Call Center/Wikimedia Commons

Last Thursday in downtown D.C. I joined a large crowd of union members from Communications Workers of America–members of many other unions were there, too, in solidarity. And, after 45,000 workers had been in strike for two weeks, on Saturday, as reported by Steve Greenhouse in the NYTimes, things changed a little bit:

Leaders of the unions that have been on strike against Verizon Communications announced on Saturday that they were ending the walkout even though the two sides had not reached an overall settlement for a new contract.

For now, no more picket lines. Workers start back tonight (evening shift) under their old contract. Reports say the negotiations will continue to be contentious. At the picket line I listened to speakers who focused attention on the experience of call center workers and some of their concerns.

Unless you are a customer service or call center worker yourself, there are a few things you might not know about the job, but they will help you put the Verizon strike into focus. And might help you recognize how punitive, short-sighted, and, well, disgusting, the stance of Verizon towards its own workers is.

Call center work is very stressful. I’m not talking about the stress workers experience from occasionally cranky, impatient, or rude callers. As my sister-in-law Shannon says, they call it “work” for a reason. But call center work has become like an “electronic assembly line” complete with extensive digital surveillance, monitoring, and measurement–especially measurement of those things that are easy to measure. Workers are scheduled literally every second of their work day, with very tight bench marks for how long they are staying on a call, their sales quotas, et c.

The dilemma is well described on a “working at Verizon” Jobitorial website. A worker in Tennessee writes,

My main complaint with the company is that there is no fine line between customer service and performance measures. You can’t help a customer when you have too keep calls a certain length every time so that you can meet your calls per hour, and working in financial services, you have to collect money on the account too.

What’s harder to measure are things like stress response–but these conditions produce stress responses like illness and excessive turnover–which influences bottom line and, dare I say it?, quality of life.

Ten years ago the Verizon workers’ union, the Communications Workers of America, negotiated a stress reduction package to create a “win-win” solution around the high-cost of stressed out working conditions. To reduce stress, workers were guaranteed up to 30 minutes per day to follow up on paperwork and to call back customers over their open cases. Workers and the company both feel better when they are empowered to deliver good quality service for the company. If a worker was doing her job well, she was guaranteed a limit to how frequently her calls were monitored.

There are many more details to the stress reduction package, but you get the picture. The stress reduction package was negotiated based on the premise that workers who are less stressed are more productive. Productivity numbers aren’t available, but the rate of turnover in non-union call centers is 100 percent; the rate at stress-reduced call centers is much, much lower, per CWA research economist Debbie Goldman. And company profitability has been outstanding (see below).

These are a few examples of the one hundred items that Verizon has sought to strike from the Verizon workers’ contracts. There’s no rationale, no discussion provided.

I focus on the scenario for the call-center workers today because these workers are disproportionately women–68 percent according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. These workers have limits on mandatory overtime (that is, when an employer unilaterally requires extra work hours)–absolute limits, but also the right to say no when they have a family reason–things like childcare or elder care responsibilities. Verizon wants to rescind these limits. The CWA had previously negotiated the ability of people to take personal time off for a few hours, such as when a child is sick; this too is on the chopping block. Don’t even ask about health insurance or leave policy.

On August 19 the CWA released a statement: “A recent analysis by Morgan Stanley shows that Verizon’s net income from ongoing operations was $13.9 billion in 2010. That’s up more than 16 percent from 2007.” They asked “Then why is this very profitable company demanding cuts in compensation of $20,000 per worker per year?”

So, yet another case of corporate greed. That’s disgusting. But going down the list of demands from Verizon, the cuts to quality of life, stress reduction, and just simple, professional respect for workers, that is not just disgusting, it is shameful.

To support these workers, go to Verizon Strike Donation site.

-Virginia Rutter