Fight Back! interviewed Sarah Buchner, a call center worker at SITEL Corporation in Asheville, North Carolina. The New South is notorious for low-wages and big corporations calling all the shots, but brave new leaders like Buchner are arising to organize unions. Their yearlong struggle for respect, better benefits and good wages is gaining power and impacting the local area.
Fight Back!: Tell us about SITEL and your job.
Sarah Buchner: SITEL outsources calls for Fortune 500 companies, with 29 call centers in the U.S. and many more overseas in 25 countries. In Asheville, SITEL handles calls for two major U.S. banks and a health insurance company. I take phone calls for the health insurance client, helping small employers and consumers with their billing. We are evaluated on a number of things, such as following a script and how quickly and accurately calls are documented. We are under a lot of pressure and constantly monitored.
Fight Back!: Please describe the conditions, wages, and benefits.
Buchner: The turnover rate at SITEL is outrageous. It doesn’t have to be, but people leave for better jobs. That is the basic reason we want a union, to have good jobs. Politicians championed SITEL as a major job creator in 2010 with 600 workers, but numbers are down. There are lots of empty seats in our work area now.
Workers start at $8.00 an hour and top out at $9.50. At six months we are offered healthcare plans that are costly, with a high deductable. At $9.50, it takes four hours of work to cover the co-pay for one doctor visit. Many just can’t afford it. SITEL also offers a 401K-retirement account. I recently received a letter from the company explaining, “this chart assumes a $30,000 annual salary." This is a slap in the face. Working full time, I make about two thirds of that. I’m not even on the chart.
The Friday in between paychecks is dubbed “Broke Friday.” Many workers are on food stamps because SITEL refuses to pay a living wage. SITEL’s solution to this is a “food pantry” that they encourage us to donate to as a resource for our co-workers.
Fight Back!: What sparked the struggle to unionize in Asheville?
Buchner: Things started in July of 2011 with a management memo announcing the switching around of the men and women’s bathrooms, to construct more men’s. The restrooms are on each end of a very long building with cubicles to seat hundreds of workers between them. On the left side, women were reduced from eight stalls down to one stall and two urinals. This situation dragged on for months, and many women, some with disabilities, were losing their 15-minute breaks because of the long distance to use the other bathroom. They got upset enough to start a petition. One worker contacted the IBEW union Local 238 and they filed an unfair labor practice against SITEL. Management then threatened to fire employees for standing up to them and voicing legitimate concerns.
SITEL immediately hired a union-busting law firm from South Carolina, Ogletree Deakins. Management began holding small anti-union meetings with all employees, giving them an unsigned memo. Part of it reads, “There is nothing that a union could deliver that can't be obtained by open and frank discussion between the Company and our employees. We have a real open door policy that works. My door and all management doors are always open.” Still people begged management to fix the bathroom situation and were ignored, until May of 2012. Almost a year! So we learned the only way for workers to achieve dignity and respect is to organize and take a seat at the table with one voice. SITEL knows this, and is doing everything in its power to spread misinformation and fear.
Fight Back!: What are the demands of the workers?
Buchner: Our demands are for higher wages, better benefits, and dignity and respect. We deserve to be treated as individuals with different abilities and needs. Instead management views us as a number on spreadsheet, reprimanding us about our call statistics and for spending too much time trying to help our callers. We have very little opportunity to advance and be recognized for our dedication to the work we do. With the bathrooms, SITEL management was not taking us seriously until we came together to stand up for our rights, which is exactly what unionizing allows employees to do.
Fight Back!: What are the latest developments in this campaign?
Buchner: Management is increasingly hostile, removing union literature from people’s desks. A new policy limits workers to five personal items. This includes books, magazines, and photos of families and friends, even children’s artwork. It is worse in other areas, where not even magazines are allowed.
Sometimes we feel like verbal punching bags. We take stressful calls from customers who are unhappy about a fee or a rate increase and having these little comforts on our desks can make a big difference. Employees are growing angrier, realizing that SITEL does not have our best interests at heart. The IBEW union has filed several unfair labor practice claims against SITEL and there will be hearings in August. One alleges SITEL maintains and enforces an illegal social media policy.
Fight Back!: North Carolina has few unions - how does this impact your organizing?
Buchner: We are in the South. I’ve had dozens of conversations with people who do not know what a union is, but that is changing. Some even thought unionizing was illegal in North Carolina. I grew up here and did not learn about unions until I attended college. It is something that was glossed over in high school and the perception of unions boils down to what people hear in the corporate media. It is a real challenge to combat this, but more and more of our coworkers join the union drive and have a positive outlook. It is exciting! They are realizing that alone they must accept the current working conditions and wages, but united we can have a voice to rival even a giant company like SITEL. There is power in a union!