the “workers’ enquiry” and call centre communism

27 12 2008

Jack Staunton reviews Hotlines: Call centre – Inquiry – Communism

When we pick up a left wing paper or magazine and scan its contents we can be fairly sure that its editors will not have failed to offer a piece on shifts in the world’s stock markets, analysis of the businesses felled by the recession, and a take on the latest wheeling and dealing by the world’s statesmen. Whether dry, rational and down-to-earth commentary, or grandiose predictions of the final crisis of capitalism and vast forces of chaos sweeping across the globe, we can be sure enough that developments in the activities of the ruling class will be recounted in some detail.

But ours is not a movement which limits itself to attacking the dominant system: it is a movement for the self-emancipation of the working class. To put that in the language of the current crisis: no-one simply wants capitalism to ‘collapse’ chaotically in a heap of bankruptcies and mass redundancies. Quite obviously, the unravelling of the irrationalities of capitalism will not in itself create a better society. Rather, we have a better, alternative vision for humanity: we want the working class to organise to displace those who control the levers of political and economic power and re-organise society from below on an egalitarian, collectivist and democratic basis.

So surely it should follow that the left ought to privilege understanding the state of the working class – the people and the movement who are actually going to revolutionise society.  This is all the more the case since although no-one would deny the existence of capitalism, for the last two decades it has been a commonplace assertion of much of academia and the media that the working class no longer exists.  For such ‘commentators’, the term ‘working class’ is itself merely a label for a narrow cultural stereotype: for example, in March 2008 the BBC’s White  season featured a documentary ‘Last Orders’, detailing the lives of white working-class pensioners in northern working men’s clubs, proclaiming that a few of this “endangered species”, the working class, do in fact still exist.

Back on Earth, the majority of the world population, and the vast majority in the most developed countries, are working class, and are not about to disappear into the annals of history. Let us be quite clear: anyone whose livelihood relies on their selling their capacity to work to an employer is working class, and the entire basis for the capitalist system is the exploitation of this class. Capital, along with money, the stock exchange, ‘the market’ etc. did not descend from heaven and thus create means of investment and ‘wealth creation’: they are themselves the product of human labour and the value exploited from working class people, and have no independent or autonomous existence. The point is, however, that human labour changes, and so the conditions and make-up of the working class as a whole develop, not only in workplace relations but also as regards the community, the state apparatus, people in other countries and even the natural environment. It is impossible to project a vision of our class revolutionising society unless we properly understand the developments our own class’s composition in the here and now.

One central development has been the rise of casualisation: less job stability and less rights. This is not simply a product of the decline of manufacturing, mining etc. and the fact that far fewer people keep the same job for their whole life than in decades past, but also that allied to such changes in the economy under Thatcher there came a massive onslaught on working-class organization and our rights in the workplace.  This is most obvious when we look at the 750,000 people working in the UK’s call centres, a workplace and job role which covers different sectors of the economy – sales of a wide range of products; customer service for retailers, electronic goods suppliers, etc.; market research both of consumers and of businesses; charity cold-calling; to name but a few. In these workplaces there tends to be a very high level of staff turnover, with most employees only lasting a few weeks or months; pay, although better than sitting on a till, is low; employment rights are scarce; and unionization is close to nil.

“Because of their rapid development call centers are a good example for the relation between changing composition of capital (new technologies, new work organisation, new regional focus) and proletarian behaviour and demands. Call centers themselves emerged as a new concentration of work force which proletarianised the ‘white-collar-workers’, washed away strong-holds of bank-branches and the working standards of office work. Within a few years call centers mushroomed in deprived ex-industrial areas of Europe, the USA and elsewhere. During this boom-time some of us undertook a collective workers‘ inquiry in some call centers, trying to understand how these new conditions of work are being turned into subversive conditions of struggle.” [1]

But csualisation does not just mean shorter hours or an increased likelihood of losing your job, but also impacts on relations within the workplace: indeed in the call centre setting it means close regulation and surveillance, including timing of the time spent off the phone and listening in on your calls, and a clamp down on saying anything not written in the industrial-strength script on your screen. The worker is used as an automaton… but one with the ability to resist. The objective of the German activist network Prol Position was to study the composition of this workforce (across Europe and North America) and so facilitate the organization of this workforce to resist their employers, and in 2002 they published Hotlines: Call centre – Inquiry – Communism.

“In the summer of 1999 we decided to start working in call centres in order to meet people who work there and understand what’s going on. We wanted to combine our rage against the daily exploitation with the desire and search for the struggles that can overcome it. Therefore we had to understand the class reality at this point, be part of the conflicts and intervene.”

Consciously drawing on similar research by the Quaderni Rossi group in northern Italy’s car plants in the 1960s[2], the book is an extremely detailed look at the hierarchies and relations in different call centres. There appear to be three main areas of study here: (i) the conditions of employment, including but not limited the control of work by the employer, such as phones which relentlessly and automatically dial, having to read out scripts off a computer screen to the person on the other end of the phone, and strict quotas for the workers’ productivity and time-keeping; (ii) the employees’ day to day methods of evading these means of control -”workers think of ways to take breaks, oases of quiet that let them breathe” – such as meddling with equipment to break up the rhythms of work,  wasting time on calls, or a group of workers endlessly passing round calls until they die in the system; (iii) the possibility of organizing more effective and long-term resistance to the employers such as strikes, and the barriers presented by trade union and works’ council[3] bureaucracy, as well as the threat that the employer will simply up and leave at the first sign of trouble and move the call centre elsewhere, in the process getting rid of the entire workforce.

I myself was particularly interested by the Prol Position book because I have been a call centre worker for the last two years, mostly conducting market research surveys but also indulging in a few weeks of charity cold-calling, which was even more unpleasant. So there was much I recognized but also much which seemed new to me.

One thing which struck me in particular was that the degree of control the workforce were able to exert over their time in the call centres where Prol Position activists intervened was far greater than in my own experience, such as the example of people working on a computer company’s customer service line setting up an application that allowed them to ‘chat’ with one another online during working time. Most of the forms of ‘sabotage’ and ‘resisting work’ recommended in the Hotlines book, which largely involve time-wasting, would be impossible to implement in ‘my’ market research call centre where one’s right to get shifts week-to-week is reliant on making a high number of calls (the gaps between calls are timed) and completing as many surveys as possible. In fact, since the call centre I work in has far more employees registered than it does available shifts, even when at full capacity, the workers are basically competing with one another to get shifts, and even long-standing employees often call in to book their hours and are told to try again some other week, as if in our unpaid “time off” we could put our food, bills and rent on hold.

So while endlessly making cups of coffee and chatting with the person in the two-foot-wide booth on either side of you is necessary to relieve the drudgery of reading out the same script again and again to hundreds of people (and indeed, as the Hotlines book mentions, the employer is well aware that employees who do not have such pressure valves will be less productive), a worker forced to compete with her/his employees and who is subject to constant surveillance is in a far weaker position to ‘sabotage’ than someone fielding incoming calls who is permitted more freedom to operate and control their working rhythms. Indeed, reading about the experience of workers who could get away with ‘sabotage’ brought to mind a comment by a participant in our ‘uncaptive minds’ forum on workers’ control, who said that “workers’ control is the extent to which the workers know what’s going on and management don’t.”

I can’t help but feel that such means of day-to-day resistance are less relevant to my own workplace than more conventional means of organizing the workforce, even though the fact that the workforce is unstable and dozens of people come and go each month through the doors of a ninety-booth call centre creates similar problems for efforts at unionization. Although the book has a mass of raw data and quotes from different workers, and details the minutiae of the aims and methods of the workers’ enquiry itself, there are few practical lessons about organizing strikes. The industrial actions reported in the book, such as the 1999 British Telecom strike or the 2000 stoppage by 86,000 call centre workers and technicians for Verizon in the USA, presuppose a high level of organization which is hardly second nature to the young people coming into call centre jobs. Of course , precisely the problem is that there are no blueprints and it is difficult to abstract generalized lessons from specific struggles in other call centres, which is certainly a weak point of the Hotlines book.

Indeed, the Prol Position activists are constantly guarding against being seen to “represent” workers, but rather want to “promote” self-organisation, and so their leaflets and materials are of a largely descriptive character, while also making sharp criticisms of trade unions and pointing to the limits of different forms of struggle. They furthermore take part in activist initiatives set up with the aim of ‘supporting’ working class struggles, for example in the Call Centre Offensive outlined in the book. The chapter on trade unions, ‘base unions’, petitions and strikes has much of interest on the different means of resistance employed by workers, such as in the 1999 BT strike, “Large amounts of overseas phone calls were reportedly made, apparently totaling over £15,000. One call was claimed to have been made to the speaking clock in Zimbabwe with the receiver left off the hook overnight; as well as this, top of the range stock was sent out to householders with faulty BT equipment”.

But this part of the study seems to have a somewhat artificial character: the Marxists get jobs in a call centre in order to find out what is going on and relay it back to the workforce, but stop short of giving any practical advice for how to advance struggles. To a limited extent, this seems to recreate a mirror image of the crude “Leninist” form of “intervening” in a workplace from the outside and giving lectures on the lessons of history: i.e. the revolutionaries see themselves as separate from the workforce and with different objectives, using their enquiry to inform their own theories, understand how the working class resists work and to help them(selves) reflect on the world, but not actually doing much to test the water of organizing tactics which could actually succeed. It is no surprise that they report that their materials about working conditions often meet with the response “OK, so what? We know that already. What can we do?” Indeed, the chapter on organizing initiatives concludes with the questions “how can we 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?…”, the Prol Position activists presenting themselves as outsiders. They hope to promote the values of self-organisation (solidarity, democracy, serious focus on the workers’ own most pressing concerns) within the class, but in fact the book tends towards merely discerning to what extent resistance is taking place already.

Nevertheless, the Prol Position activists have the best of intentions and are right to privilege self-organisation and avoid lecturing the workforce, and the workers’ enquiry, understanding the concerns most important for the workers, helps to avoid substitutionism or giving the lead in a crude manner. This reflects the reality that organizing this workforce is extremely difficult and even significant actions are often isolated and fail, such as by causing the employer to outsource. The lesson is surely that strike action as such should not be fetishised or placed as the central objective of workplace organizing: the very process of slow, patient (and rarely open) building of a trade union may itself do far more to improve workers’ position by increasing their confidence to stand up to overbearing supervisors; time waste and sabotage; and know their rights and resist moves such as unfair dismissals.

The workers’ enquiry is a useful tool in the early stages of such organizing work. Whether by deliberate “intervention” or not being able to get a better job, a worker who goes into a call centre already a revolutionary ought to understand the ins and outs of the workplace and the views of her/his colleague. But its value is premised not merely on sociological analysis and personal reflection on the results of the study, but rather as a means to an end. The working class understanding itself not merely in terms of the work it does and the conditions to which it is subject, but rather as an agent of transformative change which examines its force and rights all the better to change them. Workers’ self-inquiry, not an inquiry about workers.

[1] http://www.prol-position.net/nl/2005/03/editorial/

[2] See ‘Quaderni Rossi and the Workers’ Enquiry’, chapter 2 of Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven: Class Composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, Pluto Press, London, 2002. Perhaps the original such ‘Workers’ Enquiry’ was that organised by Karl Marx in 1880, a list of a hundred questions about a worker’s pay and conditions, for example “Is your work permanent or casual?”; “What conditions are laid down regarding dismissal?”; “Do any resistance associations exist in your trade, and how are they led? Send us their rules and regulations”. See http://marxists.kgprog.com/history//etol/newspape/ni/vol04/no12/marx.htm

[3] In several European countries, all workers in workplaces of a given size are (by law) represented in collective bargaining by works councils composed of trade union delegates, whether or not the workers are themselves trade union members.

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3 responses

29 12 2008
PHJ

Bloody brilliant!! I don’t think I’ve ever read an article on this theme with more whole-hearted agreement. Thank you, and I really look forward to reading more.

31 01 2009
Summer Bostic

You said: ["So while endlessly making cups of coffee and chatting with the person in the two-foot-wide booth on either side of you is necessary to relieve the drudgery of reading out the same script again and again to hundreds of people (and indeed, as the Hotlines book mentions, the employer is well aware that employees who do not have such pressure valves will be less productive), a worker forced to compete with her/his employees and who is subject to constant surveillance is in a far weaker position to ’sabotage’ than someone fielding incoming calls who is permitted more freedom to operate and control their working rhythms. Indeed, reading about the experience of workers who could get away with ’sabotage’ brought to mind a comment by a participant in our ‘uncaptive minds’ forum on workers’ control, who said that “workers’ control is the extent to which the workers know what’s going on and management don’t.”"]

There is an extremely sarcastic, humorous, satirical paperback novel out now, which addresses the seemingly indentured servitude of the call center worker; particularly the American call center worker. It called, HANDLE TiME by LiNCOLN PARK. It explores nine months of a worker’s experience. I implore you to read it and give us your opinions about this book.

6 05 2009
c0mmunard

There is another review, which makes some similar points, here:

http://libcom.org/library/call-centers-and-militant-inquiries-a-discussion




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