|Issue No 51||28 April 2000|
Extracted from 'Tales from the New Shop Floor' by Peter Lewis (Pluto Press)
As the nature of working life changes fundamentally, union organisers like Sally are taking up the challenge and changing too.
There's a battle going on as the Australian workplace changes; a battle for everyone to move on or perish. The organisations that represent the interests of workers is facing the same challenge as everything else. Things aren't going well; but there's glimmers of hope, if 'hope 'is the word to suggest that workers in the Information Age will need to work together to promote their common interests. The snapshots of working life presented here shows how, across a diverse gulf of occupations, there are communities of interest and mutual support networks. The questions is whether trade unions, can adapt the structures that it built to support workers for the past 150 years to fulfil these new demands.
Sally's at the frontline; a trade union organiser implementing the new techniques for survival, by going into totally non-unionised workplaces and helping workers develop new ways of to pursue their collective interests. Her office is strewn with posters and files, a megaphone lies on the floor, still there from the last time she made a noise outside a workplace. It's all about activity; moving as fast as a dynamic labour market which has steam rolled organised labour in the past decade. "Battle of Bridge 1998 - for leadership and strategic deployment of troops under heavy enemy cross fire - pain is temporary, glory is forever," the sign from appreciative members refers to her finest victory, a bunch of techs who were getting screwed. It hangs next to a photo of Xena.
"All I think of in the morning is how will I get some more members," Sally says. She's part of the resistance as unions attempt to adapt to arrest a seemingly fatal decline. In the past decade union membership has dropped from more than 50 per cent of the workforce, to around 28 per cent - and it's falling. Many reasons have been offered for this plunge - a decline of the unionised blue-collar areas, the rise in casual employment, the end of closed shops, the impact of the Accord between the ACTU and Labor Governments in compromising unions in the eyes of may members. At the same time the leadership structures of unions have seemed incapable of adapting to smaller, more fragmented workplaces and the demands of more skilled, service industry workers. As the previous case chapters have shown, few young workers see the need to join unions, creating the real risk that the movement could soon become an historical footnote from the Industrial Age.
So is Sally an endangered species? "Definitely not," she says. Organising, she believes, is the way out. Over the past six years more than 300 young workers and graduates have been recruited into the movement and trained in this new strategy which aims to send the power of the union out of the head offices and back into the workplaces. As Sally explains it, organising is about empowering workers to look after themselves rather than merely recruiting them and providing them with a service. "The strength of a union is not its officials - it's got to be the workers." Her job is not to service members but to activate workplaces so the union exists through its members. "The basic rule is that if a job can be done by someone else, you give it to them - it's not about doing less work; it's about developing skills and confidence amongst your members. This is how people will become committed union members and move on to become union activists."
Sally's target are the big call centres where unions have struggled for members despite a massive growth in jobs. The reasons for this are many - as Tony's example shows. Many firms employ a team structure, which deny the natural opportunities for third party involvement. The industry is unregulated, so there is no industry award and no role for a trade union there. But more telling is the failure of unions to make an effort to understand the industry and the issues that could mobilise the workers. And the issues are there - electronic surveillance, irregular hours, massive staff turnover all point to opportunities for the unions.
She starts each day working through her emails. It's how she communicates with most of her delegates. They use private Hotmail and Yahoo accounts, so management can't scrutinise them; in workplaces where surveillance of telephone calls and emails is commonplace, it's a real concern. The email has been a fantastic tool for organising - allowing them to communicate with their members on a daily basis without the need for physical meetings. For the delegates, it allows for instant feedback rather than drawn-out processes over meetings, minutes and resolutions. Things move faster than that these days. She scrolls down the screen; looking at some now, saving others for later. A student wants to talk to her about organising; a member reports on more interest in joining the union from people at one of her target workplaces; some gossip about management from another member; and several responses from the union magazine that goes out to existing members; seeking email lists so they can build better communication chains. Like this one.
The call centre industry is diverse. :"You go into an airline call centre and the workers love their job, they have good work conditions, rostered days off - and cheap air fares!," Sally says. The finance sector is also goof, promoting best practice - the nature of their information is so important they need skilled and motivated staff. But it's the cowboy end of the market that Sally's interested in - telemarketers, small country call centres, and new players trying to get into the booming market by pushing down costs so they can win contracts over the existing centres. Many employ students and backpackers who just want the money and won't stick their head up to complain. Because they are new, there are no established ground rules.
Sally has developed a long-term approach to organising the call centres based on getting a foothold in the large operations first and then using the high turnover of staff to get leads into other operations. It involves systematic planning - over the past 18 months she has read everything she could on the industry, it's structure, its pay rates, the issues. She's mapped the industry; setting priorities for getting into the big players. She's surveyed workers about the issues that concern them - without ever even mentioning them joining the union. In the early days this is irrelevant. "The union will never have any influence until it reaches a critical mass of 50 per cent," Sally says. "My job is to find the issue that will motivate the workers to make that decision to join." For call centres, where the workforce are typically educated and confident, it involves a major culture change
She's also raises the profile of the union - issuing media releases that are sometimes picked up, commenting on the issues that have been identified in the surveys - like keystroke monitoring and long-working hours. She soon discovered there was no one else talking about the issues in the industry so she's quickly become an 'expert'. The media work is important in making call centre workers aware that there is a body that can represent them - if they want more info, they now know where to go. Today she's giving an interview for community radio and lining up another for a TV current affairs show tomorrow.
Sally drives across the Bridge to the northern suburbs, where hi-tech businesses and call centres nestle along the highway. The target is an internet service provider that employers technicians, sales and administration staff who answer queries online or through a call centre. Management doesn't want the union involved, Sally's challenge is to secure a foothold from a base of zero members. She's researched the workplace and isolated the issue: the workers are employed on contracts - there is no general award setting wages and conditions for the industry. They mean's their not entitled to a standard condition: five weeks annual leave if they work are rostered to work on Sundays and public holidays. If Sally wanted to she could go to the Industrial Relations Commission immediately and get an order for the five weeks leave. But no-one would know it was the union, the boss would claim the credit for being generous and it would remain a better-paid but still non-union workplace.
Instead, Sally has drawn up a simple flier informing people that they are entitled to this extra week's leave and telling them that management is refusing to discuss the issue. There's a contact with Sally's email contact at the bottom. Simple as that. Whenever she's on the north side, she drops into the office for half and hour or so and hands the fliers out to any workers who come out of the building for a smoke or a lunch break. The last time she tried it, management told her to leave the premises and threatened to call the police. This provided a show for the workers, who at least became aware of her existence.
As she drives into the industrial estate, past the office boxes with their blacked glass facades, she feels a combination of nerves and exhilaration. She's laying it on the line; walking into a potential conflict situation. She pulls up and goes and sits at a bench on the small square of lawn where the workers hang in their break. She wanders up to them nonchalantly - "You guys work here? have a look at this." One of the workers reads it and screws it up; another folds it and places it in his pocket - "at least people will read this pamphlet properly," he says to her. Sally doesn't push the point, simply moves onto the next workers who lights up a cigarette. Her plan at this stage is just to publicise the issue, the idea of joining the union doesn't even come into it.
She wanders from working to worker, handing out the flier. On one level its cold call selling; it's just that the product is one that she believes in. "They don't want to talk to me here - they know that management is watching them from up there," she says, pointing up at the reflective windows. What she hopes will happen is that some of them will email her later. A handful already have; when she has enough (the target ratio is one to ten workers) she'll call an off-site meeting at a café or pub where they can plan a broader campaign. That's when she'll move on the holiday entitlements; any earlier and it would kill off the impetus to organise.
A better dressed worker, obviously a team leader comes outside and looks Sally up and down. "They'll be calling a meeting about me before you know it," she says. One person, causing this much stress. The thing is Sally is convinced the management is vulnerable: while it appears a good job, the high turnover of technicians imple4s that all is not well. A bunch of new tech trainees work past on their way from induction training, all take the flier. "The crazy thing about it is that it's in management's interests to work with the union," Sally says. "If they improved the conditions, it would reduce the turnover rate, which would increase their productivity." She's estimated for each worker that must be trained, it costs the company $10,000. Keeping the staff happy does pay.
Over the 30 minutes she wouldn't hand out more than 20 fliers, but it's time well spent. Maybe just one person will place it on a notice board; maybe someone will start talking about it as Christmas approaches; maybe the seed has been sown. She leaves as unobtrusively as she's come; mission accomplished - for now.
It's six years since Sally joined the unions, one of the first of 300 young graduates and rank and file activists to be trained in the organising philosophy which a delegation of senior union officials had brought back from the US, where the movement was trying to claw its way out of a similar crisis of falling membership and decreasing relevance. "I was in my final year of my arts degree, lying in bed reading the job ads wondering what the hell I would do," Sally remembers. "I saw this advertisement from the ACTU, seeking trainees for their Organising Works program. I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do."
Sally had never been party political, although she had been president of the student union at university with a green platform based on recycling. "I thought the union movement was the pinnacle of progressive thought," she says, "the first six months sorted that one out." Under the program, the trainees were attached to a union four days each week, and spent each Friday as a group being trained. The training included campaigning skills, mapping, developing delegate as well as the history and political economy of the union movement.
Originally the focus was on university graduates - but the thinking has now switched to workplace activists - if you have been to Uni. you need to have been involved in campaigning, though not necessarily political: one successful graduate had been a campus Christian activist. The idea to match organisers with their membership; likes with likes - as a BA grad, Sally's a good fit for the call centre workers. "You need to be a strategic thinker," she says, " you need good interpersonal skills , you have got to be able to build relationships with people, be an educator, a negotiator, a listener. Most of all you need to love your job - if you don't you, won't last."
Sally is one of the few survivors; those in her intake have either moved into the more prestigious industrial officer positions or moved on to work for politicians. The burn-outs came within two years, and it's easy to get burnt. "If I wanted to I could do the work of five people," Sally admits. "There are' 100,000 potential members in this city alone and the numbers are increasing every week." In her early days she would be working 60 hours each week, nights and weekends plus trying to do extra-curricula events like organising concerts. "You watch the good people fall by the wayside through stress and burn-out - you need to draw limits on yourself in the same way you try to get workers to set limits." She still does out of hours work, but only on her terms. Flexible hours help, so that if she's meeting people late she's not expected in at work first thing in the morning.
Another of the problems was that many unions were skeptical and more simply thought it was enough to leave this new organising business to the newcomers, while they kept going about business as usual. Most were still expected to keep up with a normal quota of 'servicing' as well, solving problems for individual members, who treated their membership as insurance. "They hired us, told us we were the saviors of the unions - but the rest of the movement hadn't changed."
She's meeting Mark for coffee during his lunch break. He's her key contact in a centre that has been operating since the 1970s without an active membership. There's more than 100 potential members to be won and enough issues for a dozen campaigns. Mark gets just 30 minutes off so it's got to be quick. He's wearing dark glasses - not because he's scared but because he's cool.
The company has been working with a US law form of union-busters to get an agreement approved by workers that locks out the union. Sally works with a group of workers who have organised their colleagues, to the point where they are approaching critical mass. This has all been done underground - after receiving an email from one angry worker - Mark. She's never even been into the workplace - all meetings have been out of hours in cafes nearby. In that time she'd established a network of four delegates, each of whom had four activists. This meant there were 15 people in the loop, in a workplace of 100; a better than adequate foothold.
When the management found out about these meetings they summonsed Mark and stood him down without pay. The union-buster consultants then called each worker individually into an office to talk to them about the importance of 'having a direct relationship with the company' - that is, not being in the union. Sally had discussed how the workers should react at previous meetings - so they were prepared, aware of their legal rights to organise. The bosses have backed off in recent weeks, but they're still making life very uncomfortable for Mark. It's a typical example of a bad employer - obsessed with statistics; monitoring toilet breaks; a supervisor sitting in a tower in the middle of the floor - and desperate to keep the pesky union out.
Sally is to brief Mark on a meeting that the management has invited the union to in Melbourne next week. It's important that the workers are driving the process. She has refused to meet with the employers until now, when she has the support of the majority of the workers. Once the majority were on board, she worked with them to write down what they wanted to see change; after a constant stream of email suggestions and alterations until a document, the workers' claim, has been finalised. "The company can see what's happening and say they don't want a third party - but they don't get it. I'm not a third party, I'm just a resource for them work this through for themselves."
"How's things going?" Sally asks. Mark tells her that the company has been circulating its agreement amongst the staff, going through the routine of consultation by asking for comments. "no one is responding to the draft," he says. "Things are falling apart for them," Sally agrees. The aim of the Melbourne meeting is to convince management that the workers want to negotiate as a group, through the union; to set the ground rules. Sally's job is not to take over; but to use her skills to make sure all the workers get a say. Her rule is to never attend meetings without the delegates present; but Mark can't get to Melbourne. This makes this meeting all the more important. Mark has to run, they agree to talk again by phone tonight; then again before the meeting.
"The thing that really keeps you going is the relationships you develop with your delegates," she says. "You can't help but admire the courage of them. There's a bond that develops where you go through a campaign where people have put their jobs on the line. You might only get one, two, three good victories each year, but that's enough to keep you going."
Sally finishes her coffee and keeps moving; a 2pm meeting with one of the city's biggest call centres
that bids for work with firms and government departments that contract out their customer service department. She's been trying to work with the management here to raise its reputation as a fair employer, compared to the other firms bidding for the contracts. Things have been progressing well until now; management has actually invited Sally to be part of the negotiations on a new pay deal. But things have hit a wall with the US controlling interests now wanting to break a deal between management and workers to draft proposed agreements separately and then exchange them. Local management now says it doesn't want to talk about the workers' ideas anymore.
It's an affront to the workers' dignity and the elected delegates are angry. It's worse for Sally, the process of framing the document and identifying hot issues, is key to her organising strategy. Today she's been invited to an on-site meeting as part of management's fast-receding goodwill. Here she'll meet with the delegates who have been voted by staff through their own internal processes not through the union. Sally treads wearily, appreciating that these workers are not unions members and not necessarily attracted to joining. She's been meeting with them for some time, so there's a warmth and familiarity, but she knows she has to win them slowly.
Pat, a strong faced woman who worked as a prison officer in a former life reports on the last meeting with management. The management claims says they can't offer much in the agreement and basically wants the delegates to go out and sell a dud deal. They're angry at being set up as the patsy and outraged that have dogged on the deal. "The company is scared because they can see us getting organised," Greg, a former hypno-therapist, muses. look to Sally for options; I think you have three, she says, ask them for another meeting to argue our position; just wait for them to give us their agreement, or go to staff and start organising now. "I say we go back to the floor and find out what they think," Pat responds. Sally can barely hide her delight, they are about to activate the workforce.
They decide to make the meeting off site after the different teams finish their shift. The delegates will put up the notices, Sally agrees to find a venue and draft an agenda. They agree to circulate a petition at the meeting calling on management to exchange the documents, knowing that presenting 200 signatures will give them the authority to stand their ground. They set the date for two weeks hence. Pat and Sally go and see the human resources manager to inform her of their decision to call a mass meeting; the manger offers to attend to explain the company's position - they decline her invitation.
They return to the room and plan the next step, how they'll react if the management turn hostile. "I'll just say we have a legal right to organise a meeting outside working hours," Pat says. Sally loves it, she's talking like a unionist. "When I first came into this workplace, the delegates were more suspicious of me than they were of management," Sally says later. "Now it's reversed. " She couldn't have orchestrated it better if she tried.
"The big fad at the moment is HRM - Human Resource Management, getting close to your workforce, telling that trust will eliminate the need for third parties," Sally says. "But at the end of the day it always backfires. One of two things can happen: either its rhetoric that is not delivered on and the workers become cynical because they did believe it in the first place. Or we start to unionise the workplace; where management will say: 'we want a direct relationship' and we say fine; that's what we want to happen too - I don't want to come near the place."
Sally's meeting for a regular beer and pizza night with other union organisers tonight. They keep in touch as a sanity check, as they struggle to change the culture of reluctant union hierarchies. Sally is optimistic, the day has been full of little steps all in the right direction. The more time she spends around them the more she is convinced, the call centres are ripe for unionisation. "These people aren't anti-union," she says, " we've just never engaged with them. Call centre people are confident, they do have a vision of themselves as being empowered and competent; they have, by definition, good interpersonal skills. The secret to organising is to give them the choice of what they want to build and how it should operates. You should be there as a resource, not a savior. If you do it right, it will add to those feelings of empowerment throughout the whole group.
Even as work changes, there is a need to for workers to band together; it's just that the ways they will do this have changed so fundamentally. A union movement rooted in the centralised wage system is worth little when firms can change a worker from an employee to a contractor with a swift legal manouevre. But where that movement analyses the changes and understands how work is changing, it does have a future. "In the workforce everything is changed, everything about the way people did their jobs has changed," Sally says. "But we haven't - we're still operating in the 1960s" The only thing she knows is that change will come - either through choose or through hitting absolute rock bottom. If unions choose to change, their work could become as dynamic and interesting as Sally's; warriors on the new shop floor.
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