|Issue No 84||16 February 2001|
Things Are Looking Up On The Dock
After six years as a call centre worker, Marios Ellas has joined the union movement. Here's his first impressions.
I want to speak a little about some of the issues that thousands of call centre workers around Australia face each day. I will also comment on some of the subtle strategies that call centre managers have deployed to address these issues. Finally, I want to suggest that there is nothing stopping the union movement from using their opponent's strategies as a means for bolstering membership.
There are call centres which have human resource structures that are welcomed by workers and organisers. It is not contradictory then, that these types of call centres are interested in becoming involved in a minimum standards charter as proposed by the ACTU. Our concern is with those call centres where staff are complaining that managers are not providing them with reasonable pay and working conditions.
A perennial problem for managers is getting the workers to perform tasks which are directed towards meeting business needs, but which are not necessarily in the interests of the worker's own welfare. For example, one of the ways in which management measures the competitiveness of their Call Centre is by counting the number of calls that their workers answer per hour. Sophisticated technologies have been designed to provide an exact indication of how long it takes to finish a call; how long the worker is off the phone between calls; where the worker is and so on. Workers are complaining that these techniques of measurement are putting them under intense pressure to perform beyond what they believe are levels of reasonable capacity.
Call monitoring is an ingenious system. It both at once ensures productivity targets are met, while at the same time gently coercing staff into becoming self-responsible about how they conduct themselves. The issue becomes one for the worker alone. It forces him or her to reflect on their work place behaviour in new ways. The problem of supervision is solved, although not entirely. In most cases, as long as the worker achieves set targets, they will be left to their own devices. However, the call centre has a weak point, an Achilles heel. A problem that eternally returns - human expressivity. How does the manager get the worker to think and act like a machine whilst at the same time ensuring the worker's happiness?
Some have argued for less monitoring. Others have suggested that a more sensible approach would be responsible monitoring. The call centre is an instrumental rationality. It has grown out of the idea of maximum efficiency. The productivity gained from monitoring is what has made call centres so attractive to businesses (big and small) seeking to outsource their services. This in turn has made possible the creation of thousands of new jobs. According to shareholders and other interested stakeholders, if call centres were to place less emphasis on monitoring, they would be hard pressed to compete for service contracts in the market. Jobs would have to go. However, workers and unions are arguing that this does not give call centre decision makers the unencumbered right to disregard the safety and comfort of their workers for the sake of a quick profit.
Some of the issues that workers have complained about are repetitive strain, back and neck injury and hearing damage, which has been recently referred to by some experts as 'audio shock'. Workers have also complained of feeling pressured by phone monitoring. Stress has been cited again and again as a reason for high absenteeism and turnover. Quite a few workers have tried to organise themselves around these issues. But their intense efforts have either been frustrated by the visual and audible transparency of call centres; or because the majority of workers are quite simply nervous about the idea of unions. Despite strong organising campaigns, the problem of anti-unionist sentiment, appears to be a thorn in the side of organising efforts. This poses the pressing question of whether or not this problem should be excluded from future discussions about organising strategies. I will say more about this in just a moment.
In my first week of organising I have met potential members in secret hiding places during after hours, and corresponded via private email. I have also attended (under a covert identity) an anti-organising strategy seminar prepared for call centre management. How do I see my role as an organiser for the call centre industry, in the face of such challenging obstacles?
In the very short time I have been at the ASU I have been thoroughly impressed by the remarkable enthusiasm and relentless drive displayed by my peers and mentors. Despite resistance to organising efforts, union 'know how' is making possible changes in work places in three ways: (1) by representing the views of both members and workers, (2) by putting pressure on managers to become more accountable in their business practices, and (3) by becoming a signatory to several agreements. Apart from this, it is also raising public awareness through specific campaigns about occupational health and safety issues. It is difficult to disagree that the Call Centre industry is a new challenge for unions as well as a rewarding domain for organisers to be involved in.
Those sympathetic to the Union movement here and abroad, are proud of what 'people power' has achieved for workers' rights past and present. However, while critical historical events are a great driving force for the movement, claims are being made by some organisers that we cannot afford to allow sentiment to cloud our strategies, whilst the opponent is applying cutting edge human resource skills as well as constantly dreaming up new public relations and employee relations tactics.
Telstra and KFC shed little tears when they dispensed with their former names, as it was costing them market share. Is the union movement facing the same challenge? I do not think it can be conclusively proven that the union is losing membership density because it is less relevant. This notion is an invention by conservative governments and big business. Nevertheless this is a remarkably powerful myth that has worked effectively well to the detriment of both workers and union member.
Although workers are highly supportive of what their union is doing, I think it can be shown that the union movement has been losing ground because those same workers are afraid of the idea of being part of a union. The idea of unions (despite whatever shape or name they have been historically cast as) has been presented as an emblem of sinfulness and badness. The owners of capital have worked very hard indeed to make sure that this status quo has been maintained.
In order to counter pressure from unions and the general public, human resource experts have quietly worked away at disguising the tyranny behind their rule. For example, in the call centre industry we have recently learnt that some organisations have begun referring to call monitoring as 'call listening'. This subtle maneuver is designed to conceal the power relations between those in charge of monitoring and those who are situated in its field of vision. At the same time, it beautifully solves the problem of complaints from unions and evades heat from the media about 'big brother' behaviour and so on. This is but one example of how changing language makes possible changes in perceptions and forms of behaviour
How have conservative governments and corporations transformed concepts such as union, third party, delegate, collective bargaining, member, strike, stop work meeting and so on, into dangerous ideas? A few years ago when I was a work place delegate in a call centre, I witnessed first hand the bizarre contradiction between the attitude and behaviour of workers. Workers were desperate for change but they were also afraid, even resentful, about the idea of getting organized. Corporate managers, who could more accurately be described as 'the competition', have been doing quite well in recent times in the anti-union propaganda stakes.
At the risk of sounding prophetic let me say this much then: Make no mistake about it. The bitter struggle between unions and the owners of capital is a war over the truth of who has the right to represent the welfare of the worker's soul. In their blind desperation to remain market competitive, to satisfy their share holders as well as pay their own selves enormous bonuses, the 'corporate boys' will stop at nothing to totally undermine the union movement, even if this contradicts their own ethical standards.
Yet let us take refuge and hope in the fact that there can be no absolute victor. Battles will continue to be won and lost, but the war will never end. With the appropriate strategies there is nothing stopping unions from outsmarting their opponents with equal if not greater cunning and deft. However, this is going to take more than piecemeal planning. The corporates will taste the bitterness of their own defeat only when unions match their wits, when unions out do them at their game. Indeed there are clear signs that this is currently occurring in two ways.
(1) The ACTU's push for an industry charter and code is a brilliant two pronged counter-strategy against anti-union work place tactics in call centres. Firstly, and foremostly, it addresses the concerns raised by workers over sub-standard pay and work conditions. Secondly, by giving call centres the choice to sign up to the code, the responsibility falls back on them to practically demonstrate whether or not they want to be thought of as good or bad workplaces. The effect of this sophisticated maneuver, is that it is having a Trojan horse effect on the united industry front against unions. If shareholders and managers do not sign up, then their call centre could be locked out of the industry. On the other hand if they do sign, then this may eventually lead to them being roped into a federal award. Therefore, the industry code is a catch-22 for employers and a sweet strategic victory for the union movement.
With over 4000 call centres in Australia and between 150 and 200,000 call centre workers currently employed in the industry (which is about 3.5% of the national population), call centres are fast becoming a political hot potato. The ACTU has garnered support for the industry charter and code from the Tasmanian Government and the Local Government and Shires Associations in NSW. These organisations, which are being hailed by many as progressive and forward looking, have both pledged in principle, to award service contracts only to those call centres which sign up to the minimum service code. However, the NSW Government's silence on the issue is beginning to raise questions about its commitment to the welfare of workers and the greater labor movement in Australia. A clear statement of their position on the matter is being urgently sought by all.
(2) A landmark decision in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission has ruled that the $500 service fee charged by the Electrical Trades Union to non union workers (who piggyback on union negotiated pay rises and workplace improvements) was legally valid. This has the potential to boost union membership across all industry sectors in Australia.
This brings my speech to a close. I would like to leave you with the famous words uttered by Marlon Brando's character Terry Malloy in the movie classic On the Waterfront: 'Things are looking up on the dock!'
This speech was delivered to the Labor Council's organising seminar this week
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Organising: Young Activists Bask in Union Summer
Sydney students have spent three weeks of their summer holidays experiencing on-the-ground work with unions.
Unions: Things Are Looking Up On The Dock
After six years as a call centre worker, Marios Ellas has joined the union movement. Here's his first impressions.
History: Trades Hall – The Royal Connection
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005