Publisher’s Preface: Approximately 600 people work in a Call Center in Asheville, NC, operated by Sitel. Last Thanksgiving, 57 (mostly female) workers signed a petition asking management to address a shortage of toilets. Response was unsatisfactory, and a month later, these workers asked the IBEW help. Suddenly and swiftly, the company reacted with an extreme anti-Union campaign. Obviously, their goal is to remain “Union-Free”! We ask that everybody who reads these tales find a way to show their support for these brave workers. They NEED our help! If those most severely abused by owners call out for help. and we fail to provide it , we are signaling our own demise! Please read and ACT!
Mark E. Andersen, Contributing Writer, Daily Kos Labor and WCH contributor.
In many ways call centers are the sweatshops of the modern era. Workers in one Asheville, North Carolina call center are trying to organize; however, company officials at Sitel, which runs the call center, are making it difficult for workers to join a union.
Meetings at Sitel normally consist of teams or rows of employees who had a work relationship that at the minimum consisted of knowing and being familiar with one another based on seating arrangements. Group bonding is a well employed dynamic at Sitel and all new hires attend orientation together and are then seated near each other for training purposes. But now, I’m told, workers are being called to meetings that are not consistent with normal procedures:
There was no introduction of employees to one another. One employee prefaced her comments by saying “You can all guess that I am anti-union.”
Another employee stated “We have very good benefits here.” she went on to describe an anecdotal event where she claimed that her medical problems were overwhelming. This employee said that between Medicare and Sitel’s benefits, she did not have to pay much out of pocket. The supervisor then asked the room “You all do know that Sitel pays a portion of your medical bills, don’t you?”
I just want to point out that this employee seems oblivious to the fact that Sitel’s benefits are not that good, as Medicare is required to cover what Sitel’s benefits do not cover. What would this employee have done had she not had access to Medicare? Sitel’s benefits evidently would not have covered her medical expenses.
My sources stated that before this meeting there was an alleged whisper campaign that if a union moved in the site would be closed. In the meeting:
The supervisor in the meeting made sure that when an employee spoke the words “[Sitel] would close down,” she would state, “I never said that.” However, what she would say was, “[I]f there was a strike we wouldn’t have enough people on the phone to meet service levels and we could lose accounts.” And, “[I]f we were forced to raise wages we could not remain competitive in the market and would not be able to win any new accounts to service.”
Site closing is strongly implied.
In my first post about the issues at Sitel, the source article stated that there was only one bathroom for 150–200 women. A Sitel worker explains that the real issue is not that there is only one bathroom:
“[T]here is more than one restroom [in the building] for women. The issue is that a number of women work on that end of the building and it is about 150-200 feet to the restroom. [A number of] women are physically challenged and [are unable to] walk that far. You only get a few minutes to [use the restroom] anyway or the “floor walkers” will actually come looking for you and tell you to get back on the phone. There are a few major “central” computers where every action taken by every employee is digitally recorded – I am told all manner of bells and whistles go off automatically should any individual exceed the allotted time for breaks, hold time, talk time or computer work in “after call” time.”
According to John Murphy, the IBEW Region 2 Organizing Coordinator, the issue at Sitel is one of human rights and dignity—anti-union forces at the company have warned employees that just visiting the website Callcenterunion.org could mean that they have joined the IBEW.
Callcenterunion.org is a site that only provides information to Sitel workers who want to organize.
Sitel employees in North Carolina have a long road to unionization; however, contrary to popular belief, even though North Carolina is a “right to work” state the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) still applies:
Under the NLRA, you have the right to:
- Organize a union to negotiate with your employer concerning your wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
- Form, join or assist a union.
- Bargain collectively through representatives of employees’ own choosing for a contract with your employer setting your wages,benefits, hours, and other working conditions.
- Discuss your wages and benefits and other terms and conditions of employment or union organizing with your co-workers or a union.
- Take action with one or more co-workers to improve your working conditions by, among other means, raising work-related complaints directly with your employer or with a government agency, and seeking help from a union.
- Strike and picket, depending on the purpose or means of the strike or the picketing.
- Choose not to do any of these activities, including joining or remaining a member of a union.
Under the NLRA, it is illegal for your employer to:
- Prohibit you from talking about or soliciting for a union during non-work time, such as before or after work or during break times; or from distributing union literature during non-work time, in non-work areas, such as parking lots or break rooms.
- Question you about your union support or activities in a manner that discourages you from engaging in that activity.
- Fire, demote, or transfer you, or reduce your hours or change your shift, or otherwise take adverse action against you, or threaten to take any of these actions, because you join or support a union, or because you engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection, or because you choose not to engage in any such activity.
- Threaten to close your workplace if workers choose a union to represent them.
Promise or grant promotions, pay raises, or other benefits to discourage or encourage union support.
- Prohibit you from wearing union hats, buttons, t-shirts, and pins in the workplace except under special circumstances.
- Spy on or videotape peaceful union activities and gatherings or pretend to do so.
I want to revisit what John Murphy said: This is about human rights and dignity.
No one should have to put up with being chased down for having a long bathroom break and everyone should have the right to organize without interference.
An update from someone who knows NC labor law:
No break or lunch is required under law except if a minor under the age of 17 works over 6 1/2 hours, he or she must record 1/2 hour lunch break by law.
OSHA rules are circumvented because there is another restroom albeit a football field’s length away.
Also: at Sitel your personal metrics dictate raises and advancement.
I have written a couple of diaries about the attempts to unionize a Sitel call center in Asheville, North Carolina. Over the weekend I received word that Sitel’s anti-union activities have chilled attempts to organize.
Management at the Asheville location has allegedly spread lie after lie about union organization, including telling employees that signing a petition for more accessible bathrooms equals joining a union. Some employees that signed the bathroom petition have apologized for signing it in Sitel’s anti-union meetings. In one case an employee was so upset that she sent a registered letter to the National Labor Relations Board asking that her name be stricken from the union roles—she would not believe other employees who had told her that signing a petition did not and could not equate to union membership.
Sitel held a site wide meeting last week in which they announced that they would be moving 70 jobs to another site:
[T]he company announced it was “sending 70 jobs to another site” ostensibly, because we are “at capacity.” This may in fact be true or the plan may have been in the works awhile, but the dead silence following the announcement leads one to conclude the timing of the release of this information was calculated to throw further terror into those who are worried about losing their jobs when the union comes in. When people have so very little, the threat of losing even what they DO have is profound. Sitel has declared psychologial warfare on its employees.
Some things have improved at this particular Sitel site since the push to unionize began. All the clocks now keep the same time, all of the computers in the relaxation room work and there are now enough handicapped parking spaces for all those that need them.
Friday was “Broke Friday”: that Friday that comes between our regular two week paydays. We had a little diversion when several of us called out the sum total of money we had to subsist on for yet another week: The average came out to around $30.00.
The food truck; “Eddie’s Hot Dogs”, never comes on Broke Friday. He knows no one has any cash. Food is a luxury to some of us and I watch people go hungry, sipping cold water slowly or smoking more than usual to curb their appetities. Others bum enough change from enough people to make a run to the vending machine for a pack of crackers. The lucky ones who work at it all morning, can accumulate the necessary $2.50 to buy something from the vending machine we call “The Wheel of Death” due to its assortment of cold cheese sandwiches and other fare which. though we cannot prove it, seem to remain in their slots until gone…however long that may be, and there is never a fresh date on any of the packages.
People struggling to scrape $2.50 together for a vending machine sandwich while Sitel grosses in the neighborhood of $1.3 billion a year, with around 55,000 employees. This means that, if I did the math right, Sitel grossed, on average, $24,000 per employee given an average wage of $16,500 per year.
Keep in mind that Sitel does not manufacture a product. People are the commodity and the cheaper that commodity can be obtained, the greater the profit. Sitel netted, on average (not taking into account how much management makes), $7500 per employee last year or a gross return of $412.5 million in profit. Employees make $8.00 an hour and management won’t spend the cash to fix a bathroom. People are treated like cattle being fattened up for slaughter—they are nothing more than a number on a spreadsheet to Sitel.
Talk of a union seems awkward now, even a bit painful, the light has gone from the eyes of those who once held a faint spark that maybe, just maybe, they might get a say in their own financial future. Still some wink and smile as if to say “we sure did give them a hell of a run.’, then stub their cigarette at the half way mark, drop it in a shirt pocket and hit the phones.
The initial ranks of union organizers at Sitel in Asheville have dwindled substantially; many through the promise of promotion while others just cannot take the constant pressure and fear of being unemployed. The remaining organizers are not done yet—currently they are working with the local Occupy movement to do a flier campaign. There are also a large number of young people at Sitel and organizers hope that a third party who has credibility might be able to better get the word out.
I have said it before and I will say it again—Unions need to do a better job of educating people about who they are and what they do. We have allowed the right to frame unions for too long and that is exactly why Sitel’s tactics are working. Fear and intimidation will work every time when people do not know their rights.
Publisher’s Parting Shots! This story has received some press attention; as it well should have. After months of organizing efforts, local & national media & internet exposure, these people are no closer to safety. The only redeeming value here is that the “Bush-era” NLRB would’ve turned their backs entirely. With the help of the IBEW, a “worker-caring” NLRB, and a handful of VERY, Brave WORKERS, they persevere. Time goes on, corporate greed knows no bounds. Have you done anything to help these folks ? Please do! for more info & background, see these helpful sites:
and “LIKE” their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Organize-Sitel-Asheville/155407664576975?ref=ts