by Jack Staunton
On Saturday evening two dozen call centre workers from around London attended a meeting to discuss how we can best organise together. Although in the UK there are now some 750,000 people working in various types of call centre (such as sales, service calls and market research), very few are unionised. Employment is often very precarious, and the high turnover of staff in many workplaces means it can be difficult to organise, even though semi-casual work on low pay, along with management behaviour and petty rules, give plenty of reasons for us to do so.
The meeting took place as an extension of the AGM of the CWU branch at the Pell and Bales charity call centre in Old Street. Workers from another Pell and Bales site, as well as CCA International (sales), IFF (market research) and Listen (charity fundraising) attended to share experiences of standing up to zealous managers and recruiting people to the union, as well as to plan ahead to co-ordinate our organising initiatives.
In general terms the call centre workforce is fragmented and many people’s jobs are precarious, and yet at Pell and Bales in Old Street a lot of progress has been made: in terms of securing a pay increase, winning the reinstatement of a victimised activist and helping workers in disciplinary meetings with management. The branch has also organised beyond workplace concerns, for example inviting a guest speaker from the Visteon occupation at Enfield, helping organise a meeting about the CWU’s relationship to the Labour Party, and organising leafletting for a Love Music Hate Racism carnival. At its peak late in 2008 the branch had 120 members: callers, campaign managers and coaches, and even a few back-office staff.
So too had progress been made at CCA, where workers have organised a petition over central pay and conditions demands which has won the backing of over half the workforce, and also organised a CWU social event. An activist working at CCA reported some inspiring cases of how well basic organising can work: after leafletting outside the call centre and organising a petition, staff showed themselves to be more confident about standing up to management harassment and countering the bullshit of their disciplinary procedures.
Both these examples showed how bosses could be taken aback by the resilience of the workforce if we are prepared to stand up for ourselves and for each other. Securing recognition deals with management is a very difficult hurdle, but even before such a point union organising can mean more confidence and guarantee some (basic) legal rights for reps: and, more importantly, help foster a culture of solidarity amongst the workforce and combat deference to bosses.
The meeting therefore discussed how the progress made at a couple of workplaces could be extended to other groups of call centre workers: although Saturday night’s meeting was very enthusiastic and was well-attended in relative terms, the objective of organising the whole call centre workforce is a massive task given that it is currently very fragmented.
We agreed that since many of the problems facing call centre workers are the same – for example low wages, management harassment, casual employment, unfair disciplinary procedures, petty rules and high targets – that we should draw up a Call Centre Workers’ Charter composed of a few basic demands which we can all fight for together.
Similarly, we discussed how to share experiences, stories from work and lessons of organising. The meeting discussed a proposal for a regular bulletin Call Centre Worker – written by and for ordinary workers and not just a glossy union newsletter – which we could circulate around different sites. We will be looking for support from not only CWU members: the PCS also organise some call centre workers; the RMT organises Transport for London callers; and of course we want to involve the mass of currently unorganised workers. The meeting approved the proposal and arranged a further open meeting to discuss the content and distribution of the first issue.
All in all, therefore, it was excellent that workers from different sites had got together to discuss how we can take steps forward in organising this important sector. The mood of the meeting was upbeat (thanks to CWU for the bar tab and the food): now our task is to spread the enthusiasm and solidarity in that room to more workplaces and to more callers.
A template blog along the same lines as the bulletin had already been set up at http://www.callcentreworker.wordpress.com – click image below to download a leaflet to distribute to call centre workers who you think might be interested in seeing it or contributing (two per A4 sheet). We will be looking to get more people involved in producing the blog to work in tandem with the bulletin: much as workers at Carphone Warehouse call centres have put together a well-read blog at www.carphoneworker.co.uk