Our Union Is the Only Morale Booster That Job Has: The campaign at CallUs

CallUs (not the real business name) is a call center in the Midwest with roughly 750 employees. We spoke to three workers who have been part of an organizing effort there at various times.

PART 1: INTERVIEW WITH ADAM AND TANYA (2012-2016)

Tell me about how you started working at CallUs. What was the job? How many workers were there? What were conditions like?

Adam: I started working there because I had just finished college, needed a job, and CallUs is a very large employer in the city. I knew some people who worked there at the time and plenty more who had worked there [previously], so I figured that was a good of a place as any to get a job. The job is essentially re-voicing what a caller is saying so that your voice goes through a voice-to-text program which you can edit, and then captions appear on a customer’s captioned telephone (CallUs) in real-time.

At the time I started in 2012, there were probably just short of 700 workers at [our city’s] location. There was also a location in [another city], but I am unsure how many captionists were employed there at the time.

When I started, the pay was relatively low (starting at $9.25 an hour), and it wouldn’t get uncontrollably busy. I should also note that I’ve only ever worked first shift there which is when a lot of business-related calls and conference calls happened.

Tanya: It was February, 2013. I am a cab driver by trade, but due to Uber and Lyft, had been run out of the business and needed an income. I’d been applying everywhere, but CallUs was the only bite. Their criteria for new hires was a stretch for my typing, but I practiced, got up to speed and got the job.

At first, it was manageable. The call volume was never out of hand and the policies were more relaxed.

Then, an FCC ruling went into effect that mandated captions be on automatically, as opposed to having to be turned on. This was in August of 2015. Within a couple months, our workload increased exponentially, policies started getting stricter, and wages stayed the same. They required workers to constantly, constantly have to focus, more than human capacity could handle. Across the board everyone was at their wits end.

Morale collapsed. They took us into monthly team meetings and asked us what we would do to increase morale. [It] was tense, and they were putting it on us, the workers, like we just all had crapitudes.

How did the campaign start? How did you organize? Who got involved?

Adam: In August 2014 I joined our local IWW branch because I wanted to be a union member and wasn’t currently involved in any other revolutionary projects or organizations at the time. I also had my hours increased to full time at CallUs because I figured “If I’m still here after two years, I’m probably going to be here for a while.” The logic then went, “Since I’m still at CallUs, and I just joined the IWW, I should probably organize my job.”

When I first started organizing, I hadn’t yet taken an Organizer Training 101, so though I had experience as a student organizer, I still made a lot of mistakes. As I mentioned, I knew a fair amount of people, including friends, who worked there at the time, and called a general interest meeting to feel people out in terms of goals and commitment.

Tanya: I’d been seeing Adam on breaks pretty regularly, we had complimentary ideals, and spoke fairly often, so when he invited me to a union meeting, I was all in. Don’t mourn, organize, as the saying goes. That was February 6, 2015.

Adam: At first, the people who got involved were mostly just friends of mine with some co-workers who I’d see on my breaks.

The IWW had organized at CallUs in [this other city] some years prior, and they had their own victories, but unfortunately that campaign functionally had ended before ours was starting and we weren’t very well connected, if at all.

I went to an OT 101 in the spring of 2015. I took it seriously, applied those methods to my own organizing, and it helped solidify the committee.

I was spending a lot of my free time organizing. Meeting up with co-workers, doing one-on-ones. Walking, biking, busing wherever I needed to, connecting with co-workers who couldn’t attend committee meetings but wanted to be involved. It was pretty hectic at time. I’m surprised I never suffered burnout, since most of my free time was going around neighborhood to neighborhood meeting up with people, updating spreadsheets with contact info, trying to match names to records. Ultimately there were some victories that came out of it, which I’m glad of, it literally ended up paying off.

What kinds of issues did you take on? What were some of the successes and losses?

Adam: We had a few major issues. The ones I particularly recall actually organizing around were pay, adherence (we are expected to be at our desks and taking calls 95% of the time we are clocked in, and this includes setting up and cleaning our stations), not being listened to by superiors, and the general feeling of isolation people got while working there.

We started a publication, Don’t CallUs, which was a zine used to promote our committee and platform [addressing these issues] as well as a way to break through the isolation of CallUs and allow co-workers to contribute to the cause even if they couldn’t personally take time to attend committee meetings. The publications of Don’t CallUs also sent some waves through the workplace showing co-workers and some supervisors that we were a serious committee. I would count that publication as one of our largest factors to success.

we did an anonymous mailbox flood to HR concerning the elevators that frequently break and needing more time to get between floors of the building.

Tanya: It was November, 2016, when we had our taste of success. We held a couple mailbox floods, distributed literature, organized a slowdown, and members of our committee who had resigned listed our demands on the exit interview. We got a dollar raise, and a dollar an hour busy season bonus.

The bonus was not given [during the busy season] the [following] year. They pretended it never existed, and when asked about it, claimed we were not getting it because the volume was not as high as the previous year.

We answered by storming the gates with IWW members, circulating a petition for a living wage. Although we collected roughly 150 signatures, this proved to be an epic fail and almost caused our demise. There were social and romantic tensions between certain committee members. One member had the hard copies of the petition, and they weren’t communicating with a couple of the others… And although we tried to coordinate to call the signers, it simply never happened. It tore us apart and the petition became obsolete.

It wasn’t until spring 2018, when another fellow worker stepped up [Joshua], that meetings [started] being held again.

He had taken the OT 101 in May 2016, and had become social with a few of us from class, although he lived in another city. He asked to be salted in, in the spring of 2017, used me as a reference, etc. He had been a member of the committee the entire time he has worked at CallUs, attending meetings and contributing. But after relations dissolved, and I failed to get a meeting going, he started recruiting new members and scheduling meetings on his own. He’s ace. I’m so proud of him.

PART 2: INTERVIEW WITH JOSHUA (2018-)

I saw some social media chatter about a march on the boss.

Joshua: We’ve been ramping up for that for quite a while now. We decided it was time to take our demand for $15 an hour to our bosses. We all decided to gather in the break room by five o’clock, and we marched as a group to the head person in HR’s office. She went running up to grab the highest-level person. He said he would speak to us individually, and we said, “No, we want to speak to you as a group.” So they took us up to a conference room, then we basically laid out a list of reasons for why we deserve $15 / hour, including the cost of rent in our city, and the number of people who can’t afford insurance. Then we said we wanted a response by this month’s team meeting.

The starting wage at our call center is $11 / hour, so this would be about a $4 / hour jump for most people.

Tell me about the issues you face on the job.

A lot of it is just hard, emotionally. The call content, which I can’t disclose – there’s just a lot of really rough things to hear, and I think that alone justifies $15 / hour – the traumatic nature of the things we have to listen to on a daily basis.

Another issue is “adherence”: you’re expected to be in your cube for 95% of the day, and it’s all monitored by computers.

Speaking of which, the computer system there runs everything. When I first started there, I was told “We don’t care if you’re calling in because you’re giving birth, or if you want to take the day off to play video games.” So we have this points system. Which is great if you want to take the day off to play video games, but it’s terrible if you have an actual medical condition. And they have this system because there are so many employees and it is really difficult to treat them all like individual human beings who have legitimate reasons for not being at work from time to time.

Adam and Tanya talked a bit about adherence and how they were working on making some improvements there. Did you guys have any success with that?

Not really. We did a mailbox flood where we got a bunch of people to fill out HR forms, and just flood the HR mailbox with it, and they essentially put up a posting about it saying, “Employees have this concern,” and basically they told us, “This is the policy because this is the policy.” They cited the handbook. And they also instituted a rule that they don’t accept anonymous HR forms anymore, so that kind of put an end to it!

So that was a big reason we felt the need to escalate beyond that.

Has there been individual retaliation against organizers? How public are you?

There hasn’t been any sort of retaliation. The main thing is, we started placing menstrual products in the bathrooms with our union sticker on them, and management throws those out as soon as they find them. We also starting placing books on the bookshelves – there is a lending library for people to read books in between calls – and admin started going through all the books, and throwing away any book that had a union sticker on it. That’s all there’s been in terms of retaliation, it’s trying to keep the word from getting out about the union.

Are you still doing your publication?

Yeah, the Don’t CallUs. We just did Volume 5. We get workers to write for it.

We printed off 200 copies of the last one and distributed them all.

And then we also have a pamphlet with our five-point platform. We’ve probably printed out 500 of those over time.

What tactics have you been using for outreach? What has been your main strategy for covering such an enormous workplace? 

For the most part, we just lean over to the people in the cubes next to us and hand them a pamphlet. I personally say, “My name is Joshua, I’m interesting in talking to you more about that” and give them my phone number. A lot of times people text me or call me after their shift. That seems to be working well for a number of people.

Do you feel as though every worker in the workplace has heard of the union effort at this point?

We’ve pretty much bothered everybody [laughs]. I think by and large people are aware of our presence. But I also think that we’ve faced the challenge that people have been hearing us talk for a long time and we need to escalate to actions.

What’s the demographic make-up at CallUs? How would you say your committee makeup stacks up in relation to that?

It’s largely young people but there are a number of [older] people there as well. It’s very racially diverse. There’s a huge representation of queer people there as well.

Our committee has a lot of gender diversity, a lot of LGBT folks, and some racial diversity, but probably not as much as we should have.

LESSONS LEARNED / ADVICE FOR OTHERS

Joshua: When I first started on the committee, a lot of members were super into security culture, which I think has a place, but it got to a point where it was just constant pessimism and paranoia. Like one of those members handed a union pamphlet to somebody, and they later asked him about it: “Do you know anything about this union?” and he said, “No I don’t.” It just got ridiculous.

People being so secretive and constantly telling everyone to be hush-hush about it that it was scaring people away.

So we adopted strategy of being a lot bolder, and just realizing that our coworkers are not going to rat us out; they’re not snitches. And trusting our coworkers with what we could tell them.

Adam: What I would have done differently would have been spending more time trying to meet co-workers I didn’t already know instead of trying to convert apathetic co-workers who I had known through friend-groups for years prior.

You can never have too many 1-on-1 conversations with co-workers. Try to meet in a place where random strangers won’t be able to bother you.

Everyone should go to a 101. I don’t know if I want to be hardline about it, but it should be a Wobbly requirement for starting a committee. Had I gone to one before starting committee I could have saved myself a lot of time.

Tanya: You better damn believe I found it useful. I can’t remember the last time I felt so inspired. The IWW in general changed my life, gave me focus and a sense of purpose, the OT 101 taught me how to proceed, and what the next steps were. I felt that everything they taught us had value and application.

It’s easy to say you hate your job, hate your boss, but there becomes a point where you still need your job, and you have to balance playing their game with enforcing your change.

At our committee meetings, we’d stack [up] our individual issues, decide what to attack, how to attack it, plan actions, delegate tasks. It was true solidarity, and the only morale booster that CallUs had.

Marianne Garneau

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