Unprecedented: Sitel workers mount historic union organizing drive

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.”

Mounting frustration

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.

New alliances

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.”


IBEW Regional organizer John Murphy, who’s played a major role in the Sitel campaign, at Local 238’s union hall.

“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.


Sitel workers meet with Murphy and Local 238’s membership director, Josh Rhodes (at head of table), to discuss the ongoing union drive.

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 dforbes@mountainx.com.

 

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21 thoughts on “Unprecedented: Sitel workers mount historic union organizing drive

  1. cwaster

    Worked there exactly two weeks in ’01 and couldn’t take the micromanaging, cruddy benefits, computerized scheduling and low, low wages. Probably with the economic collapse people fear even more to say something and speak up- jobs are hard to find. In an employer’s market like this offering a less than living-wage job with poor to no benefits is becoming increasingly common. Why treat people well when you don’t have to and they are desperate? It sounds like nothing has changed for the better over there yet. I hope it does.

  2. Organizer

    It is true, there was no co-ed bathroom, and there are two other bathrooms on the opposite end of the building. The important issue at hand, however, is the lack of dignity and a living wage at Sitel. You may take what Mr. Ashworth says with a grain of salt, but know we who are a part of the Volunteer Organize Committee are dedicated to improving the quality of life for our coworkers.

  3. Thad

    All power to the workers! I support all the working people of Asheville, and I support the workers at Sitel in their union effort.

  4. ClobberinTime90

    All I need to say is about time someone starts careing for other employees at that place. People are quitting there left and right and its all due to management and how Sitel corp. wants more money, pay freeze was put into effect in 2008 and there has not been any raises since. no employee there aside from management is making more than $9.50/hr, this is outta control and im sure management is going to say something to their employees about this article, whoever started this union was a genius and I am glad that hopefully employees will get paid better there and not be treated as horrible as they are now.

  5. sbuchner

    This article is great! I encourage everyone to take a look at http://www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity and to know your rights!

    I’ve worked at Sitel since January 2010 and my wage has been capped at $9.50 for a while. Sitel has no reason to give us raises unless we collectively pressure them. As the saying goes, “united we bargain, divided we beg”.

    When management says that they can’t afford to give us raises… I say prove it! And that’s what contract negotiations will allow – they will have to bargain in good faith and open up their books. And ONLY after a contract is negotiated, would any employee be asked to pay dues. So it’s really, a no brainer to support the unionization if you work at Sitel.

    We deserve to be valued as employees and to be able to take pride in our job. We have a huge responsibility every time we answer the phone – in many cases dealing with people’s hard earned money, their health, and their lives. This has the potential to be a great job. We have a chance to set the bar higher for jobs in our community, and I’m really excited about our progress so far!

  6. Lizzie B

    I’m not for or against the union, but I think it’s important to clarify a few of the inaccuracies in this article. First, the building is not “windowless.” There are probably about four of five windows. Also, at no time were the restrooms “co-ed.” For almost a year the women did have to use the men’s restroom, with only one stall, and the men used the women’s. But there was never a co-ed restroom.

    The reason the men were given one of the women’s restrooms was because the men only had three stalls for the entire site. This was a definite hardship. Many men said that when had to use the restroom they just went to Walmart because they knew there would not be an available stall. At this time Sitel was in violation of OSHA standards. After the switch, Sitel was no longer in violation of OSHA, but the it did impose a new hardship on the women. At one end of the call center there was only one stall, so the women, some with handicaps, had to walk to the other end of the site.

    There are other issues that deserve more focus. For instance, when many employees are hired they are told that they will not have to do sales, but now sales is the only thing that matters. I still hear new hires stating that they were told that they would not have to sale, but if you go two weeks without a sale you are written up. So let’s be very clear: Sitel does lie to its employees to sucker them into a hire pressure sales job. This may not be a violation of federal law, but it is unethical, and should stop.

  7. Margaret Williams

    Thank you all for commenting. Please note that, due to the potential for possibly libelous material, comments will be closely reviewed.

    If you have information, please contact Senior Reporter David Forbes.

    Criticize the ideas, not the people.

  8. I would fly

    You consistently go the extra mile with your field research to give people a voice.

    I’ve heard my share of horror stories about metrics and policing of behavior in these businesses over the years, but I didn’t know it was this militant. I think consideration for the well-being of employees is unfortunately dying out in many companies’ concepts of “efficiency” and it’s great to see people taking a stand.

    Thanks for this.

  9. Truth

    Hey Ken, the truth is that the employees will miss “Broke Friday” after the company decides to shift business to other sites in America thanks to you and your organizations efforts. I wonder how you will feel when your efforts impact 600 families in our community. Maybe sometime you should take a drive around the county and look at all the empty manufacturing facilities that moved their operations to a location where they would not have to deal with a Labor Union that crippled their business. – Truth

    • sbuchner

      Actually, it’s illegal for companies to do that. The threat to do so is classic union busting and less than 2% of companies actually follow through with it… and again, they would face legal action if they did.

      Paying their employees a living wage would not “cripple” Sitel. If they are so bad off, once negotiations begin they will have to open their books and prove it. They will have bargain in good faith.

    • Ken Ashworth

      sitel has been in the Asheville business community close to 15 years. We have beem told that a roster of 600 is at ,maximum capacity. yet in an employee newsletter sitel claims to have “created over 7,000 jobs in Asheville” What this means is that 6400 people were fired or quit.

      I eould personally lke to think that Sitel would not “punish” the communty or its employees should we win a union election. Sitel’s rate of pay at $8.00 has been in effect at least 10 years. The “community” has to foot the bill for foodstamps, daycare vouchers, food pantries, medicare and free helathcare to those employees because Sitel doesn’t pay enough to survive.

      In its latest SEC filing Sitel states that “many of its off shore facilities are covered under collective bargaining agreemnts. Sitel furthr states “we maintain a good working relationship” with those facilities, India, UK, Australia, Morroco and Latin America all have sites that are unionized, some for many years.

      Though there can be little doubt that Sitel is rabdily “anti union” how a given coporation chooses to repsond to its union workes is a subjective thing.

      The following is taken from Heinz, Inc, website. Heinz is proud of its union workforce.

      Heinz strives to maintain a good working relationship with labor unions across each of our Business Units. The Company has a history of negotiating fair and competitive contracts that provide family-sustaining jobs and wages. As of the end of this reporting period, 60% of Heinz employees in the United States and Canada were covered by collective bargaining agreements.

      Health and safety also are addressed in the Company

  10. BitterSitelwageslave

    Thank God this issue is finally being brought to the light and there are those with enough guts to bring it out in the open. The “bathroom situation was not really the issue” (and the bathrooms were never co-ed), but just the tip of a vast iceberg of employee abuse and exploitation that Sitel has been getting away with for far too long.
    It’s pitiful that these hard working employees (whose jobs are far more difficult both mentally and emotionally than those in the average order-taking call center, due to the nature of the services we provide) are mostly on food stamps or other government support programs due to the low pay and cannot give back to the community since they have almost or no disposable income to spend. I find it repugnant we must have a “food pantry” which in itself is a joke. Most of the food donated is canned beans and bags of rice and dried beans. How are we to “only eat it in the cafeteria” during our half hour lunch hour when it is not possible to even cook it there in that amount of time? Yet the food cannot be brought home–when that bag of rice and beans may make a good meal for a needy worker’s family. But yet it sits there in the pantry because it can’t be prepared there and can’t be taken home. WTF?
    It’s outrageous to cap off our pay at $9.50 an hour when the cost of everything in Asheville is inflating at insane rates. Has anyone seen the rents in Asheville lately? Even trailers are going for upwards of $700-$800/mo. Most of us would have to pay over half our monthly take home pay in order to afford even the cheapest trailer. The only option for a single Sitel worker to survive is to move in with family or friends. Not everyone has that option. I don’t.
    And all this while piling as much new work as possible and setting metrics that are nearly impossible to meet.
    Right now I am on the edge of becoming homeless, as I know many Sitel employees are. And yes, it’s absolutely true that they are well aware of this but can “keep us in our place” by paying us slave wages, knowing that for many of us who are no longer so young, other employment may no longer be an option. They can get away with this because they know we have no other choice. It’s all about cheap labor and the most profits for the Powers That Be at the top.
    We NEED to organize, and I am heartened that more employees are realizing they can no longer afford to be afraid of the “U” word.

  11. STILLRAGIN

    @truth dude if you work there then you know how terrible the working conditions are, you also know how much the pay sucks. Stick to your facts dude, don’t bash what people are doing trying to make life better for someone else. if workers at sitel, got paid more then there would be nothing to complain about. You sir are a troll and you need a hard dose of reality. Have fun making your $9.00 an hour when the union comes in and you are stuck making that when your co-workers are making 12-15 an hour.

  12. ViciousTruth

    Hmm, funny Mountain FOXpress doesn’t really want to publish anything but union propaganda, so instead of that I’ll be brief. Companies CAN and WILL shut down places that unionize. They only have to pay a fine, and between the choice of paying a one time relatively cheap fine or losing a lot more money by paying people 13 dollars per hour, well they will close down.

    • Maz

      Wrong Vicious, I’m not quite sure why you think that, but it is wrong. They cannot shut down because a union forms, but that does not mean they couldn’t find another reason to shut down that is not union related, which would be pretty likely. Having said that my own problem is with how non union employees are treated by union employees. In the event that a union does a walkout non union employees may still go to work. The result is usually union people harassing non union workers, which is more than a little unfair, especially considering most people on here are screaming how little pay they make and also how they can’t make ends meet, yet they would deny others the right to do the same. The idea of the union working trying to deny other workers the right to have a normal working day can and does happen, look at STILLRAGIN’s comment, and there is no union yet. Either way you’re just buying into one or the other’s lies. Grape or cherry, Kool-Aid is still Kool-Aid. Oh, and have fun paying those union dues, go see what the union leader’s house looks like compared to your own, but you know what they say in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

  13. Ken Ashworth

    Maz…Are you serious? Walkout? No one walks out unless a majority vote decides it period. In this day and age, strikes and walkouts are extremely rare and many contracts contain a mutual “no strike no lock out” clause anyway.

    Not saying ours would or would not, but WE would get final say on ANY contract proposal by majority vote. It is called democracy. So you posit not only a hypothetical situation, but one that has about a 94% chance of never even taking place according to recent government data.’

    You speak of ill treatment of non union employees by union employees. NC is a right to work state which means if a union is voted in at your workplace, YOU get the same pay, the same benefits, and are protected by the same contract as a union employee, if you decide to exercise your rights under RTW laws….

    I am unsure of which progandized anti union website you collect your data from, but the above scenario is far fetched. Strikes are extreme and only proposed in extreme circumstances. But one more time Maz, the DECISION to strike is left up to NO one but the employees invoklved and cannot be “dictated” by anyone else, it is againt the IBEW charter and does not happen.

    • Maz

      Ken you are right no one walks out unless a majority vote decides, and I’m not sure what pro union websites you look at, but I’ve seen it happen myself, of course movies overdo it with the iron pipes and all of that nonsense(Apparently watch a movie and everyone in a union hasn’t gone beyond 1920.) but they do make it tough even though the name for scabs has changed to something much prettier. Ken not everyone who doesn’t want a union knows nothing about unions, even though you seem to have a fairly standard mindset about this. You did not address the situation of union dues,Or for the Union leader’s home, as I said before “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. and as for Vicious he seems hopelessly uninformed but I imagine he got his number from the same place STILLRAGIN did, call them both out if you’re going to call one of them out for being ill informed on what wages may or may not happen. Calling a union a democracy is very accurate, the majority have all the power and the disagreeing minority have none. I know I know,charter rules, would protect everyone, but thats not entirely true as well. I’m glad you’ve read the wikipedia union page, but it isn’t as accurate as you think, and I am glad you know the 94% but that is by the Government standard. You’re an occupist right? You don’t trust the government until there are numbers you need to use by them, then everything is correct. This is my last post though, there really isn’t much to be said at this point as neither of us will budge on our opinions I’m sure. Try not to be so condescending to those who disagree with you, it doesn’t help your stance.

  14. Ken Ashworth

    Vicious..

    Do you have conrcete information that our rate of pay would be #13.00 an hour? Funny, I hear sooo many people on here talking about what sort of increase we will get and they always use some random figure that reinforces the point they are triyng to prove lol…..

    Do you want to know the official rate of pay we will get with a union contract? The sum total of what we vote by majority rule to accept and not a penny less.

    Negotiation means no one gets evrything they want, but everyone gets somethng they want. Why would Sitel then close AFTER agreeing to a contract? This is so irritional I am finding it difficult to even rebut…

  15. Ken Ashworth

    Maz:

    I wasn’t attempting to be condescending and I don’t read pr union websites. I have worked in management positions in unionzied coporations for many years but have never been in a union.

    The “union bosees house”. Ok. Who is that? From my understanding the major labor unions in the country vote who they want to be the president and they also set his salary. Labor unions are required to dsiclose the salaries of all their inner workforce above a certain pay grade. I think all organizers are included in that. I know what the organizer I work with makes. I have never seen his house though.

    But the president of Sitel won’t work for this company without a contract yet he vigoruosly opposes my effort to do so. He makes right at $400,000 before bonuses and stock options.

    The term “union boss” was a well desrved term with some labor unions in the 1950′s and 1960′s. The Kefuaver hearings,the Kennedy brothers and James Riddle Hoffa created that term I believe.

    I don’t know any union bosses. I know our dues would equal about two hours pay per month, certainly less than our health insurance premium is now.

    And I don’t care who wants a union, really. I do care if that decision is based on lies and misleading information. I do care that WE get to decide and not Sitel and their botom feeding lam firm. In fact I am pretty sure the federal government feels the sme way Maz….

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