It was down to the wire. If agreement wasn’t reached on a contract there would be a strike at the end of the week. This was now a near certainty.
At the last minute the people on the bargaining committee said they had reached a deal. After a long delay the company was finally budging and agreeing on the terms of a contract. Most employees had a feeling of relief, the crisis was averted. No one quite knew what the terms of the contract were, the whole thing seemed very esoteric and intricate. The leaders of the union thought we should sign it though. Okay, everything was set up to vote on the contract. It was assumed it would pass. Gary (whom I mentioned earlier) then “exposed” the proposed contract. He made copies of the proposed new contract and handed this out to people. It was terrible. Benefits for new hires would be drastically reduced. There would also be a large reduction in the health insurance benefits and the 401K pension plan which the company offered. Most of this was kept secret from the employees not in the union leadership until Gary “leaked” it out.
At the time I wasn’t fully involved in this, to be honest. As I mentioned the issues were never really rationally explained . I was working on other areas of my life at this time , paying off bills and job hunting. I still didn’t expect to be at Share that long. Still, I voted against the contract. In principle I agreed with the union struggle and I thought that would be the most “radical” or “progressive” thing for me to do.
The contract was voted down by a large majority. After the “no” vote, the next step would be to go on strike. It was a Friday evening. The expected strike would be on Monday. Informational picketing had begun. Tension was mounting. Then…
The head of the CWA local, Don Tremantozzi, came by . People were angrily milling around the parking lot in front of Share. Don announced that he had information that the CEO of Share, a woman named Susan Paine, was planning a lock out. If there was a strike she would close down the call center and “outsource” it’s work to a non-union call center Share was associated with in Pittsburgh. “She’s a sack of shit”, Don yelled., giving his opinion of Susan Paine.
That evening it was decided to call off the strike. A contract, a modified version of the one that was rejected, was finally agreed on. It was voted on a few days later and passed.
Later on people began to wonder about the “outsourcing” story. How did Tremantozzi know this? The consensus gradually came to be that he was probably making it up. The CWA did not want a strike and wanted to keep everything at Share quiet so they could focus on their activities at Verizon, which was their main concern. The new contract, it turned out, was also terrible. New hires would start at the minimum wage, which then was slightly over $8 an hour. The probation period, in which the new hires couldn’t be in the union and would be on a lower bonus scale, was now three months instead of one month. Health benefits were reduced (It turned out that I got in just under the wire). In addition to all this there was a no strike clause.
Time passed. The call center settled into the usual monotony of any industrial type job. For a while there was some harassment of the “scabs”, people who declared that they wouldn’t support the strike and would cross the picket line, if it did come to a strike. There was name calling, incidents in the hallway, veiled threats. This went on for a while and gradually died down. While I supported the union and I would never “scab”, I can’t entirely blame some people who said they would. Again the issues were never explained, there was little to give new hires a feeling of solidarity, and some people I knew were just barely getting by and desperately needed the money.
About three months after the contract dispute management imposed a call time of 70%. That is one had to be on the phone an average of at least 70% a week or be subject to progressive discipline eventually leading to termination. To be honest I don’t know what the union’s role, if any, was in this. There was some grumbling about the call time but most people seemed to grudgingly accept it. There was a woman who had been there for years, and who had severe obsessive compulsive disorder (I’m not being catty in saying this, I can’t think of any other description). This person (who was not in the union and openly said she would cross the picket line) spent very little time on the phone doing any actual work. There was a fair amount of resentment against this person , people felt the company was literally carrying her, and this led to some support for a mandatory call time.
Again, for a while after that not much happened. There always was a fairly high turnover, with students or recent grads working there for a few months or so and then moving on . There were a core group of long term employees (nick named the “Old Gangsters”) who had been there forever. It eventually came time to hold the annual union elections. The previous head of the local branch, Irv, decided not to run again. He had been subjected to intense hostility and now he didn’t want any part of union work. Two women ran for the position. One woman was a rather diminutive but very aggressive person I will call “Pauline”. Pauline mistrusted the company (and was very vocal about it) and wanted to fight the company’s disciplinary measures every step of the way. Her opponent was a very big African-American woman named Mikki Bell. Mikki was more pro-company and wanted to work with management to make sure everything ran smoothly.
During the campaign Pauline xeroxed some campaign flyers which she handed out to people in the hallway. I thought this was a good idea. On one of her flyers though she called Mikki a “liar” and made other personal attacks against her. Many people during this time thought Pauline was high struck, unstable, and irrational. The large number of newer employers, who now were hired after the labor unrest, mostly students, seemed to think Pauline was a something of a nutcase.
Mikki won the union election by a large margin. I felt bad ,although I had to agree that Pauline was overly high strung. For the long term employees there was almost a hot house atmosphere, the “pro-Pauline” left versus the “pro-Mikki” right. There was bickering between the two camps during this time. I tried to stay out of this . At that time I would have considered myself on as an apathetic “leftist”.
It turned out Mikki was not a nice person. She had a tight knit group of friends, mostly managers, who she hung out with but to everyone else she was very condescending and sarcastic. She would drag her feet in filing grievances.
Once a donor who wasn’t home when I called later on called Share and complained that someone from Share had left heavy breathing on their answering machine. In cases like this Share automatically takes the side of the donor. They have no loyalty whatsoever to their employees. I was written up for a disciplinary violation. I was several steps away from being fired. Of course I had the right to grieve this though the union. Mikki was in charge of my case. She “sat on it” for about a month. I had to be very persistent with her to get her to finally grieve it. Eventually she did. The discipline was reduced, although it was still on my record. I found out things like this were pretty common, Mikki would “sit on” grievances. Two months later I found out that Share had contacted the donor who had complained. He said he probably had been mistaken and had retracted his complaint.. He realized it wasn’t heavy breathing. I possibly had let the answering machine run for a short time before hanging up. Of course there wasn’t a word about this from Mikki.
I have to say that Mikki worked very hard at Share. She averaged around 60 hours a week. After she became head of the union she didn’t call much anymore, and was more involved in training and administrative work. She was said to be making over $20 an hour, far above what most other people were making and some people questioned her being in the union at all. With all that, I had to admire anyone who worked so hard. Perhaps surprisingly I seemed to get along with her pretty well.
I don’t remember the exact time frame but almost a year after the initial labor unrest management announced they would be imposing performance standards. They way this was presented to the employees was odd and even somewhat belligerent. The presentation was tightly controlled. A group of employees were brought into one of the conference rooms. The CEO, Susan Paine, and the union bargaining committee were there. We were briefly told about the new performance standards. There would be a complicated point system, based on a caller’s productivity. This would be deduced from things like number of successful calls, number of credit card pledges received, etc. The highest on the scale would be 120. A caller would have to be in the top 80%. There would be progressive discipline for anyone who got below this, leading to termination within nine weeks. “No one is talking about firing anyone”, the CEO and other managers said. Share certainly didn’t want to fire anyone,. Coaching would be provided to get everyone up to par.
This was presented very tersely. Don Temantozzi, head of the CWA local ,spoke. He was angry at anyone who would challenge the performance standards being imposed. He said he and everyone else on the bargaining committee had worked very hard negotiating this and no one had a right to complain. The way he said this sounded rude and nasty. His sentiments were echoed by several other people on the bargaining committee. Not surprisingly Mikki supported the standards. Most of this time the employees were not allowed to ask questions or speak. We were told that if anyone had questions, they could sign up for designated discussion sessions with the CEO. Chris , who as I mentioned had been fired but was still active in the union, was one of the few members of the bargaining committee to vote against the performance standards. He challenged Tremantozzi and the lack of democracy in the union . Pauline stood next to him The two rebels. The meeting or whatever it was started to turn into a yelling match between Chris and Pauline on one hand, and Tremantozzi on the other hand. A fracas and the meeting was quickly adjourned.
Surprisingly, after the initial announcement and some subsequent grumbling, there was very little protest. This was the complete opposite of the firestorm that was going on when I started work there. Several of the more militant employees had been fired, several quit, and the remaining former militants resigned themselves to the new standards. There was always a high turnover at Share. One evening a few employees organized a small demonstration outside Share protesting the standards. That was the only sign of resistance.
I’ll have to admit here that most of time I was at Share I wasn’t exactly a sterling employee. For the first six months or so I generally did really well. It didn’t think I would be at Share that long and it was never my kind of job. It was extremely boring. It was essentially a sales job. Making money-making the various bonuses or goals, couldn’t motivate me for very long. I grew increasingly cynical about the organizations we called for. Also there was always the constant negativity of being yelled at or hung up on on the phone. My performance went gradually downhill. I also went though a period where I goofed around a lot, although later I toned this down.
It was announced there would be coaching for people whose numbers were consecutively below par, to give employees a chance to improve before the standards were enforced. I was one of those people. I was assigned a coach, a woman I’ll call “Heidi” , a long term employee who supposedly had a background in theatre. Heidi would give me lessons on how to be a better caller. The coaching started off a bit oddly. It was scheduled to start after break, in the second half of a particular shift. Okay, I came back from break a few minutes late. Heidi was about to try to write me up for a disciplinary violation (even though she was just a caller, like me) just as I walked in. Surprisingly though, she was very friendly to me during her lessons.
The first thing Heidi said to me, “Kate..word has it that you hate this job and don’t take it seriously”. Well..I have to admit I probably had been giving that impression. I tried to be as apologetic and conciliatory as I could be with Heidi. During calling, there is free time between calls. Most employees read newspapers or magazines or do crosswords. I was reading the “History of the Russian Revolution” by Leon Trotsky. This provided a different take on the Russian Revolution than I was used to. I’m a historian and to me anyway, it was infinitely more interesting than telemarketing. I’ve known people who otherwise have little use for Trotsky or his politics, say his book is the most exciting work they’ve ever read. Heidi though scolded me for reading a book like that. If I wanted to read anything I should read a newspaper, or better yet do a crossword. I contritely promised her I wouldn’t read books like that at work anymore.
Heidi told me that she loved her job as a caller and that she disagreed with the union. She liked and supported the company . She said I should work to change my attitude–I might even come to like the job and make it a career. Okay. There was zero chance of me ever wanting to make telemarketing a career but I had to play along. The coaching was actually worthwhile-I did get some tips on voice and breath control. The last few coaching sessions with Heidi were odd. She said to me, “Kate, I hear you’ve been telling people you think I make you sound like a guy”. I never said this to anyone. I suspect someone there had been trying to sabotage me and was lying to Heidi about me. At the end of the coaching Heidi said something like, “Kate, I’ve done all I could for you” like she was giving up on me. I thought this was odd. I thought I was very nice to her though out her coaching.
Heidi had a reputation as someone who thought a bit overly much of herself. She took the job very seriously. She often said she thought fundraising/calling was a job one should ideally have an advanced degree for. Earlier, when I first came to Share she gave a training session. It was myself and several students. It was late one Friday night and everyone was anxious to go home. Heidi dragged out the training, making us do role playing skits and voice exercises. Everyone kept looking at the clock. A friend of mine made the “jerk off” sign, implying Heidi was what the British call a “wanker”.
Another time Heidi was giving a briefing. Her explanations were long winded and a bit pompous. She kept saying, “In my professional opinion…” in answer to every question she was asked. Gary ,the Trotskyist film buff ,was there. He said to me,in a low voice, “The emotional insecurity in this place is incredible. Heidi keeps talking about, “my professional opinion..” She doesn’t have a profession, she’s a telemarketer. My lawyer, a guy in his 80s, has been practising law for 50 years and still says, “In my humble opinion…” I think Heidi heard Gary tell this to me and a few other people sitting at the other end of the room..There seemed to be a pall between us after that. Heidi wouldn’t acknowledge me or talk to me much after that.
Time passed. My numbers were still low. I was brought in for the first disciplinary hearing. There was a committee made up of managers. Mikki was there as the union rep to streamline the process. I asked how many weeks I had left. “No one’s talking about firing”, was the answer Susan Paine, the general director/partial owner of the call center relied. If no one was talking about firing, then why the performance standards.? I pressed my question. It turned out I had nine weeks left. Enough time to find something else, I thought. I got my first write up. Nine more and I’d be out. I told this to several of the more militant union people after my disciplinary meeting was over. They scolded me for not getting a union rep of my choice. Mikki was regarded as really working for management. “Its your job on the line, Kate”.
Suddenly, without telling anyone, the performance standards were quietly dropped. It turned out there were some loop holes. One of these concerned ACLU calls. A fair number of callers had been telling the prospective donors that it was a renewal call, that they could renew their ACLU membership when they couldn’t. The calls for the “campaigns” which were currently running were”special appeal” calls in Share jargon, basically a routine request for more money. The company apparently knew people were doing this and turned a blind eye. Callers who did this performed much better on this call. This was something which could be challenged. No announcements were made but the coaching abruptly stopped as did the progressive discipline.