We are in search for moments of rebellion and subversion. At the beginning of the inquiry and
intervention we had hoped to find them in the time between all those phone-calls and quality-monitoring-sessions. We had also hoped to be part of moments where workers themselves try to find a collective answer to their problems. But it was not that easy. We have met other workers who moaned a lot, who wanted to change something instead of taking all the shit - but there were also situations where most of the people remained timid or scared... some unaware of what's going on and some even licking the foreman's bottom.
The following part deals with points of conflicts, lines of struggles and forms of organising. We start once more from the daily experience of exploitation. The points of conflict emerge from the daily tug-of-war over the work, the control, the stress, the boredom. They have to do with hire-and-fire, money, 'free' time and dignity. Along these points evolve lines of struggle like strikes or sabotage. We will describe what kind of experiences workers had in these struggles and where their limitations lie. Along these lines various forms of organising also develop: institutions of representation like works councils or unions; or in contrast to them, rank-and-file unions in Italy or support groups in Germany, for example. Apart from or in addition to these forms, workers also try to organise themselves independently. We will first summarize our observations about these different forms from a critical point of view and then formulate some discussion-points for the debates to come.
6.1 Points of conflict
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. [hotlines no.1, October 2000].
With this quote the most important points from which conflicts and struggles in call centres emerge are mentioned. But we can't lump all call centres together under one headset. The conditions differ and range from a place like Atesia in Italy, where the workers are formally 'self-employed' and have to 'hire' their work-equipment and the 'wage' barely provides them with a living, to Quelle (warehouse company) in Germany, where the workers on the phone have to receive orders literally without any breaks, to certain departments of Hewlett Packard in the Netherlands, where workers only deal with twenty phone-calls a day, but on the other hand have to be 'motivated' to do 'voluntary self-training' due to the constant technical progress Although the machinery used (PCs, computer-nets, head-sets, telephone-systems, software) and the work-organisation (training, team-leaders, front-/back-office...) are similar in most cases, the work-tasks and contracts differ considerably, which also effects the conflicts and forms of struggle.
The fact that we are forced to work and the conditions of work itself can't be seen as separate conflicts, but as related to each other and thereby ruling our lives. Our inquiries and interventions have to bring this cohesion to the fore in order to make clear that only the abolition of class relations can provide an ultimate (dis)solution to individual conflicts. That's not easy, given that we want to refer to the concrete conditions at the same time. We want to start describing the different points where conflicts emerge:
a [Insecure working-conditions]
c [Extension of working time, pressure on wages and intensification of work]
d [Monitoring and control]
e [Bullying, arbitrariness and hoodwinking]
The capitalists try to impose insecure working-conditions in call centres: temp-work, time-limited contracts, apprenticeships, 'self-employment'... Call centres are a more or less new form of the organisation of work and therefore a playground for management-consulting-companies and human-resource-scientists to find the most effective ways of exploiting human labour. Here are some examples:
For years British Telecom has used temp agencies (i.e. Manpower or Hays) to employ people. These people do the same work as the permanents, but for less money. Some of them have worked at British Telecom for ten years without getting the same wage or other benefits that BT provides for 'its' staff. Others are sacked after a short time - or they quit the job themselves.
At Bertelsmann (publisher house) in Muenster the workers hired in 2001 only got six-month contracts. After the contracts ran out only a few of them got a new one... again just for six months. In this way Bertelsmann manages to replace the staff completely every year.
At Blu (mobiles) in Florence/Italy in 1999/2000 many of the 400 call centre workers were contracted with so-called apprenticeship-contracts (CFL: contatto di formazione e lavoro) which are time limited to one or two years. At the beginning of 2002 a conflict arose because Blu did not extend most of the contracts and shifted some of the work to the call centre in Palermo. The main share-holders (i.e. Benetton and British Telecom) want to get rid of Blu all together.
At Korea Telecom most of the workers are employed on temporary or part-time contracts. These workers only earn a third of the permanent workers wage (about 650 Euros), work 56 hours a week, without holidays, without social security. The workers - technicians and call centre workers... - accept these conditions because the management promises them permanent contracts in the future. [hotlines-website, 7th of November 2001]
At Audioservice (advertising, ticket-sales) in Berlin in 2001, the bosses wanted to prevent the workers getting holiday pay and sick pay. So they gave out one-day-contracts: if you arrive at work you first have to sign a work-contract that runs out at the end of your workday. The slightest rebellion could have resulted in not getting hired next day.
At Atesia (telecommunications) in Italy the bosses of Telecom Italia, the only shareholder of Atesia for years, try to impose self-employment on the call centre workers. Atesia is the bottom of a customer care pyramid. In its 'own' call centres also Telecom Italia hires workers on a basis of temporary contracts, temp agencies, apprenticeship contracts... but at Atesia they don't have 'real' work-contracts but so called 'cococo'-contracts (collaboratori, coordinati e continuativi).
'We have to hire our workplace for 1.500 Lire per hour. That amount we have to pay - without earning one Lire - even if we have been ill for three to four days.' [Worker quoted in: Il Manifesto, 1st of May 2002]
The workers are paid per call. If there are no calls, there is no cash and if you start making a fuss about it they won't let you rent your workplace the next day.
All these measures are due to the following aims of the capitalists:
* By creating a situation of insecurity - e.g. waiting for a decision on the extension of a contract or the permanent employment of temp workers or apprentices - the bosses can put more pressure on the workers who are then obliged to work their arses off in order to get a permanent contract. If they refuse to do it, they are sacked.
* By replacing or re-composing the staff regularly the bosses aim to prevent the workers exchanging their knowledge about the work and how to avoid it. This is also to make it more difficult for 'communities of rebels and trouble-makers' to develop within the work place. Often these communities consist of workers who have already worked there for a while and who have found out how to react against the bosses' measures. They know the weak points of the organisation of work in this firm, e.g. how to provoke a computer crash at a time when lots of calls are coming in. Those who are new do not trust the other workers (and vice versa) and try to do a good job in order to survive the probation period.
* By limiting the contracts to a fixed period, by hiring temp workers and apprentices, the bosses are able to react to the fluctuations of the so-called market. They try to shift the risk onto us. In busy times they hire like hell and in periods without many calls they sack us and we have to work out how to cope with that. Breathing factory call centre style. Particularly perverse in this context is the marking of workers as 'self-employed' by making them were badges, as happens in a call centre in Italy.
In addition to the contract stuff the bosses de-compose companies, re-compose them, transfer the functions to other company-owned or external call centres... maybe even to Morocco, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern or India. What is the strategy behind the outsourcing?
* The outsourcing of parts of the company, departments or particular functions creates smaller company units, which makes it easier for the capitalists to put the workers under pressure. Working together with 500 others in the same place is a better condition for us to develop a certain feeling of strength than hanging around with fifty work-mates, only half of whom you meet anyway, due to the weird shift-times.
* Through the virtual connection of different call centres and departments, chains of cooperation with thousand or more workers are created, just like in other sectors, but these workers are separated into umpteen companies. You can not see your work-mate, not even in the break, because she or he is working some floors above, labelled with a badge of a different company - or maybe of the same company but working on the other side of the planet. We don't know anything about the other workers, their (similar) working-conditions, the last strike...
* Many firms also outsource functions in order to create a hierarchy within the work-force: on the one hand a few better paid specialists, who get the companies ideology and motivation training crammed down their necks, and on the other hand a pool of hire-and-fire workers in outsourced workplaces who earn considerably less and are squeezed to the max.
* The bosses calculate that in this way the workers can be played off against each other more easily and that at the same time higher profits can be realized. Sometimes - at least that's what they count on - it's enough to merely announce plans of outsourcing to create an atmosphere of fear in order to force through a deterioration of working conditions or a drop in wages.
The extension of working time, the pressure on wages and the intensification of work
The capitalists have two ways to increase their profits. They can extend the working day and make us work longer - also with the aim of using the machinery more effectively - and by that can increase the exploitation, overtime pay or no. Sometimes that way they also get around hiring more workers. Or they can intensify the work: more calls per hour, idle times between the calls filled up with other tasks, more tasks in general...
Shift-work doesn't sound that threatening and if you just do part-time - as a student or as an additional earner to the main wage of your wife or husband - you might not suffer too much if you have to work four hours in the morning one day and six hours till midnight the next. But whoever has to do this forty hours a week is fucked.
Call Centres brought an extension of shift-work for the white-collar workers, sometimes with special permission for working night shifts and at the weekend provided by the administrations and the government. Some examples:
In 2000 in a call centre of Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg, the management had set one shift finishing at 10 p.m. and the next one starting immediately the next day at 7 a.m., not caring about the fact that you might need an hour to and from work so that there are only six hours left for yourself. Some trouble started in this place because the bosses' promise to take into consideration that women with kids need some time to organise the child-care was broken by this shift-schedule. But hey, shucks, it's your own problem how to get the kids to the kindergarten, ask granny or find someone unemployed to help you.
In the call centres of Telecom Italia they work around the clock: morning-, late-, night- and weekend-shifts. The same happens in many other call centres, e.g. at AOL in Duisburg, at ADAC in Munich...
Shift-work destroys our rhythm of life, even more if the shifts often change. Every month we have to fiddle around to get a free Wednesday for the yoga-class and on Sundays we get bored doing bank-transfers or receiving orders while our friends are having a post-party chill-out (if they are not working themselves).
Night shift and the constant change of sleep-rhythm drags us down. Insomnia, headaches and burn out - but at least we have a 'modern' and 'clean' job. Overtime also plays its part. Some of us have to do overtime because we need the money, some are forced to do it for other reasons: you work overtime or they won't prolong your contract; or the bosses put you under pressure by announcing that otherwise the company will go bankrupt; or they try to mark you as an outsider saying that you are the only one refusing to do overtime.
At Medion (PCs, domestic appliances) the bosses demand overtime during the special 'sales campaigns' by Aldi (a big supermarket-chain), offering cheap computers etc. The workers are obliged to work six days a week for four, eight or more weeks during which they also don't get any holidays.
At Verizon in the US the situation is similar:
Regularly the bosses order 15 hours overtime per week, so that working ten hours a day is normal. People who can't do overtime during the week are obliged to work at the weekends. The bosses also limit the time for taking holidays or visiting the doctor... [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
At Fiat in Milan a lot of workers have to do overtime because otherwise they cannot make up a living wage.
What lies behind this?
* They make us do overtime regularly and pay us a basic-wage for 20 or 40 hours a week. If we are ill or go on holiday, of course they just keep paying us the basic-wage.
* Due to the extra-hours the company can also avoid hiring more workers. We are supposed to cover the extra-work during boom-times by working more hours and stay at home unpaid when the boom is over. It's similar to the strategy of giving us short time contracts in order to hire-and-fire us with the rhythm of the economy.
We depend on wages to survive. But what if you already sweat twenty, forty hours or more on the phone and you still can't pay your rent, food etc.? In modern sociology they have made up a term for that: working-poor. In England, Italy and Germany there are call centres where they pay you so little that you can hardly live of it.
Atesia, a subsidiary of Italia Telecom with the biggest call centre in Rome, is employing five
thousand workers who are formally self-employed and who have to 'hire' their work places. They get contracts for three months, some just get them constantly renewed for years. And they are paid by the call: for some calls they get one Euro, for some just ten cents, depending on the kind and content of the call. So the monthly income ranges from 150 to 1000 Euro, due to fluctuation in the amount of calls... In March 2002 the workers in Rome went on strike for two hours because they only got paid 15 Cents per call, phoning for a campaign of Telecom Italia, so that at the end of the month they earned 140 to 150 Euros. The strike was successful, the payment was increased to 40 Cents per call, but the overall situation has not changed: in general Atesia workers' net income is less than the monthly rent for a single-room flat.
In other call-sweat-shops the wage is at least high in comparison to other jobs for 'un-skilled' workers: at Audioservice (adverts, ticket-sales) in Berlin or Emnid (market-research) in Bielefeld, Berlin, Koeln and other towns, in 2001 you earned something between 6 and 7 Euros per hour. But if you are working part-time, that does not reach very far.
At Citibank or Deutsche Bank 24 you can be sure that your monthly wage of 3000 DM before tax is far less than the negotiated wage in the bank sector (about 25 to 30 percent). But hey, that is what they are aiming at: reduction of the branch workers, taylorisation and 'callcentreization' of the organisation of work so that they can suck unskilled and miserably paid workers into the telephone-jobs.
At Telecom Italia it is easy to see how the conditions in general and the wages in particular have deteriorated. Taking inflation into account the wages have decreased about 25 percent in the period between 1990 and 2001.
In addition to that we have to face forms of unpaid labour, for example at ISI (call centre service, subscription-sales) in Duesseldorf and Bochum...
The team-leader told me that the twelve hours trial-shift and the 28 hours telemarketing-work will be 'for free' for 'both sides' (Sounds great, doesn't it?! I'm allowed to work without having to pay for it. That's an exceptional offer nowadays!) [hotlines-website, 20th of March 2001].
Only after this unpaid probation period will the ladies and gentlemen at headquarters decide whether they will accept you... depending on your scores during the free trial period.
At IFB (tele-appointments for tax consulting) in Toulouse/France the boss is ripping off the workers by not giving them the promised bonus.
When you apply at that company they try to attract you with bonuses for each completed contract and they promise good career prospects within the company. But in reality it all looks a bit different: since I have been employed I have only got one single bonus although I kept on pointing out that it looks more than strange that despite all the appointments I arranged over the phone not a single contract had been completed. [leaflet of a worker, hotlines-website, 29th of October 2001].
Other companies invent other ways to lower the wages or force the workers to do unpaid labour: they want you to arrive a quarter an hour before the official work-time in order to read your e-mails (concerning work-instructions, of course), or they take the time you took pissing off your wage-slip... We don't need to explain why they rip us off here. It's all about money, baby! The single capitalists wouldn't pay us at all, if they didn't have to keep their human capital alive. They pay us peanuts when they can get away with it.
The more we achieve per hour, the more profitable is our work for the boss. In terms of profit it doesn't really matter if our ears fall off after hours on the phone, if our fingers hurt or our backs get crooked.
The intensification of work has got different faces:
At Hewlett Packard the team-leaders try to saddle you with the responsibility for more and more products or languages which you then have to deal with on the phone. You know a little French? Great, we will put some through to you then. Before that you might have had some time between the calls to surf the net or to read the newspaper, but now you also have to console despaired French guys prattling on about their PCs intestine problems (in a language that you hardly know).
At Verizon in the USA the workers are taught to turn the tables, meaning that they have to try to sell stuff to people who have just called to ask for technical support. Call centre workers are taught to change a conversation, for example about the details of the last phone-bill, into a sales talk. At Verizon this is called 'bridging'. Here is a quote from a worker:
Right, imagine that you phone us because you receive abusive phone calls and therefore you want to change your phone number. Then we on the other hand have to search in our customer database to see what kind of telecommunication products you already have in order to try to sell you something more. But not just one product, that would not be enough. I have to offer you voice-mail, if you haven't got it already; a double connection, if you haven't got it already. I have to do my best, spark and glow, to get you to the point where you say: 'OK. I'll take that for a month, but just because you are so nice.' [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001].
This additional sales-strategy (management-term: cross-selling) also exists at Citibank in Duisburg where the workers have to try to sell credits to the inbound-customers. There we see other forms of intensification, too: workers who do outbound-calls have also to receive inbound-calls in-between times. You are just about to prepare yourself for the next outbound-attack and - peep - an inbound-customer is already stuffing questions up your ear.
In order to reduce the time between the calls, at Seaboard (Electricity) in Portslade/England they put the calls through automatically:
As soon as you're settled and logged in, the calls start coming in, and as soon as you finish one call the computer automatically puts you on to the next call, leaving no time whatsoever in between to catch your breath or to recover from a stressful and emotionally draining call. You're on call constantly apart from the 15-minute break every six hours... [hotlines-leaflet from Brighton, March 2001].
At Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg it is possible to switch on 'after-call work' mode after a call, but the team-leaders always stand behind your back keeping an eye on the time you are on 'after-call'. And it really sucks that they put the call right through to your headset ('direct-to-ear'). There is no time to relax a bit before picking up the receiver. You are just sitting there waiting for the next peep in your ear like a hare waiting for a shot. Hearing it, you have to start talking immediately, because the customer is already on the line. The same is going on at Fiat in Milan and a lot of other call centres around the globe.
The reduction of 'idle time', of the little breaks between the calls - for a look out of the window (if there is one), for an extra fag, a little chat with your neighbour - is the main task for the industry sociologist, consulting firms and other puppets of the exploiters. They can try to extend the workday, but that quickly reaches its limits. Some of us refuse to do overtime. After six or eight hours on the phone, most of us are totally exhausted anyway. Overtime pay doesn't change that. So what remains is the intensification of work: 'Direct-to ear', cross-selling, restrictions on break times, automatic call distribution... they take our few moments of breathing space and increase the stress.
Monitoring and control
The intensification would not be enforceable without monitoring and control. Apart from the usual monitoring through foremen (team-leaders) in call centres, various forms of automatic collection and analysis of data concerning the work performance is used.
Imagine this: Shift starts. That's a sensitive time anyway. You have already spilled your coffee and while reading the 119 e-mails of the sales department the realisation of your miserable existence as a phone-slave just re-entered your mind - when the team leader-hyena comes sneaking up from behind, smiling charmingly, and the stats from yesterdays work slide onto your keyboard:
amount of calls, duration of each single call, total idle time, total time in 'ready'-mode, total time in 'after-call work'-mode, time used between ringing and picking up...
The control takes place on two levels: they collect all data to be able to quantify your work
achievements. The software is timing all work-steps and delivers nice stats at any chosen moment. The other level of control tackles the 'quality' of your work. They sit next to you or they annoy you with test calls (so-called 'mystery calls') in order to come back at you off afterwards by going on about your mistakes, your stammering, the missing smile in your voice...
At Pacific Bell (computers) in San Francisco, USA a 'promoted' agent permanently checks the recent call-times of the other workers.
In the middle of the room sits the Hotcube. The Hotcubist today is George. It's his job to monitor our calls, watch our times, listen in if necessary, and write us up. Stay on a call longer than thirty minutes and your name goes into a log. Sit in Wrap (the time between calls) for longer than three minutes, your name goes in a log. Take a 'health break' for longer than five minutes, your name goes in a log. Leave your desk without an appropriate code. Logged. [article in East Bay Express, December 2000].
The Hotcube is not just recording if you exceed the set time, the Hotcube is also phoning you immediately to give you a bollocking. We know of similar behaviour by team-leaders in other call centres. These creatures hang around in front of their screens, staring at numbers and stats and if the tolerated time-frame is violated the red alert starts and they come to action.
In some departments of Hewlett Packard in Amsterdam they pin the stats of the previous workday on the notice board, nicely classified by single 'agents', by the different language groups and by different 'teams'. So you can compare your achievements or miserable performances every day: who has ignored the most calls, who chats the longest, who's break queen of the day... The team-leaders use these stats to put us under pressure individually: 'Have we had a bad day again, yesterday? After the call you have to switch on 'ready-mode' a bit faster. And again you have been on idle-time for twenty minutes non-stop'. To give it all a more 'neutral' appearance they try to establish the so-called 'service-level' as an objective category. If fifteen out of a hundred calls are rotting in the cue for more than three minutes and the others are answered in time we have achieved a service-level of 85 percent. The Hp-management takes this service-level as the holy measuring stick for their own and all external call centres working for Hp. They threaten the 'internal' call workers-workers with outsourcing the calls to external companies if the service-level is not achieved. They do the same thing to the 'external' workers announcing the possibility of using the service of other call centre companies. It's a shitty game.
The control of quantity is meant to make us work harder, to eliminate all gaps, idle time, unproductive activity of our workday. They want to create a certain atmosphere: Just because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean that there isn't always somebody controlling my work-pace... Our physical and mental energy has to be sucked out as efficiently as possible in order to secure a constant valorisation.
Another level of control at Hewlett Packard, at Fiat and in a lot of other call centres are test calls from internal or external drill inspectors who are asking you fictitious questions (mystery calls). At HP they claim to not record the name of the called 'agent', at other companies you are told off immediately and personally when you have failed. At Deutsche Bank 24 you have to get through a monthly personal supervision about your 'quality' and they also put you under pressure through other forms of 'quality control'.
But we are put under pressure by different kinds of quality control. Once a month there is a 'coaching' for assessing your professional competence: a 'coach' sits down beside you, listens to a few calls and fills out an assessment form and discusses that with you. Also once a month there is a 'supervising' on your 'verbal competence': a 'supervisor' listens to calls and tells you afterwards that you are using too many negative expressions, should avoid conditional clauses and that the WPAs are missing (words of personal acknowledgement, for instance 'Well done...', 'Thank you very much for your suggestions..'). The 'supervising' also determines your elegibility for a promotion to a higher wage level. The verbal assessment is subjective and if the supervisor does not like you - or if there are any other reasons - they use it to deny a promotion. On top of that there are one-to-one meetings with the supervisors where they replay taped phone-calls and 'analyse' them. In this way agents are put in embarrassing situations. [hotlines-website, 16th of November 2000]
At TAS (tele-appointments for telecommunication companies) which has call centres in Muelheim and elsewhere it looks pretty similar...
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 you are actually handling the calls to a 'high standard' and, therefore, deserve the bonus. Again, everybody has access to the information about who has got the 'quality' and who hasn't. [hotlines no.2, December 2000]
The bosses try everything to make us handle the stress connected to work under these contradictory 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 from us. But they use their newly won knowledge not for improving 'quality', but rather to give us even more work to do and to 'rationalise' production. [hotlines Nr.3, March 2001]
Bullying, arbitrariness and hoodwinking
Given all that shit, insecure and miserable working conditions, low wages, shift-schedules which tear you and your life apart... for a lot of workers working in a call centre still seems better than cleaning, lugging bricks on a building site, working on the assembly line or as a doctors little helper in a surgery. If we have a choice at all. What are our alternatives?
Reviewing the different situations at work we are also confronted with conflicts that are not about money or the related fear of loosing your income. They take away something that is generally called dignity. In a word: Your pride!
That happens in different ways. On one hand the job constantly creates situations where you have to put your arse on the line for something that you cannot even take the responsibility for: the delivery was not made yet, the call queue is endless, you cannot get hold of the wanted information, your PC is crashing or is slow as hell... Then the customer is telling you off and you feel like you have to justify yourself...
On the other hand many workers find the control of every little step un-dignifying, for example if the team-leader pins stats on the board telling everybody about how long your piss-breaks were yesterday... A guy working in a Call centre for Blu in Calenzano near Florence/Italy signed his report about the work-conditions with:
An inmate in the jail of Calenzano. [hotlines-website, 6th of March 2002]
That's not all; a lot of conflicts are specifically about the 'quality'-monitoring concerning
pronunciation, the verbal expressions and not just the actual talking. During the training at Deutsche Bank 24 they tell you explicitly to sit straight in front of your screen and to smile because the customers can hear it on the phone. On top of that you are supposed to think positive, bla bla.
At Quelle (tele-order) in Essen the bosses insist on exact pre-formulated phrases, so called
'standard-phrases'. But here we are not dealing with nuts and bolts that have to fit an industrial norm, it's about damned words that they want to come out of your lips:
'Welcome to Quelle, my name is Firstname Surname. What can I do for you?' Standard-phrases, everybody who works for Quelle knows about them. Another example? 'Mr, Mrs... We currently make a customer survey. Are you interested in advertising material on the subject 'dogs'?'... [hotlines leaflet about the situation at Quelle, November 2000]
At Verizon in the USA they also control what the workers say and how they say it:
One worker said she wanted less direction over what she is told to say... at each call she has to say 'did I provide you with an outstanding service today?' and often feels like an idiot. If the workers don't say this sentence they receive bad marks and don't get promotions. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
The same story again at Telecom Italia:
The company-headquarters has just decided to improve efficiency without increasing costs, by introducing and enforcing the famous customer-welcome-phrase: 'Good morning, Telecom Italia here, my name is Filippo, how can I be helpful to you?' Excellent sentence, theoretically with high impact but practically useless. The poor agents are forced to repeat that till they go crazy, otherwise they get rebuked verbally or receive written sanctions. Imagine the customer who has been waiting for the repair for days and hasn't seen even the shadow of a technician. How should he respond to such a question?... Why don't they [the bosses] take note of the fact that we are human beings and not machines. [Bip Bip, Newspaper of the base-union Flmu-Cub, Florence, February 2002].
The last point is typical: They treat you like a machine that they can program. You are only supposed to go for a piss when they tell you that the time is right, you have to start chatting when they put a call through, you have to move your mouth like they have instructed. They do that in order to sell their commodity 'telephone service' better and in order to standardise our work and to raise productivity. In many cases mere instructions and commands do not reach very far, because workers find ways and means of avoiding them or they simply ignore them. Especially the more experienced workers know how to do that very well. Nevertheless often the instructions produce permanent stress for the workers and are received as bullying and arbitrariness.
The capitalists try to counteract these kinds of 'negative vibes' with bonus-systems and other forms of 'motivations'.
At Hewlett Packard in Amsterdam they provide a ten-minute-massage every month - the same at Lufthansa in Berlin - and if you're lucky you could become 'agent of the month' and get a little present.
At ISI in Bochum, Duesseldorf... they also have various treats waiting for you:
Whoever sells most subscriptions during the week can drive the company's red BMW all weekend. And every three months the best seller gets a weekend in one of Europe's capital cities. I could hardly sit still on my chair. [hotlines-website, 20th of March 2001]
Verizon in the USA doesn't want to seem stingy either:
There are signs everywhere about the bonuses people could get if they have sold a lot: pizzas, sweets, journeys to the Caribbean islands... [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
At Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg the recently programmed team-leaders can't stop telling you that you are working for the best company on the globe. You have already worked for three other 'world-best-companies' before and that didn't make you either richer or happier. It is not surprising that most workers don't give a shit about this kind of 'motivation'.
The bosses make a big hype about how great their company is. They want us to keep on working hard (and don't '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!? [hotlines no.3, March 2001]
The lack of training and the bad work-organisation
A lot of workers are pissed off about the fact that they often do not actually know what they are doing work-wise, meaning that they have had no, or very poor, 'training'.
At Hewlett Packard in Amsterdam workers are hired for their language-abilities, not caring at all about their computer-knowledge. After two or three weeks of 'product-training' they are let loose on the phone with the customers. It takes another few weeks till they know a little more about the stuff they are on the phone for. The customers are annoyed because they don't get any help or get misleading instructions on solving their computer problems and they even have to pay for the phone call. The workers are annoyed because these situations are really fucked, when you don't have the slightest idea what it is all about, when there's no-one to help you ('Got no time, hon') and you are supposed to swing it anyhow.
At Deutsche Telekom in the last few years all departments - not just the call centres - have been mixed up completely in a process of re-structuring and outsourcing. The workers in the call centres have to pay for the lack of coordination or for the fact that they only have access to information which is already out of date or invalid... as a result they have to face the angry customers. A lot of the workers are hired by temp agencies or are contracted for a short time and (therefore) have received insufficient training.
The companies want to deliver a service-hotline together with their products so that they can present themselves as 'service-orientated' or in order to be aware of the customers' wishes and complaints. You can phone these hotlines and tell the people that your milk is off or that you cannot switch on your new PC. Often these hotlines are just a fake: you cannot help the customer anyway because you are lacking information, you haven't got a clue or you are not allowed to put the customer through to the person responsible. As a call centre worker you are supposed to cover up this mess by sweet talk.
Hoodwinking the customer
In some call centres they expect you to take the piss out of the customers. At Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg they 'promote' an 'agent' to 'team-leader for a call' just to shut up a customer who was asking for the person responsible. Like at Pacific Bell in San Francisco:
The customer is transferred to me. 'Are you a supervisor?' he demands instantly.
Since the beginning of the month, everyone in the call centre has been transformed into a supervisor. Brian sleeping at his desk is now a supervisor. Ian with purple hair gelled into points is a supervisor. Ron who begged not to be made a supervisor is a supervisor. I am hoping next month, whoever decided to make us all supervisors will make us CEOs. 'Yes, I am a supervisor.' 'At last,' he sighs. I feel sorry for him: he thinks he's reached someone in authority. [article in the East Bay Express, December 2000]
'I don't give a shit'... that's what an 'agent' could think about the hoodwinking and actually that's most peoples' reaction. If you have to deal with a hundred, two hundred or more voices a day and ten percent of them try to put you down you will have had enough. Furthermore, some customers are real arseholes who give you shit over the phone and make you want to punch them.
The relations with other customers are a bit more contradictory: they are people like you and me and they have a problem to solve. As a call centre agent you try to compensate for the lack of information etc. by being friendly and helpful. That's what your boss relies on. If we didn't do that, the call centre wouldn't work. Our 'human' work, talking to the customer, paying attention, listening, the coordination with the other workers, are essential parts of the 'telephone-service' commodity. This is also a hindrance to the further introduction of Interactive Voice Response computers.
Another form of hoodwinking is even sicker: you are supposed to sell the people stuff knowing that it's a rip-off or that it will lead them deeper into debts. For example at Citibank and Deutsche Bank 24 in Duisburg the inbound-workers are told to sell loans to the people who are calling. The workers know that having to pay the interest will kick the caller far beyond their overdraft forcing them to slave just for the loan - but hey, it's a good deal for the banks...
At IFB in Toulouse/France the workers know what they are doing:
The aim of the game is to reach managers, craftsmen, free-lancers, big bosses or ordinary private persons by phone in order to propose a 'free consultation on tax laws'. That is supposed to enable them to pay less tax, thanks to an individual evaluation that takes 103 laws into account. This is nothing but a load of bollocks. In the end they just take into account a single law and the advice of the consultant is simple. He proposes investing in real estate, meaning buying an apartment for about 100,000 Euro. He explains how the apartment is rented out and the loan can be repaid with the income. In this way you can benefit from a tax reduction, due to the 'Besson' law. In the short term this can work out, but in the long run it is very risky - i.e. for the whole time it takes to pay back the loan. [leaflet of a worker, hotlines-website, 29th of October 2001]
There are a lot of these kinds of call centre jobs: 'I just called to say... you have fallen behind with your instalments' or sales campaigns for whatever crap... Most of the workers can only cope with this kind of work by seeing the person on the other end of the line as just a customer: an object that you have to manipulate in order to get it where you want it to go. Even in the 'harmless' inbound-jobs there is the pressure to see the people as things but you still have some ways to treat them somehow correctly.
There is a lot more we could write about: anger at acoustic shocks and health-damage, rats in the work-porto-cabin at Medion, filthy headsets at Quelle... Often conflicts arise from these problems, they are occasions to get rid of the pent up frustration of daily work. But this is less about the single issues. The projects of increased exploitation hit us as a concentrated attack by the capitalists... not only in companies like Citibank, Telecom Italia, Hewlett Packard or Verizon, which are constantly restructuring to keep the workers moving around, and to force them into competition between different departments and locations.
We have to be aware that the capitalists use the single conflicts in order to divert the attention from the whole. want to limit the conflicts to their single issues in order to channel the anger and stop it from bringing the totality into question. During a discussion of workers at Fiat in Milan one of them said that the conflicts about the dress code (for example the obligation for men to wear a tie) or the bad canteen-food just cover the main fact that the working conditions in general are shitty. They want us to get worked up about small matters and aim our anger against the nearest team-leader or the canteen-chef and not against the relation of exploitation itself. Important for them is that there are negotiable solutions for single problems (a little wage rise, on Friday you are allowed to wear your shirt unbuttoned...). As long as there are negotiations the exploitation is not in danger. This point will reappear when we have a look at the unions and works-councils.
Up to here we have described single moments of attack, now we are ready for the remedies that workers use against them.
6.2 Lines of struggle
If the exploited turn their daily divided co-operation around into organising their struggle: if the office workers don't work away to the rhythm of some other workers PC-inputs, but rather use the intranet to co-ordinate the strike; if the assembly line workers don't have to try to catch up with the assembler before them, but rather use the co-operation to bring the whole assembly to a stand-still; if the struggle in the schools ruins a whole coming generation of workers; if joint proletarian rent strikes or mass-shoplifting was organised in the play-groups and parent and toddler groups. The struggle develops a material power, because it suspends the capitalist accumulation and undermines the state. The self-organising of the struggle by the workers is only possible in those conflicts that result from the daily structures of forced cooperation. In these conflicts the relationships and needs change. In this way we get to know that the means and possibilities are there to create a different non-capitalist community. In these struggles there is the chance to 'out' the supposed supremacy of capital, the seeming independence of the state and naturalness of gender relations as paper tigers. Because the practical relations to each other and to the means of production change and because in struggle they can be developed and created without capitalist mediation. This real movement within capitalist exploitation we call Class Struggle. [kolinko, The Subversion of Everyday Life, 1999]
A new (revolutionary) class movement has to be based on the struggles that we start in work-shops, on the building sites, at the assembly-lines, in job centres' waiting-rooms, in offices and shopping-malls. The struggles in these places of exploitation can take the offensive and make life difficult for the bosses. But it's about more than that: it is about the potential of the workers as a class to destroy the social relations of exploitation and to change society fundamentally. Bearing this in mind we try to summarize the daily (subversive) practices and the struggles of workers in call centres. But where are these struggles? Is it possible to struggle in a call centre at all? We want to come closer to this question by looking at some examples:
In some call centres workers have found forms of sabotage, for example making the machinery crash when the work stress has reached its limit. Ctrl-Alt-Del... and you have a three-minutes-break extra while the PC is rebooting.
Let a call die in your line... and it will take some time until you get the next one. Fiddle a bit with the cables... and the technician has to come and find the problem (alright, not very kind, poor lad...).
Probably the most common reason for sabotage is the creative expression of anger and frustration at work. There are people who demolish 'their' work-tools - headset, computer, software... for the pure pleasure of destruction. Most of the time these acts are done individually. Workers realise that they cannot bring a stop to the stress together, so they throw a wooden shoe into the machine.
Other workers react with sabotage against concrete actions of the bosses. At Deutsche Bank 24 in Bonn in 2001 the bosses introduced partitions and decided that at the beginning of each shift every worker would be told where to sit and work. By doing that the bosses wanted to prevent the workers sitting together in their 'groups' and having fun now and then. The night-shift, at least, managed to regularly deconstruct the partitions.
In times of strike, sabotage is a way to increase the pressure on the bosses or to prevent scab-work. During the strike at British Telecom in 1999 the workers were quite creative:
Large amounts of overseas phone calls were reportedly made, apparently totalling over £15,000. One call was claimed to have been made to the speaking clock in Zimbabwe with the receiver left off the hook over night; as well as this, top of the range stock was sent out to householders with faulty BT equipment. Many worked-to-rule, refusing to perform any 'extra' tasks than the ones in their job description. And whereas before the office had been a tense and hostile environment, now it was coloured by workers chatting merrily and putting their feet up disguising their refusal to do any work. [Undercurrent no.8, Brighton, summer 2000]
During the strike at Verizon in the USA the workers also used sabotage to give a hard time to the middle management who worked as scabs in the call centres and the maintenance.
Different forms of sabotage were reported (out of 450 cases of sabotage 230 took place in New York City): cables were cut and Verizon announced that rotten eggs, bottles and stones were thrown at members of the management; a service-truck ended up in flames, another one was first caught in a garage door and later demolished and a third one was losing wheel nuts... The newspapers wrote about several cases of 'vandalism' (heading: 'Thousand of New Yorkers without phone-connection during the strike'). [hotlines-website, 8h of June 2001]
Most call centre workers have little experience of collective forms of struggle. Often they don't know much about the possible reactions of the bosses or about which forms of struggle to use in order to achieve the most. That's due to the fact that a lot of young workers are hired and to the lack of strikes and struggles in the last few years. So workers often get stuck with pre-determined, 'democratic' forms of resistance.
During some conflicts workers collected signatures hoping that a petition could put such pressure on the boss that he would be unable to push through this or that unpopular decision. At the end of the day he's also just a human being following the democratic myth that it's the majority that rules.
During the afore mentioned conflict at Audioservice in Berlin about day-contracts and the refusal of the management to pay holiday-money and sick-leave some workers wrote a petition ('Dear management...') which was signed by thirty other workers. They expected that, facing this expression of discontent, the bosses would fulfil the demands or at least express their willingness to negotiate. Instead, half of the workers who signed were sacked. The bosses chose those on the list who they suspected to be troublemakers and those who they wanted to get rid off anyway. At ADM in Berlin similar things happened when seventy workers applied for a holiday-pay. Soon after some of the workers were sacked, others were put under pressure by having to attend some 'one-to-one meetings' with the management. 'Either you withdraw your application or you can go!'
At Medion several petitions have already been circulated, for example to stop the workers having to deal with additional calls (concerning other products). These petitions were handed over to the works council who was supposed to impose it on the bosses. The whole issue fizzled out...
You wouldn't expect anything bad to happen, signing a petition, but in fact they are a trap: perhaps they note the names on the list in order to present them again during other conflicts or in a worse case the management knows immediately who is responsible and against who it has to aim at when starting some bullying, sending a warning or even a notice of dismissal...
At Audioservice the workers have taken legal action against the dismissals at the industrial tribunal. The same at Hotline GmbH in Berlin, where people were sacked because they had protested against mass-dismissals and had tried to form a workers-council. In both cases they could achieve a severance pay ranging from 500 to 5.000 DM (250 to 2500 Euros).
By taking legal actions or going to the industrial tribunal we expect that the state to back us up against the capitalists. We don't want to stop anyone from going to the industrial tribunal in order to at least get some money out of them, but we have to see clearly that taking legal action is just an expression of the fact that we have not found a way to fight back or that we were too weak to make our needs met ourselves. Sitting in front of a judge together with a lawyer might provoke various thought associations in your head, but the last thing you think of in this situation is that it might have something to do with a (collective) struggle against a social relation that is forcing you out of bed and under the headset again in the morning.
In the cases mentioned above nothing has really changed: The call centres have sacked some people, others were hired, some workers got a bit of money and are now exploited somewhere else...
The strike at Citibank in 1998 was one of the reasons for us to start an inquiry and intervention in call centres. This and other strikes in call centres show clearly what the power of workers in these fields of exploitation consists of - and what the limitations are. Let's take some examples to see what has happened so far:
We start with the strike at Citibank in the Ruhrgebiet in 1998 that caused a 'public' discussion about the working-conditions in call centres. The trigger was the announcement by the Citibank-management to close the call centres in Bochum, Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen
(and in some other towns, e.g. Frankfurt) in order to centralise the work in a new call centre in Duisburg. The old work-contracts were terminated and it was clear that not all workers would be re-employed. Besides, the working-conditions in the new call centre were worse right from the start: lower wages, longer work-hours, less holiday...
In the call centre in Bochum there was a works council, which partly consisted of people who had already had 'political' experience due to their activity as students' representatives (Asta) of the Ruhr-University in Bochum. The works council also called the HBV union (trade-, finance-, insurance-sector) for help. The works council demanded the initiation of collective wage negotiations with the aim of making sure that the better working contracts in the 'old' call centres would also be valid in the new call centre. Soon it became obvious that the Citibank management would not enter in such negotiations. After the obligatory legal procedure - ballots etc. - the works council and the union organised three one-day-strikes, spread over several weeks. Confronted with a management unwilling to negotiate they also organised demonstrations and other public actions. On the other hand by this time the works council was already negotiating over a redundancy payments scheme and the symbolic actions (e.g. demonstration in front of the head-quarters) were only contributing to the feeling of powerlessness amongst the workers. In summer 1999 the 'old' call centres were closed down and only a few workers were re-contracted. Here is an extract from a report based on conversations and interviews with workers of Citibank:
The fact that seventy percent of the workers worked part-time produced communication problems during the strike, e.g. due to being part-time, not all workers could participate in the company assemblies. Therefore a lot of people got to know very late, or even just on the strike-days, about the planned actions. During the strikes the workers stood in front of the company building, which was protected by security guards, while the scabs kept on working inside. The time during the actions was used to inform each other about the stage of negotiations etc. Then the works council and the unions respectively also called for actions in the shopping streets (handing out of post-cards, demanding the boycott of Citibank etc.). The atmosphere varied between euphoria, aggression and disappointment. Euphoria because something happened which interrupted the normality of daily work. Aggression due to the reaction of the management who organised parties for the scabs. Disappointment when it became clear that the actions would not prevent the closure and when the participation dropped considerably on the third strike-day. Also discontent with the strategies of union and works council became acute: the strike-days were mainly organised on Saturdays when less workers had to work. Only a few demanded to go on strike for a whole week or during times when more calls come in. A unified answer of the workers was also impeded by the different expectations amongst them: many were students who saw the job just as a temporarily annoyance, while for others it was their 'work-place', which has to serve to make a living now and in the future. A lot of the 'students' were more combative, because they apparently had less to loose. When it became obvious that nobody was going to get a new contract the frustration of getting nowhere with the (strike-)actions was already predominant. [hotlines-website, 25h of June 2001]
At this point some contradictions had already become clearer:
* The workers in struggle had different aims. Whereas some really were looking forward to getting a job in the new call centre with the same working-conditions, for others it was already clear that they wouldn't be re-employed or that they wouldn't start another job for Citibank. So some were aiming for a good severance payment and others for new jobs.
* Although the strike actions made the workers feel stronger ('Finally we can show them what's what'), they did not lead to the workers taking over control of the struggle. The organising of the strike and the demonstrations remained in the control of the works council.
* Citibank was determined to close down the call centre. There was little chance of the strike being 'successful'.
* The workers did not manage to use the strike as a very effective weapon. It does not lead very far if you just strike for a day and announce it in advance so that the management has a chance to prepare their reaction. This fact cannot be explained just by the soothing influence of the works council (and the HBV union), which was eager to obey the legal procedures. The workers were lacking in strike experience and they hesitated taking over the initiative and walking out spontaneously when it would have hit the company hardest, e.g. when there are a lot of calls in the queue. Due to the pre-announcement of the strikes, Citibank had plenty of time to organise scab-work:
The management took various steps to break the strike or to weaken its outcome. Firstly they re-routed a lot of calls from Bochum to the direct-bank in Aachen, meaning that the workers in Aachen had to deal with a lot of more calls which were originally destined for the call centre in Bochum. On a daily level the workers in Aachen and Bochum are in contact, because the work-process requires it (i.e. transferring customers). So after the strike-days the workers of both call centres could exchange some comments on the walk out which ranged from disapproval ('You and your shitty walk-out, we had a bloody stress-out receiving your calls') to verbal expressions of solidarity. A lot of customers, who were informed about the strike by the media, were surprisingly supportive (against all ideologies of the 'total service') and besides information about their bank account they also asked the workers to 'keep on fighting'.
Secondly the management organised an additional 'improvised' department in Duisburg. During the strike in this department team leaders from Bochum trained and supervised workers who were hired on the basis of already deteriorated conditions. They had to perform the same tasks as the workers in Bochum and they got the verbal promise of being contracted for the new call centre in Duisburg. We don't know if the workers of this department were aware of the strike and of the fact that they were used as scabs by receiving calls during the strike-days or by compensating for the sabotage of the workers in Bochum (kicking calls out of the line etc.).
Thirdly the management hired about 40 people from temp-agencies (Manpower...) who were employed in the call centre in Bochum. They were trained by strike-breaking team leaders or workers, which was only possible given the simplicity of the work. [hotlines-website, 25th of June 2001].
The undermining of a strike by re-routing the calls to other call centres will re-appear in other strikes. Already here we can see the weakening effect of the divisions between the workers of different call centres, departments or contracts (part-time, temp work...).
British Telecom 1999
These divisions were one of the starting-points of the strike at British Telecom:
Before Xmas, workers at BT went on strike for the first time in 13 years. Occurring in the 150 and 151 repair (call) centres, it has been claimed as the first strike at a call centre in Britain. A series of three one-day strikes had been called by the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) in protest against the increasing influx of agency workers (seen by the permanent workers for what it was: a strategy for lowering their wages and eventually replacing them with lower paid agency staff) and the heavy handed pressure and intensification of work that management imposed on the workforce. However, only one of the three-day strikes actually happened, since the CWU and the management naturally came to some sort of agreement over increased union recognition in the workplace. [Undercurrent Nr.8, Brighton, Summer 2000]
About 4.000 workers of 37 call centres took part in the walkout. The temp-workers did not go on strike, which was partly because of their insecure legal status: British Telecom can send them home from one day to the next. As well as that, the temp agency can sack them immediately if the customer (i.e. British Telecom) doesn't need or want them anymore. Also in this case the workers were only on strike for a short time and achieved next to nothing. On one hand the strike has shown that it is possible to fight, even in these taylorised telephone-factories, that's why it has met - like the strike at Citibank - with a considerable response in the (lefty) media. Again the union has just used the strike, to be accepted as a representative partner at the negotiating table. There were no independent tendencies or cores amongst the workers, which could have taken over the initiative or could have given a more offensive impulse to the strike. So the actions could not really do much harm to the exploiters. Here too the divisions between workers of different call centres and contracts plays its weakening part. The workers did not find ways of counteracting this weakness.
In terms of results, the strike of the workers at Verizon was more successful - under different circumstances. Over 86.000 workers - call-centre workers, technicians... - in several states of the US went on strike after the old negotiated contract ran out. Most of the workers were organised in one of the two big unions of the sector, the majority in the Communications Workers Union (72.000), the rest in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (14.000). The official aim of the strike was to achieve the right for the union to organise the workers in the new 'boom'-sectors such as mobile-communications and internet-service. Verizon imposed deteriorated conditions in these sectors and tried to impose the inferior conditions on other workers by shifting them from one sector to the other. During the 15 days of walk out, hundreds of picket lines were organised every day.
The high level of participation can be put down to the fact that the strike was also directed against the shitty working-conditions in general: the obligation to do a lot of overtime, stress due to a high work intensity...
During the strike the telephone-communication was not affected, because 98 percent of all calls are distributed automatically. Some workers took action to solve this problem and destroyed relay stations, mainly in New York:
A university-professors comments on these actions: 'Verizon-workers possess a very effective weapon which is their knowledge about the complicated electronic connections of New York - and their security that the interruption of these connections will have an immense impact on the public. They know the infrastructure because they have constructed it'. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
The employment of about 30.000 scabs recruited from the lower and middle management was meant to guarantee a minimal service, but this often failed, due to their incompetence.
In Directory Inquiries, where a worker usually gives out information to 1.000 to 1.200 customers a day, the strike-breaking tie-heroes managed just a quarter of that... tens of thousands were waiting for a new telephone-connection, repair works were not done, there were long call-queues and loads of break-downs in the call centres. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
This strike also had its contradictions: the workers in the mobile-communication sector did not walk out, also the 'Verizon-workers' of other sectors, where the negotiated contract was not valid, did not participate. The unions also used this strike to secure their position as negotiation-leaders and partners of a new bargaining contract. The agreement after two weeks of strike consisted in a wage rise and increased performance-bonuses, the limitation of over-time and the right for the unions to sign-up workers in the mobile communication and internet-sector.
The comment of the CWU-chairman Morton Bahr on the agreement: 'The contract secures the future of our members in this company and also helps Verizon to increase its competitiveness'. [hotlines-website, 8th of June 2001]
Telecom Italia 2001
For some time another form of confrontation has been taking place at Telecom Italia.
Supported by base unions, workers organise short walkouts against the intensification of work, outsourcing, dismissals and low wages. For example the Flmu-Cub in Florence, Italy calls for monthly strikes at certain days, refusing amongst other things the night- and weekend-shifts. Sometimes hundreds of workers participate in these actions . Quoting from a Flmu-leaflet:
Telecom Italia is pushing ahead with dismissals of many workers or shifting them to other work places. New working times and a new organisation of work are also being introduced, especially in the online-sector, which is really an attack on the 'dignity' of the workers, subjecting them to the technological control and the arbitrariness of the 'responsible person' (bosses and their helping hands), etc.. All this is meant to cut down the number of work places and to use an ever more precarious and flexible workforce. (...) In order to oppose these attacks the Flmu-Cub calls upon all workers (...) to go on strike on the 15th of October:
* against the introduction of precarious and flexible working conditions
* against the shifting and outsourcing of work and workers
* against new working time schedules and the work-organisation 'a la call centre'
* for the maintening of work places on a local level
* for more human working-conditions and retention of the possibility of shift swapping
* for adherence to health and safety-standards.
[leaflet of the Flmu-Cub, Florence, October 2001]
It is difficult to assess what kind of impact these short and regularly organised strikes have. It seems that, to a certain extent, they are accepted by the capitalists as a form of expressing the discontent and easing the pressure a bit. In Italy the strike-law prescribes that the unions have to announce a strike on a local level ten days in advance. For the workers this means they cannot be sacked - unless they are on probation - but also that they will lose the money for the hours on strike. Telecom Italia at the same time relies on two strategies to limit the impact of the strikes:
* As an immediate reaction they re-route the calls to other call centres. Being confronted with this the militants of the Flmu-Cub have drawn the following conclusions:
We have to adjust our forms of struggle to the changes of the organisation of work: if today the workers of the 187 (technical support / Telecom Italia) in Tuscany go on strike, even with a high grade of participation, the strike will hardly have any impact on the company, because the strike is compensated for by the work of the 187 in Liguria. The same with other call centres. [leaflet of the Flmu-Cub, Florence, December 2001]
* In the long run they divide the call centres in ever smaller and spatially separated units, outsource some parts or allocate the work to another company. Here are the activists again:
Another reason for why strikes lose their power is the fact that the work is also allocated to other companies: at the 187 the calls are re-routed to Atesia. The logical consequence is to extend the strike to all call centres of a company in order to achieve some impact. And not just to the call centres of a single company, also the connected companies like Atesia have to be included in the struggle. [leaflet of the Flmu-Cub, Florence, December 2001]
Another example: Blu (mobile-communications) in Florence. After the call centre opening two years ago, accompanied by a great public fuss and subsidized by the state, now the main share-holders (amongst others: Benetton) want to sell the whole company, meaning the possible closure of the call centre. Since February 2002 the people with a so-called 'apprenticeship contract', which is limited to two years, are being sacked one by one. Here is part of an interview:
When they told us on the 13th [of February] that no contract would be prolonged it was a shock. Not just for the 24 workers who were affected that day, but for all the others with the same kind of contracts. When the news kicked in, everybody stopped phoning immediately. Most of the managers kept out of sight that day. Some of the team leaders were also affected themselves. The ones that remained were more or less passive. Some angry discussions started. The people felt betrayed. They thought of themselves as the 'good agents', the experienced ones, some of them have already been promoted...and now this. Especially the people sacked that day that had personal relationships with the management, originating from the time when the call centre was opened and there were only a few people working there. The discussions lasted for some hours. The calls for the private customer hotline were re-routed to the second Blu call centre, located in Palermo. Probably resulting in an over-flow there. The situation in the commercial customer hotline became more and more critical. Because these calls could not be re-routed - and because the commercial customers are much more important, of course - the managers tried to get the people back on the lines. The people refused and heavy disputes surged up again. Late afternoon people were phoning again, although most of the workers of the day-shift had already headed home. The next day (14th of February) the union representatives of the Cgil and Uil organised a company assembly, during which they backed up the manager of the commercial customer hotline and his insults the day before, despite of the fact that he had already threatened workers who were opposing him with 'consequences'. During the assembly the unionists were fiercely attacked for this protection of the management.
But at this point the atmosphere had already changed. At the day of the wildcat hardly anybody had thought about the consequences. The next day they did. Most of the people hadn't had experience of these kinds of confrontations. On the 15th of February, a day later, a national wide strike was announced by the base unions. When about twenty people, some Blu workers and people of the base union, arrived at the company building the previously informed press were already there. The workers inside the call centres noticed the arrival of the small group of people. Out of the two hundred workers a hundred came out to participate in the demonstration, which made a brilliant atmosphere.
The representatives of the Cgil and Uil also appeared and called the workers back to work because the strike was not 'authorized'. Most of the workers did go back, but not before the end of the demonstration, an hour later. The representatives of the Cgil and Uil kept on trying to sabotage the actions of the workers, for example by calling an assembly at the same time when other actions were taking place... [from a summary of an interview with a striker, April 2002]
After another demonstration of Blu- and Telecom Italia-workers on the 19th of March, not much more was happening at Blu. By now all temp-workers have been kicked out and one hundred other workers have been sacked, most of whom found another job immediately. The remaining 150 workers don't work their asses off because most of their contracts run out in a few months and the future of the call centre is still unclear.
What is interesting about the conflict at Blu is the fact that before the wildcat on the 13th of February there were no open confrontations. The workers had kept quiet for two years, hoping for a permanent contract or a promotion to a different job - to escape from the phones. The union representatives of the Cgil and Uil openly played their role as de-escalators and helping hands of the bosses, trying to guarantee the 'company-harmony' and to control the workers actions.
These are two sides of the same coin: we have seen how the unions use strikes to set themselves up as the representatives of the 'workers' interests' to the capitalists. They can only play this representative role if they are at the same time able to prevent wildcat strikes, which get out of their control - as in the case of Blu.
We have only addressed some strikes here. We know of others in France, Italy, Spain, South Korea and Britain.
The strikes we looked at were confined to individual companies. Nearly all of them took place in one sector which has seen drastic changes over the past few years: telecommunications.
At Telecom Italia, British Telecom, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom and other trusts that emerged from the former state-run telephone companies there has been a restructuring for years. Many administrative and service task were and still are being organised after the 'call center model'. We witnessed a taylorisation of work, a dequalification of the employees, an extension of shift work, outsourcing of whole company departments... The fact that in some of the call centres in this sector the resistance seems to be bigger than in other sectors has to do with a certain tradition of struggles and union organisations there - at least in countries like Italy, Britain and the USA. The unions legitimize themselves as defenders of the existing conditions - if necessary with an escalation of the confrontations up to a strike. That also means that the unions straight away take the given route of corporatist partnership with employers.
In the 'new' sectors the unions don't play that role yet. Due to the legal monopoly of the unions for official strikes there are hardly any experiences with these kind of 'open struggles'. The question is whether the missing union rituals of the 'defense of the conditions' against the capitalists' attacks gives room for 'uncontrolled' forms of struggle?
But in some places without any union structures - which could have kept a strike in the limits of collective bargaining - initiatives were formed which at first tried to organise a struggle themselves. But they mostly ended up falling back on unions or union-like forms of organising (Citibank, Blu, Telecom Italia). Strikes can be periods of collective experiences in which workers develop unity and realise their power, but as long as they are not part of a broader movement they remain limited. The unions can use strikes as mere means of pressure in collective bargaining. They channel the conflicts into controlled strike mobilisations in order to get signatures for a contract and administer the continuing exploitation.
That's why we focus on stuggles and forms of behaviour that question and undermine this function of unions.
6.3 Forms of organising
In call centres and in connection with the hotlines-intervention we have had many discussions about the question of 'self-organising' and the setting up of 'works councils'. Workers who are fed up with the working-conditions are looking for a change. People from the unions with experiences collected in other sectors want to set up union groups or works councils in this 'new' sector. Left activists who are referring to the 'reality of exploitation' start initiatives in order to understand the conflicts and intervene... In this part we want to have a closer look at this matter and discuss the following examples:
a [Unions / Works councils]
b [Base unions]
c [Support initiatives]
Unions / Works councils
Works councils are elected institutions, which exist as representative organs of the workers on a company level settling company agreements with the bosses. In general they consist of union representatives. On a regional or national level the unions play this role of 'representation of interests'. The union functionaries negotiate with the organisations of the capitalists about 'collective agreements' and with the state about 'welfare-politics'... Works councils and unions try to take up the discontent of the workers, reduce it to concrete demands, negotiate and mediate in order to improve the conditions of the workers and to secure the 'social peace'.
On the basis of the conflicts in call centres we can see that the unions as organisations of representation are lagging behind the actual development and that they can only survive as bureaucracy. For a new generation of workers - contracted by temp agencies or just on short-term contracts, working in call centres... - who cannot find a future in a profession or a life-long work-place, this bureaucracy increasingly becomes a hindrance in the search for their own forms of struggle. The functionaries of the unions rely on cooperation with the bosses in order to secure their place at the negotiating table. They become - whether they want to or not - an instrument in the hand of the employers by keeping the conflicts within the secure boundaries of legality.
In order to be able to play the role of mediators between workers and bosses, including 'new' areas like call centres, the unions have to have the following two preconditions:
* They are dependent on getting workers to join their club in order to be able to then represent them. Therefore the service union 'ver.di', for example has appointed so called 'call centre representatives'; officials paid by the union who are meant to plan how to unionise the people in call centres. Ver.di also founds or supports various initiatives which refer to the working-conditions in call centres or other work-places of the New Economy (e.g. 'Callz' in Dortmund, connex.av...), create chat-rooms for call centre workers...
* In call centres, just as elsewhere, the unions have to establish themselves as a negotiation partner of the employers, a partner who is able to impose a fixed collective contract on the workers. Therefore the unions try to set up works councils, demand the implementation of 'minimum standards' and propose the initiation of collective negotiations.
Recently the union ver.di has been especially active. During a presentation of a research project titled 'Humanization of work in call centres' the second chairman declared: 'We want to develop standards for a employee-orientated design of the work in call centres, so-called social benchmarks.' Which would also mean 'an end of the hire-and-fire-mentality.' He was also announcing the foundation of a 'consulting-company for human call centres'. That fits in fine with the official presentation of the union as a modern service-company.
After the settlement of a collective contract for the call centre workers at Lufthansa in Berlin-Schoenefeld the negotiation leader of ver.di said: 'Strong works councils, a high rate of membership and - if necessary - the willingness to exercise industrial action is the only way out of a low-wage-sector... the only way to achieve a fair wage for this demanding work in the whole sector.' After signing a collective agreement for call centres, negotiated with the retailers' association in Hamburg, a ver.di official even went a step further: 'By introducing social standards the [public] image of the whole sector will be improved.' Another ver.di official and works council member announced: 'A good work climate and industrial peace also creates motivation and reliability'.
It's boring to blame the unions for their narrow-mindedness, but the afore-mentioned officials want to make us work, they disguise exploitation by bullshitting about 'fair wages', they want to reduce the anger and resistance of the workers to pleas for 'social benchmarks'. In the call centres they are met with scepticism, but they try to get a foot in the door by giving themselves a 'modern' or 'rank-and-file oriented' touch. They shove themselves between workers and bosses, mediating, de-escalating, peace-making... so that exploitation carries on, just a bit more 'social'.
The bosses of companies where works councils exist appreciate their function as conflict- barometers ('Before starting trouble, why don't you go to the works council, they will take care of your problem!'). The companies might have to spend a bit on smokers-corners, night-shift bonus or Christmas parties because the works council wants them to fulfil this patriarchal role, but that's a good investment given the fact that a works council provides them with a mediating institution which scans the problems within the work-force for them, turns them into something negotiable and approaches the management in a decent and legally pre-determined way.
The experiences in companies where workers participation [Mitbestimmung] exists show that works councils are not creating conflicts, in contrary: due to their legitimation by the staff and their clearly defined legal status they are in a position to contribute to a civilized solution of conflicts... The growth of companies and the differentiation of the organisation of work and the coordination within the company requires a professionally acting management that is able to divide its tasks according to the new needs. If the traditional paternalistic management style is maintained in this situation it will result in re-appearing blockades within the management and in confrontations with single sections of the staff.
... At this point a mediating and conflict resolving 'new force within the company' is strongly needed. Works councils fulfil this function... [Wolfram Wassermann, Die Angst des Unternehmers vor dem Gewerkschafter, Frankfurter Rundschau, 1th of February 2001]
But that is not really our problem. Unions have got this function, unions and works councils always play this role. More problematic for us is the fact, that even in call centres and hi-tech workplaces of the (now rather old looking) New Economy, sharp and rebellious workers see forming a works council as holding the possibility of improving their conditions within an ongoing conflict.
A works council provides a legal base that appears to reduce the danger of being sacked...but let's have a look at the experiences of the workers.
At Hotline GmbH (a provider of call centre services) in Berlin at the end of 2000 over fifty people were sacked after a customer cancelled the contract. Some people thought that forming a works council could prevent such dismissals in the future. When the bosses (some ex-lefties who assumed that as exploiters they were now sitting pretty) became aware of what was going on, they immediately sacked twenty people who they assumed were behind the works council plans. Later on, an election of a works council was organised which consisted mainly of team leaders and people of the personnel department. Now this works council is meant to secure a smooth tele-work process.
At Medion in Muelheim at the end of 2000 the workers discussed the bad conditions and the stress during the Aldi-sales-campaigns. As a reaction the HBV union (today part of ver.di) initiated the preparation of a works council election. During the general assembly the management succeeded in nominating people from the administration, shift leaders and team leaders onto the ballot-list. The whole thing resulted in a works council that assured that in 2001 the working-conditions during the Aldi-Christmas-sales-campaign were as shitty as the previous year.
Another example shows how easy it is to get caught in the red tape of laws and legal procedures, which are a crucial part of the works councils' reality. The following is extracted from a conversation with workers of Frontline (order-service for skateboard-stuff) in Hannover, where a lot of students work:
The working conditions were already shitty when they tried to intensify the work without increasing the pay. Discussions amongst work-mates started about what could be done. First of all we wanted a works council in order to be protected against dismissals. We went to the union (ver.di), which then called a company assembly. For weeks we collected information concerning our rights as students, as a works council... First of all we wanted to impose holiday-pay and sick-pay. The union organised a kind of training (for the works council). The bosses also wanted to cooperate. It then turned out that a works council can't do much. It can demand adherence to the right for 'screen breaks' from the computers or try to impose the continued payments by legal procedures... but according to Industrial Law [Betriebsverfassungsgesetz, BverfG ruling no. 6] the works council has to accomplish a balancing act: it is obliged to look after the well-being of the staff and the company. The works council has to balance this contradiction. According to BVerfG ruling no. 74 it has to strive for the settlement of conflicts, it is not allowed to call up for industrial action, because its main aim is industrial peace. Even if it is necessary, the works council cannot call up for strike. That would be illegal. So you fiddle around without any real means of imposing anything. The works council is meant to disguise the contradiction between workers and bosses. If you succeed in forming a works council you will achieve concrete results within few weeks (small improvements, information). But in order to improve the working conditions in the long run and permanently you are lacking of any means of putting pressure on the bosses. You are allowed to settle some shop agreements [Beriebsvereinbarungen], but you have no right to enforce them. So you are constantly negotiating and haggling, giving up something in order to gain something else, giving your approval to deteriorations (e.g. the introduction of new software that intensifies work) in order to achieve some improvements (a better holiday-plan). It is not true that the works council makes everything better.
Finally the works council at Frontline was formed mainly by permanent workers. Just one of the students, who started the whole thing off to impose some stuff, made it into the council. Later on, the works council agreed to many dismissals... [Summary of a discussion with Frontline-Workers, December 2001].
It becomes apparent how limited the possibilities are even if people have the will and commitment to change something by forming a works council. The aim of changing the working conditions by 'participation' and 'representing the interests of the staff' ends up in a legitimation of the bosses' actions while the conditions barely change - not to mention the exploitation in its totality.
It's not our intention to place the works councils at the centre of the critique, although in actual conflicts, situations often evolve where we have to criticise and attack the role they play. For example when works councils or unions prevent or confine workers activity, when they actively denounce people or try to undermine struggles by making deals with the employers. In the best case works councils provide a legal protection for short-term and selective improvements, but that's it. They become an obstacle, a trap, when we want to go a step further, looking for the development of workers power. In the discussions with other workers this was a central and re-emerging point, so we formulated some conclusions:
* Works councils and unions as institutions haven't got any intrinsic power, no power they could develop out of themselves. This power can only be found in the possible or actual combativeness of the workers they represent. Without the possibility of the workers fighting back and refusing work the institutions are mere paper tigers. Only by threatening the actions of the workers they represent can they impose themselves on their negotiation partners.
* Both works councils and unions are counteracting the development of self-confidence and power of the workers. Works councils are tied to the law in order to secure the industrial peace. Unions settle contracts, which they later on have to impose on the workers. The 'representation' is founded on the passivity of the 'represented'. Spontaneous conflicts and the chance for the development of a collective self-confidence are often choked by the 'representatives' and their fetish-like commitment to paragraphs, industrial law and negotiation procedures. In addition to that, their organisational structure, based on a single profession or limited to a single company, is deepening the already existing divisions amongst the workers - and also results in the incapability of the representing bodies to catch up with the mobility of a lot of workers (in call centres) who do not refer to or identify with their 'profession' or their company.
* Unions and works councils develop their own interests, separate from those of the workers. They want to maintain their existence as institutions, which is only possible through recognition by the bosses. To achieve that they have to prove themselves: in front of the workers by presenting improvements, in front of the employers by proving that they can impose settled agreements on their members, meaning that they have to keep the conflicts under (their) control.
* The bosses appreciate this controlling function of unions and works councils. The representatives relate to the anger of the workers by trying to turn it into negotiable problems. The works council turns the fact that workers want to and try to escape from the eye-torturing screen-work, into the demand to obey the EU-norms for screen radiation. The unions turn the
proletarian experience of the senselessness of call-after-call and of the alienation of having
'customer relations' into campaigns for 'professional training' for the workers.
* Even 'left' unionists, who sincerely exert themselves for the 'workers interests', also fulfil the conflict-regulating function once they act within the boundaries of the bourgeoisie laws. Their relation to the other workers then changes: they are seen in their representing function ceasing to be the 'work-mate' with whom one faces the same problems of struggle. In times of rare collective initiatives of the workers themselves, this dynamic of discontent and the reflex
of representation can be hard to break out of. This will only be possible in struggles that create new forms of communication and collective action. That's not where we are (at the moment).
But that leads us to the next point: Some militant activists try to anticipate or simulate these new structures of collective action, given the fact that there are no struggles. Doing this their starting points are not so different from ours: How can we get out of the defensive? How can we support people who fight back the capitalist attacks?... Let's discuss this question by looking at two different initiatives: base unions and support groups.
Recently we have been in discussion with some activists of base unions in Italy, exchanged information, organised meetings. They also work in call centres and try to understand the conflicts and intervene. Here some points about their activities. We want a rigorous discussion with them and all comrades who share their concepts of organising and mobilisation.
The base unions were founded by militant workers mainly in branches of the 'public sector' (railway, education...) in the late 80s, early 90s. They united activists of the different strike-mobilisations of the 80s, some of whom were already active in the movement of the 70s, trying to bring together a radical critique of the capitalist relations with the rank-and-file organising of workers. Discontented - or excluded - members of the Cgil-Csil-Uil (Confederali) also joined the base unions, frustrated by the compromise seeking attitude of these established unions in front of capital and state. Rank-and-file groups emerged on the shop floor - partly as an attempt to hold together the different strike committees or movements - which then united in several unions: Cobas, Cub... These unions partly differ in their positions and attitudes, for example concerning the question of whether to sign collective workplace agreements or not.
Snater and Flmu-Cub are two of these base unions. Snater, originally founded as an 'independent' union at the state-owned television company RAI, extended to the whole communication sector in the mid 80s. As a starting point Snater criticise the agreements between employers and confederali (Cgil-Csil-Uil):
Again and again we noticed that many of these agreements increasingly deteriorated the collectively bargained conditions of the workers and resulted in considerable reductions of their rights. So it was made possible for a situation to develop, which is characterized by lower incomes, de-qualification of work, different forms of flexibilisation and above all, attacks on workers rights. [snater-website: [www.snatertlc.it]]
The Flmu-Cub organises workers in the metal, telecommunication and energy sectors. It is part of the base union Cub (Confederazione Unitaria de Base). Amongst other things the Cub, founded in 1992, has as its aims:
The protection and extension of employment by reducing the work-time to 32 hours per week, including wage compensation. The creation of socially sensible work-places; the protection and increase of wages... the reduction of taxes which drag on the wages; the guarantee of health and safety standards at the work-place, which can not be subjected to the logic of
profitability... the right for the workers to decide independently about contracts and delegations in the case of negotiations and the right to democratic elections of the union representation... the protection of the right to strike. [cub-website: [www.cub.it]]
This focus on the representation of the workers 'interests' in workplace conflicts and
negotiations and the opposition to the 'confederali', who have betrayed these 'interests' and are now in cahoots with the employers, characterizes the activity of all base unions.
In many ways, taken the representation of the workers 'interests', the participation in elections on the shop-floor-level, the claiming for better working conditions, base unions form a version of unionism which just appears to be 'more radical'.
We don't want to go on about the officials, we are more interested in the comrades who think that they could use the base unions to support the development of a new self-confidence of the workers here and now in order to contribute to a new class movement in the long run. The activists we discussed with had not taken part in the inception of the base unions. They joined later, as workers in call centres in Firenze [Florence] and Bologna, at Telecom Italia and the mobile-communication subsidiary TIM respectively. They are very actively involved in the conflicts - often alone or with a few other comrades - trying to get people to join the union, collecting information about the strategies of the management, supporting the workers with legal advice. They publish leaflets about recent conflicts and newsletters (like Bip Bip, which has come out monthly for the last five years in Firenze or Frontline in Bologna, which also published the Italian translations of the hotlines-leaflets). They also take part in the election of the union representation on the shop-floor (RSU). Primarily they organise regular strikes of one or more hours against night-work, increasing work-stress, non-compliance of health standards, cuts in wages, dismissals or the relocation of work-places...
The activists see the (base)-unionist organisation as a chance to focus on these conflicts at the work place and to organise the people. They want to overcome the lethargy of the workers and the feeling of powerlessness. They search for a way to unite workers with 'precarious' working-conditions (temp-work, temp-contracts...) with permanent workers. They want to undermine the wheeling and dealing of the 'confederali' which sabotage the self-activity of the workers.
Although they are aware of their activities' limitations they see some advantages that the union practice provides (compared to a non-unionist intervention):
* The recognition as a union allows them to call up for strikes legally.
* They can act openly in front of the workers (in contrast to a 'clandestine' form of organising) and they can try to get people involved as union members.
* As a union they can take part in legal confrontations, for example in front of an industrial tribunal.
* By participating in the RSU-elections (shop-floor representation) they can get hold of information and expose the collaboration of the confederali with the bosses.
* In front of the press and other media they have a greater impact when they can present themselves as a union.
* Although there is a nation-wide structure in case of the Flmu-Cub, the union groups can act independently on a local level. In contrast to the hierarchically organised 'confederali' there is no political line they have to follow. The local activists can do their stuff without getting into much trouble with the union headquarters, due to being too 'radical'.
Nevertheless problems appear which are similar to those relating to the practice of works councils, problems we want to continue discussing with comrades:
* The activists of the base unions try to understand the conflicts from the 'perspective of the workers interests'. By doing this they are identifying with official aims, represented by the union leadership. This perspective remains reduced to an understanding of capitalism / class struggle as a struggle of distribution. They emphasize the claims of the workers, their rights, their dignity... and demand a higher income and more 'human' working conditions. They want a greater part of the 'wealth'. This neglects the fact that capitalism is a social relation which daily imposes the work-regime on the workers, a relation which has to be overthrown completely in order to abolish exploitation, the only way to find an answer to the question of 'wealth'.
* In the case of a more 'radical' approach of the base unions, there is still the impulse towards
representation. A lot of 'members' or 'sympathizers' participate in the strikes (meaning that they don't go to work that day...), but rarely take part in the discussions. The problems are deferred to the base unions and they are then looking for a solution: going to the industrial tribunal, talking with the management, writing a leaflet with demands, calling a strike. The group of activists remain small. For the workers they become a kind of service-provider for the problems in the sphere of work. This is contradictory to the aim of the base-union activists to support the development of self-confidence and workers' power, and thus the use of strikes to interrupt the production process at any moment.
* The fact that the base unions spilt up the situation of exploitation into single, company- or sector- orientated conflicts, opens the door for negotiable compromises. The leaflets and communiqués of the base unions deal with the questions of health, over-time or wage as single issues, trying to formulate demands on the background of the workers' discussions: recognition of the health standards, no over-time, no Sunday-shifts, wage-increases, no temp-work, permanent contracts for all the workers...
Even if they don't sign any collective agreements (a lot of base-activists refuse to do this, but some still do it), by dividing the totality of exploitation into single issues they already determine the limits of confrontation: the working-conditions are bad, they have to become better. The social relation of exploitation as the main contradiction doesn't appear anymore, so the reason that conflicts emerge in the first place also gets left out. The sector-based (transport, telecommunications...) organisation of the base unions also reproduces the divisions between the workers in certain ways. Taking the 'belonging to a sector' as the base for agitation contributes to the defensive tendency of identification with your profession or of demanding 'qualifications' for the workers.
It's interesting to see that the workers have already gone beyond that notion: they don't want to work in the job for long, they don't care much about the 'quality of work', they try to get rid of control and confinement. They quit one job for the next if they can expect more money and less work. For many people 'work, profession, career' have ceased to be the centre of life, superseded by the importance of the group of friends, the partner, the holidays, the party, the general 'life experience'...
* Taking the legal frame-work (health and safety laws, legal security against dismissals etc.) as a main reference point, results in the legitimisation of the state as the guarantor of minimum standards. This reference-point also disguises the reason for why this legal framework exists: to secure the exploitation. One product of this attitude is a relation to the state that becomes a hindrance to self-activity: 'If I can not get my legally guaranteed holiday I will go to the court and the judge will sort it out for me' (instead of getting together with your mates and kicking it out the bosses). Practically, these legal procedures have the impact that the minimum standards become the main focus (rather than 'maximum' aims) and that the activists degenerate into jugglers of paragraphs who hardly have time for anything else...
* The wrangling about the representation of the workers on the shop-floor or sector level results in union competition, sometimes too grotesque to describe. The important criticism of the politics of the 'confederali' (which have denounced walk outs at Telecom Italia and TIM as 'illegal' and called on the workers to break the strike), gets lost in the self-adulation after a base-union victory in the shop-floor elections. After a strike the 'honour of the organisation' has to be defended by presenting the strike as a success, regardless of the actual weakness and limitations, the lacking participation or material possibilities to hit capital. In order to secure the future of the organisation or the efforts to organise, their 'own' organisation has to be shown to be successful and important.
These problems cannot be solved by a more 'radical' strategy. They are due to the passivity of the workers themselves which results in the above contradictions: given the lack of self-activity, even people who want to attack the capitalist power by supporting the self-organising of struggle often get into the whirl of representation and mobilisation.
In the last few years in Germany there have been attempts to build up support groups around concrete conflicts - either, as mentioned above, under union control, or in the form of self-organization.
We were pleased to hear about people in Berlin relating to the concrete class situation, in this case the conflicts in the call centres, by starting an inquiry. They set up the Call Center Offensive, an ironic reference to the Land Nordrhein Westfalen's initiative of the same name to promote the setting-up of call centres. This is how the Call Center Offensive introduced itself in a leaflet:
Some of the people who make up the Call Center Offensive work in call centres themselves. We try to support agents in their struggles against work or for the improvement of their working and payment conditions, through publicity or legal aid, for example. At the same time we want to set up a framework in which the experiences of such struggles and working conditions can be reflected collectively. [Invitation to a 'meeting of call centre agents', 14th of December 2000]
This initiative gained a certain dynamic when conflicts escalated in a number of call centres in Berlin and the Call Center Offensive people found themselves as supporters in the centre of these conflicts. They described in a discussion how their initiative developed. Here is a summary of a discussion with them:
Our point of departure was that casualisation is shit. Our approach wasn't clear and in a way we ended up in call centres by accident. We found the sector interesting - partly because the unions didn't play a significant role in it. We had also thought about doing something around street cleaning, but we didn't know anyone there, and we didn't want to represent other people. We had some contacts in call centres, one of us had already worked there. We focused on call centres as a sector because we didn't want to get stuck in a particular call centre. In any case, we wanted to act on a cross-company level. So we looked where we already had contacts. It was mainly these people who came to the first meetings. But also other people showed up and participated in the discussions; people who later on were involved in conflicts in call centres. In the first conflict at Audio Service, there were a number of problems:
* The relation between the people from the Call Center Offensive and the workers:
At the first meeting it seemed that the workers were defending their working conditions - the rather relaxed work atmosphere etc. - while we were pointing out other problems against which they should struggle: that there is no holiday pay or sick pay etc.
* At the second meeting, the workers were much more radical in what they said. By that time, management had introduced daily work contracts, which stirred up some trouble. Our meetings with these workers and the introduction of day labourer contracts taken together led to the struggle. The management was clever enough to sack the workers one by one. Generally, we just tried things out, developing practice as we went along ('I mainly wanted to be active in the class struggle instead of just talking about it.') The outcome was not what we wanted. We never thought about what to do first and then actually did it. There were reflections, attempts by individuals, but there was neither a common position nor a theoretical discussion from which practice would proceed. Practice followed practical imperatives arising from the conflicts. Our main focus was support. That was the key concept in relation to the struggles. In the case of Hotline it was clear that people were organizing themselves but that we could help with publicity. Our influence wasn't too strong. We participated in the discussions individually. They saw us as supporters who can contribute information and they never criticized us.
However, people didn't seem to understand our position, since the only thing many of them could think of in terms of radical politics was anti-fascism (Antifa) and they hardly knew how to relate to conflicts at work politically. Besides, they also turned to the union. ('They thought that we would be some charity thing and were afraid we might take decisions for them...')
The case of Emnid was different: We wanted to learn from our experience at Audioservice and Hotline, where people came together, the conflicts escalated and led to sackings - and hence to the end of the struggles. We therefore wanted to come together and decide what exactly we should do. Some of us worked there. The impression was that nothing would come about. We decided to just observe and talk to people at first. We merely wanted to comment instead of coming up with demands. This didn't work out as some of us understood this agreement in a different way: immediately a leaflet was written attacking the miserable working conditions (because of the conflict at Emnid in Bielefeld) and calling for struggle. The idea of 'comment, go along with things, wait' didn't work out. At Emnid, things didn't go on any further because the workers turnover was quite high so after a few months completely different people work there. Emnid was the only place where the Call Center Offensive itself took the initiative and started something where nothing had been going on before; in all the other cases it was the workers themselves who started the struggles.
In leaflets and meetings the Call Center Offensive again and again underlined the importance of exchanging information on ways of resistance against management's policies ('Communication without management and telephones', 'Practice solidarity - make links and organize yourselves - exchange phone numbers and e-mail-addresses'). In this context the Call Center Offensive also published a list of reports about the working conditions in Berlin's call centres and leaflets containing legal information ('Got the sack? Advice when being dismissed'; 'Why you should never accept a severance pay of 300 marks'; 'Most demands are merely those for legal minimum standards: sick pay, holiday entitlement and a works council'; 'Limits and opportunities of shop stewards' work in call centres with mainly casual workers'). Here is more from the summary of the discussion:
We don't see the welfare state as merely a pacifying institution installed 'from above', but also as something people have struggled for. At least we want to point out the legally guaranteed standards to the workers. Our leaflets invite people to discuss. They don't come up with demands, but with information about the legal regulation of work relations. We don't come up with minimum standards, e.g. a minimum wage, but simply point out the existing ones.
That already sparks off discussions. A problem, however, is that people then tend to orient their demands around these minimum standards (for example at Hotline where people considering themselves as 'revolutionary' demanded a works council). People think of these demands as something that can be realized in contrast to a demand to take over the means of production. Holiday pay or sick pay promise an immediate improvement because they increase the individual wage. Besides, people know they can refer to the state.
For us, however, it's not about 'enlightenment' but about starting a discussion. It's about concrete, realisable things. We want to create and support a bit of a movement, a form of organising, neither to come up with a ready-made organisation nor to do nothing at all. We want to initiate self-reflection even where workers justify the whole shit ('great flexible working hours' etc.). In this way, the conflict around minimum standards at Audioservice and Hotline triggered off massive reactions on the side of the management (they fired workers) and so confrontations developed on which we could build. Struggles often develop from notions of 'justice', from the idea that one is 'entitled' to get something because one did good work etc. Although this isn't something we initiate, it happens anyway.
Through these conflicts people learn that they are situated in a relation of struggle. They leave behind the idea of 'good' and 'bad' capitalists. Yet we also want to actually improve the working conditions through these conflicts. In this context it's important that the Call Center Offensive is an alliance of several groups with different backgrounds. We also have different ideas about what goes beyond the support of struggles. We only agree that struggles have to develop. The point is the struggles, how people change through them, what kind of experience they make even if they're defeated. We don't play a major role in that, even if we have a clearer picture of the situation and the development of call centres. We can give support, but it's not our job to say what should be done. We can contribute experience from other struggles, for example, now we can advise people not to go for a works council (after our experiences at Hotline).
These positions and experience lead to some questions:
* the point of departure for the Call Center Offensive was casualisation, read: the break-up of what has so far been the normal work relation (35 or 40 hour week, permanent contracts) and the creation of so-called 'a-typical' work contracts (temp work, limited contracts, part-time, trainee-contracts, pseudo self-employment...) Even if those forms of work relations have been extended over the last few years, the 'struggle against casualisation' leads to the demand for 'guaranteed work', read: normal exploitation. That way, the main objective, the struggle against exploitation, can fall by the wayside.
* It is understandable that a group experiments and deals with things right away instead of getting stuck in fundamental discussions that don't have any concrete results. However, without having a precise discussion one ends up in the many blind alleys we seek to avoid: the improvement of working conditions through shop stewards and the unions; relating to the state as the guarantor of certain standards concerning wages, holidays etc. If we want to grasp the class reality and its revolutionary tendencies, we always need to discuss the theoretical questions related to that. The Call Center Offensive is an alliance of people from different backgrounds, and not all of them even want to discuss revolutionary perspectives. In that regard their 'volatile' practice was a result of this lack of agreement and a problematic theoretical basis of their practical attempts. At the same time it was only this lack of clarification of basic differences, which made collective practice possible.
* When it came to questions of works councils and the focus on legal frameworks, the Call Center Offensive's position was often not clear, which was again due to their composition and different political starting points. While some of them went for that focus, others had a clear critique of it. It is worth noting that after the experience with setting up the works council at Hotline, Call Center Offensive as a whole had a much more critical discussion on this point.
* Having a political approach to conflicts and struggles 'from outside' is always problematic. It can make the workers involved feel they're being 'used' or being the object of some kind of 'charity' or 'social work'. The key question here is how we can make our own exploitation the starting point for understanding and presenting the actual conflicts as a common struggle against exploitation. Important impulses for the Call Center Offensive hence came from call centre 'agents' who joined in during the conflicts at Audioservice, Hotline, ADM and Emnid. They were individual and often politically active comrades who made a living in the call centres, most of them as students working part-time. Apart from a few exceptions, they only came along to the meetings as long as the conflict was going on in 'their' firm. We experienced the same thing in other initiatives.
We have pointed out several times in our leaflets that we reject forms of representation as they constitute an obstacle to the self-activity and development of workers' power and help to divide, pacify or integrate struggles. Against that we set the concept of self-organization, because only direct action and direct forms of organising can open up a space for a movement against the relations of exploitation.
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. [hotlines no. 2, December 2000]
This process can be such a step, but will not necessarily be one. Workers come together during work and - especially in call centres - organise the labour process themselves to a certain degree. They discuss problems concerning machinery, clients, or team leaders. This in itself, however, is not subversive. Even if conflicts escalate and struggles develop, this doesn't necessarily involve a process of radicalisation or looking beyond individual working conditions or the individual firm.
Quite the reverse, we have experienced that attempts of workers' self-organising remained on the level of protest or were limited to corporatist demands to improve working conditions, even if the unions were not pushing for such a line. We could see that in the initiatives in call centres in Berlin described above as well as with the call centre workers in Duesseldorf who collectively helped each other when they wanted to look for new jobs after they got the sack.
There is one attempt of self-organising we want to document in more detail. Here's the report of one participant:
The call centre is a computer-hotline. The hotline-department is divided in first and second level. The first level is divided into two shifts, the same people always work together. Most people work full-time, a few part-time, mostly students. One could say that the work is seasonal-work: there is a lot to do when they offer new computers and not so much if they don't. They were about to do the next sales-campaign and everybody had a lot to do. When the amount of calls dropped, some people came together and started to talk to each other. Not like before in two, but in bigger groups. These conversations had an open character, whoever wanted to was allowed to participate. Once some people had problems with one team-leader. After talking about it the team-leader was asked to come and everybody could say what he or she didn't like. Everybody thought that the new atmosphere was a success, and they wanted to preserve it. From this meeting the idea of a more frequent meeting was born. This idea came more from the feeling that a common approach had been found to deal with such problems, than from a perceived need to be organised.
The first meeting took place in a restaurant. Twelve out of eighteen of us were there, four were off sick. We went there right after the shift and we gave ourselves an hour for the discussion, of course we needed two.
The days before there was a list, where people could sign what he or she wanted to discuss. The list was astonishing long: the atmosphere and the trust among each other, the upcoming elections for the workers-councils, the working instructions, communication with other departments, the lack of information about products, communication directions on the phone, holidays, pay slips, outgoing calls. Someone read out the points of the agenda and the person who wrote it down was asked to explain what was meant. After that we decided if the point was important, if we could clarify it quickly or if we should discuss it a little bit or if we had to leave the point all together. We were all surprised about how disciplined we had been. We didn't need a moderator, nor a list of speakers. Sometimes it got a little louder and chaotic, but not as emotional as the discussions at work.
The big problem was the question of pushing through the demands. Some people thought that you should give something before you can ask for something. Someone even suggested that we need to make a written list of how we can work better, including proposals for improvements. It was then argued that the everyday work does look different, anyway: we do much more than our working instructions demand and much more than we learnt in the training. What about our social and communication skills, the different languages we speak? Those skills don't come up in the pay checks nor in any other form of acknowledgment, but without it the work wouldn't function. Of course the management knows about it and it is clear that we could do the job better without them if they would let us. But that's not what anybody wants, fortunately.
Basically there were three factions: those who were acting like managers, those who were strictly against this position and took up a 'workers-standpoint' and those who were undecided, sometimes they tended toward the one and sometimes toward the other position. When the 'managers' were talking they were talking about achieving something, to organise the work better, not to demand anything without doing a better job than before, relieving the team-leader, helping each other, but also controlling each other, sacrificing something, for example the brake-time to read the news in the intranet, and things like that. The 'workers' (noticeably only women) wanted to have an easier job, more holidays, they definitely wanted to make external phone calls, they couldn't see why they should work differently from before to prove themselves to anyone. They had the clear feeling that they were low down in the hierarchy and they often compared this job to the one they had before. The women are not ambitious to have a career, they don't want to be in the second level. They just want to have an easy job. They want to have their friends around them and they want fun, until something new comes up.
At the second meeting only eight people came. The discussion took a course of general statements about the election of the works council and information about new products. The power was gone. It was not possible to get the discussion onto a practical level, to get down to something concrete that we could have done together. And by the third meeting there were only three people there. At the moment it looks like the meetings are dead. And indeed these meetings don't really have any meaning anymore. We will come back to meeting during the work. And maybe the feeling that there is a possibility to come together outside of work without team-leaders and organisation will survive.
After all the meetings the question is left if it really made sense to keep the whole shift together. Maybe it would have been more exciting, if the 'workers' would have come together and would have started an action. This would have demanded a clear response from everybody and the 'managers' would have lost their whole position.
Here we can see that - self-organised or not - if the discussion is about the daily conflicts one can only talk about 'problems at work'. Without a clear confrontation with the bosses, without the understanding of everyday work as exploitation, without reference to the crises or the situation in other companies/sectors there was no radicalisation. The different
factions - 'managers', 'work-refusers'... - neutralized each other. The 'managers' tried to put the meetings into order and to focus on the improvement of the work.
In such a situation - conflicts, rage, discussions - it seems to be better that those who want to do something against work, bosses and exploitation come together without being held back by those who represent the 'manager-position'. The other question is if it isn't better to escalate the conflicts 'at work' instead of transferring the discussion 'outside' of work. The problem is how one comes together with the resolute people without ending up isolated when you start actions. We can check which other workers don't accept the stress at work, moan, sabotage and treat other people with solidarity. We can speak to them, discuss with them, start actions. But we can not compensate for the weakness described in the situation above: obviously there were not enough resolute workers or they were not resolute enough to take the situation in their own hands, to start a struggle against in this workplace more than lousy conditions.
We have shown dynamics and restrictions concerning works councils, unions, support initiatives and attempts of self-organising. They are the frameworks within which - or rather in spite of which - the workers start to struggle.
These attempts at organising themselves are an expression of workers' attempts to struggle against exploitation and develop a perspective for a better life. As long as within the daily confrontations they see a possibility just in 'minor' improvements, and as long as their attempts don't lead to experiences of collective power which can overcome that limitation they will end up in 'union' mechanisms. There are certainly people who have an interest in this because their position as a paid bureaucrat or politician is in danger otherwise...
For us the most important point is how confrontations can overcome this point and break those limitations. The potential for self-activity and 'spontaneous' actions often develops in direct confrontations with team-leaders and supervisors. Most of the time it doesn't depend on 'rational' reflections whether this or that reaction to management measures will lead to concrete improvements. Often it is rather a minor event that gets things going. We want to know if and how workers experience exploitation as a basic contradiction, if and how they can turn their daily cooperation under capitals' command around and use it in a subversive sense.
In this situation it is important to underline which forms of struggle allow experiences of common power, show the weak points of capital and strike where it hurts. In an illegal sweatshop with three telephone workers the situation is really difficult. If you stand up against anything they fire you straight way and replace you with other proles. If you need the money to feed yourself and your kids it is easy to put you under pressure. If you work in a bigger company and you organise a special workers' meeting when there are hardly any calls it will create less pressure than if the red lamp is glowing and the pleasant colleagues happen to meet at the toilets. If you are working in a Telecom call centre and the whole department is on strike it can happen that the calls are routed to other departments or call centres and that's the end of it there. If the whole first level in another firm refuses to work this will quickly make the place close down because no more calls will be accepted. If you convince the company's technicians to let the ACD-system overflow there will be a overall break-down...
The outcome of struggles in call centres depends on the experiences and the unity of the workers, their ability to overcome the separations. Furthermore, it depends on:
* The role of the call centre in the company: Are there other call centres which can take and make phone calls? How important are the calls for the company? This determines whether the bosses can re-route the calls in case of struggles or do without their handling altogether.
* The role of the call centre in the valorisation process:
If the call centre coordinates the fleet of a shipping agency an interruption can lead to the break down of the transportation which also has an impact on other departments. That can increase the strength of a strike considerably. If a call center is only dealing with the customer support for one company only that one is affected.
* The linking of individual struggles: The question is if and how struggling workers have immediate forms of communication and relate to each other. If struggles are only connected through media reports or union structures it is very hard to develop a common strength. But if the struggling call centre workers organise a march through other companies and invite students of nearby schools for a discussion the limitations and isolation of the struggles can be overcome which also opens new perspectives on the social relations of exploitation.
Without struggles that break out of these limitations the discussion about the organising of workers mean little. Attempts to bring people together through base unions, rank-and-file groups or support committees remain one-off actions and get trapped in 'minor' conflicts.
In this situation - given the lack of militant struggles in call centres to refer to - we need a discussion about the rise of workers' power which doesn't end up with petitions or the 'representation of workers' interests'. So far the workers in call centres have not found 'their' form of struggle, one that uses the possibilities that arise from the fact that call centres are centres of communication. Other workers - for example in car factories - needed a generation to learn to use the assembly line for the coordination of strikes and sabotage. Do we want to wait that long?
This raises some questions:
* How can we further develop forms of clandestine militancy that function without activists standing out publicly? This is necessary because - taken the precarious work relations - the active workers would otherwise get fired right away. Collective but 'secret' arrangements of slow-downs can be more effective.
* How can the experiences merge into a collective perspective where the workers use their daily cooperation in order to put pressure on the capitalists. Is it enough to organise the exchange of experiences through leaflets and other media?
* This opens up other questions regarding our role: How can relate to strikes and conflicts and thus support some kind of learning process? What kind of means do we need to be able to hear about the important developments? What can we learn within strikes and other struggles? How can we participate in the discussions of the workers?...
We can discuss, prepare and suggest. We need a broad exchange about these attempts with other people and groups who try out similar things (or want to).