[Forthcoming in WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society Volume 11, Number 3, September, 2008.]
"Block hiked back to the city but wasn’t doing well.
He said ‘I’ll join the union, the great AF of L.’
He got a job that morning, got fired by the night
He said, ‘I’ll see Sam Gompers and he’ll fix that foreman right!’
Sam Gompers said, ‘You see, you’ve got our sympathy.’
–From the lyrics to "Mr. Block" by Joe Hill.
In early June, I found myself in San Juan, Puerto Rico, awaiting a vote by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) about whether to expand its current experiment with call center servicing. On the eve of SEIU’s 2008 convention, President Andy Stern told The New York Times: "We have a 1930′s teletype model of representation in the 21st century world. You can Google almost anything. But then you call your local union office and you have to push 1 or 2 and then you can’t find someone who speaks the language you speak." To remedy this problem-real enough even to many English-speakers trying to reach a sympathetic union ear-the Stern administration proposed the following:
"During 2008 and 2009, we will work together to evaluate, test, and pilot member resource centers (MRCs). We will determine the most effective and efficient manner in which to implement MRCs and to provide high quality member representation…. across the union.
"By 2012, a majority of members will have 24/7 access to quality information and services from member resource centers….MRCs will meet union-wide standards for cost, quality of service to members, ease of access, multiple language capability, support available to member leaders and staff, and quality of data to support SEIU programs and strategies." (1)
Prior to their vote on Resolution 204, all 2,000 delegates were encouraged to "experience" the "Member Resource Center" themselves. A clever invitation was distributed (in English and Spanish) on a pink telephone message slip, which asked: " Are you tired of talking to machines? Leaving voice mail messages? Getting put on hold? Visit the MRC exhibit to find out how SEIU locals can improve member service and support stewards and other member activists." Those who inspected the roomful of call center equipment on display became eligible for a prize-"just for visiting"-and could put on head phones to hear a sample exchange between a caller and a union staffer. Computer screens displayed the kind of contract information that call center workers will have at their disposal to better handle individual queries (while updating a local’s membership data base).
Delegates were also given a glossy 30-page report entitled, "The Union of the Future: Membership Action and Leadership to Win for Working People." This document is the "report and recommendations" of a fifteen-member SEIU committee, chaired by Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, that conducted a three-year inquiry into "local union strength."
During its study, the Burger panel was aided both by union advisors and a number of CEOs, corporate consultants, pollsters, and business school professors (from the Boston Consulting Group, the Beneson Strategy Group, X2 Technology, QB International, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and Peter Hart Research.) To "take a deeper look" at "the member experience across SEIU"-and the concerns of its servicing staff–Burger’s committee also contracted with a Palo Alto, California-based firm called IDEO. The latter is "a world leader in innovation and design…known for working on products such as the Macintosh mouse and the Palm pilot."
The resulting committee report includes a section on the "near- death experience" of unions in Australia. There, anti-labor governments in power prior to last year introduced draconian legislation to curtail collective bargaining, dues check-off, and union density. "The combined effect of the conservative attack was that many unions lost half their membership within a very short time period." As part of their come-back strategy, the Aussies-according to SEIU-"reorganized representation using modern call center technology" so workers with a weakened shop-floor union presence could call "a central location for critical information and to file grievances." This new technology, in turn, enabled their unions to develop "improved member lists" and an "outgoing call" capacity which facilitated "better service, accountability, and consistent handling of worksite problems."
Aided by "experienced Australian union staff," SEIU’s California public sector locals began partnering with the International union in 2006 "to create the largest most technologically advanced MRC yet." By the San Juan convention, it was projected that this Pasadena facility would "be serving more than 200,000 members from California locals 221, 721, 521, and 1021." What do these workers think of their new MRC so far? The "Union of the Future" report references a "member survey" conducted in April, 2008, the results of which supposedly "speak for themselves." On page 19 of the Burger report, there is a boxed summary of those results, with no supporting data and not even a footnote about the size of the sample or who questioned members about their level of customer "satisfaction." Nevertheless, it shows that 94 to 96 percent of all respondents "agree" with a series of positive statements about the quality of MRC access in Pasadena, its information provision, follow-up contacts, fulfillment of grievant expectations, and user willingness to refer co-workers to the center.
As with everything else proposed by Stern and Berger at SEIU’s 2008 convention, the "ayes" prevailed when call center servicing came up for a vote on Tuesday, June 3. As their approved plan is further implemented, the 500,000 dues-payers "already served by a member resource center" nationwide will include many more. But Resolution 204 didn’t pass without strenuous objections, on the convention floor and off, from a minority of delegates critical of the idea. As United Healthcare Workers (UHW) delegate Leslie Harding, a Kaiser HMO surgical technologist from Redwood City, California, wrote in her local’s daily convention blog: "I never dreamed I’d see my own union imitate credit card companies, the IRS, and major insurers and try to turn us into ‘dial a union.’ Having a union is supposed to help us stand up to management, not just give us the ability to pick up a phone and call a 1-800 number. A union is not about long-distance representation from someone who’s never set foot in your work-place, who doesn’t know you or your manager, and who doesn’t have any understanding of what goes on where you work."
At a UHW press briefing one day before the MRC vote, delegate Michael Fenison-a relatively new member of SEIU from a hospital in Inglewood,CA.-raised a process objection as well. He noted that SEIU’s call centers aren’t really being introduced "on a trial basis for the next two years." According to Fenison, "this resolution  is being forced down our throat….We’re going to get call centers whether they work or not."
If You Have A Job Problem, Don’t Let Your Fingers Do The Walking
Even before hearing and agreeing with the losing side of this debate in San Juan, I must admit to being a call center skeptic myself. This is not because of any great personal attachment to the dominant "model of representation" during the last century. Labor’s ‘teletype"-era methods have, after all, mainly involved routine and increasingly "professionalized" individual case-handling, rather than creative, militant direct action on the job. Nor is my problem with MRC’s merely an allergic reaction to their purple packaging (ie the slick "new product roll-out" by Brother Stern in San Juan–although, in truth, that wasn’t very confidence-inspiring either). Instead, my concerns are based on considerable experience dealing with the very entity that SEIU has so fervently embraced. As an organizer, grievance-handler, or negotiator for the Communications Workers of American (CWA) for 27 years, I’ve spent a lot of time in call centers, supporting unionized workers in their daily jousting with management about "service quality" and all the factors that affect it (like work organization and scheduling; training and equipment; coaching, monitoring, and the content of scripts; performance standards and productivity incentives; and even caller access to "foreign language queues.")
As suggested by the list of resource people in the aforementioned "Union of the Future" report, SEIU’s call center pilot programs and big plans for their expansion seem very corporate-inspired. So I can’t help wondering whether SEIU staffers would be quite as enthusiastic about the wonderful world of call centers if they’d spent as much time as I have, over the years, listening to the inflated service quality claims of companies like Verizon, which have a much bigger "customer base" than SEIU (not to mention far more operational experience servicing it over the phone). In CWA, there can be considerable interplay between habits of work formed in the "21st century" environment of telecom call centers and how a local union composed of customer service reps services its own members. To wit, I offer the cautionary (and instructive) tale of CWA Local 1400:
This local was born (via an NLRB vote) in 1980, with just 150 members at three New England Tel residential customer service centers in New Hampshire. Thanks to a strike-backed "bargaining to organize" campaign two decades ago, the local achieved, in 1994, a ten-fold increase in size within NYNEX, the company now known as Verizon. (2) By 2003, Local 1400 had more than 1,800 dues-payers spread out over four-states in a dozen Verizon call centers ranging in size from 50 to 500 workers. (It has since recruited additional members in wireless retail stores operated by AT&T Mobility). Unfortunately, under Local 1400′s increasingly domineering 20-year president, its steward system atrophied badly. Critical information was hoarded among the four full-time officers who worked out of a small rented office in New Hampshire, where grievance handling was tightly controlled. The top leadership had failed to recruit, train, and maintain a multi-location network of stewards and chief stewards. Rank-and-filers were not involved, to the degree they should have been, in the presentation of grievances. As a result, some stewards quit in frustration or disgust, while others felt ill-equipped to answer questions about the contract or handle the day-to-day problems of their co-workers.
As CWA’s shop floor presence diminished, more members with a question or problem-being customer service reps on the phone all day themselves-began to pick up the phone and call the local’s own 800 number. Throughout 1400, the habit of dealing directly with one of its four officers-or, more often just the president herself–began to spread. As the volume of calls to its de facto "call center" increased, more and more requests for help or information didn’t get answered in timely fashion, or at all. As the longtime international rep assigned to the local, I began to get more of its "over-flow calls," to use Verizon jargon. Members called my CWA District 1 office in Massachusetts to determine the status of their backlogged grievances or arbitration appeals, hardship transfer requests, missing FMLA paperwork, or other matters. And none were very happy about the poor customer service they had received, while "in queue," after placing previous calls to the local.
This membership dissatisfaction became a deciding factor in the politics of the local in early 2003-during a hotly contested leadership election (that involved a D-1 supervised re-run because the first vote was stolen). 1400′s incumbent president was ousted, along with key allies who supported her approach. At my urging, one of the first things the new officers of the local did when they took over was to re-establish and strengthen the local’s workplace steward network. This required recruiting and training new stewards, making sure they knew the contract and giving them the chance to enhance their skills and self-confidence by participating in worksite-level labor-management meetings. The local’s rank-and-file executive board-previously underutilized in the grievance procedure-was redeployed to do more contract enforcement work alongside the stewards and elected chief stewards. A new system was developed to keep members better informed about the status of their grievances at each step of the process. For the first time in the local’s history, grievants themselves were invited to participate in all three pre-arbitation steps of the procedure to help present their own cases (a change in the local’s MO that was particularly upsetting to VZ labor relations personnel).
Workplace activists began to get a steady flow of information about their legal and contract rights. For the first time, CWA’s internal organizing bible-"Mobilizing For Power"-was put in the hands of any member who wanted a copy. That frequently updated 54-page guide opens with the following news flash about the "servicing model" of unionism:
"CWA, like most unions, was organized on the basis of
member involvement. Fundamentally, a union’s power
at any point in time is nothing more than the total energy
and support of its members who can be mobilized.
"The basic premise of mobilization is that we must return to our roots and commit to a strategy that rests on increasing our power through membership education and involvement.
We have become too reliant on the crafty union negotiator, the clever chief steward, and the experienced local president to solve our problems.
We can no longer solely rely on grievances, arbitrations or labor laws to achieve workplace justice." (3)
The newly-elected 1400 leaders did not hide out in the local’s office, as their predecessors had done during the waning days of the old regime. Instead, they became highly visible and accessible to the membership by making frequent workplace visits to lay the groundwork for contract campaign activity related to 2003 regional bargaining with VZ, covering 75,000 workers from Maine to Virginia. (One building block of that campaign was a communications network, based on members’ home email addresses that had to be systematically collected in workplaces by stewards signing co-workers up to become recipients of regular Unity@Verizon bulletins). Union sticker-wearing, group grievance-filing, informational picketing, and other displays of workplace solidarity (like wearing red every Thursday) also became the order of the day. When local bargaining started, the 1400 committee was expanded to include board members, as well as officers. And, for the first time in the local’s 23-year history, working members were also invited to attend the negotiations as observers, on their own time.
But, at every call center the new officers visited, the message was the same: "Don’t call the local when you have a problem-go to your steward first." The local’s four elected full-timers (plus their experienced secretary) continued to get plenty of calls, of course-but not as many from members directly. Far more of their phone conversations were now with stewards, chief stewards, and Local 1400 V-Ps calling on a member’s behalf for information or advice about how they should be handling that person’s problem themselves. As this process of re-education and restructuring continued, the local’s old dysfunctional division of labor was gradually replaced by a new and more effective one. For contract enforcement and membership mobilization purposes in 2003, Local 1400 now had 75 to 100 newly-empowered workplace activists to deploy, most of whom had previously felt sidelined and even alienated from the union. (Some even got very excited about and involved in a 2004 SEIU project, the short-lived Democratic presidential primary campaign of Howard Dean.) When reformers took over the local in 2003, they–as trained, experienced customer service reps themselves–could easily have continued the de facto call center servicing arrangement they inherited at Local 1400. They certainly would have handled its "call volumes" in more competent, diligent, and enthusiastic fashion than their jaded predecessors. Instead, the leadership a created a strong local detachment of what CWA calls its "stewards army"-which, for several years, injected new life into 1400 on the shop floor. (4)
SEIU’s Rationale For MRC-Based Servicing
Now, any official supporter of MRC’s in SEIU is likely to have several reactions to-and objections to the relevance of-the case study above. First, they would probably be very dismissive of the idea of even having a local with less than two thousand members. In the SEIU worldview, that’s clearly not the kind of "scale" necessary to support massive new organizing and more successful political action. Structurally, smallness lends itself to a myopic and self-defeating preoccupation with "local union interests"–ie the workplace problems of "just us." As SEIU organizer and IEB member Stephen Lerner explained in a recent MRzine exchange, the "Justice For All" program adopted in Puerto Rico further shifts the union’s focus away from "servicing and defending remaining islands of unionization. According to Lerner, "the most radical development from the SEIU convention is that delegates overwhelmingly voted to commit SEIU to changing the world, not just their worksites."
SEIU strategists might also question why CWA restricts itself to a talent pool of elected local leaders drawn primarily from the rank-and-file. After all, ordinary Verizon customer service reps-like SEIU-represented janitors, security guards, hospital and home care workers-may not be up to the task of running, by themselves, even a "small" local, much less creating a "21st Century" union. In SEIU today, there are statewide and multi-state "locals" with as many as 80,000 to 300,000 workers-bigger, in fact, than many national unions in the AFL-CIO. These affiliates tend to be run-for better or worse, depending on your point of view-in staff-dominated fashion. And 1.7 million member SEIU has led the way in recruiting former community organizers, campus activists, labor relations program grads, political operatives, and organizers from other unions to serve as staff members. Increasingly-as was evident at the SEIU convention–even the top elected leadership in many of its locals is not drawn from the working membership and, instead, often fits the demographics of the outside hires. These new recruits have been installed as local leaders after varying degrees of time on the union payroll as organizers, researchers, or reps-but sometimes only as little as several years. Frequent International union trusteeships, on-going local mergers, and membership transfers due to jurisdictional realignments (and/or the creation of new local franchises for headquarters favorites) have created many opportunities for upward mobility among the "best and brightest" in SEIU. (5)
The union’s increasingly centralized organizational structure and "new class" of highly mobile, professional managers are much applauded in left-liberal political circles, plus parts of the business press. Both are viewed as critical components of what Stern calls "a culture of success"-rarely found anywhere else in today’s labor movement. But even fans of the "SEIU model" for increasing union "density" and "market share" would have admit that the traditional mechanism for expressing rank-and-file dissatisfaction with the quality of day-to-day servicing-or contract bargaining outcomes-is, as a practical matter, not really available to mega-local members. Once their local union gets beyond a certain geographical scale and membership size, SEIU incumbents are fixed for life (unless challenged perhaps by a fellow officer or staff member or they, like UHW President Sal Rosselli, become foes of Stern). Certainly, the kind of rank-and-file reform campaign mounted successfully in 2003 by disgruntled working members of CWA Local 1400 would be hard to replicate in, say, 300,000-member United Healthcare East, the former NYC-based District 1199/SEIU, which now extends from Buffalo to Boston and all the way down to Baltimore.
In such mega-locals, not only are there no "general membership" meetings to attend-in any traditional sense of the term-where local-wide leaders can be questioned and like-minded co-workers rallied to the cause of holding the officialdom accountable. Hundreds of thousands of SEIU’s newest members are also home-based workers who labor in non-traditional workplaces. There, they have far less immediate access to a steward (or co-worker of any type) than workers in the cubicle-filled world of a CWA call center or a state government office represented by SEIU.
So among the rationales for SEIU’s shift to call center servicing is the challenge of being responsive to dues-payers who work in relative isolation from each other, and the need to free up resources to organize another 500,000 members in the next four years.
According to the Burger report, MRC’s are already providing "great service" to "home care locals in California, Washington, Oregon, and Illinois….in an industry without common worksites." 80,000-member Local 32BJ in New York City-which extends from Hartford, Ct. to Washington, D.C.-claims to be getting 500,000 member calls a year already, regarding representation issues and benefit plan questions; as a result, more staff could be devoted to "organizing the largest contract action team ever in the commercial janitorial division" and "dramatically increasing member participation in COPE." A tri-state property services local based in the mid-west is said to have "a strong system of representation in place" thanks to both a 4-year old MRC and a companion "grievance center." "Not only have services improved" at Chicago Local 1 but more staff are now available for "crucial campaigns, including organizing 5,000 janitors in Houston." Overall, that local, headed by SEIU national V-P Tom Balanoff, reports being able "shift its staff focus from two-thirds representation to two-thirds union building."
In a June posting on a Labor Notes blog-set up to provide SEIU convention coverage–an anonymous SEIU staffer (who expressed agreement with some LN criticism of the union) defended these MRC results against "misleading" attacks from the left, inside and outside SEIU.
"The devil is in the details," he or she wrote, "but, all in all, call centers have been effective at some locals in freeing up some time for field reps and stewards to do more pro-active ‘big picture’ work."
"As it is implemented at Local 1 and planned in California, [the MRC] is to answer basic questions, determine if there is a possible grievance,etc. The point is to take some of the workload off the field reps and give them more time for actual organizing.
There will still be field reps out doing steward development, issue organizing, and there will still be a field rep for handling grievances, disciplinary cases, etc. and both will still work with stewards. The call center people will even have the contact info of stewards, and what level of training they have, and will refer some cases directly to those stewards." (6)
In the Burger report itself, there is a similar sketching out of an ideal scenario, in which call center-derived cost savings and greater staff efficiencies will make mobilization on the job and in the community more, rather than, less likely. Citing organizational synergies achieved in Australia, the report projects a rosy future in which members are "so strongly supported" by call centers that stewards and field staff can now "focus on building the union: identifying and developing leaders; organizing around workplace issues; fighting for better contracts, uniting more workers, and winning politically and in the community."
To bolster this point in San Juan, SEIU communications staffers not usually in the business of passing out material authored by the union’s leading dissident gave the press UHW President Sal Rosselli’s own 2007 report from "down under." Based on meetings he and other SEIUers had with the Queensland Public Sector Union (QPSU) and the Health Services Union (HSU), Roselli concluded that their "member service center and data base application innovations"-if coupled together and used appropriately-would "enable UHW to be more efficient and effective…increase member confidence and loyalty, achieve a more consistent level of representation," and "create permanent and comprehensive membership and employer files."
Call Centers And Their Discontents
If the future of call center servicing is indeed so bright, why are some in SEIU still not wearing shades-particularly in sunny California, an epicenter of its MRC experiment (where even UHW is now more critical of the concept, as applied so far). According to one San Juan convention guest, Jonathan Tasini–the Change-to-Win-friendly director of Labor Research Association (LRA)–SEIU marketing experts may have just dropped the ball. In a June 2, 2008 posting on his "Working Life" blog, Tasini lamented that the union had not done "a very good job of explaining how these call centers will operate." As a result, he noted, that "there has been much consternation about SEIU’s proposal to…handle workplace and union issues" through its MRCs. After all, Tasini wrote, "when you say ‘call center,’ most people"- including himself -"think of some faraway operation" that’s not always consumer-friendly during routine commercial transactions.
Unfortunately, some SEIU members are already experiencing what Tasini admits might be a downside of call center servicing-ie "members begin[ing] to feel distant from the union." For example, there are the 15,000 food service, housekeeping, and laundry workers around the country who belong to Service Workers United (SWU), a joint creation of SEIU and UNITE-HERE. Their employers-Sodexho, Compass Group, and Aramark-have developed a labor-management relationship with SWU’s national union backers that has been much in the news lately. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report about the confidential "card check" deals that have enabled SEIU and UNITE-HERE to recruit new SWU members at locations determined by these outsourcing companies themselves. (7) In addition to "raising questions about union transparency, " reported The Journal, critics of these deals like SEIU Local 2007 President Zev Kvitky also object to their negotiated restrictions on workers rights. These curbs apply both at contract expiration (when workers are not allowed to strike) and during the contract term (when worker leafleting, picketing, and community outreach about job complaints or contract issues are also limited as part of the quid pro quo for union recognition).
So, while barred from engaging in normal membership mobilization
activity at contract time-under the terms of an agreement they are not allowed to see-who do cafeteria workers at Stanford University contact when they have a grievance? They call a call center. As Steve Franklin reported in The Tribune:
"About 100 food service workers at Santa Clara and Stanford Universities were moved two years ago from an SEIU local  to the new Service Workers United. They were not given the chance to vote on the move, and later didn’t know whom to go to for help, Kvitky said.
"They were told to call an 800 number that would connect them to an official at the new organization’s offices back east. "But they didn’t get any calls returned," Kvitky said, adding that he decided to begin helping them. "I don’t like saying it, but they weren’t represented." (8)
A leader of the newly-formed SEIU Members for Reform Today (SMART), Kvitky based his convention opposition to call center servicing on the treatment of these workers whose Stanford cafeteria jobs have been contracted out to Bon Appetit, a subsidiary of Compass. Kvitky got involved because local servicing of SWU bargaining unit members around the country is itself "outsourced to the nearest UNITE-HERE or SEIU local," in this case his own higher education Local 2007. When cafeteria workers dealing with the SWU service center in New York were having a problem with what Verizon would call "customer mistreats," Kvitky placed a call on their behalf in his capacity as local president. His/their complaint was about a unilateral change to a higher cost health plan. He was told that, under the broad management rights clause in the SWU contract, nothing could be done about it.
At a statewide meeting of California SEIU dissidents last March, Kvitky expressed dismay at SWU representation in general-from its remote control bargaining to the absence of local steward structures and mechanisms for an effective rank-and-file voice in the union. "All of their issues are supposed to be handled through a national call center, " he said. "There’s no way a call center is going to help these people. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen in the labor movement to a company union." Kvitky also views SWU as another sign that "SEIU is headed toward becoming an AARP or Sierra Club-type organization, where members get an 800 number to call and a list of benefits. This model is antithetical to building a real, grassroots bottom-up movement."
In May of 2008, students involved in the Stanford and Santa Clara affiliates of United Students Against Sweatshops echoed Kvitky’s criticism in a letter to Andy Stern protesting the fact that cafeteria workers on their campuses "have received little to no support from SWU" since being transferred into that nationwide "local." Joined by fellow students at UC-Irvine, they also objected to SEIU’s attempt there to interfere with student backed-AFSCME Local 3299 organizing that succeeded in returning cafeteria staff to "a statewide master contract with 20,000 other University of California employees that gives them better wages and benefits and, most importantly, greater power." According to Dennys Lopez, Carla Osorio, and Ana Chirino-the three UC-Irvine Student-Workers Alliance members who signed the letter-SEIU tried to thwart their local coalition "strategy of pressuring the University to kick Aramark off campus and let these workers join Local 3299 as direct UC employees."
At Wesleyan University in Connecticut-in a campus building services unit with supposed access to SEIU Local 32BJ’s call center in NYC-the janitors have similarly turned to students and direct action to help them deal with issues neglected by the union. As reported by Dan Clawson in The Next Upsurge, Wesleyan janitors first got organized, in 1999-2000, through a card check recognition process forced on the university after a campaign by students that included a building occupation.(9) By 2005, however, the latest janitorial contract-holder, ABM Janitorial Services, was increasingly annoyed by the regular intervention of Wesleyan’s United Student Labor Action Coalition (USLAC) in on-going labor-management disputes. So ABM, a nationwide bargaining partner of SEIU, issued a directive in English and Spanish threatening "disciplinary sanctions" against any Wesleyan janitor who tried to address workplace problems outside the confines of the contract grievance procedure and/or with the help of campus allies.
To get faster results, janitors were in the habit of enlisting USLAC in joint protests over harassing supervisors and other contract violations because the standard refrain of their Hartford-based business agent was "just file a grievance over it." When Local 32BJ took no effective action to challenge the ABM memo that clearly interfered with the janitors’ Section 7 right to engage in such "protected concerted activity," USLAC filed its own unfair labor practice charge alleging a violation of Sec. 8 (a) (1) of the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB agent investigating the case agreed that ABM’s memo threatened unlawful retaliation against anyone who by-passed the grievance procedure and complained about a workplace problem to USLAC, a state or federal agency (like the NLRB), or even Wesleyan’s own sub-contractor "Code of Conduct" compliance board. As part of a quick Board-negotiated settlement of the case, ABM was forced to rescind the memo. (10)
There is, therefore, a tension between traditional union grievance handling methods-whether or not they’re enhanced by call center servicing-and the workplace reality that well-organized collective action still gets the best results, while building the union, from the bottom-up. At the statewide meeting of SEIU dissidents mentioned above-a March, 2008 gathering in Berkeley, sponsored by SMART and attended by some workers who later became SEIU convention delegates- a series of speakers vented against the Pasadena MRC. Among these critics of the call center servicing concept and its California implementation were state and county workers whose locals had, in several instances, been restructured and consolidated into much larger geographical entities. In fact, three of the four locals produced by this merger process and served by Pasadena–521, 721, and 1021-ended up electing delegates to the San Juan convention who joined the large UHW delegation in opposing various Stern proposals, including Resolution 204. (11)
Mike Donaldson, who works at Laney College in Oakland, went from a 35,000-member Local 790 that had a Bay Area focus, a "relatively democratic structure," and rank-and-file involvement to the new 55,000-member Local 1021. Despite promised "communication tools" like the MRC, he worries that members won’t have the same ‘connection to the union" now. "It’s not just the aspect of losing local control," he says. "We’re becoming spectators in our own union, passive consumers of the union product-and that’s a serious problem."
Catherine Alexander, a Santa Clara County librarian and former SEIU chief steward shifted from Local 715 to 521, was first briefed on SEIU’s call center project 2 and ½ years ago. Then, in the summer of 2007, she and other members learned that the MRC was being introduced, at great expense to her new local. In fact, she learned, money was diverted from the local strike fund to pay for 521′s call center servicing. (Local 521 President
Kristy Sermersheim downplayed this as a problem, explaining to a Fall, 2007, executive board meeting in Bakersfield, that work stoppages were no longer affordable in the local anyway, because of previous depletion of the fund. "We can give them [strikers] coffee and donuts for one day, "she explained. "But that’s about it.") Alexander reports that the local’s 2008 budget shows the new MRC system costing 521 an estimated $1.2 million at a time when it faces of deficit of nearly $2.8 million.
"I felt the whole thing was a slap in the face, " Alexander said. "As stewards, we’ve taken classes, learned to empower ourselves and helped our co-workers exercise their rights in the workplace." In a long posting on the SMART website (www.reformseiu.org), Alexander wrote: "Many of us feel that the call center system will depersonalize the union and remove the face-to-face trust gained while organizing and representing members on the job. We have grown our members’ union loyalty and gained their confidence while standing with them during the worst times at their jobs."
According to longtime Local 1000 activist Joyce Thomas-Villaronga, a state corrections department worker, "SEIU doesn’t have a good history of day-to-day representation, of handling the problems that we, as stewards and local officers, have to deal with…A lot of our longtime leaders have gotten frustrated and walked away." At the SMART meeting in March, she reported on her participation in a pre-convention session of an SEIU "member representation task force." There, she learned that her local’s labor reps-fulltime paid staffers-will no longer handle grievances because that work will be shifted to the MRC. Instead, the reps will be shifted to internal organizing (in state worker units with many agency fee payers). She questioned the effectiveness of this redeployment on the grounds that working members would be more effective signing up their co-workers than paid staffers. "Members need to be more engaged and they should be the ones organizing other state workers while the staff should be doing professional representation work and mentoring stewards on how to write effective grievances, " she said. "We’re not teaching enough of them how to write grievances."
Another call center critic, from southern California, is Arturo Diaz, a convention delegate who opposed Resolution 204 in San Juan. Diaz works as a computer programmer for Los Angeles County and was a rank-and-file executive board member of Local 660 before it was dissolved and merged into a new seven-county entity, 85,000-member Local 721. After that consolidation, 721 was run by a Stern-appointed interim president, Annelle Grajeda, the former staff director of 660, and "provisional board of directors" that she appointed. As of March, 2008, dissident members estimated that their local had already spent $360,000 on the Pasadena MRC. Like Alexander, Diaz doubts that this expenditure will be an adequate substitute for trained stewards and some of the experienced 660 staffers who were displaced by the merger of 660 into 721. One such casualty was Paul Krehbiel, a resident of Pasadena who has been a union activist for forty years and a frequent contributor to Labor Notes. As a 660 field rep and organizer, Kehbiel had focused on building large steward committees and promoting member activism on the job. (12) At the time of the merger, says Diaz, Krehbiel and other "popular, effective and active staff members were let go." Replacing them-in the local and, he believes, in the call center as well- are SEIU payrollers "who never had a real job and don’t know anything about labor." Says Diaz: "I don’t have anything against young people, but a lot of them are getting a big check now so their attitude [toward Grajeda] is ‘Whatever you want me to do, boss’……When you’re speaking with someone on the telephone, it’s just too easy for them to say,’You don’t have a grievance.’ And that’s the end of the story."
SMART member Dan Mariscal is a blue-collar worker for the City of Los Angeles and served as an SEIU steward for 18 years prior to his Local 347 being merged into the new 721. Mariscal doubts whether call center personnel will ever be as responsive to members as an elected (or even an appointed) steward who is their co-worker. He acknowledges that MRCs are designed to route calls to the "right people," in terms of second language or legal advocacy skills, but "not necessarily anyone knowledgeable about your particular contract." (13) During a post-convention tour of the Pasadena MRC in June, 2008, which included a meeting with its new director, Mariscal learned that the "Member Resource Organizers (MROs) employed there "have not worked in any of the [local] unions they handle," receive only three weeks of new hire training, and are "employed by the International, not the locals." According to Mariscal:
"There are accountability issues in that kind of arrangement. In the former Local 347, the staff was accountable to the member-
elected executive board. If a staff member wasn’t ‘cutting it,’ the board could fire him/her and also approve his/her replacement. That’s obviously not the case now…There is no evidence that our Los Angeles City employee worksites are stronger or better off than before the merger of Local 347 into 721."
The lack of personal connection between caller and call center employee seems to be the deciding factor in turning many UHW activists against MRC servicing. Although currently facing retaliatory downsizing by Stern, Oakland-based UHW is still a mega-local too, with nearly 150,000 members throughout California. (To learn more about why SEIU’s third largest local was first threatened with trusteeship earlier this year and now the forced-transfer of 60,000 members to a more Stern-friendly local, see www.seiuvoice.org) (14) Despite the local’s scale, its "member-leaders" believe UHW remains responsive to the rank-and-file because of their active role as workplace advocates. As Mel Garcia, a 30-year SEIU activist at Kaiser, explained to reporters at a UHW press briefing June 2, the very existence of elected worksite leaders "encourages co-workers to come to them because they are known, respected, and trusted. With call centers, you take away that face-to-face connection"
"How can any worker feel protected and supported," Garcia asked, "if they have to pick up a phone and call an 800 number, particularly in a discharge situation? That, to me, is not a union….If a member calls me or comes to my desk, they’re going to say, ‘Get back to me.’ If you call someone on the phone in this big call center system, it will be very easy for your message to get lost and your call not returned. At Kaiser where I work, we would get so much push-back on such an idea." At the same pre-convention Q & A session with the press, Rosselli himself took a much harder line against MRC’s than he did in his 2007 report from Australia. "We’re not against new ideas for being more innovative and effective, as long as they work," the UWH president insisted. But the call center concept, as implemented now by SEIU nationally, "directly undermines building power for workers in the workplace."
The Transformational Potential Of Call Centers
In a lengthy pre-convention critique, entitled " ‘Justice for All’ ‘or ‘Control for Just Us,’ " a UHW document elaborated on Roselli’s point about the risk of shop-floor organization being eroded:
"Throughout SEIU’s history, we have learned that powerful unions require trained and effective workplace leaders, strong shop-floor organization, and a culture of solidarity and action among members….[They] require stewards and member leaders
who can organized their co-workers, interpret and defend their contract, conduct issue fights, handle grievances and resolve problems. This combination of people, skills, organization, and culture allows members to build worker-led unions…"(15)
In contrast, Stern’s call centers are designed "to dispense with workplace conflict administratively and re-construct the union as an issue advocacy organization to pursue priorities and execute campaigns in which workers would have little say." UHW points the finger at "a branding study" done for the International Union by "the Silicon Valley-based firm IDEO." According to UHW, this corporate consultant proposed that "SEIU should displace its employer relations work from the center of its membership activity, outsourcing worksite grievances to call centers, and other employer relations matters to top union officials…."-a recommendation reflected in 2008 convention-approved changes which introduce even more top-down control of SEIU bargaining.
In its worst case scenario, which may well be unfolding, UHW predicts that SEIU will "abandon the core purpose of the union in favor of using the employment nexus as an efficient means of securing dues check-off, mailing lists, phone lists, and e-mails, and a voter file." Emulating the AARP, MoveOn.org, and mega churches, the union could then "become the biggest, strongest, and best-funded issue advocacy organization in America, without worrying any longer about being an organization of workers, by workers and for workers."
At SEIU’s 2008 convention in San Juan, about ten percent of the delegates objected to this disturbing trend. That minority is, however, much larger than four years ago when Stern’s exercise of union restructuring power was challenged in San Francisco by a lone delegate, Massachusetts social worker and then-Local 509 president John Templeton. Shedding the traditional core functions of a union, in favor of the Sierra Club model, will not be an easy transition in the years to come-thanks to the emerging SEIU reform movement, anchored by UHW and now being spread to other locals via SMART. These purple dissidents have already mounted impressive popular resistance to Stern’s steam-roller campaign for call center servicing. Architects of the MRC plan expect SEIU members to become such happy campers that more will enlist in external organizing drives, the Obama campaign and other union-backed electoral efforts, and issue-oriented lobbying by SEIU. No doubt many rank-and-filers will-if only because the union-minded don’t need a call center to remind them about the consequences of declining density or four more years of Republican presidential rule. But the coming consumer backlash against the inevitable underperformance of union-wide call center servicing may turn the MRC’s into a feeder system of a different sort. Instead of steering more workers toward officially sanctioned forms of union activism, call center dysfunction-and resulting member alienation–could produce more recruits for SEIU’s nascent reform movement.
(1) "The Union of the Future: Membership Action and Leadership to Win for Working People," a June, 2008 report from SEIU’s Local Union Strength Committee with recommendations for the union’s 2008 convention.
(2) For more on Local 1400′s membership recruitment at Verizon, see Steve Early, "Membership-Based Organizing," pp. 82-103, in A New Labor Movement For The New Century, edited by Gregory Mantsios (New York:Monthly Review, 1998).
(3) "Mobilizing For Power," a publication of Communications Workers of America Education and Mobilization Department, 2004. (www.cwa-union.org)
(4) In his bid for re-election as president of Local 1400 in 2005, one-term reformer Don Trementozzi was supported by a majority of the Verizon workers in the local. But overall, he lost by less than 20 votes. His challenger’s margin of victory was provided by a disgruntled 150-member non-telephone bargaining unit that has since departed, per mutual agreement, for the sunnier climes of the United Auto Workers. In Local 1400′s upcoming election, in the Fall of 2008, Trementozzi and his mobilization-oriented allies are favored to return to office. The #1 issue in this year’s campaign is the current incumbent’s disastrous return to Local 1400′s pre-2003 methods of top-down, long-distance servicing.
(5) For more on this phenomena, see Steve Early, "Reutherism Redux: What Happens When Poor Workers’ Unions Wear The Color Purple," in Against The Current, September/October, 200
(6) See Labor Notes’ coverage of SEIU 2008 convention at www.labornotes.org (Mark Brenner blog, June 2, 2008)
(7) Kris Maher, "Unions Forge Secret Pacts With Major Employers," The Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2008, page A1.
(8) Steve Franklin, "Unions’ Secret Deals to Get Foot in Door at
(9) See Dan Clawson, The Next Upsurge: Labor and The New Social Movements," Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003, pp. 180-87.
(10) See "Charge Against Employer," filed by United Student Labor Action Coalition against ABM Janitorial Services, Dec. 26, 2005 with Peter Hoffman, Regional Director, National Labor Relations Board, Hartford, CT. (In the interests of full-disclosure, this ULP charge was filed by my daughter Alexandra, then a student at Wesleyan and now a contract campaign mobilizer for SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers in California.)
(11) Delegates voting against the Stern administration proposal for expanded MRC’s (and other "Justice For All" platform resolutions) numbered about 233. Of those, approximately 150 were from UHW and the remaining ones represented members in other California and Nevada locals, including 99, 521,721,1000, 1021, and 1107.
(12) See Paul Krehbiel, "Reform Movement Forms in SEIU," Labor Notes, April, 2008, pp. 1,4.
(13) See "fightfor347," a Yahoo discussion group, set up to air the grievances of SEIU staffers themselves, including some unhappily reassigned to MRC work. One recent insider posting complained that "the sheer size and poor planning of the 721 merger" produced a backlog of 600 pending grievances at its MRC, with "not nearly enough staff to handle them." According to this anonymous blogger, staffers at the "Advocacy Center" responded by staging a ‘sick-out’ in protest. Unfortunately, another work-load reduction technique "is to simply tell the rank-and-file: "You don’t have a grievance, we can’t help you."
(14) See Steve Early, "A Purple Uprising In Oakland," CounterPunch, April 1, 2008
(15) See UHW document entitled " ‘Justice for All’ or ‘Control for Just Us’-A First Look at SEIU’s Plan to Centralize Decision-Making Power and Financial Resources at the Expense of Union Democracy and Strong Organization Among Members," May, 2008, posted on www.seiuvoice.org.
(Steve Early worked as a CWA international representative and organizer between 1980 and 2007. He is currently writing a book for Cornell ILR Press on the role of Sixties’ movement activists in American labor. He can be reached at: [email protected])