The signal to stop work in the call centre I work in is a manager flicking the main switch off and on – “flashing the lights”.
It’s a moment of glee as workers are released from the monotony of repeating themselves for hours and the stress of attempting to convince someone to part with a slice of their wages or pension. At that moment, we can all relax. Or perhaps not.
Callers (as we are referred to) will often come under pressure from a manager for not achieving targets or for spending too long away from the phone (a well known mantra ringing in our ears from our superiors is, “Dial, dial, dial! Keep dialling!”), or to be pulled up for breaching a petty rule.
But if job insecurity isn’t the worry, paying the rent and bills will certainly cause concern. I invited a colleague for a drink after work one evening. “Sorry, Pat,” he said, “I am absolutely skint.” “What do you mean you’re skint? We only got paid a few days ago.” “Honestly, Pat, I have just paid my rent and bills, bought my travelcard, and stocked up my fridge and freezer for a month. I have £30 to see me until the end of the month.” Then there are the sofa-surfers, dragging their rucksack between friends’ homes.
What chance has a young worker to find a deposit and rent in London when you are earning between £6 and £8 per hour? This is the main factor behind a staff turnover of 200 a month, while those who remain dream of escaping to a better job.
Early in 2006 a fellow caller told me that we were earning less than our colleagues doing the same job at the Bedford site. This was due to a cut in pay rates for new callers in 2004. There had been no increase since 2002.
I suggested meeting in a pub with anyone wanted to change this. I expected a handful, but we got 20 callers. People talked about how they felt the company did not recognise their efforts. All sorts of issues were raised, but mainly it was pay.
A petition was agreed, and in following weeks more than 200 staff signed. Crucial, though, was the intervention by an older caller who said, “If we don’t get organised in a union, nothing will happen.”
Not everyone agreed, but enough signed up and were willing to take around the petition and ask colleagues to join the union. We also made announcements in the callers’ rest area. There was resistance from colleagues to joining at first, but this was broken down over time. Persistence was a virtue, but showing that the union could win little victories was the key. A campaign by callers won the reinstatement of a longstanding colleague who had been sacked on a trumped-up charge.
Our union bulletins and emails ensure that workers are more informed by the union than by management. We also felt that we needed to find more imaginative ways to engage our young workforce.
We have held two union parties, and a film showing of Bread and Roses introduced by the director Ken Loach. At all these events the union grew. Young workers who had joined a union for the first time in their lives were taking a lead.
It was this recent injection of new blood that saw the success of the “badge day”. They designed the “Pay Up” badges with the Communication Workers Union (CWU) logo and they won virtually the whole of the call centre to wear them – whether union members or not. Action beyond this has been discussed, but was put on hold when the pressure forced management to concede pay increases of 13 to 15 percent for the vast majority of callers. This was the first increase in six years.
The fact that we now have more than 100 members means that the CEO has started talks about recognition with CWU officials.
The lesson I have learned is this: taking the first steps to organising in your workplace will do no harm, in fact it will be harmful not to do it.
Pat Carmody is a Communication Workers Union rep. He writes in a personal capacity
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