Calling On Call Centres
INTRODUCTION BY DAVID DURNING
In 2003, the British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU) filed a certification application in a bid to represent workers at one of the largest call centres in British Columbia. The campaign turned out to be one of the largest and most difficult in recent memory in British Columbia.
The union was up against a notoriously anti-union U.S.-based company in a provincial jurisdiction where employers enjoy a lot of freedom to conduct campaigns against their employees unionizing. But despite the odds, after three years, several certification attempts, many days spent in labour board hearings and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the BCGEU was successful and, in early 2006, was certified to represent the NCO workers.
The call centre in Surrey, B.C., is one of 100 owned by NCO, a Pennsylvania-based corporation operating in nine countries. NCO employs over 22,500 workers in its various call centres with several thousand workers in NCO facilities in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. In 2005, NCO's revenues were $1.1 billion, making it a big player in the global industry. The 1,400 NCO employees in Surrey represent fewer than seven per cent of NCO's workforce and theirs is, at the moment, the only unionized NCO facility.
When the organizing drive began, the centre was owned by RMH Teleservices, Inc. In 2004 RMH was taken over by NCO Group, Inc., which describes itself as "a leading provider of accounts receivable management and collection services." NCO provides inbound and outbound calling services like telemarketing, e-mail management, technical support, order processing and follow-up calling for various companies in the computer, telecommunications, financial services, and insurance areas.
In response to the BCGEU's organizing efforts, RMH began an anti-union campaign that included projecting continuous slide shows with offensive anti-union messages onto different screens set up around the facility and providing gifts containing anti-union messages to workers. The company also installed video surveillance cameras to monitor employee contact with union organizers.
Complaints were filed with the B.C. Labour Relations Board that RMH was intimidating and coercing workers and initially the LRB ruled that there was no violation of B.C. labour law. The decision was appealed and finally, after many months, a reconsideration panel ruled that the law had in fact been broken. The panel found that the offensive company slide shows amounted to "forced listening" and "were so prominent, persistent and impossible to miss" that the behaviour constituted "coercive or intimidating" communication by the company with its employees. The panel also ruled that the company's so-called gifts to employees were so "improperly intrusive and persistent" that they too violated the labour code.
Although the remedy ordered by the labour relations board fell far short of what the union had hoped for, it provided the BCGEU with access to the NCO parking lot for 90 days. Unfortunately, due to the huge turnover at NCO, most of the workers employed there when the union drive began had moved on to other employment. Still, the union decided to make the best of the parking lot opportunity and to re-start the campaign.
At the end of 2007, six union members and staff reflected back on the campaign, including NCO employee and bargaining committee chair Bruce Bachand, Chris Anderson, BCGEU's coordinator of organizing, Paul Johnston, the union's organizing advocate, and member organizers Brandee Lee Hannah, Chantel O'Neill and Muriel Labine. - D.D.
I started working at NCO in October 2005 as a temp agency worker. NCO offered me full-time employment in January 2006. Prior to NCO, I was an anti-union person who had no union experience whatsoever. In my job I provide "Tier 1" technical support for a major U.S. computer manufacturer. Customers call in for technical assistance, ranging from entry level problems to quite extensive ones. When I started, the pay was exceedingly low and there was a high level of stress taking phone calls all day and usually not nice ones. They were usually calls about technical problems or disputes. The pay levels didn't compensate for that level of intensity. I saw people were being treated very poorly and noticed that, for a lot of people, this was their first job. The lack of respect just pissed me off.
I started working there at the tail end of the union campaign. I just kind of felt things out for the first month. The union was on-site and, because I was hired through a temp agency, I had to be very shrewd. I knew I could be let go at any point. I said to the organizers, "I'll talk with you but I'm not going to talk on-site." The company had installed a surveillance camera in order to monitor parking lot activity and peg people. I said, "I'll talk with you, but I have to walk to the Skytrain off-site." Week to week I just felt out my level of involvement with the union. I wanted to make sure that, "If I go for it I go for it 100 per cent," and obviously I'm sitting here, so.... I have an interest in and read about military and combat strategy and, in the end, I thought of this as a challenge. I showed up at each meeting. I had been planning to make some money and move on but I saw this as an opportunity and wanted to be on the bargaining committee.
When we finally got the agreement, it was the first of its kind in North America: the largest third-party call centre of this size and scope. Maybe people can use this as a template in their own areas. They say that, over the next two to three years, a lot of the call centre work that goes on in North America will be farmed out, but there's still a lot of call work that goes on.
There are a lot of challenges to this kind of organizing, including the high turnover rate. With so many leaving it was difficult to even pass the certification point. And then it was difficult to build consensus, even within the bargaining committee. You really have to push to keep momentum going, and you're constantly refocusing. You have to re-tailor your strategy week to week or month to month sometimes day to day. At the time the union was certified, NCO had a 90 per cent turnover rate in one year.
I knew this was a huge company with a huge presence in the call centre and collection agency industry. And they weren't happy sitting across the table from us. We had to be very smart. To me, the key thing was to listen to what was going on and to ask the right questions.
Things are much better now - better than even six months ago. It's made a huge difference. The relationships between shop stewards and supervisors now are good. Rapport and mutual respect has been built up throughout the bargaining process.
My decision to get involved with the union is one I have never looked back on and regretted. The past two years have been perhaps the most vital in my adult life in terms of experience, the quality of my work relationships, and knowledge gained. I'm interested in serving and leading, and I'm proud to serve as chair of the bargaining committee. This is my first union experience and the BCGEU did everything above and beyond in terms of providing resources and training and staff support. They built my self-respect and confidence.
Bruce Bachand is a member of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.
The campaign recommenced following a board reconsideration of an original decision in 2005. With the high turnover rate there weren't very many left of the original committee; it was almost like starting a new campaign. We put some people back into the parking lot, tried reconnecting with old contacts, and got very positive responses. On a month to month basis we reviewed the responses we were getting in terms of card signing and, at the end of each month, we would commit to a further month to see how it would go. After three months we had done very well. We took it to a fourth month, up until the point where we had sufficient cards to make an application, which we did in February 2006.
We had a list of more than 10 available activists who we called on to assist in the drive, for early morning shifts, as well as night and daytime shifts. The board did restrict us to five in the parking lot at any time, but we made a strong presence.
One of the main issues coming from the workers was that NCO had a fairly brutal policy in terms of attendance: they didn't discriminate between a sick day or simply not showing up. They had a computer system in place and, after the 10th occurrence of coming back late from a coffee break, or taking too long a bathroom break, or calling in because you had the flu after 10 of these you just got fired. There was no inquiry into why, simply automatic termination. And there was favouritism. If your face fit, you got the job; if it didn't, you didn't. That applied to shift assignments, promotion opportunities, bonuses all those factors played into the reasons the workers wanted a union.
This was a third-party call centre, where they contract work from major corporations which they call "projects." Individual employees work pretty much exclusively on a particular project. As organizers we tried to focus in on small inside committees from each project. There were some very dedicated inside committee members who saw the benefit of bringing a union in.
This was a very anti-union employer. The market for this kind of work is strictly driven by outside contracts, so the rate of pay is governed by the market and, when you're competing with workers in Indonesia and India and other parts of the world where wages are significantly lower, that's what's continually thrown at the workers. They say, "We can flip a switch and all your calls will go to Indonesia where we only pay a dollar an hour or a day." So there's that constant threat.
The largest challenge for the union was the fear the employer instilled in the employees in terms of joining a union, and the ongoing attack from NCO right through the campaign. That's not a surprise. Most employers don't open the door and ask us in. I think we surprised them when we turned back up in the parking lot; they didn't expect that. The first month went relatively easily, but, in time, they managed to marshal resources to fight us off.
The next two months things got pretty bad. There were security people out in the parking lot using video surveillance, threatening people inside, all sorts of stuff. They had been smacked by the labour board decision that put us back there, so they were being a little more careful. Still, they were a difficult employer to take on.
Shortly after the certification was granted we held member meetings close to the centre and elected the bargaining committee, which subsequently elected Bruce as chair. We put together a basic package of proposals based on a template of other certifications, working around it to make it fit a call centre. This was brand new to the BCGEU - our first call centre cert. We had to think about how the proposals could be restructured to meet the employer's requirements in order to maintain the operation and the needs of the members who had signed and were expecting some gains for having joined the union. We were met with a cold reaction by management, but having an Ontario lawyer to represent them at the bargaining table turned out to be a good thing. NCO wasn't familiar with or experienced in dealing with unions. Their lawyer had done bargaining, and played a big role in educating them.
Over time we were able to establish a level of trust and respect with the employer. We persuaded them that we wanted a collective agreement that would allow them to grow as a money-making operation and expand to provide more job opportunities. They accepted that. Once the vote was counted they accepted we were there and decided to make the best of it.
In terms of bargaining, the committee and I were proud to have NCO change its attendance policy. They fought that until almost the end, but finally accepted that absence due to illness or injury would not be tolerated by the union as attracting discipline. We were able to go back to the members with a collective agreement that now protected them from that kind of discipline and I think that was significant in terms of getting the agreement ratified.
That was in 2006.
I think it's fair to give NCO some recognition for the approach they took: hiring a labour relations professional has made it better. It could have been much worse. They put people in place who could assist rather than resist, and now we have one staff rep permanently assigned to the NCO call centre group, which has over 1,000 bargaining unit members and is aiming for 1,400 or 1,500 jobs. For an American corporation to move in that direction is significant.
Chris Anderson is the BCGEU's coordinator of organizing.
Brandee Lee Hannah
"My role was to stand out in the parking lot and talk to workers coming in and out of the job site at different times. We were there from 5 in the morning and sometimes until midnight. Sometimes, instead, they would call you on your cell phone and say, Meet me at MacDonalds.'
"I was a BCGEU member. I worked in a lab and was booked off to come on and assist, and I stayed. I didn't go back to the lab."
"We were not allowed near the doorways or under the shelter but we did have the parking lot," recalls member organizer Muriel Labine. "This campaign was a rebuilding situation. We only had three months to do it in and during that three months we signed over 900 cards with the inside committee and the outside organizers. That was huge.
"The outside organizers had to keep two or three pens in their pockets at all times because it was so cold. The date and the signature had to be in the same coloured ink and the same pen. They had to carry extra pens because the ink would freeze up. That's how cold it was. It was really hard work.
"At the beginning of the campaign the workers were so afraid, they wouldn't even talk to us. They would throw notes out the window.
"The committee changed quite a few times: some of the inside committee moved on to other jobs, some became discouraged. But the inside committee kept getting stronger as we went along."
"Initially I was in the advocacy department, and gave instructions to private law firms that did the original legal work in this campaign," says Paul Johnston, organizing advocate. "Then I moved into the organizing department and, in the final certification application, I represented the union at the board.
"The labour relations board was not a positive force in this. Prior to the Campbell government coming in we had a board that did its utmost to be balanced. Now we have maybe the most pro-employer board in the country. That's both through changes in the law and in the way the law is applied.
"Some of the NCO employees I met were from Central America and had come from regimes that were intensely repressive. They brought their politics with them, and I thought that was very significant."
"I was an organizer brought on to work on the campaign and, like Brandee, I did that out in the parking lot. We were also at the Skytrain station. We were very fortunate with that location since many workers take the train. We were able to boost our numbers with organizers out there. That was a unique thing about this campaign that there were so many BCGEU activists that were out there.
"Respect was the big issue for NCO workers. That's very common in a lot of campaigns we've done."
Bruce Bachand is a member of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.
Chris Anderson is the BCGEU's coordinator of organizing.
David Durning interviewed these BCGEU members and staff who participated in the NCO organizing drive. He is the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Western Region organizer. He is also on the advisory board of Our Times.