Call centre workers from across Britain came together at a meeting at last month’s CWU conference. The meeting was unlike most others at the conference, with many of the participants far younger than the average delegate, and most at firms that do not recognise the union.
Nevertheless, the picture of how activists are recruiting included stories of great creativity in the face of bosses that are determined to keep call centres union-free zones.
For obvious reasons, activists’ names have been changed.
“Four years ago the very mention of the word ‘union’ would have got you targeted by management,” said Tracy, who works for a major mobile phone company in the west of England.
“But today the atmosphere is very different. We walk around the building with our company ID badges on CWU ribbons around our necks.
“We really got up and running when we decided to set up a formal committee among the activists. From there we could plan our next move on recruitment, but we also started working out how we could represent people when they were facing disciplinaries.
“Now the company is forced to deal with the union, whether they like it or not. And believe me they don’t.”
Julie, who works at the same call centre, has recently become the young members’ officer of her union branch. She talked about the specific problems facing young workers.
“It can be really intimidating when you are trying to deal with a manager who is 30 years older than you,” she said. “But the union provides a counter-weight.
“You know that you have people behind you, people you can get good advice from. That makes you feel strong enough to stand up for yourself and others.”
Others in the session talked about the way the union is engaging with new media in order to get its message across.
“I found out about the union from a friend on Facebook,” said a young worker at a major telephone directory service in Wales. “From there I started getting hold of union material and handing it around at work.
“Now I’m known as the ‘union man’ and people are always coming to me with their problems. When they do, I tell them that we need a union and I ask them to join.”
Graham, who works for a mobile phone company in the north of England, explained that half the challenge of building the union is being able to start small and deal with setbacks.
“A few of us decided the union should organise a social event,” he said. “The first was not very good – only four people turned up. That could have left us feeling despondent, but it didn’t.
“I said to the people who came, there might not be many here but we don’t know the effect we’ve had on people just by trying to make the event happen.”
Graham was right. Returning to work after the social he realised that he had become a well-known figure around his office.
Many of his colleagues started seeking his advice about workplace matters and asked for representation in meetings with management. From that point on the union started to grow.
Other activists in the session talked about how they’d used similar tactics, and as a result had engaged with lots of younger workers on political subjects.
One described how in her workplace charity collections were a regular occurrence. She had decided to do one too – using literature from the CWU’s humanitarian aid. It was the first time a union-endorsed leaflet had ever been distributed at her office.
She told the meeting how taking a collection meant getting into lots of discussions with her colleagues about Third World debt, the threat to the environment and racism.
The process made the CWU seem relevant to many who are politically minded but did not instantly see the union as having something to offer them.
It also gave the union a “legitimate” means of getting a profile in a workplace where simply issuing union leaflets would have got you the sack.
Everyone who spoke in the session had faced management intimidation. Some had even been sacked and only returned to work after serious union campaigning.
But the determination of the activists shows two things very clearly – first, there are no “no-go zones” for the unions, and second, management intimidation may hold collective organisation back for a time, but it cannot do so indefinitely.