A Call Center Coup: Ex-Teamster Boots Riley Tackles Telemarketing And its Discontents

by Steve Early

When I was a union rep, one of my most challenging assignments was assisting a Communications Workers of America (CWA) bargaining unit at a Boston-area telemarketing firm. Most CWA members in New England had call center jobs at the phone company, with good pensions, health insurance, and full-time salaries. As service reps, they fielded in-coming calls from customers with problems, questions, or new orders to place. In contrast, the telemarketing staff only interacted with the public, on behalf of various clients, via out-bound calling. Like the workers depicted in Boots Riley’s hilarious new film, Sorry to Bother You, they made cold calls to people who did not want to bothered, at dinner time or anytime, with a pitch for a new product, service, or donation to a political cause.

            Even with a union contract, CWA’s telemarketing members in Somerville, Mass. were an unhappy lot—and for good reason. Their work was machined-paced by a “predictive dialer.” The quality of the lists they called, for fund-raising purposes, varied widely. Their base pay was low and earning more required navigating a byzantine bonus system.  Benefit coverage was skimpy compared to the phone company. Yet, when we tried to negotiate improvements, a company whose clients included major environmental groups and Howard Dean’s presidential campaign hired Jackson, Lewis, a leading anti-union law firm to drag out bargaining for months and soak up money that could have been spent on its workers.

This particular call center was filled with “over-educated” part-timers, juggling other jobs or careers, because it did offer flexible hours. Nobody planned to stay long, however, because who wants to spend all day enduring rejection—hang-ups, name-calling, cursing, or long conversations with lonely people who end up giving or ordering nothing, because they are short on cash too.

            Amid such shop-floor frustration and discontent, the telemarketing industry does produce stars–brilliant phone conversationalists who can charm almost anyone out of a few bucks for a magazine subscription, a charitable organization, political cause or candidate. Now 48 years old, Boots Riley was briefly one of those top performers when a mid-1990s downturn in his music career forced the founder of The Coup to seek employment in what is now a $24 billion industry.  He had already done a stint, as a Teamster part-timer, loading packages for UPS in Oakland; this time, to pay the rent, he picked up a headset instead, at a call center in Berkeley. As Riley’s hometown alternative weekly, The East Bay Express revealed last week, he toiled under “a punk manager with an anarchy tattoo who enticed workers with cash bonuses to ‘make the grid,’ office parlance for raising money. “

            A co-worker familiar with his rap albums recalls hearing Boots use “the same gravely, raspy voice, I knew from Genocide & Juice going, ‘Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but…’” Riley put his past experience as a door-to-door salesman to good use, carefully calibrating his pitch for each assigned fund-raising project. “It was me using my creativity for manipulative purposes,” he confessed to the EBE. “Like an artist who could make a cultural imprint instead figures out what font makes you buy cereal.”

Manic Energy

            Fortunately, for millions of potential viewers of Sorry to Bother You, Riley has also found a way to turn his call center experience—shared by millions of other U.S. workers—into a rare Hollywood film dealing with race, class, and the tension between personal ambition and collective action in the workplace. The first-time director employs the manic energy of a Spike Lee movie, rather than the slow, last century pacing of Jon Sayles, to produce one of the best depictions of labor organizing since Matewan (or Norma Rae and Bread and Roses, for that matter).

The workers involved aren’t the usual blue-collar union suspects—i.e. mill workers, coal miners, or immigrant janitors. Instead, they’re Bay Area denizens of the “new economy,” multi-racial millennial office workers stuck on the lower rungs of a regional job market offering tantalizing riches (and even affordable housing) for some, but a far more precarious existence for many others.

In Riley’s film, which opened nationwide last week, his fictional alter-ego is Cassius (“Cash”) Green, a struggling young native of Oakland played by Lakeith Stanfield. Cash is behind on his rent and living with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in the converted garage of his uncle, whose home is facing foreclosure. “I just really, really need a job,” he desperately informs his soon-to-be-boss at Regal View, an Oakland telemarketer. Instructed, as all new hires are, to “stick to the script,” Cash stumbles through his first days of toil in a grim, crowded room full of partitioned workstations. Before being sent to their cubbyholes to dial for dollars each morning, Cash and his fellow “team members’ are subjected to a pep rally, led by managers who range from the moronic to demonic. (One urges them to employ their “social currency” to better “bag and tag” customers.)

Cash does poorly, with his phone contacts, until an older African-American colleague (Danny Glover) offers him some elder wisdom. “Hey, young blood. Let me give you a tip. Use your ‘white voice.’”  Once any hint of Cash’s race or class background is scrubbed clean from his delivery, he starts making powerful connections with his telemarketing targets, zooming quite literally into their living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and even bathrooms to make sales.

 His reward, before long, is promotion to “power caller.” He becomes part of the Regal View elite, working many floors above the low-dollar calling room floor,  in office splendor of the Silicon Valley corporate campus sort. Cash now wears a suit and tie to work, carries a brief case, and makes marketing calls to potential multi-million dollar clients of Worry Free. The latter is a global manpower agency led by Steve Lift, a tech industry titan with adoring fans and a new book entitled I’m On Top. Played by Arnie Hammer, the charismatic Lift is a cross between Steve Jobs and Hugh Hefner. Among Cash’s rewards for being a top “power caller” is the chance to party with Lift at his Playboy-style mansion; there he gets offered an even more lucrative but truly compromising position at Worry Free.

Revolt of the Precariat

Meanwhile, down in the lower depths of Regal View, a revolt of the precariat has been brewing—and before his personal ambition got the best of him Cash was part of it. Led by Squeeze, a young Asian-American caller (Steven Yeun), the “lowly regular telemarketers” are secretly planning to unionize. On an agreed upon day, all head sets are downed, fists get thrust into the air, and the telemarketers

stage a 20-minute work stoppage, chanting “Fuck you, pay me” (no messaging confusion there).

As this labor-management dispute escalates into a full-blown strike replete with mass picketing and police brutality reminiscent of Occupy Oakland, Cash crosses the picket-line, only to become increasingly distraught by the choice he has made and ambivalent about its material rewards (a fancy car and swank new downtown Oakland loft!). “I’m doing something I’m really good at,” he tells one striker. “I’ll root for you from the sidelines.” But that’s not good enough for his feisty and creative girlfriend who threatens to leave him.

In the end, faced with the loss of Detroit and permanent estrangement from his own community and former co-workers, Cash becomes a fellow rebel against the worldview represented by Regal View and Worry Free. He blows the whistle on the latter’s sci-fi scheme to bio-engineer greater labor productivity and enslave workers, under the guise of providing them with “lifetime housing and jobs.”

            The movie has a happier ending for the employees of Regal View than Riley’s real life co-workers experienced several years after the director left Stephen Dunn & Associates, the telemarketing firm that employed him in Berkeley more than two decades ago. In 1999, the East Bay Express reports, staff members there began a four-year struggle for union recognition, aided by Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Their long legal battle, against blatant union-busting, only ended when management moved the whole call center to Los Angeles.

            In Sorry to Bother You, Steve Lift, the evil CEO of Worry Free, ends up reaping what he sowed. If only more workers struggles had a similar denouement, we’d all be better off. In the meantime, Boots Riley—Oakland activist, musician, and now film-maker extraordinaire—has made labor organizing in an almost entirely non-union industry seem doable and definitely worth the bother.

(Steve Early was a telecom industry organizer and union representative for 27 years. He is the author of four books on labor and politics, including Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City, published by Beacon Press last year. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)

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TGIF Steals Tips of Workers in UK

 

IUF worker solidarity appeal

 

 

 

 

Workers at two UK restaurants of the US-based franchise chain TGI Friday’s struck for 24 hours on May 18 after being given two days’ notice that they would be stripped of 40% of their income from tips – a loss of up to GBP 250 per month. Workers at two other TGI Friday’s locations have voted 100% in favor of possible strike action on June 25, with other locations set to follow.

As the strikes commenced on May 18, the IUF-affiliated Unite held lunchtime rallies at the restaurants to support the strikers before moving on to a mass low-pay rally in Central London including McDonald’s workers.

You can support the fight back against exploitation and low pay – CLICK HERE to send a message to CEO Karen Forrester, telling the company you support the workers’ demands and urging talks with Unite.

TGIF

Poor People’s Campaign – Sacramento

Support the California U.C. Strike

DSAI’m sending this urgent alert from our Democratic Socialist Labor Commission. This strike is happening RIGHT NOW — read on to see how you can help. In solidarity,  Maria Svart  DSA National Director

This week, 53,000 workers at ten University of California (UC) campuses and five UC medical centers across California will strike. The DSLC stands in solidarity with them.

The State of California is the fifth largest economy in the world, and The University of California is the largest employer in the state, so UC negotiations will have a ripple effect, setting standards for workers’ wages and working conditions across California.

This is a historic strike with three unions participating: AFSCME, CNA, and UPTE. The Democratic Socialist Labor Commission supports UC worker militancy and encourages all DSA and YDSA members to support this strike. If you are in California, join the picket lines! If you can’t, share your photos and messages of support on social media.

The UC Regents — a board that includes wealth managers, financiers, and real estate investors — have been imposing a regime of austerity on California’s public higher-ed system for years, raising tuition and privatizing services while the state cuts taxes on billionaires. Now they are going full tilt against workers in the hopes that the forthcoming Janus decision will allow them to attack contracts at every level. The Regents are targeting workers’ retirement, healthcare, wages, and layoff protections. Meanwhile, the Regents are ignoring workers’ demands for sexual harassment protections, ban the box, and protection from ICE raids at work.

Many of the strikers are entry-level service workers (custodians, security guards, groundskeepers) represented by AFSCME 3299, and are disproportionately women, people of color, and immigrants. This strike is historic because workers in higher paid jobs in the UC system, such as nurses represented by CNA, are not allowing their workplaces to be divided and conquered — they are striking in solidarity with some of the lowest paid. Continue reading

Before the Chalk Dust Settles: Building on the 2018 Teachers’ Mobilization

MAURICE BP-WEEKS, STEPHEN LERNER, JOSEPH A. MCCARTIN, & MARILYN SNEIDERMAN 

From The American Prospect.  APRIL 24, 2018

ARixo

By bargaining for and with the larger community, teachers are reinventing collective bargaining.

Why are we walking?” asked Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “There are 700,000 reasons why: our students. And they deserve better. … They see broken chairs in class, outdated textbooks that are duct taped together, and class sizes that have ballooned.”

While labor’s overall circumstances are certainly dire, we’re at an exciting time of renewed energy in the labor movement. Leading the way this time around are the teachers of West Virginia and Oklahoma (with teachers in Kentucky and Arizona not far behind). All of these states, like most of the country, have seen systematic defunding of public services, and nowhere is that pain felt more than in the classroom. School funding has been shown to improve the outcomes not only for individual students but also for the overall community. If we truly want a strong economy where everyone (most especially black and brown students) can thrive, funding public education is the way to get there.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this latest round of teacher labor power is that their demands are broad and inclusive. Even though the teachers who have gone on strike or are considering it are paid well below the average and have terrible benefits, they have put the focus of their demands on their students’ needs, on improving classroom quality and increasing classroom resources. In doing so they made clear that winning a raise for themselves would be insufficient—they have demanded a significant investment in children as well as a win on the “bread and butter” issues. This type of focus helps defeat the false narrative that teachers are just greedy individuals who don’t care about children.  Continue reading

Teachers’ Strikes in Arizona/Colorado

arizTEACHERS WALK OUT IN ARIZONA, COLORADO: “Thousands of teachers in Arizona and Colorado walked out of their classrooms on Thursday to demand more funding for public schools, the latest surge of a teacher protest movement that has already swept through three states and is spreading quickly to others,” Simon Romero and Julie Turkewitz report in the New York Times.

“Widespread teacher protests have in recent months upended daily routines in the conservative-leaning states West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky,” the Times reports. “But the sight of public workers protesting en masse in the Arizona capital, one of the largest Republican strongholds in the country, and demanding tax increases for more school funding, spoke to the enduring strength of the movement and signaled shifts in political winds ahead of this year’s midterm elections.”

“Educators in both states want more classroom resources and have received offers either for increased school funding or pay, but they say the money isn’t guaranteed and the efforts don’t go far enough,” Melissa Daniels and Anita Snow write in the Associated Press. “Most of Arizona’s public schools will be closed the rest of the week, and about half of all Colorado students will see their schools shuttered over the two days as teachers take up the Arizona movement’s #RedforEd mantle.” More from the Times here and the AP here.

See also: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/27/opinion/teachers-arizona-walkout.html

In these states, teaches do not necessarily have a right to strike- the famous Right to Work States. Continue reading

Solidarity with Striking Oklahoma Teachers

Austin Democratic Socialists of America Statement of Solidarity

With Striking Oklahoma Teachers

As history has taught us, collective action is imperative in the fight to win a better world for working class people. For the last four decades, labor power has been on the decline as its strength has been continually eroded by capitalist interests. The current wave of teacher strikes is a reminder that even with unions weakened under Right To Work laws and a multitude of other attacks, we can win when we organize and fight in solidarity.

In light of this, Austin DSA fully supports the Oklahoma teacher and school staff shutdown of public schools. Teachers and education employees are standing together in unprecedented numbers to demand improvements in worker pay. They are also demanding additional investments for public education for their students.

The Oklahoma Legislature has failed to invest in teachers and in student learning. This disinvestment has created a crisis in the public schools in Oklahoma.  Due to lack of funds,schools in 91 districts are only open 4 days a week—a 20% reduction in classroom learning every week. Administrators from superintendents to principals have joined teachers and school employees in over 100 school districts to shut down the schools and head to the Capitol to demand change.

Oklahoma teachers have not had a raise in 20 years.  Oklahoma is ranked 50th in teacher pay. The abandonment of the public schools has been led by Republican majorities in the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion. But it is not just a Republican problem.  Democrats have failed to exercise leadership on progressive tax plans and haven’t been up to the task of addressing the growing education funding crisis in Oklahoma.

This disinvestment is similar to the conditions that led to the historic teacher strike in West Virginia in February.  Oklahomans are inspired by the lessons of the massive uprising, uniting teachers, school employees, parents,and the broader Oklahoma community. West Virginia teachers and their allies  demanded and won badly needed investments in public education in teacher/staff salary and in relief from skyrocketing healthcare costs. But it wasn’t just teachers out for themselves; West Virginia teachers demanded, and won, raises for every state worker in West Virginia

We support the OK teachers’ just demands for decent raises, not just for the current year, but the coming 3 years as well. The legislature needs to do more to invest in student learning, technology, and school facilities. To address critical levels of teacher turnover, teachers deserve a long-term commitment to fair pay.  A one year raise does not make up for 20 years of neglect. To pay for this investment we urge Democrats to work with unions and the rank and file teacher movement to raise revenue not through regressive taxation but through progressive taxes on the wealthy, increased taxes on the oil and gas industry, and the closing of business tax loopholes as well.

Finally, we believe that this is an important battle in the fight for labor rights, equitable quality education, and health justice more broadly.  This is a crisis in West Virginia and Oklahoma, but it’s also a crisis in Texas as well. In fact, it’s a crisis in the entire United States, and only by standing together in the face of capitalist disinvestment can we overcome the broader assault on workers.. DSA believes that pay raises aren’t enough, and pledge to work towards a broader solution including broad union rights, expanded access to quality public education, and a Medicare For All system in which everyone is provided the highest quality healthcare, free at the point of service.

– Austin DSA Co-Chairs Glenn Scott and Dave Pinkham

Continue reading