8.2.4 hotlines-leaflet: Struggles in call centres

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.

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...

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.

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.

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!

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/ainfos00569.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]