Organising in financial call centres
2. Reaching call centre workers:
recruitment and organising
a) Management style and culture in call centres
Call centres originated in the United States, and management techniques from north America have been exported to the rest of the world along with the ACD technology. This means that, regardless of the country or the industrial sector, many call centres have the same attributes.
They include :
Trade unions need to mould their organising techniques and methods to fit with these characteristics of call centre life. This involves putting forward an image and message which is relevant to call centre workers, working in a highly structured but apparently informal working environment. Unions also need to bear in mind that many will be younger workers with no previous union experience. As one German union has warned, "Young workers often regard trade unions as overtaken by events and antiquated. They consider the unions have no solutions for the new conditions of customer-orientated service companies. Solutions from the industrial sector and union dispute settlement methods are considered inappropriate. Trade unions just disrupt flexible processes, it is felt". [Source: DPG (Germany) CI questionnaire, 1999.]
What are the problems met most frequently in terms of the unionisation of call centre workers?
[Source: FUPT CFDT (France), Communications International questionnaire, 1999]
The task of organising call centres, in fact, may raise broader questions for trade unions: their methods used for recruitment, their marketing techniques and image, the means of communicating with members and of servicing members needs, and also the effectiveness of their internal democratic life can all come in for scrutiny.
Put another way, this means that call centre organising can be important not just as a means of bringing non-unionised workers into the trade union movement, but also more fundamentally, as a way of helping unions to understand and redefine their role in the new information society of the twenty-first century.
Trade unions must put forward an image and message relevant to call centre workers, working in a highly structured but apparently informal working environment
b) Union representation and collective agreements
It is no coincidence that one British bank, Halifax plc, initially adopted the working name of greenfield for its new Internet banking subsidiary. The idea of establishing direct banking and insurance services as new operations, starting from scratch both in terms of premises and in terms of employment conditions, has been followed in several countries. All too often, this has meant that staff working in the associated call centres have poorer terms and conditions than those of their colleagues elsewhere in the parent company. This may mean less sick leave and holiday entitlement, poorer arrangements for working overtime or anti-social shifts, and less access to corporate pension schemes.
The green field mentality may also mean that, even where trade unions are recognised elsewhere in a company, they may not be recognised in call centres.
In each of the above cases, as we shall see, unions have had to organise to reassert their voice.
A further issue is the trend in some countries away from collective bargaining towards the use of individual contracts. This development fits well with the management style and work culture of call centres. It individualises the nature of the relationship between employer and employee and offers an extra challenge to the task of trade unions in organising these workplaces.
Fortunately, these problematic developments are not the case everywhere. In France, the Fédération des Employés et Cadres (FEC-FO) has reported: "Phone banks are not generally made subsidiaries and the employees enjoy the same advantages as their bank colleagues". [Source: FIET Annual bank and insurance trade section meeting, 10-12 May 1999, collective bargaining reports]. Similarly, in Scandinavia generally employees working in direct banking operations and call centres are satisfactorily incorporated within existing negotiated bank terms and conditions.
Call centre workers in the banking and finance sector should enjoy the same conditions of service and benefits as their colleagues working in more traditional areas of the industry.
c) Putting resources into call centre organisation
In a number of countries trade unions have undertaken specific initiatives and campaigns around call centre organisation.
Perhaps the most ambitious initiative yet undertaken was that of the Call Centre Action Day, organised for 4th November 1999 jointly by FIET and Communications International, prior to their merger into UNI. Recruitment leaflet templates were made available on the Internet to be adapted for individual national use. Leafleting of call centres was reported from many countries, including Australia, Sweden, Ireland, UK, Germany and France.
Trade unions should put resources into recruiting and organising staff in call centres
UNI should consider repeating the joint FIET/Communications International call centre campaign of 1999
d) Finding the right way to reach potential members
The experience of trade unions who have tried organising in call centres suggests that a carefully planned recruitment strategy, executed with close and indeed almost military attention to detail, is likely to be much more successful than a more ad-hoc approach.
Clearly there are more opportunities if the union is given the chance by the employer to talk direct to employees. One of the most effective ways of recruiting call centre staff is to have union access to new employees during their induction training, and this should be negotiated as part of a union recognition agreement. However, even if this sort of facility is granted, the time available is likely to be very limited and needs to be used to the full.
In the UK, MSFs recognition by the large life and general insurance company CGU gave the union access to staff at the call centre in Bishopsbrigg, Scotland. MSF chose to use drama to push home its message.
It is more likely, however, that the union will find itself kept firmly outside the call centre building.
In Ireland, the experience of the Irish Bank Officials Association (IBOA) in organising at AIBs 24-hour direct banking subsidiary demonstrates how a determined approach to recruitment can pay dividends.
The IBOA was one of many UNI affiliates to use the FIET/CI Call Centre Day of Action initiative in November 1999 to leaflet call centre staff at their workplaces. However, this perhaps the oldest trade union method of recruitment is not necessarily as easy as it was in the past. Many call centres are located on private industrial estates, and staff often arrive and leave by car from secure car parks. Both the IBOA and Unifi (in the UK) report problems with security guards or police when attempting to leaflet particular sites.
In Britain, the Trades Union Congress (TUC)s New Unionism project has identified call centres as an important target. A range of tactics have been identified for reaching call centre staff, including arranging for union recruiters to be employed under cover in target sites. The New Unionism approach is highly structured, involving among other things a detailed mapping the workplace exercise where each employees name and workstation is identified on a map. In a technique reminiscent of traditional election canvassing in Britain, each individuals likely sympathy towards a union is formally recorded, on a scale from 1-4.
The call centre work culture is one where informality, flexibility and teamwork are stressed by management. Not every company goes as far in terms of jokey rituals as the call centre where (according to one report) the team leader was expected to stand up and shout out sausages each time a sale was made whilst colleagues undertook a celebratory Mexican wave of the sort normally seen at football stadiums. [Source: An assembly line in the head: work and employee relations in the call centre, Phil Taylor and Peter Bain].
Nevertheless, unions may be more successful in organising call centre staff if they also are prepared to adopt some of the same tactics as management.
This was the approach adopted, for example, when the British union BIFU (now Unifi) was attempting to recruit workers at First Direct. A conference room was set up with a video, information about the union, a quiz and free gifts, such as biros, balloons and rulers.
Where possible, unions should seek access to new staff during their induction training.
Recruitment campaigns are more likely to succeed when planned and executed with attention to detail. Campaigning techniques can be borrowed from management techniques in call centres.
e) Using the opportunities of new technology
Unions in a number of countries are attempting to use new on-line means of communication to talk directly to call centre staff.
The potential importance for unions of using electronic means of communication as a way of accessing members and would-be members led FIET to launch an on-line rights for on-line workers campaign in 1998. The campaign, which is continuing under UNI, has as two of its demands:
-. The right of free access by employees and by trade unions and works councils to corporate e-mail systems, so that employee members can receive information and communicate with their representatives.
- The right of free access to the Internet (and to corporate intranet networks) by employees, to enable them to access trade union web sites and other information relevant to their rights at work.
Nevertheless (and ironically given that call centre workers spend their working days using information and communications technology) the disciplined nature of call centre life does not necessarily mean that staff have easy access to email at work. The freedom to access the Internet is likely to be even more limited.
Another option made possible by technology is to reach call centre staff by setting up hotlines using call centres!
Unions should maximise the possibilities of new technology for recruitment and organising purposes
f) Using industrial action
More traditional forms of industrial action may also be necessary.
Citibank has been accused by the unions of adopting wild west methods of industrial relations at the plant. "Citibank managers see unions, collective agreements and social security of staff as the devils handiwork," said one local union secretary. Duisburg is a large call centre which employs around 800 staff, and its opening coincided with the closure of several other back offices and call centres run by Citibank elsewhere in Germany, affecting more than a thousand workers. Unions point out that the bank sought incentives of 7.2 million Deutsche Mark ($3.7m) from the state of Nordrheinland-Westphalia to create these jobs.
The bank has retaliated to union action by sacking staff who participated in strike action. The union response has been to campaign for their reinstatement and for a pay agreement for the Duisburg staff, to encourage supporters to send postcards of protest to the company and to call for a boycott of the company. UNI has also offered international support for the union campaign.
The strike quickly led to an agreement with the company, in which BT pledged to develop a model of best practice for the call centre industry, to reduce its use of agency staff, to adopt a stress management programme and to revise staff performance criteria.
More traditional forms of industrial action may also be necessary when campaigning for better conditions in call centres
g) Organising of call centre workers some concluding comments
The degree of union membership found in call centres varies considerably, not just between countries but also within the same countries. Indeed there can sometimes be marked contrasts between well-organised and poorly-organised call centres within the same company.
This should encourage us not to fall prey to easy generalisations. As we saw above, there are particular features of call centre life which can appear to mitigate against strong levels of union organisation: management style, the use of part-time and/or agency workers, the numbers of young workers, and so on. However, in practice the picture is more complex.
As the academic writers Philip Taylor and Peter Bain point out, call centres may also employ sizeable numbers of workers who have previously worked in other occupations, where they have been union members. Taylor and Bain surveyed 345 employees at six financial call centres in the United Kingdom. They write, "When one considers both the composition of the workforce and the extent of trade union membership, there appears to be an interesting polarity. These are largely female workforces, composed on the one hand of many young workers with little if any employment history and who, if they join the union, are doing so for the first time. On the other hand, there are sizeable cohorts of more experienced workers with a trade union past. Such a profile contradicts the oft-used Generation X stereotype of the call centre worker. This crude caricature portrays the call centre workforce as composed wholly of young workers who are individualised, atomised and antipathetic to trade unionism." [Trade Unions and Call Centre Survey, Philip Taylor and Peter Bain for Finance Sector Unions, 2000]
Finally, the power of the call centre management culture, with its stress on teamwork and flexibility, informality and an absence of hierarchy, can also be overstressed. It should not be assumed that staff automatically buy in to this ideology. Nor does everyone like the rituals: the call centre management which went in for Mexican waves and shouts of sausages has now changed its practice, after facing concerted ridicule from staff.