"Street Heat" Is Coming Down On Tucson's Low-Wage Telemarketing Industry
By J.E. Relly
MARINA WALDRIP WAS fired from her Tucson telemarketing job awhile back.
Not an unusual occurrence, really--most of Tucson's 15,000 or so telemarketing workers face a cynical and exploitative revolving door policy at all but a few local shops. If they're fired--or, just as likely, laid off--at one place, usually they can go down the street and pick up another job--for the same whopping $7.75 an hour.
Labor activists agree Waldrip's experience in Tucson's low-wage telemarketing industry is sadly typical. But in these heady days following the Teamsters' successful strike against United Parcel Service nationally, and the SunTran bus system locally--not to mention a resurging interest in workers' rights generally--Tucson's dozens of large telemarketing firms will soon find themselves targeted for a big union-organizing attack.
And the overriding issue, the activists say, will not be the industry's tradionally abysmal pay scale--although, of course, that's a major concern. The real issue, they predict, will boil down to fairness and simple human dignity.
Waldrip, 19, was fired from Teletech Teleservices, a publicly owned company traded on the NASDAQ exchange, with roughly 1,500 employees here, as well as operations in more than a dozen other states and overseas. In Tucson, the company handles customer inquiries for United Parcel Service, among other duties.
Waldrip was fired for...well, let her tell it:
"They had this three-strikes-you're-out policy. And you had different categories you could get infractions in, and one of them was poor time management. I was hired there in May, I came back late from a break in June and was written up, so I had one strike against me.
"Each strike you get has a six-month lifespan. It's taken off if you don't do anything else bad during that time.
"But at the very end of November they'd been having a problem with people unplugging their telephones so the calls wouldn't come in. And they sent around a memo saying if you were caught doing this, you'd automatically get two strikes against you.
"Well, I unplugged my phone to buckle my shoe--I swear to God I had it unplugged for like 60 seconds--and my supervisor came by and saw me and wrote me up for that.
"So I was fired a few weeks before I would've gotten my Christmas bonus and my benefits; and I'd just gotten a raise of 14 cents."
Funny thing, Waldrip says--a lot of people at Teletech seemed to lose their jobs just before their bonus and benefits vested.
At least Waldrip, who now works at the Humane Society of Tucson, didn't have a family to support. Not that anyone could seriously support a family on the roughly $15,000 annual take-home pay, a salary for which workers often find themselves enduring draconian management practices:
"There were two middle-aged women my team, both trying to support themselves and their children," she recalls. "And both were told they had to raise the number of calls they handled or they'd be fired."
Large numbers of Teletech workers were warned to up their numbers or face dismissal, says another former Teletech employee, who asked not to be identified. "The management said you have to do this and this, or you're going to get fired."
But the resulting stress caused a number of workers to quit, the former employee says, so management changed strategy: "Then they told everybody to relax, that they weren't going to write everyone up and fire people like they said. But then they came up with something else."
That "something else," she says, involved tweaking the computers the workers use to trace shipments: "There are certain tracers that have an urgency clock on them, and the computer will tick down, and if the call doesn't get answered within a certain time, it will beep. When we were first working there, only a certain type of call would do that. But then they increased that pressure to include three other types of traces. So instead of getting four or five urgents a day, you were getting 20 or 30 urgents a day."
The customer calls are stressful enough, even without the punitive vigilance of management, according to Waldrip. She describes the job as basically soothing the ire of callers upset because UPS has lost their important packages.
"The job involves tracking packages, running traces. Really what it boils down to is trying to cover UPS' butt. Callers get abusive occasionally, and you can't just hang up. You have to say, 'I'm going to check on this tomorrow for you. If you have any questions, please call back.' "
While Teletech phone workers are supervised by UPS personnel--who, incidentally, are paid considerably more--Waldrip complains the workers don't have all the tracing tools available to UPS. "So dealing with irate callers, coupled with not having enough resources to actually do your job, makes it pretty stressful."
And then there's the little matter of bathroom breaks, which, when Waldrip was there, were closely monitored for some employees of Teletech's customer service division:
"It was bizarre, they'd have to sign out to go to the bathroom," she recalls. "And they had to provide an explanation if they took any longer than five minutes. They had to say, like, 'I was having a really bad period,' or something like that."
IF CALL CENTERS like Teletech aren't exactly the brutal sweatshops of America's infamous industrial past, they're certainly a modern-day white-collar bastard grandson, in the opinion of union activists like Mike McGrath, president of the Communications Workers of America, Local 7026.
McGrath says "the dignity issues" among telecommunications workers have reached a critical mass around Tucson because "the employers want to take all they possibly can out of a human being."
McGrath and CWA organizer Miguel Guzmán, a former Teletech "quality coach," have publicly put the entire Tucson telemarketing and customer-service industry on notice: CWA is out to organize as many of the industry's workers as it can. The local is taking on dozens of call centers, from America Online to Quantas Airways to United Airlines Mileage Plus, Inc.
Out-of-state organizers have already been to town to confer with the local, which is at liberty to tap support and resources from its progressive 650,000 international members.
During the past year, Local 7026, with some 1,350 members, has received calls from dozens of workers throughout the city who complain they're operating under egregious conditions inside teleservice boiler rooms. The workers complain of threats, intimidation and harassment from employers.
Local 7026 has responded with TELESIS, an association serving as a clearinghouse for voicing industry improprieties among teleservices workers, regardless of their employer.
"We approached CWA and they tried to help us," says Guzmán of his last days at Teletech. "Teletech outright said I was fired for organizing, which is actually against federal law. But they didn't make that mistake twice--the people who came after, of course, were fired for any number of reasons, from absences to being late."
McGrath and Guzmán, co-directors of TELESIS, and an arsenal of volunteers, are organizing for an industry-wide campaign. The vehicle: "Use your imagination and that's what we'll do," says McGrath. "We'll go out through the unions, through community groups."
Since telemarketers and customer-service workers are estimated to live in roughly 1 in 20 Tucson households, the organizers predict finding mistreated workers won't be difficult.
The association is to be governed by industry workers and supported by CWA. "Our goal is to give workers alternatives...so they can help to educate other workers in the field to what's made available to these centers, such as city money, state training money, executive pay."
For a $2 monthly membership in the association, workers will receive a local newsletter covering industry issues ranging from pay scales to employer ratings. TELESIS membership perks include numerous CWA union privileges: discounted credit cards, car rentals, dental and vision plans, discounts on buying and selling homes, free accident and life insurance. CWA also plans to showcase corporations employing union workers.
"The CWA operators at AT&T operator services are making a little over $16 an hour," says McGrath, "with a $10-an-hour benefit package."
"The ball's in the employer's court," says Guzmán. "Do they want to be an example to the rest of the industry, or do they want to be dragged into this?"
"Street heat is coming and it's going to come hard," adds McGrath. "Our members will be active here in Union City. We're basically going to get in the face of Corporate America because we're not going to stand for this anymore. If low wage, low-dignity employers choose to leave Tucson, we've lost nothing."
The Job Ahead
How The AFL-CIO Is Jump-Starting Tucson Locals.
TWO YEARS AGO, Ray Figueroa witnessed history as a southern Arizona Central Labor Council delegate to the AFL-CIO convention in New York.
He saw cranky AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland ousted in a fiercely contested election. Some charged Kirkland had scarcely worked a day in his life, instead choosing to fraternize with Washington's power elite.
A diverse triumvirate replaced the old guard in this successful "insurgent" campaign: John Sweeney was elected president; his leadership of the Service Employees International Union had nearly doubled national membership. Linda Chavez-Thompson, a union leader born of sharecropper parents, became the first person of color elected to the executive office. And Richard Trumka, a third-generation coal miner who led the United Mine Workers through two major strikes, was voted Secretary-Treasurer.
The new leaders vowed to change the national trend of declining union membership.
And now Sweeney's vision of a more militant unionism, of corporate campaigns and boycotts, of unions with political clout in a social-democratic tradition, has come to southern Arizona, which has seen two decades of sporadic union busting, employer-biased legislation and a generally passive labor scene.
With corporate downsizing, outsourcing and growing numbers of part-time workers without benefits, the AFL-CIO is pushing its nearly 30 southern Arizona affiliates to recruit new union members and mobilize against anti-union employers in "Street Heat," the federation's new solidarity and rapid-response campaign.
In a bid to boost union membership to the highs of the '40s and '50s, the AFL-CIO is urging state locals and the internationals to spend up to 40 percent of their finances on organizing--this following a decade in which unions reportedly spent as little as 3 percent of their budgets on bolstering membership. As in the union heyday of old, there's even a drive underway to align church and community groups with the growing labor movement.
Jerry Acosta, a labor movement strategic planner and organizer, came to Arizona last March to help trigger a membership groundswell (See related story). His strategy: Mobilize "good leader organizers, good organizing programs" and press the internationals and the locals to follow the plan with dollars.
"The potential for increasing union density here is enormous," says Acosta, "potentially more than any state in the country."
Here's the situation in some of Tucson's major labor areas:
DESPITE UNITED PARCEL Service and SunTran workers' successful strikes recently, Cliff Davis, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 104, says his organizers are just now getting a foothold in Tucson.
Davis, who estimates Local 104 has nearly doubled the funds it applies toward organizing, says workers are constantly calling in and asking to be a part of the Teamsters. "But if you're afraid you're going to lose your job, or the job is going to be transferred to Mexico or another country, some people are reluctant to do it." Still, the local is working to turn up the heat, he says.
Its most recent effort, the SunTran strike, came down to inadequate pay, Davis notes, adding, "Do you think you could survive on $6.75 an hour?"
Teamsters International President Ron Carey set up a squad of experts to help local presidents restructure and lift membership. Nationally, the union has trained more than 200 organizers to run rank-and-file local campaigns, and already Teamsters are winning some 40 percent more elections.
"I've met Ron Carey on numerous occasions," Davis says, "and he indicates we need to organize more and get more people on board. We're going to fulfill that obligation, even in this right-to-work state."
Local 104 employs a part-time organizer in Tucson, and with four industry campaigns in the works, there are an estimated 300 workers to organize.
But Davis won't divulge targeted employers' names just yet, "because I don't think the petitions are all in. I don't want to forewarn anybody. But before Christmas, there will be elections."
PHYSICIANS AT THOMAS-Davis Medical Centers contacted the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees last September, after they learned of the impending sale of Thomas-Davis to the San Diego-based FPA Management Company.
Since Larry Shade arrived to direct the healthcare union in Tucson last May, some 140 Thomas-Davis physicians and 482 support staff have signed on for representation through the National Labor Relations Board.
The union has filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB, and in the midst of the workplace disquietude, 53 physicians have resigned, adding an increased work burden to support staff.
"The [medical assistants], office specialists and licensed practical nurses' loads have doubled with no added compensation," Shade says. "They don't get lunches. They don't get breaks. They barely have time to use the restroom. It's just expected of them to pick up the load."
On September 8, the NLRB is representing the union physicians in an injunction filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson. If successful, FPA will have to offer back pay and jobs to physicians who've departed. Also, any changes the company has made in physicians' working conditions would revert back to practices before the election. And a ruling in favor of the union would force FPA to the collective-bargaining table.
Shade, regional director for the union, came from a successful campaign in Southern California, where he helped organize 2,600 nurses in six chain-owned hospitals.
"We hope to show [FPA] what they have to lose," Shade says of the corporation which owns Thomas-Davis. In July, FPA listed its nationwide assets at a value of $1.2 billion.
Shade's labor roots go back 10 years, when he and 3,500 members of the United Paper Workers International Union Local 1787 went on strike in Lockhaven, Pennsylvania. He traveled the country soliciting support, setting up rallies and press conferences. Then he spent a year working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, moving to healthcare organizing in 1989.
In June, healthcare union organizers drew in dozens of representatives from various community organizations for a working dinner that began the Quality Health Care Coalition of Arizona, an advisory reform group. Ron De Schalit, a community activist and former player with the Pima County Democratic Party, was hired as a consultant to the coalition.
The idea is to "use the power of the people" to help FPA "to realize that to sit down and negotiate with the people is the right thing to do," Shade says.
In early July, at the coalition's first rally, the union's national president and lifelong civil rights activist, Henry Nicholas, flew in to present the group with a $10,000 check. State Rep. Andy Nichols, a physician, and City Councilmember Steve Leal spoke.
The coalition now has a mailing list of more than 1,200 people, and plans to participate in the Reid Park Labor Day rally, a militant Halloween, and a booth at Tour de Tucson.
De Schalit sees the coalition as a watchdog that keeps tabs on the healthcare industry. He hopes that within a year the group may advise the Pima County Board of Supervisors and Tucson City Council on healthcare issues. He'd also like to see the coalition lobby state legislators for progressive laws to protect HMO patients.
The union plans to assist as many as 10,000 southern Arizona healthcare workers in organizing, and it's accustomed to hanging in for the long haul. Shade says during his last effort in San Diego, it took two years to organize the nurses, and eight months to reach the bargaining table. During that time, the union didn't collect any dues.
"Unions aren't a utopia, but they're the best situation workers have going for them," Shade says.
To date, he says, workers at four Tucson hospitals have contacted him about the possibility of organizing. He's met with these workers to answer questions ranging from worker's rights to the state right-to-work law. When there's interest in worker unification, Shade lays out organizing A to Z.
While the support unit workers at Thomas-Davis have not ruled out a strike, Shade says, "Although it's a powerful weapon, I don't believe striking is the way to go. There are other ways in today's economy to apply pressure, such as 'working to rule,' or following every policy or rule the boss has to the exact letter: Don't work any overtime. Do exactly what you're supposed to do, but nothing else." Currently, the union is not employing such tactics at Thomas-Davis.
"Thomas-Davis' strategy," Shade theorizes, "is if they can get enough physicians to quit, eventually that's going to have an impact on the support staff, because they need people to work for. If enough people lose jobs, there's not going to be anything there for the union...so they'll come back in a year and try to get rid of the union. Every time a doctor leaves, that's a victory for Thomas-Davis management."
Meanwhile, patients, physicians, support staff and coalition members have launched a steady postcard campaign aimed at Thomas-Davis and FHP. The cards urge the company to "begin negotiations today," adding that union representation is necessary to "protect...decent patient care."
Thomas-Davis and FPA have responded with full-page ads in The Arizona Daily Star: "We're listening to more than our patients' hearts...Since 1920, Thomas-Davis Medical Centers have honored a promise to the community: to provide the highest quality of patient care...When it comes to patient care, we listen very carefully."
Food And Commercial
SINCE HEALTHCARE morphed into massive, nationwide chain competition, almost every union in the AFL-CIO has had its hand in organizing the healthcare workers. Two years ago, one of the largest unions in Arizona, the Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 99 held elections at St. Mary's Hospital, but lost.
"We don't go through the National Labor Relations Board anymore," says Paul Rubin, southern Arizona director of Local 99, which has some 4,000 members.
The NLRB organizes elections for workers seeking union recognition, but unions are said to lose about three out of four of those votes. The AFL-CIO is urging its unions, when possible, to ditch formal elections, instead opting for aggressive campaigns to persuade employers to see the advantages in simply recognizing a majority of employee-signed "authorization cards" as reason enough to go union.
Corporate management has become adept at using the NLRB process in sabotaging elections, avoiding collective bargaining, and tying the unions up in court for years (See "Time Is The Enemy," page 17). In the 1950s, 85 percent of all election victories resulted in a first contract. Today, that figure is less than one half, according AFL-CIO figures.
Last year, in a nationwide campaign, the Food and Commercial Workers Union proved bypassing the NLRB and formal elections can work when they mounted an organizing drive that resulted in 70,000 new members. Local 99 is ahead of the organizing curve in Arizona. Back in 1991, the union launched a 17-month Smitty's Stores campaign, flew in several out-of-state organizers and spent several millions in Arizona. In the end, the union gained a few thousand rank-and-file workers.
The union recently sponsored 70 members in a two-day organizing training session. The workers will eventually take leaves of absence to assist in several regional organizing campaigns. Local 99 represents 80 percent of workers in most Tucson supermarkets, along with workers for companies such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Waste Management.
"We basically go after the company at every possible level we can," says Rubin of the union's attempt to retrieve market share. If unions lose members and competing stores begin paying lower wages, when the contracts are up, union stores say they can't give raises and compete, he says.
In its ongoing market-share campaign, the union is sponsoring a blitz of radio messages urging consumers to "shop union," and plans a flood of TV and newspaper ads this fall. Local 99 also is papering neighborhoods adjacent to the non-union Southwest Supermarkets with unflattering sanitation reports issued by the Pima County Health Department.
In its Albertson's campaign, the union has purchased company stock, thus obtaining a voice at board meetings. At the same time, the international union is supporting a class-action suit against the grocery chain, alleging numerous workers are encouraged to finish duties off the clock.
"They've tried to keep the union out, so they pay pretty much what the union wage is," says Rubin. "But when you get paid for 40 hours and maybe work 50, that's a lower wage.
"These companies are so huge, they have such capital assets to fight you, that the battle has to be fought everywhere," he says, adding the Albertson's campaign is likely to be a long struggle. "The company holds regular meetings with their employees, telling them how horrible the unions are."
ON TUCSON'S southside, America West Airlines employees are engrossed in their own organizing struggle.
As the flight staff signed off on 70 percent of the union cards and came closer to elections with the Transport Workers Union, management removed union information from an "employee-to-employee" bulletin board. Enforcing a tyrannical version of company law, a manager wrote in a "mandatory-reading" interoffice memo to Tucson America West employees:
"I know that we have TWU activity in our station and that buttons, pins, pencil clips, and stickers have been made available to some of you...I must remind each of you that pins, buttons, stickers or posters that aren't distributed by and/or approved by America West are prohibited. TWU paraphernalia cannot be worn by any employee while on duty, distributed on America West property, or posted on any America West property and/or equipment..."
And the battle continues.
FROM HIS SPARTAN office at the Gateway Industrial Park on South Park Avenue, Ray Figueroa represents nine southern Arizona locals for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union is turning up the organizing heat to remedy a regional membership drop; a full-time organizer is in place to increase the union muscle in this sector.
In a move toward increasing visibility and membership interest, the union is offering "Lunch-and-Learn" presentations to public workers at venues ranging from the state Internal Revenue Service to the Arizona Department of Transportation to the Department of Corrections.
Over the years, the union has gotten bogged down in representing non-union employees in accordance with state and federal laws. "In TUSD, for example, if an employee not in the union gets in trouble, we have to represent him," Figueroa says. "He's getting a free ride and he knows it and takes advantage of it." Figueroa says the union has been lobbying for a state "Fair Share" bill, which would enable unions to charge for the services rendered to non members, or like other states, the employee would pay the same amount in dues to a charity.
Public sector unions are saddled with another vexation. "Most governing boards take the position that they cannot enter into a collective-bargaining agreement because it gives away their authority," says Figueroa, citing the Pima County Board of Supervisors, Tucson City Council, Tucson Unified School District and the Arizona Board of Regents. "Management for years has recognized the need to organize within their own ranks. They have the Leagues of Towns and Cities. They have the association of administrators...association of university presidents.
"They understand there's more clout in numbers. They just don't want us to be able to do it."
Several years ago the union was organizing at the University of Arizona and "tried to get recognition from the university for dues deduction, which was allowed for football, United Way, and other nonprofit organizations," says Figueroa. "The regents said they'd give us that if we could show we had 50 percent of the employees signed up [for the union] on all three campuses." That translated into 10,000 signatures. "Yes, I believe it was a roadblock to keep us out. All we were asking for was the same treatment. We're a nonprofit."
The union has resumed a dialogue with UA professors, lab workers, secretaries, office managers, administrators and maintenance workers seeking representation. "We will quietly organize until we have enough people to start going public," Figueroa says.
Hotel And Restaurant
WHILE POWERHOUSE Local 226 of the Culinary Workers in Las Vegas has more than doubled its size in 10 years to some 43,000 workers, the parent Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union has not gained a grip on the hospitality industry in Tucson.
Last year, the union lost elections with resort food service workers at Tucson's Westin La Paloma Resort.
CARPENTERS' UNION LOCAL 408 has been all but shut out of residential housing.
Don Fornear, president of the Southern Arizona Building Trades Council, says after the mining boom and the non-union contracting fever in southern Arizona residential housing, the crafts/tradesworker unions couldn't buy a job. Fornear refers to a trial practice more than 20 years ago, where unions bid low on projects and offered a couple of dollars subsidy to the member's hourly pay. Even that tactic didn't stop some 400 statewide contractors from going non-union.
By the early '70s, with the promise of union wages and a truck, subcontractors were luring the professional journeyworker onto residential sites to teach inexperienced workers. Once the contractor had a cadre of minimally trained workers, "they'd dump that guy, and drop the wage to the next guy down," Fornear says.
Carpenters' Local 408 is circulating fliers on residential construction sites and trying to incite interest in union membership among the estimated 7,000 workers considered eligible as carpenters or apprentices. The largest turnout at organizing meetings has been 35 workers.
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