Editor’s note: This article resulted from reporter David Forbes’ five-month investigation. During that time, he tried various means to get Sitel’s side of the story, including dozens of phone calls to different divisions of the company. At press time, Sitel still had not responded in any way; lacking that input, Xpress resorted to culling whatever information we could find from other sources concerning pertinent company policies and practices. (photos by Max Cooper)
On a May afternoon, several men are handing out fliers at a shopping center on Hendersonville Road.
Across the parking lot stands the Sitel call center, a windowless block structure flanked by a Walmart and a Mexican restaurant. Inside, some 600 people provide customer service, primarily for the health-insurance and financial industries. An older woman leaving the building takes a flier and stops to chat with the men, promising to consider the information. “I may as well, with the pay like it is here,” she says.
The men are organizers with Local 238 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Together with a growing number of Sitel employees, they’re trying to do something that’s rare in North Carolina and downright unheard of here in the mountains: form a union.
North Carolina is the least unionized state in the country — only 2.9 percent of its 3.6 million workers carry union cards — and WNC, many labor officials say, is the state’s least unionized region. MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer for the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, says she can't remember the last organizing campaign in the Asheville area.
“Historically, there's been such a culture against unions, people don't even understand what their rights are,” McMillan asserts, adding, “A lot of workers are afraid.”
But all that may be changing in the wake of major setbacks for organized labor in Wisconsin and elsewhere, local union officials say.
“I'm 54; my 27-year-old daughter has less opportunities for a good job and good working conditions than I had when I was 27 — and shame on us for letting that happen!” John Murphy, regional organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, declares, pounding the wooden table in the union hall on Sardis Road. “But I think America is waking up.”
The story of WNC’s first union drive in decades began late last winter, as frustration over wages and working conditions built up.
Some Sitel employees say the straw that broke the camel's back was when the company closed the women's bathroom for repairs in May of last year, leaving only a co-ed restroom with eight stalls for all the workers. That didn’t sit will with employee Ken Ashworth; his disabled wife, who also works at the call center, was having trouble getting to the new facilities.
Employees say they’re penalized if they're away from their desks for any significant amount of time. “They micromanage us like you wouldn't believe,” says Ashworth. “Everything's based on your metrics. It endangers that if you're standing in line behind six or seven people. It's humiliating.”
By November, the women’s room was still closed and the situation had become intolerable, numerous workers say. Several employees said 57 of them had signed a petition requesting better bathroom conditions. After several weeks of silence, they report, management instructed them to bring any future complaints to them privately.
Soon afterward, Ashworth, who’d never considered himself pro-union, contacted Local 238 through the website http://callcenterunion.org.
“There was a lot of problems. … They felt like they were getting swept under the rug,” Murphy explains.
The women’s bathroom has since been reopened, but the union drive continues, focusing on wages and other concerns.
Sitel, a global corporation with offices in 25 countries and 29 U.S. call centers, had revenues of $1.3 billion in 2011, according to Onex, a private equity firm. Sitel’s website says the company “is committed to providing a safe and healthy work environment that is free from harassment, discrimination and acts or threats of violence. It is our goal to promote an environment that encourages open communication, promotes mutual respect and teamwork, and develops leaders.”
Employees start at $8 an hour; except for managers, the top pay is $9.50, workers report. Just Economics, a local nonprofit, pegs the living wage for the Asheville area at $9.85 an hour with employer-provided health insurance, $11.35 without. Nationwide, call center workers average $13.30 an hour, according to federal labor data.
Low wages, of course, aren’t unusual in Asheville: Although the city’s unemployment rate is below the state average, the average local wage is almost $100 a week below the statewide figure, according to quarterly census data.
But some Sitel employees say they have trouble making ends meet; the company invites employees to contribute to an ad hoc food pantry on-site.
“Sitel doesn't put a dime into that pantry,” asserts employee Deborah Cook, who's participating in the union drive. “Employees donate to it, but you can't take food from it: You have to eat it in the lunch room. Morale is awful.” The company’s Nashville, Tenn.-based media office did not respond to repeated requests for comment concerning wages and working conditions.
A number of employees with families say health insurance eats up nearly half their wages, due to sharply rising rates and plan changes.
“I have never seen a company run like this,” Brian Lane declares. “I'm here to work; I have a wife and children to support, and these people are sitting here making money hand over fist off the sweat of my back.”
An injury forced Lane, a former electrician, to change jobs. Gathering with fellow employees after work, he brandishes a form from a Hendersonville food pantry.
“That's where I have to go if I want to feed my family,” says Lane. “No matter how hard we work, the sword of Damocles is over our heads.”
Three former Sitel employees, who left voluntarily and have no connection with the union or the organizing drive, confirmed the rate of pay, the informal food pantry and the bathroom situation. None of these workers, who declined to be identified, recalled being pressured by management not to talk about a union, but all had resigned for other reasons several months before the drive began.
Although Sitel also operates in countries with far higher union-membership rates than the U.S., it’s unclear how many of its call centers are unionized.
In a 2011 interview with Nearshore Americas, a trade blog covering Latin American outsourcing, Don Berryman, president of Sitel's Americas operation, said unions are "a concern" in deciding whether to establish or shut down operations in a given country.
"The things that would cause us to leave include unfavorable changes in the tax structure, changes in labor relations in terms of how we pay employees or how they are represented in terms of labor unions," Berryman is quoted as saying.
In a 2010 interview with Nearshore, Mel Vance, Sitel's senior vice president for Central America, said the company does engage in collective bargaining with unions at some facilities.
"We sit down with them and discuss what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it," he explained, adding that at other locations, Sitel has avoided unions by ensuring good working conditions and listening to employees' concerns.
Despite its low profile, organized labor has deep roots here; local 238 dates back 110 years. Union workers staff the region’s post offices and Asheville Transit and operate Blue Ridge Paper Products in Canton.
“Most people don't even realize unions are here,” notes Josh Rhodes, who handles membership development for Local 238. Seated with other union heads in the IBEW hall, he continues, “All of us sitting here have worked union our entire lives. We know the difference; we feel everyone has the right to it. As a union, we feel we have to help these people.”
“We've been maligned and beaten down by our opponents,” Murphy asserts. “The reality is, what we do is America: Unions built America.” In states with higher union membership, he notes, both union and non-union workers have higher wages.
“People say unions are inept, that we're going by the wayside. The fact is, if unions couldn't help people, didn't give them rights at work, employers wouldn't resist it.”
As the region’s manufacturing base dwindled over the last several decades, local unions saw their membership decline, though many have claimed growth recently. No widespread data is yet available for that time period, however. And despite WNC unions' deep roots, historically they’ve mostly kept to themselves.
“We were all looking out for our own interests, but now we're starting to communicate and ally like nothing I've ever seen before,” says IBEW state coordinator Matthew Ruff. Despite membership growth, he asserts, “We're not fighting for another 5 to 10 percent of market share: We're fighting for our existence” in the face of pronounced anti-union activity nationwide.
Meanwhile, says Ruff, the tough economy has left many workers seeking better protection — and more inclined to turn to unions.
“We've had quite the boom,” notes Rhodes, saying his union has gained several hundred members since the economic downturn began and also steers workers in other sectors toward the appropriate union. Although Local 238’s name highlights electrical workers, its members also include workers in construction, telecommunications and other fields. The union also steers other workers “to the right people,” Ruff reports.
“There's a growing unrest among workers,” says Murphy. “People are looking for ways to improve their lives.”
Union files charges
The IBEW has also filed four charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging violations of federal labor law (see sidebar, “Workers’ Rights”).
On Dec. 9, the union claims, Sitel's human resources manager threatened to fire Ashworth for his organizing efforts. On Feb. 27 a manager cleared union and NLRB materials off an employee's desk, and on May 1 employees were prohibited from displaying union posters.
Company policy prohibits personal items on employees’ desks and bans workplace solicitation of any kind, but the IBEW says non-union personal items and posters were treated differently.
The complaint also targets Sitel's social media policy, which forbids employees to mention the company, post information about it or speak to the media without express approval. The IBEW claims this violates federal law protecting employees’ right to discuss wages and working conditions.
Meanwhile, employees supporting the union have set up a Facebook page, Organize Sitel Asheville, to help spread their message.
On May 30, the NLRB found the complaints sufficiently valid to allow the case to proceed. Sitel, wrote Regional Director Claude Harrell, “has been interfering with, restraining and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed” by federal law.
If the agency sides with the union, the company will have to notify its Asheville employees individually and change the disputed policies at its U.S. facilities.
In the meantime, Sitel has retained Ogletree-Deakins, a national law firm that many labor activists accuse of union-busting. The company has also held group meetings for employees, explaining its position on the organizing campaign.
In a June 12 response to the IBEW's claims, Ogletree-Deakins denied that the company had targeted or intimidated workers trying to organize a union. The terse statement also said the company's clean-desk and social-media policies "speak for themselves."
The NLRB will hold a hearing in Asheville Aug. 20 and may issue a decision soon after.
A larger struggle
After the initial conflict late last year, worker interest in unionizing waned, says Murphy. “The company,” he charges, “was successful in scaring the employees.”
But a core of some 10 to 20 weren’t giving up. “We started getting information into the activists' hands,” Murphy reports. “They were able to share it when the smoke cleared; there seems to be a little less fear.”
Subsequently, however, interest rebounded, and now, Murphy claims, nearly one-third of local Sitel employees have signed cards saying they want the IBEW to represent them.
Still, he continues, “It's tough; the laws don't have enough teeth. It's not a fast process, but it's tremendously rewarding.”
If 30 percent of the employees sign the cards, they can hold an election. And if more than 50 percent sign, they can ask the company to voluntarily become a union shop.
The IBEW doesn’t generally push for an election until 65 percent have signed. Only after Sitel employees pass that hurdle and negotiate a contract with management could they become full-fledged members of Local 238. Union dues typically range from $24 to $30 a month, officials say.
Back in the trenches, Lane feels the union drive is gaining steam.
“I stand in line to get food for my family because I can't afford enough from my paycheck to live — that's not a living wage,” he asserts. “If I'm willing to bust my ass like the 500-plus other people here, we should be paid enough that we don't have to stand on breadlines.”
Fellow employee Cook concurs. “A lot of people are joining the push,” she notes, adding, “They [management] are afraid of us.” But many workers, she continues, still worry about losing their job if they support the union.
McMillan, on the other hand, believes the Sitel case reflects a broader struggle. “Our economy is shifting away from good-paying jobs to these low-wage, service-sector, Wal-Mart-type jobs. I think more workers are realizing someone's getting rich off their labor, and it's not them.”
And Ashworth, who never gave much thought to unions until recently, says the organizing drive has given him faith in ordinary citizens’ ability to make things better. “Nobody sets out to change the world, but it happens in little leaps and bounds, like this,” he observes, adding, “I'm not afraid anymore.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.