Organizing the Precariat

In the Summer of 2009, I joined the approximately 4.4 million young people who were out of work and seeking a job during the Great Recession. Laid off from a paid organizing position working with renters and homeowners struggling with foreclosure, I was lucky enough to have an unemployment check to pay my student loans while I searched for work. During the fall I came into some luck - my friends who worked for a major Washington, D.C. non-profit call center said they could get me a job. I would once again have the chance to do meaningful work while being able to pay the bills. They told me there were some issues at the job around pay and treatment of workers, but I was ready for the challenge. As an anarchist, I believe in fighting where I stand - be it in the workplace, my home or my neighborhood - and I would be entering a hot workplace with a number of like-minded people.

What I encountered at the call center was similar to other nonprofits - an office filled with dedicated, capable young people who put up with low pay and no benefits in the name of making a difference. Most of the people I worked with were women in college or who had recently graduated. It's a high-stress job with a lot of second-hand emotional trauma from intense counseling with callers, low compensation, and lack of respect, which have all led to high turnover in the past. Like a number of non-profits I have worked for or observed, the supposedly social justice-oriented call center made a name for itself by providing a service to people in need, while throwing workers under the bus and in the process exploiting both the needy and the employee. Important work was provided on the cheap by committed people willing to forgo things like good pay and benefits, which resulted in burnout. The dismal condition of the job market had pushed more workers to hold on to their jobs, however, which in turn led to a stronger sense of community in the office. I became involved in the incipient organizing effort, mostly observing as several strong, amazing women put time and effort into laying the groundwork for a union campaign - researching, making contacts, mapping the office for who might be interested, and setting up meetings among those people. I would spend the next year alongside these inspiring women fighting for better wages, better working conditions, and dignity on the job.

Our preliminary organizing efforts, ranging from clandestine e-mails to workplace meetings, was initially met with indifference by the bosses. However, when workplace discontent was detected by management and did not rapidly disappear on its own, our demands were strangled by a massive management counteroffensive. The anti-union backlash took a number of forms; ultimately unhappy workers were sidelined or promoted, and part-timers crowded out in favor of salaried replacements. The previous sense of community was destroyed as workers were isolated and their hours disrupted by new, full-time hires. Strong organizers were lured to accept coveted promotions.to positions which gave them higher wages and kept them busy with new responsibilities. In the face of this restructuring, part-timers were left scrambling to keep their jobs.

There was a lot to be unhappy about for the staff at our call center. Wages for operators averaged between nine and 10 dollars an hour, and working forty hours a week was prohibited. These low wages and limited hours left many, including myself, qualifying for food stamps and Medicaid, and contending with D.C.’s extremely expensive housing market. Recent college graduates often have the added burden of paying student loans. All of these costs, combined with low pay, led more than a few to make the call center a second job while they worked elsewhere. Benefits were limited to case managers and others working full-time, and periodic six-month raises had recently been eliminated. Contrary to D.C. law, we were not receiving sick leave.

In a very unpopular move which further angered workers, management removed internet access from operators’ computers as collective punishment for one person’s supposed misuse. At the same time, case managers retained internet access, a clear double-standard in trust and respect for everyone working. A threat was then issued that “too much” talking with fellow workers on the job (call-related or otherwise) would be punished (an action which further proved that management was out of touch with the realities of working at a crisis call center). Other staff positions in the organization were well-compensated, and many of the people who held them were often dismissive or disrespectful towards operators.

Hierarchy was just as much present in the call center as any private organization, and there was a strong inequality between those who managed and those who worked. Changes on the hotline, big or small, were implemented with little or no consultation with employees. The manager of the hotline would waste staff time by using them as a sounding board for her personal issues, and case managers would have to fill in for her during frequent absences. The executive director ruled by decree - no matter how bad or petty her decisions were, she was accountable only to herself. She bragged about the hotline in public, but didn’t know the names of anyone who worked there, including the person who had worked there the longest. When discontent was voiced, management responded with either threats or pleas to cheer up.

As frustration levels for staff at the hotline continued to rise, staff operators held meetings  outside of work to talk about how to respond to the internet situation. Where workers felt unappreciated, we held get-togethers. Monthly trainings became accountability sessions for management. As our efforts gained momentum, pressure continued to build. After several months of organizing, our little impromptu committee was weighing whether to formalize and start a union drive in earnest. The decision to reach out to a union was not a simple one. Supporters of the decision argued that it would be the best way for us to have resources and support for our struggle. However, we encountered and experienced a certain amount of skepticism, pessimism, and most frequently ignorance about what a union would mean for the hotline. There was also hesitance to risk unionizing, understanding that we could lose our jobs if that word was connected with us. While these discussions were happening, however, we did not anticipate the coming reaction from management.

Faced with an office infected by “low morale,” the executive director and her cronies were now determined to kill the sickness through a form of management kindness. An official but anonymous survey was issued with the declared intent to figure out what workers were so unhappy about. Plenty of room was allowed for us to voice our concerns, with the eventual promise that the executive director would read them all. Action on some of the grievances was also implied, instilling some hope in previously disgruntled staffers. After a few weeks, management rolled out a laundry-list of changes culled from their survey. Some, such as restoring the internet and modest raises for operators, were intended to appease unhappy workers and smother discontent. Along with these incentives, however, was a restructuring plan which would replace most daytime hours for operators with salaried, full-time positions. Unhappy workers could either buy in or be squeezed out.

The organizing effort was effectively killed-off with this sort of kindness. Most of the organizing committee applied for and received promotions further up the hierarchy in the office. Operators who had remained after months of mistreatment began quitting or scaling back their hours. Now daytime hours are almost filled with full-time operators, all but two of whom have never worked there before. We now know that this is a common tactic among the anti-union industry - with analogies comparing organizers to mosquitoes, they suggest “draining the swamp” of workplace grievances and issues generating the organizing to kill the disease. It was bitterly ironic to those who knew that the same executive director who was using these tactics had been employed as a high level union organizer herself in her earlier career.

In spite of its failure, our effort to organize our workplace was worthwhile. The conditions on the hotline, combined with what we perceived as a critical mass of people interested in changing them, demanded we do something, and we responded to the call. While the failure of these efforts was due in large part to the boss and her actions, our own mistakes are important to note as well. One major issue we contended with was the high turnover in who was doing the organizing. What originated as regular six-10 person meetings of people who had worked in the office for a year or more became three-four person meetings of newer folks, including myself, as other people either left their jobs or, more often, fell away because they felt self-conscious about organizing while they were not in the worst positions at work. Case managers and assistant case managers wanted to step aside for operators to be in charge, but most made little effort to follow through besides not attending meetings. In addition, valid issues raised early on in the process around its lack of inclusiveness and leadership from people of color on the hotline were never fully addressed, and when they were raised many people reacted by pulling back from organizing altogether.

Furthermore, I don’t think we as a committee armed ourselves with enough knowledge or strategized enough about how to organize our workplace. The idea of an ‘organizer training’ had been discussed very early on, but for a number of reasons never came together. The people most involved in the organizing, myself included, were also slow and more than a little hesitant to expand that circle, in part because we didn’t know how and also because of the risk involved. Some of the basic organizing practices that we were encouraged to use - such as creating a formal list of e-mails and phone numbers - were done but not shared with our contact in the labor movement, thus creating difficulty in moving the process forward. I would also argue that we didn’t have enough guidance from the people we contacted in the labor movement. None of us had organized a workplace before, and while we were provided with a fair amount of knowledge about unions in general, more solid ideas of what organizing could have looked like as well as best practices used by successful campaigns would have been very helpful. A full or part-time organizer working with us on a regular basis may also have helped - not to do the organizing for us, but to check in with us and throw around ideas, make suggestions, etc.

Young workers get a rough deal in this economy. The skyrocketing cost of college has left many such as myself deeply in debt, and the well-paying jobs with which to pay it off are few and far between, demanding years of work experience or higher (and more expensive) degrees. Benefits are often shoddy or out of reach for entry-level positions such as those on the hotline, and job security is weak or nonexistent (I’ve worked three entry-level jobs in the three years since I graduated). This leaves many young people bouncing from job to job, and often either not invested enough in the job to want to change it for the better or so concerned about the idea of losing it that they don’t want to risk standing up against unfair conditions.

The nonprofit industrial complex is also at fault in many ways. In an economy where the remnants of the US welfare state are shrinking, nonprofits have increased both in number and size. They claim the responsibility of aiding the people who are losing in the economy, yet at the same time, funding to these organizations remains limited and the conditions for money are dictated by powerful foundations. An unfortunate reality of limited funding may mean limited wages and benefits for those working at an organization. However, as the situation on the hotline illustrates, nonprofits will often be just as unfair to their workers as their private sector counterparts. Caring, socially-minded young people attracted with the promise that their jobs will make a difference and be meaningful may put up with poor working conditions for years because they prioritize the work over themselves, and management uses this to its advantage. Meanwhile, executive directors and staff higher in the hierarchy will pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars, with full benefits packages on top.

How long will these temporary changes, rearrangements, and concessions that defeated organizing at the call center last? Part-time operators are still underpaid and lack benefits. There is now a greater presence of inequality, as people doing the same work get treated very differently. The culture of the hotline has been uprooted for the most part, and management remains unaccountable and free to do as they please. However, the restructured hotline is already deteriorating, as three full-timers have left in the past few months. Full-timer operator pay is higher than part-time, but not high enough for much retention of workers, and they feel the stress of unfair overtime rules. Even as many people have left and some of the more rebellious workers have advanced in the hierarchy, there are still workers there who participated in the struggle. The seeds of discontent remain, it’s a question of when they will surface again.

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This essay appear in Shareable's paperback Share or Die published by New Society, available from Amazon. Share or Die is also available for Kindle, iPad, and other e-readers.  For the next article in Share or Die, Mira Luna's "How to Start A Worker Co-op", click here.

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