A national strike by around 7,000 call centre workers on Monday, demanding better conditions and public services, was a big success.
The solid action by PCS civil service workers’ union members had a massive impact on the 37 Jobcentre Plus contact centres around Britain.
Pickets reported a mass stayaway as staff made their feelings clear about the conditions they are forced to work under.
They were also angry that the government’s Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith described their action as “Neanderthal-like”.
“Some of the conditions we face are draconian,” said Andy Campbell, a PCS rep at Cressington House in Liverpool.
“And this affects the services we provide, which would be much better if staff were treated with respect.
“Workers in the centres have to achieve call time targets, and if you’re up against that you’ll always have to look at cutting corners.
“Because of this service users, who are phoning to claim benefits or get advice from the department, are getting a raw deal.
“The strength of the strike shows what staff think of the conditions they work under.
“The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should listen to us.”
Another striker in Telford said, “A recently unemployed person who had never claimed benefit before needed reassurance. They had always worked for the last 30 years.
“But staff were unable to provide the support they needed as we must complete the call within 16 minutes.”
The conditions are having a dreadful impact on many workers.
One PCS member in Telford told Socialist Worker, “A number of staff are on stress risk assessments or off with depression and anxiety.
“It is becoming a regular thing to see call centre staff burst into tears at their desks.
“We are facing savage cuts of 25 percent by 31 March next year.”
Another picket in Telford added, “You can’t keep treating people like machines—all we get is criticism, it is micro-management.
“We are supposed to work in teams but we actually work in isolation—we feel like battery hens.”
Other pickets told Socialist Worker about how they were given time limits when they go to the toilet.
If they returned to their position a minute late they are asked to explain themselves.
The strike was coordinated across the call centre network as staff fight to improve their working lives.
More than 2,000 of them struck in January in seven offices that had been turned into call centres.
And those who have suffered under call centre conditions for a number of years voted decisively to join the fight.
The level of support for the strike—with only a handful of people, mainly managers, crossing picket lines—showed the strength of people’s anger about the issue.
In many places, workers joined the union on Monday morning so that they could take part in the strike.
Trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and student activists visited pickets in towns and cities across the country to show solidarity with the strikers.
The dispute has wider implications.
As the government tries to push through major cuts, it will try to bring in similar attacks on conditions in other parts of the public sector.
But the inspiring fight by call centre workers shows that this assault can be resisted.
Strikers pointed to the call for coordinated action involving as many unions as possible as being key to forcing the Tories back.
Julie Young, a PCS regional organiser who was on the picket line in Middlesbrough, said, “We are on strike for customer service, respect and dignity at work.
“In the wider fight for public services we are moving towards coordinated strike action at the end of June and that needs to be done.
I think we should be bringing in more unions and putting forward an alternative to government cuts.”
The union now needs to step up the action to win major gains for workers.
“The strike has been a big success,” said Dave Owens, a call centre worker in Liverpool who is on the union’s group executive committee in the DWP.
“We now have a programme of action short of a strike, which can also hurt management.
“The key thing for us is to call more strikes as soon as possible so that we can keep pressure up on management.”
Additional reporting by Chris Newlove and Leo Fisher