Asheville workers in ‘historic’ organizing effort
Some 600 call center workers, employees of the customer service provider Sitel in Asheville, got a big boost this week in their struggle to organize a union and bargain a contract for a better life with a feature story in the Mountain Xpress.
“Across the parking lot stands the Sitel call center, a windowless block structure flanked by a Walmart and a Mexican restaurant. Inside, some 600 people provide customer service, primarily for the health-insurance and financial industries. An older woman leaving the building takes a flier and stops to chat with the men, promising to consider the information. “I may as well, with the pay like it is here,” she says.
The men are organizers with Local 238 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Together with a growing number of Sitel employees, they’re trying to do something that’s rare in North Carolina and downright unheard of here in the mountains: form a union.”
Higher wages and better benefits are the reasons many people cite when talking about why workers organize. But protecting their dignity and respect on the job are also key motivators.
The “straw that broke the camel’s back was when the company closed the women’s bathroom for repairs in May of last year, leaving only a co-ed restroom with eight stalls for all the workers,” reports the Mountain Xpress:
By November, the women’s room was still closed and the situation had become intolerable, numerous workers say. Several employees said 57 of them had signed a petition requesting better bathroom conditions. After several weeks of silence, they report, management instructed them to bring any future complaints to them privately.
After first being ignored and then being told to keep quiet, that’s when one Sitel worker, Ken Ashworth, called for backup from IBEW (http://callcenterunion.org/).
Organizers from Local 238 responded:
“Most people don’t even realize unions are here,” notes Josh Rhodes, who handles membership development for Local 238. Seated with other union heads in the IBEW hall, he continues, “All of us sitting here have worked union our entire lives. We know the difference; we feel everyone has the right to it. As a union, we feel we have to help these people.”
The Mountain Xpress says, Sitel, which operates 29 call centers in the United States, “had revenues of $1.3 billion in 2011, according to Onex, a private equity firm.”
But top pay – except for managers – in the Asheville call center is just $9.50 an hour – less than a living wage. Workers told the paper that health insurance premiums can eat up to half of wages, and some employees have to rely on food pantries to make ends meet.
“I have never seen a company run like this,” Brian Lane declares. “I’m here to work; I have a wife and children to support, and these people are sitting here making money hand over fist off the sweat of my back.” [...]
“I stand in line to get food for my family because I can’t afford enough from my paycheck to live — that’s not a living wage,” he asserts. “If I’m willing to bust my ass like the 500-plus other people here, we should be paid enough that we don’t have to stand on breadlines.”
As more employees like Lane reach their resistance point, they are joining the push for the union. Supporter Deborah Cook told the Mountain Xpress that Sitel is taking note:
“They [management] are afraid of us.” But many workers, she continues, still worry about losing their job if they support the union.
Since the organizing drive began, Sitel has hired a high-profile, union-busting, national law firm, Ogletree-Deakins, and the company has begun forcing employees to attend captive-audience meetings.
Meanwhile, Local 238 has had to file four charges of Unfair Labor Practices with the National Labor Relations Board, including allegations that the company threatened to fire Ashworth for union activity, threw away union materials found on workers’ desks, and forbid workers from displaying union posters
The company has even tried to prohibit employees from talking about work and the union on social media, which workers have defied by creating their own Facebook page.
There’s a reason why the organizing drive at Sitel seems unprecedented. As NC State AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer MaryBe McMillan told the Mountain Xpress, “Historically, there’s been such a culture against unions, people don’t even understand what their rights are. A lot of workers are afraid.”
Why is that changing? MaryBe McMillan:
“Our economy is shifting away from good-paying jobs to these low-wage, service-sector, Wal-Mart-type jobs. I think more workers are realizing someone’s getting rich off their labor, and it’s not them.”
Workers at Sitel and elsewhere are connecting the dots between the abuses of organized greed and the ability of organized workers to stop them. And that truth is setting them free:
“Nobody sets out to change the world, but it happens in little leaps and bounds, like this. I’m not afraid anymore.” — Ken Ashworth, Sitel worker, to the Mountain Xpress
The unions of the NC State AFL-CIO stand in solidarity with the brave workers at Sitel in Asheville, NC – and workers everywhere – who have resolved to work together without fear to secure and defend their chance at a better life for themselves and their families.