CHARLESTON, S.C. - Employees at a T-Mobile call center here say they endure a constant battle against the stress that comes from unrealistic performance standards, job insecurity and humiliation. At a "Speak Out" event earlier this year, T-Mobile's Charleston employees provided testimony to the working conditions at the call center.
Of the more than 300 workers at this call center, 75 percent are African American, and many are women and single parents struggling to support their families.
In addition to dealing with customer inquiries, the workers are required to meet a sales quota of $29 dollars per productive hour while ensuring that calls last under six minutes. This means that while assisting a disgruntled customer with resolving a problem, the employee must maintain quota by making a sale and adding charges - and all within six minutes. Not only does this aggravate an already upset customer, it also generates considerable frustration and stress for the employee. Angry customers mean poor customer feedback, and customer feedback determines employees' salary and bonus rewards. Sales targets take precedence over customer concerns at T-Mobile, and not meeting quota could result in punishment or termination. Workers must find a way to balance satisfying the required quota and preserving customer satisfaction, while facing humiliation from their supervisors in an effort to encourage productivity. This results in an unbearably stressful working environment for the employees.
Job insecurity consumes T-Mobile call center employees in Charleston. Besides the fear of their jobs being offshored to foreign countries, they say they worry constantly about job loss and termination for minor mistakes. Management treats call center workers as if they are completely expendable. According to a report released by the Communications Workers of America, a company message mistakenly sent to all employees at the call center indicated management's desire to terminate a certain number of workers each month.
Employees faced with such a difficult working environment would seem to deserve to mobilize and demand better for themselves. Unfortunately, neither T-Mobile or South Carolina's governor, Nikki Haley, are shy about their opposition to unions and collective bargaining.
T-Mobile has always been openly committed to operating union-free in the U.S. and urges its managers to discourage union organizing. Call center trainees are advised to stay away from unions and are shown anti-union PowerPoint presentations during new employee orientation. Adams, Nash, Haskell & Sheridan, a firm dedicated to "union avoidance," wrote T-Mobile's 2003 training manual, which instructs management on how to thwart union organizing attempts. The firm offers strategies on ways to avoid unionization and prevent interference by third parties with employers' productivity and profits. T-Mobile also hires attorneys and human resources staff skilled in dodging organizing attempts.
After the "Speak Out" event where workers testified about the conditions they face, management held meetings to discourage union involvement and portrayed unions as threatening, stating that union membership meant signing away your rights.
Gov. Haley expresses pride in the fact that South Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the country. She is a self-appointed "union-buster" and strong supporter of tough "right-to-work" laws, which cripple union organization and reduce wages. In fact, according to information from a news release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Carolina has experienced a decrease in wages since Haley took office in 2011. The evidence indicates she cares only for the protection and success of big businesses and nothing for the well-being of the state's working people.
At the Speak Out, the call center employees explained that they love their work and find satisfaction in helping customers solve their problems, but the stress at T-Mobile makes it difficult for them to do their job. They simply requested the peace of mind to not have to worry about job loss due to offshoring or termination for slight mistakes, and to be able to collectively organize so they can communicate their needs and demands for better treatment to their employer.
It often seems as if the odds are against call center workers in Charleston. They are up against the widespread fear that any action to improve their work environment would create a backlash from both a fiercely anti-union company, and a governor who threatens that unions "are not needed, not wanted and not welcome in the State of South Carolina."
Despite these obstacles, Charleston call center workers continue to fight for their right to work without fear. They have the support of local elected officials, community members and students. And they are backed by a global campaign that includes the Communication Workers of America, ver.di, Germany's largest union, and other unions around the world. All these people will stand by the workers in their continuing efforts to organize and put an end to T-Mobile's behavior.
Video: T-Mobile workers Joyce Bellamy and Roland Ellis discuss their campaign for respect on the job with Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, and Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.
Photo: At the T-Mobile Speak-Out in Charleston, S.C., T-Mobile workers Joyce Bellamy, left, and Roland Ellis, second from right, speak with Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation, and CWA President Larry Cohen, February 2013. CWA photo.