'IT'S LIKE working in a slave galley.' That was how one striker in Lancaster summed up the feelings of the 4,000 workers on strike at 37 BT call centres around Britain on Monday.
The action by workers in the Communication Workers Union is the first national strike in BT for 13 years. The strike involved workers answering the 150 and 151 numbers, which deal with bills, faults and repairs. They are sick of being treated like production line fodder. 'You are not even trusted to do your job. You're being watched all the time,' said the striker from Lancaster.
'It is like working in a pig pen, with just relentless numbers of calls coming in and people chained to their work stations,' said a CWU rep on the picket line in Leicester. Another call centre worker told Socialist Worker, 'It's just pressure, pressure, pressure. People can get sacked for taking too long on calls. You are under pressure to sell equipment and products, with targets set. The pressure means people are on the sick.'
Meredith Clark, treasurer of the Leicester clerical workers' CWU branch, told Socialist Worker about the anger that led to the strike. 'There are two main issues - firstly the fact that BT rely on agency workers on temporary contracts. Some 60 percent of BT's call centre staff are agency staff. But it's also about BT's management style. They are bullying people. Workers are constantly monitored and made to stick to their work stations. Workers are pulled up if they spend more than five minutes going to the toilet. Managers just don't want workers to leave their seats. It's not like they haven't got the money. BT make something like £130 profit in just one second!'
Some 100 people joined the picket line at Wood Green Customer Service Centre in north London. Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn showed his support for the action by joining the picket line. In Glasgow some 30 people joined the picket line and in Cambridge 15 workers picketed. There were also solid strikes in Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle and Sunderland, and elsewhere.
But there were weaknesses in the strike. In many of the call centres agency workers, often over half the workforce, were not picketed out. Strikers were often not encouraged to join picket lines. The CWU has called for another one day strike on 10 December and another one day strike in January next year if management do not agree to negotiate. The danger is the union leadership see these strikes as a negotiating ploy just to get management into talks.
The union should be stepping up the strikes and involving the thousands of workers in other BT call centres who have not been called out on strike. Such a move could transform the draconian atmosphere inside BT's call centres. It could also be the start of a serious campaign to unionise agency staff and win them permanent jobs.