Smile Down the Phone: An Attempt at a Workers’ Inquiry in a Call Center

I chose the site for my workers’ inquiry the way most people find casual employment: by responding to a generic internet advertisement. The adverts contained few details other than pay and hours, and a number of them led to pre-interview screenings. The advert for the job that I eventually got directed applicants to ring a voicemail number that instructed them to leave a message with their name, number, and why they would be good at the job. I received a call the following day and was invited to come in after the weekend for an interview.

It became clearer at the interview what kind of call center I would be working in. The introduction explained that the company sold insurance to trade union members. The group interview involved a series of ice-breaking games to learn each other’s names, and a team building exercise. At one point the trainer asked the applicants: “does anyone know what a trade union is?” This is not a common job interview question. What followed was an extended awkward silence, punctuated by semi-encouraging comments for people to have a guess. We then moved onto fairly straightforward individual interviews, with questions about previous experience and skills. There were also questions about how we deal with the fact that “it is a really boring job”; we were warned that we would frequently get rejected while making calls. I got a call by the end of the day to say that I had got the job.

Trade Union Cover, we learned during our training, has “partnership” deals with ten different trade unions.1 It effectively acts as the insurance broker, arranging various policies from different insurance companies and then selling them to union members. This involves handling sales, customer service, and claims, but not paying out the policy. The basic premise of the business was to call union members to market a free insurance offer with a low payout, and then attempt to up-sell additional paid options. The trainer pointed out that because the marketing material included the union logo, the “customer will think it is from the union.” He then awkwardly added:  “but, um, we never lie about who we are.”

The training process began with a probationary period called “The Academy.” This phase was divided into three levels, each with sales objectives required for promotion. The pay was based on three levels: a basic pay rate of £7 per hour, then two bonuses rates of £9 and £11 per hour.2 There was an additional commission of £3 per sale. It would only be possible to get bonus pay rates after “graduating” from “The Academy,” but it was not immediately clear how to reach the bonus pay levels. They were assigned on the basis of a certain level of sales per hour (which could change) and meeting quality targets, but only at the discretion of the managers. After having seen a poster listing those who had made the bonus levels (only six and four respectively), I asked why so few callers achieved it, given that the trainer had stressed how achievable the targets would be. The trainer nervously attempted to claim that the poster only listed the new people to meet the targets. When another trainee pointed out that a previous month’s poster was still up in the office and listed the same names, the trainer became quite evasive and suggested that maybe it was in fact only the top sellers.

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Undercover Boss

One attendee of the training sessions was noticeably out of place. This was apparent quite early: he was much older than the other trainees, and wore a smart suit with a big watch and expensive shoes. Although he did not say this straight away, he eventually explained that he was a consultant employed by Trade Union Cover to assess their strategy by going through the training, working on the phones, and speaking to employees. The company wanted to “streamline” the inbound customer service side of the call center, so the consultant would compare both inbound and outbound calls and find ways to improve. He was meant to be doing the investigation undercover, and although he had confessed to our training group – which seemed to be mostly so he could distance himself from the other young and low-paid workers – the customer service team was not aware of his role.

The consultant consistently took astoundingly reactionary positions throughout the training session. These ranged from denying climate change, insulting students, and even arguing that prisoners should be forced to work.3 While the trainer was outlining the data entry process required to collect details for calling, the consultant interrupted: “that’s a lot of work, can’t it just be scanned?” The trainer replied that this would mean they lost their jobs. The consultant laughed and said: “but all I want to do is save the company money!” At one point a trainee asked if, since Trade Union Cover sold to trade unions, “was there a trade union at the company?” The trainer bizarrely pointed out that “companies cannot join a union” and received the immediate support of the consultant, who continued to reprimand the trainee: “don’t ask questions like that, you don’t want to lose your job do you?”

To explain the concept of insurance, the trainer used an imaginary model reminiscent of an economics textbook. There are five farmers, who each have one cow that costs £100. Each of the farmers pays the insurer £25, which allows for the compensation of one cow per year, with a surplus of £25. I pointed out that instead of paying the money to the insurer, each of the farmers could take turns collecting the money, then choosing what to do with the surplus. The consultant argued that this would not be possible, since the farmers needed the insurer’s capital to start up the insurance scheme. However, the insurer had calculated the risk as ¼, and had therefore charged each of the farmers £25. If the farmers ran their insurance cooperatively, I argued, they could build up their own reserves, which would otherwise be expropriated by the insurer as profit. At this point the consultant got quite annoyed and said: “well, it just wouldn’t be possible” and “that’s just how it works.”

The reality TV show Undercover Boss demonstrates how inquiries can be conducted from the perspective of capital. The premise: “high flying executives take extraordinary steps to ensure their companies are fighting fit by going undercover in their own businesses.”4 The episodes generally involve a series of common elements. The undercover boss, disguised in a new haircut, is surprised at how difficult the work is, and shocked at the inefficiencies. The workers the boss comes into contact with suffer from adverse conditions, have difficult life stories, and cannot communicate with those at the top of the company. Some have innovative methods for improving production, which are ignored. The boss returns to the head office to reflect and summons a worker from each of the departments they worked in. The boss’s real identity is revealed, and they discuss the problems in the company and how they will be improved. This involves implementing the new systems that workers may have devised, offering training, and promoting workers the boss was impressed with. A series of rewards is then offered to the workers who have impressed the boss.

The process of going undercover in the company gives bosses a new perspective. They are able to “find out what’s not working, fix it and reward employees who deserve recognition.”5 There is no attempt – and of course this is hardly a surprise – to understand the antagonisms present in the workplace or the contradictions in the process of production under capitalism.

Undercover Boss shows that the method of workers’ inquiry is not the sole preserve of those seeking to understand exploitation and resistance on the part of workers. There are instances in which management will use somewhat similar techniques to gain a better understanding of the production process. For example, Taylor began laying the basis for his scientific theory of management by taking “the step, extraordinary for anyone of his class, of starting a craft apprenticeship in a firm whose owners were social acquaintances of his parents.”6 Through these investigations, and in particular the vast number of tests at the Midvale Steel Company, Taylor argued that “managers assume… the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae.”7 The motivation for these studies was an intensification of the labor process, the discovery of methods for overcoming the “universal prevalence and in fact inevitability of ‘soldiering’” on the part of workers – which can be defined as the deliberate attempt by workers to slow down the speed of work and therefore not to reach their productive potential.8

The coincidence of having two undercover researchers in the training sessions, albeit starting from different positions, raised interesting methodological concerns. The method for this project begins from a different perspective to the Undercover Boss. It takes inspiration from Marx’s Capital and his subsequent attempt at a postal inquiry.9 The starting point for those interested in conducting such surveys is that they “must wish for an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions in which the working class – the class to whom the future belongs – works and moves.”10

The examples in the Trotskyist tradition and the breaks from the Fourth International over the analysis of Stalinist Russia develop this further: the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the USA and Socialisme ou Barbarie in France.11 The Johnson-Forest Tendency’s approach, on display in studies like The American Worker, put forward a particular vision for a workers’ inquiry.12 Paul Romano describes the experience of working in high speed mass production in rich, contradictory detail. The second part, and analysis by Ria Stone, begins by arguing that it is “only by understanding the actual conditions and the actual strivings of an actual working class at a certain stage of its development, can the problems of humanity as a whole be understood.”13 It is therefore a method that takes the workplace as the starting point and seeks to develop the arguments put forward by Georg Lukács: “the Marxist method, the dialectical materialist knowledge of reality, can arise only from the point of view of a class, from the point of view of the struggle of the proletariat.”14

Experience of working in the call center

“Smile down the phone, the customer can hear it!”

The call center was located in the basement of an old factory which had been converted into office space. The entrance to the office was a nondescript door off to the side of the building, which descended down into the lower level. The call center floor was a loud and busy environment. Although there was the potential for natural light, the small windows located along the top of walls were covered with blinds, so instead fluorescent strip lighting beamed down from the ceiling. The call center is organised into rows of desks with computers. The outbound sales teams have one half of the office, and other half has desks for customer services, quality control, and space for giving feedback, with approximately one hundred desks in total. There are meeting rooms off the main office and a small kitchen with a break area and lockers. The IT and marketing teams have a separate office.

The main office is decorated with posters, some of them professing the values of Trade Union Cover. One wall has a display with the logos of all the trade unions the company works with. There are a number of whiteboards scattered around the office, with caller’s names and sales targets, and two large flat screen televisions, one for customer service and one for sales. The customer service screen cycles between displaying what each person is currently doing and the number and type of inbound calls successfully answered. The sales screen displays the total number of sales and then sales by team on one side, while the other side prominently displays the top seller followed by each caller ranked by the number of sales.

The start of each shift at the call center begins in the break room. The supervisors lead a “buzz session,” which is essentially an opportunity for the company to remind callers of the different rules, stress the importance of quality, and then attempt to encourage some kind of enthusiasm for the upcoming shift. The content of these sessions varies, but most involve playing some sort of game. These range from competitions testing product knowledge (perhaps not the most exciting) to word games – for example, each person in turn shouting out the name of a country, following alphabetical order with no repetition until only the winner remains. Although being made to play children’s games was somewhat demeaning, it did offer the benefit of stretching out the time before we had to be on the call center floor. Some callers tried to extend these sessions by asking lots of questions and pretending they needed more help.

The phone calls are structured by the computer script. The trainer had argued that “it is not just what you say,” but that callers must think about their “pace, tone, conversation style, listening skills.” This is particularly important when using a standardized script, as as the trainers insist that your own personality should come across during the call. Apparently the Managing Director’s favorite catchphrase was that “people buy people”; he believed that the best sellers used similar techniques over and over again. If new callers had trouble with this, the trainer had some illuminating advice: “just use a bright and enthusiastic tone… and if you can’t, three words: Put. It. On!”

The script is composed of five different hyperlinked sections, some with multiple pages.  The trainer pointed out: “we need people to make the sales; otherwise we would just use an automated system.” Callers are encouraged to build rapport with the customer, to learn additional details which can then be used as a basis for improvisation later on in the script. This improvisation was primarily expected during the description of the features of the insurance, a process called “features-to-benefits.” For example, one of the five main benefits is that the customer is entitled to a rebate at the age of seventy if they have not claimed. The caller is expected to go further than simply reading out the computer generated figure. This involves using hypothetical connecting phrases like: “which means that you could…” The caller improvises a benefit for the feature, hopefully using some of the additional information gathered in the earlier rapport-building. The trainer described this as “painting a picture,” which is apparently the way to make sales.

Jokes were also a fundamental part of elaboration on the script. At two points on the script, callers are encouraged to try joking with the customer. The first is on the confirmation of details. There are two eligibility questions to confirm: “that you spend 7 out of 12 months a year in the UK?” and “that this is where you pay your taxes?” These questions allow two jokes: “no long holidays planned this year then?” and “no escaping that is there?” The second is later in the script, with the exclusion “that you won’t be covered for death as a result of … participation in any illegal acts,” to which almost every caller adds: “so if you were planning to rob a bank we wouldn’t be able to pay out! [Fake laughter.]” While this is presumably a new joke for the customer, callers will enjoy it over and over again throughout the day.

The first full shift I worked ended with no sales. I managed to pitch the product in full three times, and reached the Direct Debit payment page of the script. The first time the customer objected, “isn’t this just the free offer? Why do I need to pay anything?” The second got very defensive when asked for the bank details: “why would I give you those when I haven’t seen anything in writing!” The third said they did not have their bank details with them. I asked whether it was on their card (“no, I’ve lost my card”), their checkbook (“don’t have one”), online banking (“don’t use it”). At no point did they say they were not interested in the insurance. These would become common objections that had to be handled over and over again.

During breaks, trainees often discussed the problems of closing. Time off the phone became an opportunity to vent about difficult the phone calls are, and to swap advice about how to finish a sale. In one discussion we all agreed that none of us would ever give out our details or agree to buy insurance over the phone.

Supervisors began coaching during the first shift. Every single call, whether a successful sale or not, was digitally recorded and stored for playback. Each sales call and a random selection of non-sales calls would be listened to and graded by the quality control team. They would be graded as either green (passing quality standards), green D/N (passed but development needed), or red (failing to meet standards and therefore no commission). The supervisors would regularly listen into calls, and analyze how callers could be more successful in future. During weekly one-to-one meetings with callers, supervisors would grade their performance and provide instructions on how they could improve. While the supervisors stressed that these were for training purposes, they produced printouts of the computer data which could also play a disciplinary role. Each week I was given a grading and a series of instructions about how to improve. These were always quite vague but in general involved remarks about being more “assertive,” “give 110% to every call,” or even parroting Alec Baldwin’s rant in Glengarry Glen Ross: “remember your ABCs – Always Be Closing!” The one-to-one advice was always supplemented with the advice: “remember every ‘no’ is one step closer to a ‘yes!’”

There is a constant pressure to make sales on the call center floor, which feels like a contemporary version of Robert Linhart’s various unsuccessful attempts on the assembly line.15 The television screen on the wall is constant reminder of how an individual caller compares to others. It was nerve-wracking as I struggled to get sales while watching the more established, Stakhanovite callers. However, after a month or so I began to regularly make sales, not quite enough to “graduate,” but enough to keep working at Trade Union Cover.

The inquiry was undertaken over a period of five months, and the results discussed here represent only a portion of an ongoing project. However, drawing on the a methodological approach of workers’ inquiry, a few fundamental characteristics of the labor process can be identified and studied.

Computerized Taylorism and the Labor Process

Control is ever present in the call center. From the constant presence of supervisors, the recording of phone calls, to the automated electronic logs, methods of control and surveillance are common during work. The effect of this control on the labor process can be understood through an examination of the Taylorist management principles. This includes the computerized supervision, which is perhaps analogous to the technician in a white coat with a stopwatch, but also in the sense of Harry Braverman’s argument that behind the technician “lies a theory which is nothing less than the explicit verbalization of the capitalist mode of production.”16 The theory involves three principles: the first is “the gathering and development of knowledge of the labor process,” the second is “the concentration of this knowledge as the exclusive province of management,” and the third is the “use of this monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labor process and its mode of execution.”17

The third principle stems from the organization of tasks by management. For Taylor “this task specifies not only what is to be done, but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it.”18 The process of reading from a script and then asking for pre-set amounts during the phone call is a clear example of the separation of conception from execution. The necessity of closely following the script was reiterated continuously throughout the training and first shifts. One of the supervisors suggested that if you stick to the script, “all the work is done for you!” The conception, in terms of the preparation of the script, is entirely removed from their execution on the call center floor. Very little was said about how the scripts were developed, other than that Trade Union Cover spends a lot of time writing them. Braverman anticipates this process when he that argues that mental labor, after being separated from manual labor, “is then itself subdivided rigorously according to the same rule.” The purpose of this division is “to cheapen the worker by decreasing his training and enlarging his output.”19

The use of a computer system linked to the phones allows for a significant degree of control. Callers have to sign onto the computer system in order to make phone calls. The computer system logs the exact time that the worker starts their shift. There is an unpaid hour break between the two half-shifts, and two fifteen-minute breaks half way through each half-shift. The computer system logs the start and end time of the break; if the break exceeds the limit, the system notifies a manager. During phone calls, the computer surveillance system will display three states: “Previewing/Dialing” for the time when the automatic dialling system is ringing through the list of numbers; “Connected,”when the caller is talking to someone on the phone; and “Wrapping,” which provides an opportunity to record the outcome of the phone call and take any relevant notes. This is described as “non-productive” time, only to be used when needed, never exceeding five seconds.

The labor process in the call center can therefore be understood as a kind of computerized development of Taylorist management principles. Philip Taylor20 and Peter Bain argue that the “driving force” behind the growth of call centers – whether as the “rationalisation of back office functions or as entirely new creations” – results from the “pursuit of competitive advantage.”21 The call center therefore comes under the pressure to minimize costs and maximize profits, which means that those running the call centers are “under constant competitive pressure to extract more value from their employees,” which “from the point of view of capital” is a “far from straightforward project.”22 The difficulty stems from the contradiction between the quantitative and qualitative objectives of the labor process, which became apparent during training: the constant focus on the quality of the phone calls as the most important aspect of the job sat uneasily alongside the strict quantitative targets for the number of phone calls per shift. Taylor and Bain argue that “even in the most quality driven call center” – and the call center I worked in claimed to put a great importance on quality, given its regulation by the Financial Services Authority  – “it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the labor process is intrinsically demanding, repetitive and, frequently, stressful.”23

This tension between quantity and quality in the call center structures the relationship between worker and manager. The integration of the telephone and computer systems in the call center provides the opportunity for “extreme levels of surveillance, monitoring and speed-up,” which nevertheless creates another contradiction in the workplace.24The “intensive surveillance can be counterproductive,” as it is “costly in terms of workforce motivation and commitment.” However, “abandonment” of surveillance is not possible, as these methods are “integral to the operation of the call center.”25 These two related contradictions have a strong effect on the experience of call center workers:

It may be difficult, if not impossible, for the operator to speed up, yet s(he) is conscious that the current call must be terminated promptly, in order to take the next one. We describe this as a situation in which the operator has “an assembly-line in the head,” always feeling under pressure and constantly aware that the completion of one task is immediately followed by another.26

Stress, often the result of this pressure to ensure that quantitative objectives are reached, reduces the ability of workers to achieve the qualitative objectives, which include what Taylor and Bain describe as the demand to “smile down the phone.”27 In a famous account of flight attendants, who are expected to maintain a perpetual smile, Arlie Hochschild defines emotional labor as “requiring one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.”28 The method by which this can be achieved over the phone rather than in person is different. Taylor and Bain argue that the “appropriate telephone manners and behaviours” alongside the previously mentioned need to “smile down the phone” can be included within Hochschild’s definition of “outward countenance.”29

The demand for call center workers to engage in emotional labor means that they are subjected to an additional set of pressures. Kerry Lewig and Maureen Dollard characterize the difference between the actual feelings of the call center worker and the emotional labor that they have to carry out as a kind of “emotional dissonance.” Modeled on cognitive dissonance, in which two contradictory ideas are held simultaneously, this concept refers to emotions and explains the feelings of guilt and stress callers experience as they try to convince customers to buy insurance while maintaining a positive, enthusiastic demeanor on the phone. Lewig and Dollard warn, in a paper about call centers in Australia, that “emotional dissonance may ultimately lead to lowered self-esteem, depression, cynicism, and alienation from work.”30

This alienation has a concrete expression in the high staff turnover in call centers. One response to this has been the “growing preference for part-time permanent staff” as they are “seen as able to deliver optimal performance for the entire duration of a shift.” All of the positions open at the call center were part-time, with minimum weekly requirements and options to work longer if wanted. This flexibility correlates with “the desirability of shift patterns which correspond to the peaks of customer demand,” rather than scheduling needs of the worker.31 There were a number of non-financial incentives used in addition to the bonus structure at the call center to encourage workers. The main incentive was leaving early from a shift if a caller reached their targets; an insightful strategy, since the best reward was to no longer be in the call center. It was fairly common to hit targets and leave early, especially in the final half hour of the shift, when supervisors would shout out “get a sale and go!”

The manipulation of the work schedule returns to the key problem of the capitalist enterprise, which bosses have grappled with since the inception of capitalism itself:  how to extract the maximum amount of surplus value from workers during their time on the job. In this regard, the theories of Taylorism are “an answer to the specific problem of how best to control alienated labor – that is to say, labor power that is bought and sold.”32 The measurement of the length of the working day is a basic attempt to ensure that workers fulfill the sale of their labor power to the capitalist. By allowing workers to leave early once they had met their sales targets, management provided an incentive to intensify time workers remained on the job. However, during my time at the call center the higher levels of management calculated that only 79% of paid time was spent on the phone, and introduced a rule that no worker could leave earlier than that final half hour.

Similar incentives were prizes awarded for making sales, usually vouchers for High Street shops. Every Friday Trade Union Cover paid for lots of junk food to be delivered to the office which everyone could eat in the final break. Once every two months the company paid for a free night out with a large bar tab. All of these incentives aimed to keep callers working at the company and try to reduce the large turnover.

In these ways management attempted to reconcile the contradiction between quality and quantity, through both incentives and the application of processes of control. However, I also observed examples of reducing explicit control in the call center in order to encourage higher quality. There was an insistence on elaborating on the script at certain points to make it sound more natural, but this always happened within certain defined limits. The same is true of the process for dealing with objections called “clarify and reassure” (C&R), a particular form of emotional labor. Thought this is not scripted on the computer, two paper sheets were provided – “basic” and “advanced” – which explained how to deal with objections. This was only to be done in accordance with strict rules: a maximum of three attempts, the first attempting to handle the objection, the second offering a quote but then trying to C&R again, the third (if unsuccessful) ending by sending a quote.

Some reports on these forms of labor control have gone as far as to label call centers the new “dark satanic mills,” or a modern version of Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” model for prison surveillance.33  According to this “Foucauldian” conception, an “electronic Panopticon” characterizes the “nature and experience of call center work.”34 Sue Fernie and David Metcalf argue that the “possibilities for monitoring behaviour and measuring output are amazing to behold – the ‘tyranny of the assembly line’ is but a Sunday school picnic compared with the control that management can exercise in computer telephony.”

This conceptualization of the call center as an “electronic Panopticon” draws heavily upon the work of Foucault, but neglects to note that “the factory and the office are neither prison nor asylum, their social architectures never those of the total institution.”35 Taylor and Bain argue that the difference is due to the “dynamic process of capital accumulation” that takes place in the workplace; the Foucauldian approach “understates both the voluntary dimension of labor and the managerial need to elicit commitment from workers.” This leads to a problematic analysis, one which can “disavow the possibilities for collective organisation and resistance.”36

The prevalence of technological methods of control in the call center does not solve all of management’s problems. The methods of collecting statistics and recordings of phone calls still require human input to interpret and act upon. This is evident in the number of supervisors employed in the call center. Management requires this human component, since “no electronic system can summon an agent to a coaching session, nor highlight the deficiencies of their dialogue with the customer.” It is therefore possible to say that call centers “rely on a combination of technologically driven measurements and human supervisors.”37 The use of scripts for telephone calls is “an attempt to structure the very speech of workers into a series of predictable, regulated and routinised queries and responses.” Scripts are a logical extension of Taylorism, as “they represent a qualitative transformation in the degree to which management attempts to exert control over the white-collar labor process.” It is this which Taylor and Bain argue “represents an unprecedented level of attempted control which must be considered a novel departure.”38

Resistance

An important aim of this inquiry was to uncover the possibilities for resistance and organization in the call center. The nature of the Trade Union Cover call center and its particular relationship with trade unions had an ambiguous effect on the workers employed there. It became easier to discuss unions with the other workers, but the detachment of the call center environment meant that there was little actual engagement with labor organizing.

The possibilities of unionization in the call center have to be put in the context of very low unionization in the UK private sector, and the impact of neoliberalism. Throughout my time at the call center, only one other worker I spoke to had ever been a member of a union. I spoke regularly to him about the possibilities of organizing in the call center as we both travelled back to the same part of London on the underground. Our discussions focused on the likelihood of getting sacked, what kinds of demands we would have, and the difficulties of getting other people on board.

It was hard to talk about trade unionism with other call center workers, but this did not mean that politics was absent from the workplace. For example, after the events in Woolwich, anti-racism and anti-fascism became common point talking points during the breaks.39 Some of my co-workers were interested in opposing the English Defence League, and although no one had been on a demonstration before, there was a good discussion about going to one together in the future. These political interventions began to open up a space to discuss the possibilities for resistance, and also helped me identify people to speak to further.

One of the trainees who started at the same time as me passed me a hand-drawn cartoon of the consultant, with a speech bubble saying “you’ll lose your job son!” This was the beginning of more serious discussions about how we could organize in the workplace. He said he did not care whether he lost his job, and suggested that we could meet some other people in a pub after work.

The discussion in the pub started with one person arguing that the job wasn’t really that bad: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” and “I’m worried about ruining the atmosphere in the office.” The cartoonist said he had “always been in the union, you don’t want to wait until it is too late.” He elaborated that “the worst thing about work is when supervisors are rude to you. When I was at [a different company] they wouldn’t do it because of the union. To me, joining a union is about respect.” We discussed who else we could get together for another chat after work.

The next time we met was after a Saturday shift. We opted for a pub lunch nearby. The discussion began by explaining what being in a trade union would involve; some people were put off by the clandestine nature required. One person said that the union would be “like Dumbledore’s army.”40 Another person had been involved in the staff forum – a kind of management-run scheme to discuss problems at work – and had been arguing for the London Living Wage.41 He agreed that organizing collectively might be a good idea, but wanted to try the staff forum first.

My attempt to build some kind of organization began by joining a trade union.42 I emailed over my application and did not receive a reply for a few weeks. Eventually I got an email confirming my membership, with the telephone number for a branch organizer. After missing each other a few times, due to the nature of shift work, I finally made contact with the organizer. She informed me that I had been added to a conglomerated geographical branch that covered a wide area and number of different employment types. Unfortunately I had missed the last branch meeting a few days ago, which had been cancelled anyway for low attendance. I was shocked to find out that the next meeting would not take place for three months. After a brief discussion the organizer offered to pay for a room in a pub near the workplace to host a meeting. She also offered to mail membership forms; three arrived in a handwritten envelope a few days later.

The union that I joined also worked with Trade Union Cover to provide insurance to its members. This close relationship between the call center and the union opened the possibility for what the trade union Unite has recently begun to label “leverage.”43 It is defined on their website as “a process whereby the Union commits resources and time to making all interested parties aware of the treatment received by Unite members at the hands of an employer.” This can involve the use of additional forms of protest alongside the threat of industrial action, or in its place where such action is difficult to mobilize. Unite explicitly states that “leverage does not offer a solution that excludes the critical need to organise workers.”44

At this particular call center it was possible to imagine a “leverage” campaign developing. The contract I signed specified that my “terms and conditions of employment are not subject to the provisions of any collective agreement.” In most workplaces this would not provide a useful basis for a campaign involving customers, but given that the call center worked with unions, customers could be used to force open a space to organize. Exposing – or even just threatening to expose – the anti-union attitude of Trade Union Cover to the trade unions that it relies on for customers could be a potentially powerful bargaining tool.

The attempt to organize the call center remains at a nascent stage. Developing a successful organization will have to utilize all the options available, while still basing itself on a robust analysis of the limits and possibilities for labor organizing today.

The End of the Line

The final part of my workers’ inquiry was particularly difficult. I had begun to average a reasonable number of sales per shift, and was on the cusp of “graduating.” However, on Friday night, all my shifts for the following week were changed: instead of three day shifts I received five nights and a Saturday shift. The next Friday, all of my shifts were again changed to the same pattern. Working every evening at the call center, while reading and writing about call centers during the day, began to take its toll. I went through a number of shifts with no sales whatsoever. Meanwhile, the general atmosphere in the call center also began to deteriorate. The number of “red” calls increased to the point that the supervisors lost their monthly bonuses. One of the other call center workers mentioned after a shift that she was genuinely considering asking someone to “punch her in the face halfway through the shift” so she could “leave early.” A number of callers – including the one remaining caller who had trained with me – were placed on probation for failing to meet sales targets. At the end of the probation period I had fallen far short of the targets I had been set. After an HR meeting – which included the supervisor attempting the C&R process during the conversation – I was no longer employed by Trade Union Cover.

This exit from the call center – slightly earlier than originally planned – still meant that I was one of the longest lasting workers in my training cohort. I am still in contact with a number of workers at the call center, and the project for developing organization is ongoing.

Just as the “undercover boss” started from the perspective of capital and sought to intensify the labor process, inquiry from the working-class perspective allowed for an engaged analysis of class struggle in the workplace. The questions of control and supervision have been important points of disagreement in the sociological literature on call centers. Concrete experience of these in practice shows that electronic supervision is far from total, and still requires human interaction – therefore still leaving space for potential resistance. However, the pressure of emotional labor, experienced as “emotional dissonance,” expresses itself in the high turnover of staff in the call center. This introduces considerable difficulties for the possibilities of organization, especially in the context of low union membership.

This initial attempt at a workers’ inquiry is intended as part of a larger project to understand the changing nature of class today. The decline of traditional working-class employment operates alongside the growth of new forms of service work. In the UK, trade union membership is at historically low levels and is concentrated mainly in public services, with very little organization in the private sector. Workers’ inquiry, as a process of both knowledge construction and political organization, has the potential to play an important role at this moment. It takes as its starting point that the relationship between capital and labor is fundamentally antagonistic: new forms of resistance and organization will emerge in new contexts, but these can only be discovered through an active engagement with the changing world.


  1. Trade Union Cover is a pseudonym for the call center company.  

  2. The current minimum wage in the UK is £6.19 per hour for workers aged 21 and over and £4.98 for those aged 18-20. See: https://www.gov.uk/national-minimum-wage-rates 

  3. This was in reference to “Prisonfare” – the attempt to make prisoners work in call centers. See “Right to Work South Wales Protest Tomorrow against ‘Prisonfare’.” 

  4. Studio Lambert, Undercover Boss, Channel 4 UK, 2010. 

  5. Studio Lambert, Undercover Boss

  6. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, (London: Monthly Review Press, 1999), 63. 

  7. Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, (New York: Norton, 1967), 36. 

  8. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 70. 

  9. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes, (London: Penguin Books, 1976); Karl Marx, “A Workers’ Inquiry,” New International 12, no. 4 (1938): 379–381. 

  10. Marx, “Workers’ Inquiry,” 379. 

  11. Marcel van der Linden, “Socialisme ou Barbarie: A French Revolutionary Group (1949-65),” Left History 5, no. 1 (1997): 11. 

  12. Paul Romano and Ria Stone [Grace Lee], The American Worker (Detroit: Facing Reality Publishing, 1947). 

  13. Ria Stone [Grace Lee], “Part 2: The Reconstruction of Society” in The American Worker, 2. 

  14. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone, (London: The Merlin Press, 1971), 21. 

  15. Robert Linhart, The Assembly Line, trans. Margaret Crosland (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981). 

  16. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 60. 

  17. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 82. 

  18. Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management, 39. 

  19. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 79,81. 

  20. Philip Taylor, not to be confused with Frederick Taylor from whose name Taylorism is derived, is a professor at the University of Strathclyde. 

  21. Philip Taylor and Peter Bain, “‘An Assembly Line in the Head’: Work and Employee Relations in the Call center,” Industrial Relations Journal 30, no. 2 (1999): 102. 

  22. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 115. 

  23. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 110. 

  24. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 108. 

  25. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 116. 

  26. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 109. 

  27. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 103. 

  28. Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 7. 

  29. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 103. 

  30. K.A. Lewig and M.F. Dollard, “Emotional Dissonance, Emotional Exhaustion and Job Satisfaction in Call center Workers,” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 12, no. 4 (2003): 368. 

  31. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 111. 

  32. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, 62. 

  33. Income Data Services, Pay and Conditions in Call centers, (London: Income Data Services, 1997), 13.; Sue Fernie and David Metcalf, (Not) Hanging on the Telephone: Payment Systems in the New Sweatshops (London: LSE Center for Economic Performance, 1998). 

  34. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 102. 

  35. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Allen Lane, 1977); Alan McKinlay and Phil Taylor, “Foucault and the Politics of Production” in Foucault, Management and Organization Theory, ed. Alan McKinlay and Ken Starkey (London: Sage, 1998), 175. 

  36. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 103. 

  37. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 108. 

  38. Taylor and Bain, “Assembly Line,” 109. 

  39. The killing of Lee Rigby and subsequent Islamophobic backlash, see the Woolwich Attack page of The Guardian

  40. I was not aware of this reference at the time; for more information, see the Wikipedia page

  41. The London Living Wage is calculated as £8.55 per hour (and £7.46 for the rest of the UK) by the Living Wage Foundation. 

  42. The name of the union, like that of the company, will remain anonymous. 

  43. Unite, “Leverage,” Unite the Union, 2012. 

  44. Unite, “Leverage.” 

Author of the article

Dr Jamie Woodcock is a fellow at the LSE. He is the author of Working The Phones, a study of a call centre in the UK inspired by the workers' inquiry. His current research involves developing this method in co-research projects with Deliveroo drivers and other digital workers in the so-called gig economy. He is on the editorial board of Historical Materialism.