The Share call center relocated in January. Most callers were upset about the move. The new location was in a remote area. For me it
took one bus ride to get to within walking distance of the new location. From Watertown Square I could walk about a mile and a half to work or I could take the shuttle bus provided by the company. Half the time I walked. For employees who lived further away getting to Share was much more of a chore.
The new location was on the second floor of a huge, hulking barn like structure. The building the call center was in was built as a mattress factory shortly after the Civil War. One of the callers had a grandfather who used to work at the mattress factory. It was supposed to have been horrible work. I could very easily imagine a 19th century semi-sweatshop at this place. I liked the building though. To me it was “rustic” and had a summer camp feeling to it.
We were now working in one large room. Surprisingly, given the huge amount of factionalism and the number of warring cliques and turf wars which used to go on at the old place, everyone got along well, at least in the beginning. For a while anyway people were much more open with one another. Normally I kept to myself and seldom talked to many people at Share but even I opened up a lot and became more outgoing. There was, at least for a while, a feeling of unity. Almost everyone seemed united in hating the move and hating management. “We’re all in this together”, was the feeling, at least for the first month or so.
A drawback for me was that now I had to be around my co-workers almost all the time. In the old place I often used to walk to work by myself. I enjoy solitude. When I rode to work on the T I also used to try to stay by myself as much as possible. Now I had to wait for a bus, take the bus, and then take a shuttle bus, always surrounded by my co-workers. I have some very good friends among my former co-workers, but, not to seem like a snob, I often preferred to be alone. I’m essentially a very private person and I felt I was in a different world than most of my fellow employees.
Employee morale was very low. As mentioned, most people hated the move. In addition the campaigns we were calling for weren’t paying much. Most people were making close to base wage. The economy was entering a recession. Donors were increasingly sick of being called but the frequency of calling was steadily rising.The fundraising industry was of course shooting itself in the foot, after short term gain.
In the new location Share fully adopted new software they had been testing for quite some time. Everyone hated it. The technical details are a bit complicated. Basically the new software was cumbersome to use. If a call wasn’t finished or a sale closed in the requisite time, a bright red warning light would go off. This was humiliating to the callers. Often a caller would be cut off in the middle of taking a credit card pledge, losing money. In between calls loud annoying Muzak was piped in. Everyone (including myself) hated the Muzak. I noticed the dozen or so songs they played over and over had some vague familiarity to them. A familiar chord structure would appear, then abruptly segue into something else. A friend of mine, Mark (one of the most intelligent people at Share, who like me had worked and studied in Russia), explained that these “songs” were designed that way. They were all a collection of opening chords from pop songs of the past thirty or forty years. Only a few opening chords would be used so the muzak company wouldn’t have to pay royalties. I thought this was interesting. In addition to being abruptly logged out, being humiliated for taking too long on a call, and being subjected to annoying Muzak, the dialer was continually being speeded up. That means the rate of calls being sent to each caller steadily increased. There would now be one call after another. A massive work speed up.
The callers were losing a lot of money because of the software. It turned out Share also was losing a lot of money. After a lot of complaints, some, but not all of the bugs were taken out. The humiliating red warning lights were taken away, the “log out” bugs were (mostly) eliminated and the Muzak was turned down. The rate of calls we had to make was continually being increased though.
At the end of February the management gave a somewhat odd pep talk. Share by that time was owned by a New York investment lawyer named James Marcus. Marcus was a leveraged buyout lawyer. He had worked for the investment firm which bought Share from Micheal Ansara several years earlier. This firm supposedly specialized in buying out ailing companies and rehabilitating them. Marcus had then bought Share from them. No one knew what “share of Share” he owned. It was enough to make him the new CEO of Share. Share was now part of a “family” of companies called the New Capital Group. Besides the Share Group there was another telefundraising firm and several direct marketing companies. Marcus explained all this to the callers in a Powerpoint flowchart. He congratulated everyone on the smooth transition to the new location. The callers sat in their seats, mutely listening. The Share management stood behind the callers in a large bloc. They applauded everything Marcus said. After Marcus made his speech, some of his underlings from the New Capital Group spoke. They also congratulated us and themselves on the speedy transition. The management in back applauded. This went on for the entire four hour shift. Initially it was interesting-in between the hype it was interesting to learn about this type of business and how it operated-but the self congratulatory hype started to sound bizarre. It went on and on. The purpose of the callers was to sit and listen, while the purpose of Share management was to stand and applaud. I waited for a convenient time to sneak out. A friend of mine convinced me to stay a little longer. “Maybe James Marcus could get you a job”, my friend said. Okay, I thought I’d stick around a little longer, waiting for a convenient time to get an email address to send my resume. I started to wonder though what I would possibly do for James Marcus. I could not see myself working for him or his kind of business. It was 9:30 Friday evening. I discreetly left.
A few days after the self congratulatory management presentation Share management put up notices that they would be introducing a “point system”. Employees would get a “point” for coming in anything over three minutes late. Eight points within three months would mean termination. There was no speech given about this-just memos distributed everywhere. Not surprisingly everyone was upset about this. One of the few good things about the job the way it was was that it had flexible hours. In addition floor managers themselves often came in late. Further, the new location was in an inaccessible location and transportation was a problem for many people. It was rumored that Craig, the “genius” who attempted to break the union and now was in management, was behind this. Robin Glazier, who by now was regarded as the “evil genius” behind Share, was said to be its chief supporter.
The union , that is the unelected bargaining committee, supported the point system. Linda Blair and others told people that the original management proposal was far worse. “We had talked them down from something a lot more draconian”, she said. Management of course was using a classic bargaining technique. Make an offer twice what you want. Make it seem like its all or nothing. Your opponent will cave, thinking they’re meeting you half way. The union fell for it.
Most people seemed scared of the upcoming point system. “You’re gonna have to get here exactly on time,” employees warned each other. I thought this was odd. What happened to the militancy that existed when I first came to Share? Why not resist the point system? It could only work if people went along with it. Of course this reflected my own attitude towards the job, which I pretty much hated by then. Employee morale was very low by that time anyway. I tried to talk people into staging a walk out. I had to do this away from both the managers and the union leaders, who I was certain would tell it to management as soon as they could. “Tyranny depends on complicity” I thought. The point system would only work if people go along with it. On the hand, Share was a place where there was little real feeling of worker solidarity, despite the constant complaining. Unexpectedly I had become more militant.
One day the managers put notices announcing the point system in the hallway. When no one was looking I wrote on one notice, “Hey asshole! Just try to enforce this”. Twenty minutes later someone replaced this with a new memo. I did it again, writing, “Just try to enforce this”. Again it was taken down. New memos were put up in another area of the hallway where it would be difficult to write on it without being seen. I took one memo down and brought it to my “work station”. I would write something on it between calls. I quickly lost interest in this little project though. In hindsight my little shenanigans might have been a mistake. I’m sure one of the managers kept my “writings” in a file which they could use to prove I had a poor attitude if I later tried legal action against the company. More about that later.
One day around this time my friend Kevin was riding on the bus going home. In front of him sat Pauline, the militant union activist. Craig came on the bus and sat next to Pauline. Craig began, somewhat subtly, to pump Pauline for information on what the union was up to. He used friendliness and flattery. “You really know your stuff”, he said to Pauline.”You should be president of the union”. This was from someone who had tried to break the union and was now part of management. Craig asked and Pauline told all the details about what the union was planning. Craig asked Pauline if she knew anything about a planned walkout. Pauline said she didn’t know anything about this (she was one of the people I thought it wise not to talk to regarding this). I thought this whole exchange was bizarre. Kevin was quietly sitting behind them, taking this all in, while Pauline and Craig ignored him..
In the midst of the increasing tension at Share there was some odd comic relief. Earlier, as part of the new “management team” the new CEO, Pam Pierson, brought in was a woman named Patty Dill. Patty Dill first put in an appearance towards the end of our time at the old call center. She would harass callers. Without introducing herself she would look at caller’s “numbers” on their computer screen and cattily criticize them. “You’re call time is OK but I don’t like your pledge rate”. Its difficult to convey but in the context of the job she came off as being rude and obnoxious. Everyone disliked her. There were jokes about her. “Patty Dill, you need a pill” After Share moved Patty Dill dropped out of sight.
She apparently was now working at the Share call center in DC. Then word came that there had been a hostage crisis at Share’s DC call center. The upper level management at Share obviously would not want anyone to know about this but I was able to piece together what happened. Patty had tried to fire a subordinate manager. The fired manager refused to leave the room and also refused to allow Patty to leave the room. I don’t know who but someone called the DC police.
Share DC was near what then had been once been the John Kerry national campaign headquarters and since this was technically a hostage situation, a SWAT team was called in. I don’t know what happened after that.
This was around the time Benezhir Bhutto in Pakistan had been killed. I was goofing around that Patty Dill was really behind this. Any negative (at least from a mainstream viewpoint) world events-resurgence of the Taliban, possibility of a war with Iran, unrest in Tibet-yep, that was the work of Patty Dill. My friend Kevin is a very talented artist. He drew a picture of Patty Dill. She’s in a super hero costume. Eye masks in the shape of a pickle. Behind her are a group of Share employees, in a giant pickle jar. In front of Patty is a big telescreen. Hillary Clinton is on and is telling her to “Kill Bhutto”. this was part of Hillary’s plan for world domination. Before she becomes president she wants to eliminate any world leader who would potentially be hostile to her. Kevin hung up his picture on the “union information” bulletin board. It stayed up for a week. A lot of people got a chuckle out of it.
In March of this year Share had a fire. I was hanging out with a friend, a co-worker, at my place. A friend of my friend called and told us not to come into work. Share would probably be closed for the rest of the week or longer. My initial feeling (after asking if anyone had been hurt) was elation. While not wishing any harm on anyone, I deeply hoped that Share had been burnt to the ground. Friday of that week my friend and I went in to Share to pick up our paychecks, assess the damage, and try to find out if we would be paid for the lost week. The damage (to my great disappointment) was not that extensive. There had been a roof fire. Share had hired someone to melt ice that had accumulated on the roof. The outfit that had been hired used an oxyacetylene torch and the hundred plus year old timber caught fire. The fire department came and hosed everything down. As common in these situations the water damage was the worst. The wiring and about half the computers in the call room were destroyed. I noticed that people were still calling. There was a small training room with eight seats. It was full. Some employees were allowed to work. We were told they were either employees with seniority (although I had been at Share much longer than some of the people allowed to call) or they were calling for “Working Assets”, a phone service deal whereby a certain percentage of one’s phone bill is donated to “progressive” causes. Callers on this “campaign” had priority, I guess. Okay.
Share reopened officially the middle of the following week. Only two thirds of the telephone computer work stations were operating or replaced though. Share was never to return to full capacity.
A few weeks after the call center reopened the point system was supposed to come into effect. It came and went. No one said anything about it. The new manager by this time was a woman named Maryanne Peacott. She was a long time manager at Share, a butch lesbian. Unlike most managers at Share she seemed like a genuinely friendly person. At the beginning of one afternoon shift in the beginning of April Maryanne made a speech. Share was facing severe financial challenges, she said. The company had been losing a lot of money. There was a strong possibility the call center would be closed. The board of directors (which Robin Glazier was on) was to have a meeting two weeks from now during which they would assess the situation. A decision would be made whether or not to keep the call center open.
This was a bombshell. Half of my co-workers assumed Share would close while the other half assumed this was a trick to break the union. No one knew what the real situation was. Bits of gossip from managers spread. According to the “party line” Share actually was losing a lot of money. No one knew why. It could have been the poor quality software (which had gradually been improved). This was now 2008 and the economy was taking a nose dive and people weren’t giving to charities anymore. The market was over-saturated-there were other telephone fundraising companies and it was an industry of increasingly cut throat competition. Donors were being called more than ever before-literally hounded to give money and resistance was increasing. No one knew what the real story was though-Share obviously wasn’t going to open its books. It was known that James Marcus was now out-the board of directors had ousted him as CEO. He still had some relation to the company but no one knew what it was. Ambient. a company he owned next door, relocated although no one knew what Ambient did. .
Two weeks later Maryanne made another speech. It was pretty much what I thought it would be. The Newton call center would stay open. The company was still in a very precarious position though. Everyone would have to make sacrifices.
For the past two years at Share the call time-that is the amount one had to be on the phone-had been 70%. The previous year I had been written up several times for low call time. It had been a struggle for me to maintain the 70%. For the past five months though , in the old place and in the new place the call time wasn’t enforced. Management seemed like it was hopelessly confused and screwed up. They kept introducing draconian rules and regulations but couldn’t enforce anything. A week after we were told Share would stay open we had another pre-shift meeting with Maryanne. We were told the call time would now be 80%. The union had agreed to it. An argument between Maryanne and the callers broke out. People complained about the lack of democracy in the union. The union would agree to anything management wanted. Only one person on the six person bargaining committee had actually been elected. Things calmed down though. A few people apologized to Maryanne, saying they realized this wasn’t her fault and that “democracy in the union is a separate issue”. I thought the point was pretty much moot, the company wasn’t going to (and probably couldn’t) enforce anything anyway.
A few weeks passed. Sometime in April Maryanne made another speech. Management would be enforcing performance standards. There were complicated variables but basically caller’s performance (“TQM” or “total quality metric”) would be judged on the basis of money raised, the number of credit card bonuses, and the number of sustainer pledges each caller had gotten. This was very similar to the performance standards Share tried to introduce twice before, although perhaps somewhat more strict. Unlike the previous two times employees would have only a month in which to improve before being terminated, as opposed to nine weeks. “I know some of you will be frightened by this,” Maryanne said.
Again, I didn’t know whether any of this would really be enforced. Most people thought it would be. Employee morale, already sinking, was extremely low by this time. The move, inconvenient for many, was deeply resented by most people. The point system (although it wasn’t enforced) was taken as an insult. The new software was unwieldy and callers were losing money on it. On top of that most campaigns weren’t paying much. Now employees were either facing imminent termination or a much more highly pressured work environment. Long term employees were openly talking about leaving. The training area, which was now used as an extra call room, was now doubling as an unofficial job referral center. Share had long been massively top heavy with “floor managers”. There were, on the average six or so managers for each shift. Some of them were nice people and seemed to work hard but It was unclear exactly what many of these other people did. Though March and April most of the managers were fired. Share was very tacky in the way they did this. A nice woman named Kara, who started the year before last as a college intern and now was a full time manager, was very enthusiastic about the job. Management told her, after she came in one day, that she had been fired, without giving a reason. Some people said they saw her, walking the mile and a half to the bus station, in tears. I felt bad. A woman who is my next door neighbor and runs a struggling consulting business, was working as a contract consultant. She was fired without explanation. She was devastated by this. On the other hand, my old nemesis Rudy, who had harassed me the previous year, had also been fired. I certainly wasn’t sad to see him go.
Tension was increasing. There was an employee named Jen. Jen was a very big person. She played on a woman’s football team in Rhode Island. She was probably f to m transgendered. She came to Share after I did and I was briefly friends with her. By this time I hadn’t talked to her in a long time. I didn’t have a “break” with her, its just that we didn’t in common, besides an alternate gender. She loved working at Share and was close friends with the managers. She was very pro-company and the two previous times performance standards were attempted she supported them. Jen was very aggressive and used the “f word” constantly. She was regarded as something of a bully. I got along with her but generally didn’t have much to do with her. Well, one day in April I was in a training room for a briefing. I was with my friend Kevin. Jen barreled in. She saw Kevin and I. Kevin and I both had been at Share much longer than Jen. We worked hard but by then we were both utterly sick of the job. We goofed around a fair amount and I think several of the managers had their eyes on us. Jen asked, “What are you two doing?” in a hostile, aggressive manner. We told her we were waiting for a briefing. Jen was a caller just like us. I asked her why she cared what we were doing. She replied, “The union is trying to make sure everyone’s doing their job. We have to take ownership of the situation to keep Share in business”. I asked her if it was appropriate for the union to play this role. I thought I was very nice and expressed myself in a non-confrontational way. Jen went into an angry tirade . “You hate this job”, she said. I couldn’t argue there. I replied that half of everyone at Share hated the job. We weren’t here by choice. She slammed into Kevin and I, saying we were the worst performers at Share and basically that we were incompetent jerks. Before I could respond, Jen left.
I found out later that Jen had long since stopped being a caller. By that time she was doing errands for a particular manager, Rashon , from Trinidad, a guy who was very unpopular and who didn’t like me. Rashon didn’t see Kevin or I in our seats and sent Jen to find out where we were . Jen looking for us had nothing to do with the union. I also found out from other people that Jen had exaggerated the exchange we had and made it seem to her friends that I was very nasty to her. She had done this with other employees as well.
I told this story to Gary, the Trotskyist film buff. “Thank god..due to Jen’s efforts Share will stay open,” he said sarcastically.
It came out that over half the management in the “back rooms” had left. No one knew if they had quit or had been fired or both. In April most employees had been massively overpaid. This happened two weeks in a row. Share was trying to figure out how they would get the money back. People would supposedly be underpaid to even the amount. Everyone by then was utterly distrustful of managers and had their pocket calculators out making sure there were no discrepancies. The reason for this screw up? The guy who had previously handled “accounts payable” , an older guy who had been at Share for years, had only discovered that his job was on the “chopping block” when he saw a posting for his exact job on the job vacancies bulletin. He confronted the CEO about this and his worse fear was confirmed. Share wanted to fire him in favor of a recent college grad they could get for peanuts. They asked this guy to stay on to train his replacement but he abruptly left, taking the files with him.
Several weeks later It turned out management actually would be enforcing the performance standards. My numbers were low. I was brought in to see one of the two managers who were put in charge of disciplining people. He explained the “total quality metric”. I only half listened. I would have four more weeks left.