logic/Duisburg...), during marketing campaigns or seasonal business. And in many call centres workers have to work longer hours because the training times do not get paid, or like at Quelle /Essen, where workers are asked to come earlier so they can read their new instructions (on the intranet)! Some call centres even send workers home without payment when computers break down or there are only few calls (Client Logic/Duisburg). When this happens, the workers often depend on the lost wage, so they have to make up for the missed hours another day!
The bosses also extend the total working hours: the councils of many German regions were keen to allow work on Sundays, which has been introduced in many call centres. The same with work on public holidays. Sunday- and public holiday-work take place for instance in direct-banks (Citibank and Deutsche Bank 24/both in Duisburg...). Night work is a given.
Many call centre bosses do not pay any supplements for work on Sundays or overtime. Workers still do overtime although past experiences show that overtime hours and supplements for work on Sundays only result in higher wages for a short period. When we have agreed to work longer hours on a regular basis, the wages quickly drop to a level just high enough for living and going to work. This attack, the attempt to extend the working hours, not only happens in call centres, but also in other offices, in shops and factories. Call centres are part of this society in which profit - and not the needs of the workers - decide about work, working methods and products. Therefore, the usage of more productive technologies (like automation- and information-technologies) does not lead to more convenient or less work. On the contrary: many workers in factories and offices have to do extra shifts and overtime. Thanks to flexible working hours, some people - between times of unemployment - are able to survive on three part-time jobs.

...and stress between working rhythm and working schedule for us!
But why do the bosses try to extend the working day and the total working hours? Why do they try to tie us up to the telephones 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? They go on about 'customer service'. But what is important is: As long as the machines, that is computers, telephone systems etc., are used night and day, they get back their investments quicker and can make profits! And why overtime and extra shifts? We all know this: in inbound you sometimes have lots of calls, sometimes few. In outbound the amount of calls varies less, but instead there are sometimes many contractor's orders, sometimes not. The management tries to even out the fluctuation of calls and orders by trying to making the agents work overtime and extra shifts in the times of a high call volume, and in less busy times they want them to stay home or just work the regular shifts.
So this is what is behind it: We are supposed to work flexibly and always turn up for work when the bosses blow the whistle so they do not have to hire more people. That would cost money and lower their profits!
The conflict about the length of the working day is a crucial struggle between workers and bosses. There were, for instance, struggles on the 8-hour-day and the 40-hour-week. But it was the immediate pressure of the workers - rather than the public union campaigns (as the one on the 35 hour week in the 80s) that lead to the reduction of working hours. At the moment we are under pressure and find rather defensive answers to the extension of working hours and their 'flexibilisation': calling in sick rather than doing the weekend shift or the extended toilet break when the job is stressful. And sometimes we take care of other workers phones, so they can finally take a break and talk to other workers.
For sure, these unofficial ways of reducing working hours are okay. But this is a weak base as long as we accept twice the amount of calls when there are not enough people on the phone in our team. If we want to have more time for the nice things in life in the long run, and sacrifice less hours for work, we have to push that through together! We do not need to wait till the last person in the team has understood that we should not take the shit anymore. We can start now by standing up with other workers in our department!

No extra shifts!
Every hour overtime is 60 minutes too much work!
Stop shift work altogether!

Deutsche Bank 24: Lousy shifts
The Deutsche Bank 24 has call centres in Duisburg, Bonn and Berlin. In September 1999 the Deutsche Bank was taken over by the Bank 24. This is true: in order to prevent the employees of Bank 24 falling under the collective agreement for the old Deutsche Bank, the daughter Bank 24 swallowed the mother Deutsche Bank.
The conditions in the call centres are: 40 hour-week for full time employees, shift work (partly 24 hours, partly between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.) with constantly changing shifts, wages in inbound (bank accounts...) around 20 DM an hour and in outbound (customer attraction, marketing...) a bit more. In inbound calls are put straight through to the headset (without the agent pressing a button to accept it) so that you have to be alert all the time. Sometimes there is one call after the other, like doing piecework, always the same, monotonous and awful. Early and late you might sit around bored because not a soul is calling in. Due to the shift work sometimes you start working at 7 a.m., sometimes at 10 a.m. or at 1 p.m. It can happen that you have less than 11 hours between shifts. It is draining. There is a works council, which fiddles around with management (for instance on the hourly breaks for working on computer screens). But what can the work council really get through? We have to take things into our own hands. That is difficult, because lots of people only work there for a short period. People who have had enough look for another job. It is time for the unsatisfied to get together and do something against the work stress!

Citibank: Overtime
We work in the Citibank Call Centre in Duisburg. In Summer 1999 most Citibank call centres and several other administrative departments were concentrated in Duisburg - despite worker's resistance and strikes against the closure of the previous call centres and the deterioration of conditions (for instance in Bochum). Today there are among others the Phonebanking (balances, transfers...) and Branchphone (calls for the branches). Workers in Phonebanking earn about 19 to 20 DM [9.50 to 10 Euros] an hours before tax and work 40 hours, in Branchphone workers get about 23 DM [11.50 Euros] an hour. Through the concentration of many tasks and the opening of the Citibank GmbH in Duisburg the bosses have managed to extend our working hours and those of many other workers in other departments. The workers in Phonebanking have to be prepared to work any time, night and day, on all days of the week. So we work in shifts with ever changing starting times which wipes you out after a while. When Phonebanking was still in Bochum the paid break-time was 60 minutes for an 8-hour-day. One month after the opening of the department in Duisburg the paid break-time was reduced by half! The breaks start at different times, just like the shifts. For many workers who were hired under the conditions of the collective agreement for banks (before they were moved to Duisburg), the transfer into the newly founded Citibank GmbH meant an extension of their working hours. After the expiration of a special agreement (Sozialplan) in two years time, they will have to work 40 hours instead of 39. And they will earn a lot less, too. Their holidays will be reduced to 25 days a year.
Now the management is also trying to push through an extension of working hours in the branches. The workers in the branches will work longer during the week and on Saturdays, too. In some cities this is happening already. And that is why in Branchphone they have started to work extra shifts. The fact that there are no actions against the extension of the exploitation time, is also connected to the situation before the transfer to Duisburg: Many of those who fought against the closure of Citibank call centres and went on strike in November 1998 had been fired before Duisburg was opened. In Duisburg many felt insecure at first and most people did not know each other. Meanwhile, that has changed and we can push through common demands. The situation is good, because the management cannot find enough people to do their jobs or to stay at Citibank for long. The time is right, let's start the fight!

Quelle: Swelling Working Hours
I work in the order department of the Quelle GmbH call centre in Essen, with about 300 other workers. Others people work in customer services (complaints, accounts, exchange). The call centre is open from Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. till 10 p.m., like those in Koeln, Mainz, Padborg and the main one in Nuremberg-Fuerth. The workers in Leipzig, Magdeburg, Chemnitz and Cottbus (eastern Germany) also work night shifts. They earn even less than us. We get 15,40 DM [7.70 Euro] before tax as full timers and 14,40 DM [7.20 Euro] as part timers - apart from those who have contracts with the old Quelle AG. They get about one third more. Or shift times are constantly changing. Sometimes we have to work to 10 p.m. and are then supposed to be friendly again at 8 a.m. the next morning. With a smile on our faces, while we are up to our ears in work. Overtime is the norm, without bonuses! And about 150 lucky workers have to turn up Saturdays - again without bonuses. We do not get a penny for our lunch break either. And in order to take a paid break from screen work we have to hunt for the ladybird: each team has one ladybird and only with that in your hand are you allowed to take a break. Furthermore, we are asked to come half an hour before the shift starts in order to quickly read the new instructions on the intranet! Without payment. And they have not even paid us the whole wage for the training period! The management does not let us take holidays, the monitors are flickering, our backs hurt and we are asked to stay flexible and allow our ears to be chewed off. First of all we should fight for breaks, whenever we need them! Time to stand up at Quelle!

Client Logic: 8-Hour-Snapshot
I work for the call centre of Client Logic (formerly DTS). That is a call company-company which take over the calls for other firms or the overflow of their own call centres. In Duisburg about 500 workers are in the order department (Neckermann, Weltbild, Conrad) and in technical support (Premiere World, Tele2...). The call centre is open 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to 12 midnight. The weekend-supplements are getting cut all the time. The one for Saturdays has been wiped out completely. So far there have not been any actions against the wage cuts, which is partly due to the high turnover of staff. Very few stay long enough to notice how the wage cuts take place. Most work with 630 DM [315 Euro]-contracts or part-time. The 630 DM-workers get 12 or 13 DM [6 or 6.50 Euro] an hour, the full-timers 16 DM [8 Euro]. The working hours are regulated in contracts, but when there are few calls, some of the workers will be send home without payment! In order to have enough cash at the end of the month you need to make up for those hours another day!
The managements relies on our time flexibility and willingness to work overtime, in particular during the Christmas season and the introduction phases of new products. Client Logic is constantly looking for workers and cannot find enough. The company depends on us, on whether we are willing to work according to the actual call volume. That is our strength. We do not have to accept the changing shift times and the different and far too low wages. Especially now, just before the Christmas season, we can show them what's what!

Medion: Losing your mind in 50 hours
The workers at Medion Technologie Centre (Muelheim/Ruhr) do technical support and all kinds of services that Medion creates by selling computers, peripheral devices and electronic consumer goods. The wage in the first level (welcome desk) is about 17,50 DM, in the second level 20 DM an hour. End of last winter there was a promotion at Aldi (supermarket chain) and new people were hired. No holidays were permitted and everybody had to do extra shifts. We work 40 hours a week, which is asking a bit too much anyway. Every third week we have to work a 'compulsory Saturday', too. The Sundays are so to speak voluntary. For the promotion days (6 weeks!) the early shift was asked to work every Saturday and the late shift on Sundays - without any changes concerning the 'compulsory Saturday'!
Everybody had to work at least once for 13 days in a row, with just one day off afterwards. On top of that the call volume was a lot higher. The morale amongst the workers was bad but nobody suggested occupying the bosses' office or refusing working overtime. On the contrary, some of the 'older' workers told the others that during the last promotion they had worked 3 weeks without a day off, and 9 hours a day. We should be grateful that we would get a day off in between this time. Angry as we were, that took away the bit of courage we had. Feeling isolated, some chose the last escape and called in sick. Many people left the company after the promotion. But a unanimous action during the promotion could have changed the situation in our favour. At the moment the personnel department has difficulty finding enough people for the job. And the management would not have been able to quickly organise a call centre of scabs. Well, the next promotion will come soon...

8.2.2 hotlines-leaflet: Intensification of work

(December 2000) We work in call centres and elsewhere and produce a series of leaflets. That way we want to support and bring forward the discussion among workers. We need to stand up together against work stress and being forced to work. We can only do that by self-organizing and finding ways - together with other workers - of reacting against management measures and pushing through our own interests. Our strength lies in the fact that we can quickly agree with other workers on - for instance - refusing overtime, ignoring boss's orders or reducing the call-rhythm. Without the boss being prepared and without the mediation or control of works councils or unions. If we develop that strength and use it, that can be a step towards overcoming wage slavery altogether.

All leaflets are published - together with more information and contributions - on the website: [www.motkraft.net/hotlines]. Take part in the discussion and send us your ideas, critique and reports: [hotlines@motkraft.net]

Quite a lot has happened since we distributed the first hotlines-leaflet (on the extension of working hours in call centres) in October. At Medion/Muelheim we gave out a leaflet on the planned work council elections, and another one at Quelle/Essen on the standard-phrases. Friends in Italy have also distributed a leaflet on call centres. You can find all that and some further contributions to the discussion on the website (address on the left). We keep on going.

Call by Call - On the intensification of work
Just arrived at work, computer switched on, software started, logged in the telephone system. The team leader comes over: 'Here are your statistics for yesterday. Your break was one minute and 25 seconds over the limit!' I wish she would die right here in front of me, but she had just started: 'Furthermore, your not-ready-times are 10 percent longer than those of the other agents. And you have not met the average of 20 calls an hour. So you won't get a bonus again.' I look at her as bored as I can. Why doesn't she just leave me alone so I can get a coffee. But then it comes: 'We will give you some assistance. Tomorrow the trainer will listen to some of your calls. He can give you good advice!' The trainer, brilliant. He will go on again about the missing 'smile in my voice' and that I am using forbidden words like 'problem'. And then he will get all slimy and say how promising my attempts are but that there would be 'room for improvements'...
The first leaflet was on the attempts of the call centre bosses to extend the working day. This one is on their attempts to make us work 'effectively' and without breaks.

Division of work
There are two forms of stress at work: either it is monotonous because we do the same stuff over and over; or it is hectic because we get more and more tasks. Behind both forms of stress lies the attempt of the bosses to make our work as productive and profitable as possible. Therefore he divides the work process and allows each worker only certain operations. By measuring the time and observing the workers these single operations are analysed thoroughly and put in pre-arranged sequences. In call centres this is done by defining work flows for the call-handling and standard phrases for welcoming the callers (see report on Quelle). That way they want our work to become measurable and comparable - a precondition for defining and raising a certain call rhythm (for instance 20 calls an hour).
But what is supposed to increase productivity to create more profit for the bosses (more calls with less workers) often means two or three times more work for us. After splitting up work into single operations, responsibilities, etc. nobody really knows what is going on. In inbound-call centres for instance, calls are transferred from one department to another and back and it is hard to get the right information... We have to make up for that by ignoring the official responsibilities. But why do the bosses divide work in this way, even if it obstructs the smooth and productive cooperation? Because they do not see any other way of dividing us, controlling us and forcing us to work. Therefore they deny us certain information as well as planning and coordinating tasks. That leads to daily 'chaos' and more work. This contradiction cannot be solved: as long as there are bosses they will try to make us dependent on their 'information' and 'organisation'.

Machines
The bosses choose those machines which enable them to intensify work and control us at the same time. The connection of computer- and telephone devices allows a higher call rhythm and a strict control of the workers (through statistics on the call amount, breaks, etc.). The computer-software only allows us certain operations and a certain chronological order which we have to perform them in. The calls are automatically put through to our phones ('Automatic Call Distribution, ACD'), sometimes even without us picking up the phone - straight to the headset ('direct-to-ear'). That way they want to prevent us having any control over the amount of calls we accept. In outbound, after finishing one call, often the computer starts dialling up the next customer so we have no time to take a breath ('power dialler').
The employed machinery also shows how absurd work - and the whole society - is organised. As long as we are doing certain work cheaper than machines, we have to do it - as monotonous as it might be. If machines do it cheaper (for instance a computer which answers the calls: 'Interactive Voice Response, IVR') we get fired and have to look for another job. For those workers who stay in the company that often means that they have to work more. Because they get more tasks and have to make up for the machines' faulty operations. The possibility to substitute boring, stressful or unpleasant work with machines does not lead to more time for the nice things in life, but to more and intensified work!

Team-Leaders
In order to make us work and push through the intensification of work we are confronted with team leaders, supervisors etc. These people control whether we are answering enough calls per hour, check on our break times, whether we meet the quality standards, etc. They do not want us to see them just as watchdogs and spies and, therefore - aside from the controlling tasks - get other responsibilities in the organisation, information handling, etc. We are dependent on asking them for help if things do not work well or we need something - and at the same time they hold the call statistics against us.
In this way the team leaders gain information on the work process and pass that on to the management. That is using the information in order to intensify work even more. The team leaders as our 'contact persons' also play a role as a buffer: whenever there are problems and we are pissed off we are supposed to take that out on the team leaders instead of attacking the management directly. They want to keep conflicts small and confined that way. The team leaders have the task of forcing management's way through - against us. Depending on the type of conflicts and what they want to accomplish, the team leaders behave differently: rather 'like mates', something those who have been working on the telephones themselves before can do best; they get called by their first name and allegedly take care of all problems; or rather 'reserved' and authoritarian, which is done better by team leaders hired form outside; they keep the distance and push measures through against us (see the report on the Deutsche Bank 24).
In conflicts we have to stand up against the team leaders. They are our immediate superiors and, therefore, stand in the line of fire. But essentially all this is not about the team leaders but about the work stress and constraint to work altogether!

Team-Work
In most call centres workers are divided into teams. In some cases that is done by taking certain qualifications (languages, technical knowledge). But more often the teams are just a way to form smaller, 'easy-to-control' units out of the mass of workers. That way the management has less difficulties getting through measures to intensify work. Teams are formed to channel conflicts and, if possible, to sweep them under the carpet. Instead of using the team meeting for discussing and pushing through our interests, we are just allowed to unload our problems with cookies and coffee. We are supposed to think that someone is taking care of it all. We are supposed to feel like part of the team. The bosses try to play us off against each other through team-bonuses, which only get paid if the whole team meets the targets, and by waving call statistics (see reports on Hewlett Packard, TAS...). We are supposed to control each other and urge each other to work. And if the bonuses do not succeed in making us work harder they just threaten to sack us or close down the call centre. They want us to see other workers, teams, departments, locations or companies as competitors. But where does this competition lead to? If we undercut each other and make ourselves cheaper and cheaper, all workers will lose out in the end!

That's it!
Work and work conditions are not our fate, even though at the moment we do not have any alternative but to sell our labour force for an income. One interest stands behind being forced to perform just a few operations, the use of standard phrases and the submission to the machine cycle as well as the commands of the team leaders: we are supposed to work more and in an intensified manner for those who take the profits. That is no natural process but a shitty way of producing the basis of our life!
We need to come together from the scattered call centres, factories and hospitals and put an end to all that. We have start at those places where we work together daily and are confronted with the interest of the bosses. We find many 'small' ways to avoid working hard - the extended lunch break, working slower, putting the phone on 'mute', calling in sick and the provoked computer break-down...
If we would not do all that, work would be unbearable and we could not do it for long. But real strength and mutual trust can only grow in joint action. That does not necessarily have to be an open confrontation. Here an example: at Hewlett Packard there was an order that workers should ask other agents, who are not having a call, to take call from the queue. The workers made fun of that and ignored the order. They did not want to spy on each other and make each other work!

Take action together against the work stress!

Quelle/Essen
I work at Quelle and see every day, how they try to make our 8 hours as intense as possible. They introduced standard phrases in July 2000 and keep an eye on whether we use them word by word or not. [See the hotlines-leaflet on that on the website]. We do not just get external control calls, no, they even call us from inside the call centre to test whether we use them 100 percent. That is analysed on a group-level and documented in front of us everyday. They don't care that we feel like a tape cassette. And we are asked to show top quality, take time for the customers, create a good atmosphere in the conversation and get across the famous smile in the voice. Those are the criteria the quality managers are using to assess our performance. So we are supposed to use the standard phrases, show 'top quality' (as our boss always points out) and meet the average of 22 calls an hour. How could anyone not be stressed out?

Medion/Muelheim
The first hotline-leaflet made big waves at Medion. Everywhere in the company workers started discussing, even people who did not known each other before. A few days later the hbv (union for commerce, banking and insurance) distributed an invitation for an assembly in order to prepare for the works council elections. After that a special edition of hotlines was given out. It emphasised that workers should not have any illusions on works councils [see hotlines-leaflet on the website]. The opinions on the necessity of a works council were divided. At the moment you do not hear much about it. Probably they are preparing the bureaucratic part. The discussions have ebbed away. Medion started selling computers and other devices at Aldi [supermarket chain] again. For us workers that means special shifts. But different from the last time the management has set less tough regulations: the special shifts are limited to four weeks (instead of six), we work up to seven days in a row (instead of 13!) and 'only' 8 hours a day (instead of 9). Furthermore, the telephone system is being switched off every few minutes so that the welcome desk can handle a certain amount of customers and has a few seconds break after that. If the management would not have set less tough regulations at this time they would have taken a fairly high risk.

Deutsche Bank 24/Bonn
There are about 15 to 20 percent full timers at the Deutsche Bank 24 call centre in Bonn. The rest are part time, mostly students and single parents. The wages are about DM 19 [9.5 Euro] an hour with a scale up to DM 23,50 [11.75 Euro]. After the merger of Deutsche Bank and Bank 24 the departments were reorganised and the agents got more tasks... without extra payments! The 'account service' (transfers...) became the 'account- and securities-service'. The agents have to deal with trading securities whenever the securities department is blocked by too many calls. Later more tasks were added like loans, credit cards etc. The department that had dealt with that up to then ('banking service') was liquidated. Furthermore, the agents in the 'account- and securities-service' had to take the overflow of the 'online service' (dealing with questions on online-banking). All that without proper training. Many workers refused tasks and kept on transferring calls to other departments whenever possible. They are being put under pressure through quality control. Once a month a 'coach' listens to calls and rates the 'professional performance'. And once a month a 'supervisor' listens in as well and judges your verbal performance: he tells you that you are using to many negative expressions, should avoid conditional clauses and that the WPAs are missing (words of personal appreciation, for instance 'Well done...'). The supervisor decides whether an agent gets promoted onto a higher wage level or not. If the supervisor does not like you... well, tough luck! Those in the 'accounts- and securities-service' get statistics on the amount of calls, call-times, not-ready-times, breaks, etc. With comments that the not-ready-times are too long and that someone has extended the break by 25 seconds for three times! After the merger the seating arrangement was changed as well. Before there were open rooms, tables without dividing walls and free choice of seats. So the workers could sit with their friends and gossip. Then tables for four were introduced with dividing walls and the agents were asked to sit together in pre-arranged teams. Apparently the aim was to prevent workers having fun together. The workers keep on taking out the dividing walls... and at night someone puts them back. The full timers cannot do the job for more than two or three years. Either you leave or you become a team leader. Now none of the full timers are made team leaders anymore. They come from outside. Up to now the team leaders where called by their first name, now they insist on their surname. Apparently they want to replace the old and softer regime or the old Bank 24-days with a new and tougher one. The way the work is organised, with many calls, direct-to-ear, with few, strictly defined operations, dictated phrases and strict rules the agents are really just the second-best solution. A machine could do that better. You are being used, a number in the statistics. You are being controlled and put under pressure whenever you are allegedly too slow.

TAS
I work for TAS. We are handling out- and inbound projects for other companies and get DM 15 [7.50 Euro] plus bonus. The bonus depends on the quota (calls per hour, call targets, for instance sending out information, appointments) and on quality (how are you talking on the phone?). The quotas for each agent for days, weeks and months are put up on the wall so that anybody has the information on his or her current performance and that of the others. Monthly call analyses and 'training on the job' (where a quality manager sits behind you and listens to your calls) are used to control whether your are actually handling the calls to a 'high standard' and therefore deserve the bonus. Again, everybody has access to the information who has got the 'quality' and who has not. The bonus itself depends on the whole team. That means you are not working for your own bonus but for the whole team. Put into positive words, that is supposed to create additional motivation. But in fact, it makes us put pressure on each other to work harder. Thanks to modern technology we do not have to remember the quota by heart - no, it is permanently displayed in front of us in a small on-screen-window. So everyday we hear a version of 'Sing the song of the quota', sometimes as a dark-sounding blues whenever you do not accomplish anything on the phone and the quota hits the ground, sometimes as a happy-end-music. Somehow everybody has accepted that, it is part of the game. Whenever things do not work well, team leaders, trainers and quality managers try to get them back on the bosses' track through trainings and workshops. Most agents really like to take part in those events. They say: Anything is better than being on the phone! But it is shocking how that 'Now you can tell me all about your problems'-talk leads agents to reveal others' tricks, how they make work easier. Although we are fed up with a lot of things, things that cannot be solved in any team-meeting in the whole world, we are not able to speak up but on the phone. The reason for that lies in the way the management justifies the quota, control, etc.: '...otherwise we could lose a customer, and you could lose the job.' The roles are clear: the understanding employer and the niggling customer. But who gives a shit?

Hewlett Packard/Amsterdam
Hewlett Packard (HP) has one central call centre for Europe in Amsterdam. There are smaller call centres in several European countries, for instance in Ratingen (near Ruhrgebiet). The support for cheaper and older models was outsourced to external call centres, for instance to the call centre companies Sykes, Stream and Sitel. About 600 people work in Amsterdam, but only about a third on the telephones. HP hires the agents for two years through temporary agencies (Kellys, Randstad, Content). The wage for newly hired is about 22,30 guilders (about 10 Euro) an hour (before tax). The agents at Sykes get about 16,50 guilders (7,50 Euros). HP recalculates its support concept on a regular basis and changes it constantly. Call centre departments get re-organised, transferred to other countries or outsourced to other companies. There is a paragraph in the agents' contracts stating that if their department gets transferred somewhere else, they have to move there too, or the contract terminates. The departments in Amsterdam are organised by product groups and languages. Most calls are about machines which do not work anymore and the callers need advice and support.
The number of calls varies between 20 and 40 a day. The first level (welcome desk, identification of the device and transfer to the right department) was outsourced to external call centres. For German callers that is done by Sykes in Wilhelmshaven. Most telephone workers at HP in Amsterdam are between 20 and 40 years old. 80 to 90 percent are foreigners (not Dutch). Many see the job as temporary. They want to live in Amsterdam for a while, learn about computers and get a certificate of a well-known company. But the work is boring. The customers are annoyed because their machines are not working, and go on about that. Some agents stop working there because they cannot deal with being a rubbish bin. Others try to get as few calls as possible. The HP management reacts by intensifying controls and giving agents more tasks (for instance more products to support, or more languages). In some departments statistics are being put up on the wall every day with the number of calls, pushed-back-calls, breaks, not-ready-time, etc. Sometimes the team leaders run around and criticise agents for their allegedly bad statistics. There is constant talk about quality. That is absurd because HP hires agents by looking for certain language skills. After about three weeks of training they are supposed to answer technical questions on the computer devices.

Citibank/Duisburg
Citibank's management plans to introduce a voice computer (IVR) to take in transfers, give out balances, etc. Up to now this was done by the workers in the Citiphone-call centre in Duisburg. The workers are supposed to use the saved time for selling loans and insurance contracts to the customers on the phone. A new software will be introduced so that the call centre workers can handle the accounts in a comprehensive way, that was so far only possible in branches. Furthermore, the workers of Branchphone (also in Duisburg) will handle calls for all branches from February on. Initially, most workers like these changes. The work in the call centre will be less boring and demand more responsibility. There are more decisions to be made on the phone, for instance whether a customer deserves a loan or not. And in the branches the purely organisational calls will be reduced, e.g. making an appointment. But these changes are part of the efficiency measures. Citibank is reorganising the departments and branches in order to play the workers off against each other. We in the call centres are supposed to take over the work of the branches - under worse conditions! And taking management plans they will deteriorate further: up to now in the call centre many calls were transferred to other departments. That created many breaks the team leaders could not control. That is going to be changed. We will not be able to get rid of calls quickly and transfer them. Through the expansion of the call centre the tasks of the branch workers will be reduced further. Most of the day they are already selling insurance contracts and loans. The work performance of each worker is measured in order to put pressure on them easily. Management and team leaders want to sell us all these changes as improvements. Actually they want to play us off against each other, control us better and make us work more productively.

8.2.3 hotlines-leaflet: (Non)sense of work

(March 2001) We work in call centres and elsewhere and produce a series of leaflets. That way we want to support and bring forward the discussion among workers. We need to stand up together against work stress and being forced to work. We can only do that by self-organising and by finding ways - together with other workers - to react against management measures and to push through our own interests. Our strength lies in the fact that we can quickly agree with other workers on - for instance - refusing overtime, ignoring boss's orders or reducing the call-rhythm. Without the boss being prepared and without the mediation or control of works councils or unions. If we develop that strength and use it, that can be a step towards overcoming wage slavery altogether.

All hotlines-leaflets are published - together with more information and contributions - on the website: [www.motkraft.net/hotlines]. Take part in the discussion and send us your ideas, critique and reports: [hotlines@motkraft.net]

Callgirls and Callboys: What a madness?!
Work, work, work - governments, bosses and unions agree that only work makes life sweet and sensible. Blessed are those who have work. But as soon as we assemble metal pieces at the workbench, give patients healthy injections in hospital or handle customers while sweating under headsets, the enjoyment quickly finds an end. We get confronted with contradictions which the bosses desperately try to hide.

In Call Centres
bosses tell us how well everything is organised and that they will teach us everything we need for the job: how we need to talk, how the computer works, etc. At first we are glad to be allowed to learn everything with coffee and cookies. But later - under the headset - we realise that we have not learned anything really: we have to improvise a lot, get additional information, adjust to new situations, etc. in order to avoid being left looking the fool and to make sure that the customers get what they want.
Constantly we get told what a responsible and interesting job we will do. It will demand our creativity. But on the job we realise quickly that we are in control of very few things and that the work is monotonous. Team leaders take care that we perform the repetitive work steps correctly.
Around all that the bosses make a big fuss about quality. The customer is king, our aim is the best possible customer service, we need the total customer experience - every day we hear such things. For this purpose they tell us exactly what work steps we have to perform, they make test calls and put whole squads of trainers onto us. All in order to increase 'quality'. On the job we see something else happening: because not enough workers were hired the callers have to listen to the endless queue-music. When they get through they are transferred into the next queue because we, the workers, are only allowed (or able) to perform certain things, not others. We are supposed work our butts off and take (or make) as much calls as possible. Therefore the 'quality' suffers because everything is done in a hurry.
Because these contradictions are obvious and frustrating the bosses make a big hype about how great their company is. They want us to keep on working hard (and not 'internally dissociate ourselves from the company or job'). They tell us about how lucky we are to be able to work in their team and what important goods are produced there (bank loans, computer printers, baby clothing). They also give out certificates, bonuses and T-shirts - and one can become 'agent of the month'. We are now part of one family, we are all in the same boat. Or: We all pull the same rope - but the question here is: who's neck is it hanging around!?
After having wallpapered the loo with all the certificates and after having well-invested the 3.50 deutschmark bonus on the stock-market, we realise that behind all that hype the normal work is continuing. We need to look at the interests behind work in order to understand why these contradictions and absurd situations are developing.

Money-addicted bosses...
First of all bosses want to turn money into more money. In order to do that they need to make us work for them. They invest wherever they get most, for instance in Call Centres. If that does not work out as expected, they switch sectors and invest somewhere else - maybe in the production of waffles or weapons? So the bosses, therefore, have no special interest in work. But money does not multiply by itself. So they have to - whether they like it or not - get involved in the work process. They need to get two things straight that create conflicts every day:
(1) The production has to yield 'profit': Few and badly paid workers should produce as much as possible after short training, with cheap material and machinery. The investments should stay small, the work intensive and the profits high. In call centres that means, that we, the workers, get only short training periods, are divided into shifts, should keep the calls short, sell a lot and make as many calls an hour as possible...
(2) The contradictions develop because at the same time the 'quality' should be right: the bosses take care that we produce something that they can sell, for instance a car, that really runs, or a help desk, that actually gives the callers good advice. The car or the advice on the phone have to have a value for the 'customers' (function, look nice, be practical, give help...). Therefore, the bosses have to make sure do not do a sloppy job...

...meet uninterested workers
Although the bosses like to present it the other way, it depends on us, the workers, whether the company is running despite this contradiction: we are asked to take care that the work is done quickly and is profitable - and that it produces 'quality' at the same time. Everything depends on us, but we do not have a special interest in the work either. Every job is more or less the same. Ok, some give us a better income or the conditions are not as bad, there are really shitty jobs and bearable ones. But all in all we only go out working because we need to. We need the money for a living. We do not have any interest in the thing itself. Hanging on the telephone for hours, yearning for the next break, answering stupid questions, not knowing anything, but having to give advice to people, struggling with the watchdogs... who cannot imagine something better? We need to get used to the fact, that we have to work a large part of our lifetime, and we want to see a sense in it. So we try to do the work right somehow because otherwise it would be even more stressful, for instance because the calls would be even more nerve-racking. But all that has limits.

What quality?
The bosses try everything to make us handle the stress that is connected to work under these contradictive conditions. We should satisfy as many callers as possible, despite cheap training, missing information, bad products, etc.. They put pressure on us, hypocritically using 'quality' as an excuse:
- If they would openly admit that they just want to increase their profits, we would not work half as well. So they lure us with the 'quality' of the product or the great company which deserves our good work.
- If they would openly admit that they want to control us so we work faster, we would resist quicker. So they justify the control with the holy 'quality'.
- If they would openly admit that they really have no clue how the work is done and organised, then we would ask ourselves what we really need bosses for. So they hide behind huge quality management-programs and ask us for 'suggestions for improvement'. That way they want to learn form us. But they use their newly won knowledge not for improving 'quality', but rather in order to give us even more work to do and to 'rationalise' production.

No one cares about sense
The contradiction between the interest in profits on one hand and the production of useful goods on the other leads to all the daily absurdities on company level. And it characterises the whole society:
- We have accumulated knowledge and wealth but neither get used for the needs of all: most people on earth still live in poverty - as workers or as 'unemployed' whose labour cannot be utilised for piling up more money.
- Whenever productivity is raised by using machinery - that means: the same amount can be produced in shorter working time - we still do not work less. The usage of machinery is supposed to increase profits, not shorten the working hours for all: wherever bosses 'rationalise' and fire people, those workers who stay in the company have to work more intensely and do overtime, the fired ones need to look for other jobs.

Behind all this is the contradiction that we, the workers, produce all the wealth, but we do not decide how we work and what happens with the wealth. When talking about 'employment' nobody cares about the sense of the work or whether we really need a product or service. The decisive question is whether wealth can be accumulated in the form of money through our work. That also applies for call centres. We, the workers, have not decided that in Europe alone millions of people should work in call centres.
But luckily we do something really sensible there: We take care that the things, which are produced by workers, are being sold to other workers while the money ends up in the hands of the bosses. Or we inform thousands of workers on the phone about the deficit on their accounts so they know that they have to carry on working for their debts. Or we sit in an order-taking department at night while people call who cannot go to the shops during daytime because they have to work then...

Nobody helps!
If we are sick of it all and had enough of these absurd situations, the great company and the cool boss, the taking-the-piss of customers and quality-tests, overtime and just the ordinary madness at work, what shall we do? We will not find a solution by trying to make work more 'human'. The bosses - supported by the unions - want to sell us the work as sensible and bearable by introducing teamwork, coloured screwdrivers and flat computer screens. All these attempts have the aim of making us put all our creativity and productivity into working. They do not change the situation where bosses and companies' balance sheets decide where money is invested and what gets produced. As long as the central aim is to make money into more money we will just go on and on reproducing the contradictions between work stress, 'quality', senselessness, etc.
No union, no party or other organisation will abolish these contradictions for us. There is no finished plan for a 'different' society - but there are thousand good reasons to utilise the existing productive possibilities for (instead of against) us. If we want a life where we produce for our needs, without exploitation, work stress and watchdogs, we need to take that into our own hands. The first step - the 'taste of something new' - can develop in situations where we challenge the daily work stress together. Where we use our creativity for actions against the work stress - instead of using it in order to save the chaotic organisation from collapsing. Where we use our co-operation as our power against the bosses - instead of working together side by side without noticing each other. Only this way we can overcome the gossip and mutual harassment at work. Only this way we can develop new relations and self-confidence that we need for the upcoming conflicts with the bosses.

For risks and side-effects try it out, send us ideas - or wait for the next hotlines!

Steffi. our best conversation.
peeep in the headset, hello caller, here is the always-at-your-service-bank, my name does not matter, what can I do against you, my mouth repeats the phrase without the brain intervening, I just talked to steffi about bse and 68, now again it's the big subject, money, oh yes, you want to buy shares, I put you through, but thank you so very much for your call, clack, I press the button to finish the call and off he goes, peeep! here is the always-at-your-service-bank, transfer? sure, from where? whereto? how much? never call again! clack, peeep! hello? always-at-your-service-bank, cheers mate, you want to complain, write to the following address, yes they will answer that sometime, listen... okay arsehole, bye, clack, steffi, where were we? Oh yes, bse, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank, you are disturbing, what do you want? a loan, better leave it, bye, clack, peeeps! hi! what? eh? yes, always-at-your-service-bank, online-banking? well, you buy a computer and call the appropriate hotline, good luck, clack, peeep! hello, always-at-your-service-bank, shares of dotcom soso, how many? for one hundred thousand deutschmarks, sure man, good bye, clack, oh no, I typed in and ordered the wrong share, well, no big deal for that guy, peeep! hellohellohello, dear customer, I can't understand you, I am going to put down the phone, ok? clack, so thing with bse is, eh, steffi? hello steffi! shit, she's got a call, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank or whatever, whaaat! you have been in the waiting queue for twenty minutes and then the line was cut off, yes, that's the way they do it here, complain? please, write to, yes they will take care of that, by the way, for the last twenty minutes I desperately had to go to the loo, bye, clack, peeep! always-at-your-service here, hello team leader, what did you say? today my performance is just around average, but I show some promise? byebye, clack, get lost, peeep! no, I cannot help you, my computer just slightly crashed, but thank you for being so frank, fuck you basta..., what a pity, already gone, hello steffi, the people in 68 already had, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank, what can I do? what? you want to pay your telephone-bill, the one from German Telecom, haha, bye, clack, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank, my name? what does that have to do with anything? clack, peeep! I don't know shit, clack, peeep! Not-at-your-service-bank, I hate you, why do you call, clack, peeep! you!? transfer? never! clack, peeep! always-at-your-service-bank here, hi! fuck yourself, bye, clack, peeep! clack, clack, clack, no peeep? bse, steffi, what a madness!

secretary duel
Every day, again and again, it gets fought out a million times. A bloody duel, one that can only be finished through getting fired, going to a psychiatrist or calling in sick. A duel between woman and woman, secretary and outbound-agent. The secretary has to protect her boss from the agent's bombardment of questions. The agent has to conquer new sources of money for her boss. All weapons are allowed in this fight. But the secretary can employ some weapons the agent is not allowed to use, due to the 'call centre convention', for instance 'wild abuse' and 'slamming the phone'. The agent on the other side has the advantage of ambushing the secretary without warning, the famous element of surprise: 'Hello, my name is... calling from..., please connect me with your manager!' If the secretary is not alert here, it can happen that she puts the call through because she is used to follow orders instantly. In that case she risks to get into serious problems with her boss. One point for the agent. But it's rarely that easy. Sometimes the lady on the switchboard transfers to the by far bigger enemy, the manager's secretary... But most of the time the secretary takes on the duel herself: 'We are not interested'. Now it the agent's turn. If she has no experience she accepts the statement and wishes the secretary a nice day. But she will find out that her boss won't like it at all if she accepts the secretaries attitude. After all, this is market shares warfare! So the agent has to call again the next day. And she knows that now it can get pretty loud. The consequence: she has to come up with new tricks, like intimidation of the person opposite through very complicated phrasing, questioning of her authority or the simple claim that the boss would expect the call. Sooner of later the secretary will know all the tricks and the duel goes into the next round...
The duels does not always turn out this ugly. If the secretary claims that the boss is in a meeting or on holiday there is a truce and you can see the person on the other side of the line as a human being. And you ask yourself what all the stress is about. If the other person had not chosen the wrong profession she could be quite nice after all...
Many might have listened carefully and gotten envious. Envious of the exciting and useful activity. How do you say? Sensible hours on the job. In this case that means: the agent dedicates about two hours a day to the duel with secretaries, so ten hours a week. Taking 10.000 agents that means about 100.000 hours a week. A secretary fights about 0.25 hours a day with wild agents, taking 10.000 secretaries that means about 12.500 hours. So the duel with the secretaries produces 112.500 working hours on the hot line. If that makes any sense!
Sorry, I have not introduced myself: I am an outbound-agent and do not allow secretaries to shake me off. I will call again and again till they put me through to the boss, so in the end I can tell him that our company can help him reduce his telephone bill...

8.2.4 hotlines-leaflet: Struggles in call centres

Pilots of the telephones:
Without you no receiver can take off!

(July 2001) The bosses and their profits are in crisis and we are supposed to carry the can: in call centres and factories, on construction sites and in offices we are supposed to work for less money, sometimes more, sometimes less hours - in some cases even around the clock.
* The bosses hire many people as temporary workers so they can get rid of them quickly.
* It is not only in the New Economy that we see more rationalisation and redundancies, while the bosses threaten us with the relocation to 'cheap labour countries'.
* The public service, for instance the local traffic service, is getting more and more privatised, which means that the workers there are doing the same work for less pay.
* And with the 'lazy person'-campaign (of the German chancellor Schroeder) the unemployed are put under even more pressure to accept 'low paid jobs'.

These attacks by the bosses are not just happening in Germany or Western Europe: workers are confronted with them worldwide. In recent times we have seen very few workers' struggles which could overcome the defensive situation and serve as an example for other sectors of exploitation. Maybe the pilots of Lufthansa who managed to strike for a few days and got a nearly 30 percent pay-rise this spring. In this way they found an answer to the 'tighten your belt' situation of the last few years. But is this also possible in other sectors where workers do not fly airplanes worth millions?
Most other conflicts stayed as symbolic actions, like the recent warning strikes of bus-drivers and retail-workers. There collective agreements ended up under 3 percent, less than inflation.

In call centres
the boom of the past three years, where in Ruhrgebiet, Germany you could always get a job on the phone, seems over. Workers are getting fired depending on the 'market situation'. Whenever new ones are hired they are asked more and more for 'work experience' and one of those 'call centre certificates'. The turnover, especially in the badly paid and stressful jobs, remains high.
In recent times there were some open conflicts and struggles in call centres. We need to look at them more in detail in order to learn for the confrontations coming up. We hope that those won't just be about the defence of the existing conditions but also about the question who controls our life. That question will move into the centre if we determine how and what we struggle for - and if we do not leave that to some union apparatus or representatives.

Confrontations so far
The open workers' struggles in call centres were officially about the level of income, the resistance against attempts of the bosses, who try to increase the pressure on the workers (through the hiring of temporary workers, the relocation or closure of firms, day-labourer-contracts), and about attacks on the workers' 'dignity' (through technological control, management despotism etc.). So the struggles are about similar things as in other sectors (factories, offices, etc).
In this leaflet you can find a selection of reports on conflicts in call centres. Apart from Verizon we had direct contact to workers in all the companies. We have seen roughly two kinds of conflicts: 1) more or less union-controlled strikes like the one at Citibank, British Telecom and Verizon, and 2) smaller, self-organised actions of workers in call centres in Berlin (Audioservice, Hotline GmbH and ADM).

1) The limit of the strikes at Citibank, Verizon and British Telecom was this: the workers took part in the union-controlled actions but did not find their own (!) ways of organising the struggles and beating the bosses. So the unions and other 'workers' representatives' could reduce the confrontation to strike- and bargaining-rituals and use the anger of the workers as lever against the bosses. At Citibank and British Telecom the strikes stayed as mainly 'symbolic' actions which did not yield anything. However, at Verizon the workers were determined enough to strike for two weeks. They accomplished some of their aims - as part of a collective agreement. Liberating experiences of collective activity and the feeling of their own strength in these strikes only developed where workers themselves carried out the actions, organised the pickets, attacked scabs, etc. Unions and other structures of representation are no answer to the attacks of the bosses: they are straitjacketed by the legal framework (their commitment to keep the 'peace', the collective agreement-stuff...). They divide us even more through their focus on professions and 'nation states' and cannot escape the bosses' logic of profits and productivity (see for instance the renouncement of 10 percent of the wage at HP and the low wage model for newly hired at VW).

2) Even if workers self-organise struggles, they do not becoming powerful and exciting events just on their own. That shows when we look at the actions of workers in Berlin. There the daily cooperation - and the connection outside of work - was the basis for workers acting against the bosses. They organised meetings, discussed collective actions, etc. Still, in confrontation with the companies they chose defensive measures: petitions, works council elections, industrial tribunals and calls for union-support. We do not know why they did not have more self-confidence in their own strength. It is clear that despite or even because of, these defensive measures the bosses were able to exercise their power: in the mentioned cases they fired people because they did not expect a strong reaction (occupation of the work-place, demonstrations to other call centres or other companies nearby...). This experience shows clearly that petitions, laws and negotiations do not push through anything, if there is no real workers' strength behind them - the ability to strike, to slow down the work process even with only a few determined workers, to endanger the bosses' profits.

These open confrontations in call centres remained exceptions. Usually we react to work stress and problems with the bosses individually: calling in sick, slow work and job-hopping make our life easier. But we are more and more often confronted with problems which we cannot solve individually or through collaboration with the management (suggestions for improvements...): compulsory overtime, hiring of temporary workers, threats with the re-location of the company etc. These situations demand other measures!
Even more so, because in many call centres the bosses are experimenting with more productive technologies (IVRs, internet service). During these experiments they are even more dependent on our work because they have already invested money into the technology but it is not running in a profitable way. For instance, we are supposed to make up for the technical problems. In the long run the introduction of these technologies is undermining our strength and will lead to increased work stress and redundancies - unless we act against it in this transitional phase and sabotage the bosses' strategies.

Developing struggles
We can fight back where we are and where it hurts the bosses most. The cooperation with other workers enables us to fight against the various adversities of everyday work: we need to communicate daily with other workers in order to get our work done 'properly'. We are in contact with people from different departments, work-sites and 'professions'. Without this unofficial cooperation the companies would collapse.
We can turn this form of organising around (instead of customer data we exchange tips for sabotage or strike information) and in collective actions push things through against the bosses. We do not need 'outside' organising here, which 'represents' us (like works councils or unions).
Our answer to the crisis and the bosses' attacks can not be modesty and renouncement. We have to put our own needs in the centre and fight for them.

Questions?
We cannot present general proposals of how to get out of the defensive situation. But we can - starting from the previous struggles - ask questions which can help us:
* Which forms of struggle correspond with our immediate abilities and needs: collective 'work-to-rule', other forms of sabotage, open strikes...?
* Where can we hit the bosses hard: when lots of callers are in the queue, during test-phases of new technologies...?
* How can we overcome the company-walls in order to undermine the bosses' attempts to use workers in other call centres as scabs?
* How can we establish connections with the struggles of workers in other sectors and learn from each other - e.g. because we are fighting against similar conditions?
* How can we do all this without putting our fate in the hands of a union- or other apparatus?

The answers can be found only in the struggles themselves!

Strikes and other conflicts in call centres
Here are some reports on conflicts and strikes in recent times. We are still trying to get information on some others, for instance the one-day strikes at Telecom Italia / TIM in Italy against re-location, insecure contracts and lousy working conditions, and the long strike of part time workers at Korea Telecom (KT) in South Korea, who are fighting against redundancies and the privatisation of departments...

Citibank/Bochum
The strike took place in 1990 in the out-sourced call centre of Citibank in Bochum, Germany. The reason for the strike was threat by the management to of the closure, or rather the relocation, of the call centre. The works council called in the union which asked for collective bargaining and thereby put the strike on a 'legal basis'...The strike took place on three single days spread out over months. The management hired scabs through temporary agencies and rerouted calls from the striking call centre in Bochum to the Citibank call centre in Aachen, Germany. By the end of June 1999 the call centre in Bochum was closed. Only 50 out of 400 workers were taken over to the new call centre in Duisburg/Germany (30 km from Bochum). During the same period similar developments took place at other Citibank call centres (for instance Gelsenkirchen, where 500 workers were sacked). The weakness of the strike had several reasons: the workers left the organisation of the strike to the union by accepting the demand for collective bargaining. The strikes took place only on one day at a time and, therefore, could not develop any power. There was no contact between the workers in Gelsenkirchen and other Citibank call centres which could have led to the coordination of collective actions and prevented the strikebreaking. The symbolic actions organised by the union and the works council (protest meeting in front of the Citibank headquarters, public relation happenings in shopping zones) increased the feeling of powerlessness and passivity among the workers.

British Telecom/Britain
In December 1999 workers of the British Telecom (BT) call centres staged a one-day strike all over the country. It was mainly about the hiring of more temporary workers, the increasing work stress, unrealistic work targets and the bullying by the bosses. 4000 workers in 37 call centres took part in the strike. The temporary workers did not. The communications workers' union (CWU) initially called three one-day strikes. After the management agreed to let the CWU have a bargaining position, it called off the other two. Surprised? The strike has not really changed anything. It was short and did not really disturb the work process. For some BT-workers this was not enough: When the temp agency Manpower was substituted by Hays in March 2000 and the wages were lowered immediately, some workers did not accept the new contracts and started a series of acts of sabotage in order to show how they felt. For instance, the speaking clock in Zimbabwe was called for hours and the workers did 'work-to-rule', which gave them plenty of time for gossip, story-telling and other work refusal techniques. At BT there are more and more precarious, low-paid and temp jobs. Furthermore, the work stress is getting worse. The management tries to use the 'carrot' of a possible permanent contract and at the same time threatens with the 'stick' of firing workers. The question is how the division between permanent and temp workers with poorer conditions influence their ability for common struggles.

Audioservice/Berlin
At Audioservice about 70 workers sell tickets, CDs, videos, etc. Most are students who have an outline-agreement without fixed working hours, without paid holidays, sick pay, etc. In summer 2000 the workers discussed how they could prevent the substitution of the already insecure outline-agreements by day-labourer-contracts, and how they could get permanent contracts with paid holidays etc. They wrote a petition which was signed by 30 workers. After that, about half of them were fired. Some went to the industrial tribunal and got between 500 and 4900 DM. The petition obviously provided the management with the names of the 'dissatisfied' so it could sack them selectively. Although the 'students' also met outside the work-place and stuck together they were obviously lacking the ability or determination to 'close the place down'. Signed petitions show the bosses that something is going on, but they can react on the spot and attack the people. A direct action might have been more effective.

Hotline GmbH/Berlin
At Hotline GmbH about 150 workers, mostly students working part time, handle calls for external customers (Berlikomm, Ares-Strom). At the end of last year 40 people were sacked 'due to the reduction of a large-scale contract'. Some workers started discussing what they could do to prevent this happening again. They started to set up a works council and asked the union, IG Medien, for advice. The management heard about this and organised its own works meeting as a counter-move. Then, in February, it sacked more than 20 workers with flimsy justifications. The workers got the support of the initiative Call Center Offensive and organised a demonstration with about 50 people outside the call centre. Afterwards there were some court cases (for re-employment) and compensations between 500 and 4000 DM were paid (those who had caused the most trouble got the most!). The conditions worsened and the work rhythm was increased further after this confrontation. Furthermore, there was a 'hunt' for the friends of the workers who were sacked, who still worked for Hotline. Some workers sympathised with an anti-fascist initiative, and the management tried to sack all of them.
Missed chance?! Some workers knew each other from outside the work-place anyway and maybe it would have been possible to occupy the place in a joint action, interrupt the 'productive process' and put pressure on the management.

ADM/Berlin
500 people are on the phone for Adm in Berlin in in- and outbound. They are dealing with calls for GASAG, Tele2... Most are students. The situation is characterised by 'lousy conditions, nerve-wrecking controls and low wages' (quote from a leaflet). First 70 workers asked for paid holidays, which was denied by the management. Then, in April 2001, more than 80 workers were sacked. Some workers formed a 'work group' and wrote a leaflet demanding, for instance, holiday payments and sick pay. People from the initiative Call Center Offensive also made a leaflet and handed it out in the call centre. Some of the sacked went to court and got between 500 and 3000 DM. After the sackings and the actions the conditions got even worse. The controls at the entrance were intensified (using cameras...) and management paid more attention to punctuality, etc. It's more than interesting that the union ver.di (result of the merger of most unions in the service industries) was already negotiating with the Adm-management about a collective agreement for Adm-workers. After the self-organised actions of the workers and the intervention of the Call Center Offensive, the union wrote a letter to all workers arguing against 'exaggerated actionism' which would 'have a negative effect on the negotiations'. Clearly, whatever happens outside the control of ver.di is unbearable!

Verizon/USA
In August 2000 more than 85,000 workers of Verizon (telecommunication group) went on strike, among them technicians and many call centre workers. The official strike demands were higher wages, less compulsory overtime, restrictions for the re-location of departments and the chance for the unions to organise the workers in the mobile- and internet-part of the company.
The conditions in the call centres were characterised by shifts of ten hours or more, dictated standard phrases, strict surveillance, the obligation to reach a certain sale-target, stress due to the high amount of calls, etc. The unions of the communication workers (CWU) and the electricians (IBEW) organised the strike and negotiated with the management. About 30,000 other (white-collar) Verizon employees were used as scabs in the maintenance departments and call centres. Although most calls are connected automatically and therefore the Verizon-operations could be kept up, the management could not prevent the call centres becoming quickly blocked, calls were not handled and important repairs were not carried out. As well as pickets in front of hundreds of Verizon-buildings there was a series of acts of sabotage against switchboxes and cables and attacks on maintenance trucks driven by scabs. After two weeks the management gave in, accepted certain points and agreed to a new collective agreement: the wages were raised, team-bonuses introduced, overtime was limited to eight hours per week, transfers of workers restricted, and the unions got the approval for their attempts to organise the mobile- and internet-departments. A major factor here was that the union organised 60 percent of the workers of Verizon. More than 85,000 workers on strike could put so much pressure on the management that many demands could be pushed through.
The problems of such a settlement are shown by the daily work situation in the call centres: now people get a little higher wage and do only 1,5 hours overtime, maybe with a few calls less every day. But what did CWU-president Morton Bahr say about the strike result: 'This settlement secures the future for our members at this company and it also helps sharpen Verizon's competitive edge'. The workers still work their butts off!

ISI Marketing is a great company!
First 40 hours of work without payment and no contract, then 12 DM [6 Euro] an hour with an un-guaranteed bonus, very low rate for sick pay... is that not a 'sh.... job'? Anyway, that is how some friends called it who went to work for ISI Marketing and wrote a leaflet on their working conditions (see [www.motkraft.net/hotlines] under 'leaflets').
The ISI-management was not amused. They could neither get a hold of those workers or the people who handed out the leaflet nor condemn them to three years of forced telephone labour. So ISI used the civil laws in order to 'make the workers shut up': by getting court injunctions the company put pressure on 'free', the provider who hosts the hotlines-leaflet's web pages. ISI refers, for instance, to terms like 'sh..... job' used in the leaflet and argues with the 'law against unfair competition'. No word on the working conditions themselves: ISI knows why!
The situation of this legal battle is this: the provider 'free' has to cough up lots of money for the legal costs etc; and the website was moved to a different provider in order to avoid further problems for 'free'. The attempt of censorship was criticised by many independent providers, union-groups etc. Many groups have published the leaflet and other statements on the ISI-attack. But this is not just about keeping the internet open for the free exchange of information. This is also about the struggle against the working conditions. Those conditions can only be changed by the people who have to work there. So if you have experiences with ISI or other companies and want to report on them: Write to us!

Donations- for 'free': Freie Arbeiterinnen und Arbeiter Union, Account-No.: 96 152 201, Postbank Hamburg, Bankcode 200 100 20, key word: FREE

See also under:
www.ainfos.ca/01/may/ainfos00353.html
www.ainfos.ca /01/may/ainfos00569.html
www.ainfos.ca/01/jun/ainfos00371.html

hotlines no.4: the last part of the series
This is the fourth and last of a series of leaflets: 1. the expansion of working hours; 2. the intensification of work; 3. The sense and nonsense of work; and this one 4. on workers' struggles. You can find all leaflets and more contributions on the website [www.motkraft.net/hotlines].
Time for some thoughts and an outlook: when we started writing the leaflets and website in October 2000, we wanted to support a discussion on the working conditions and chances for struggles. Our aim was to instigate the exchange of reports from call centres, to circulate information and to build up contacts to workers and pass those contacts on to others. Some of that has happened.
The leaflets led to some excitement and discussions at work. However, this ebbed away after a few days. We got e-mails asking us to carry on the stuff, but there were not many people sending us their own reports (like the one from an Australian call centre worker) and few contributions to the actual discussion. Certainly, we are getting information from various people and groups on a regular basis, but a large-scale discussion on the chances for struggles hasn't really developed.
In order to get there - also considering the small number of open confrontations in call centres - we need to go beyond this sector. We think that call centres are not isolated, but are places of exploitation like other offices, factories, construction sites and hospitals. In call centres we can learn from the experiences in struggles in other sectors.
We will try to get more interviews and reports from workers who want to do something in their work-place or are taking part in a strike. And wherever necessary we will also intervene in confrontations with leaflets. Stay tuned!

Your hotlines [www.motkraft.net/hotlines] [hotlines@motkraft.net]