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.”

“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 dforbes@mountainx.com.


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11 thoughts on “Unprecedented

  1. LOKEL

    This isn’t the only call center in Buncombe County …
    are conditions/pay etc. the same at all of them …

    … isn’t there a law about how many bathrooms are required for a number of people expected to work in the building – if not there should be.

    I remember when local officials and the Gov’ner were crowing about 400 NEW jobs coming to that arvato digital services call center … well guess what … all those jobs did not materialize.

    Did they still get the promised incentives paid for by our tax dollars?

    • kmmp

      No, conditions are not the same at all of them. Sitel pays the lowest of all the larger call centers. Arvato pays 9.50/Gunthy Renker 9.00 to 10.00

      Arvato cut a deal with Weaverville and part of it was the wages. I think most of those jobs materialized, they were not all call center jobs.

      There are OSHA laws requiring enough bathrooms for health and safetly reasons.

  2. SitelWorker

    Current employee here, and I don’t forsee a union being voted in any time soon. The majority of the workers here have been told that Sitel will close up shop and move to another state if we even get close to voting in a union and they are terrified of losing their jobs. There are also many older workers here who are against unions by principle, believing that they are the reason jobs are leaving the country.(the same group of workers here who watch Fox News religiously in the break room)
    Organizers need to step up efforts to educate people here as to their rights, because even the people who would support a union fear the loss of their job or being punished for discussing it.

    • sbuchner

      Many of our coworkers are scared… we are trying to make sure everyone knows their rights… so spread the word! Actually, the more vocal and active you are in organizing (wearing the yellow wrist band/stickers, coming to meetings, etc), the more protected you are in a way, because unless you give Sitel a legitimate reason to fire you (not related to union organizing), IBEW will argue that they fired you for your organizing efforts & they can fight to get your job back with backpay through the NLRB:

      Also, if Sitel were to close up shop during this campaign it would be illegal. Doesn’t mean they won’t try to break the law, but it wouldn’t really be in their best interest to do so. Ultimately, it’s threat that just about all employers use during organizing campaigns but only a tiny fraction (I think less than 2%) actually do.

  3. Martin Brown

    A bathroom being broken for 5 months, when there was another alternative. Really? This justifies a front-page article and a 5 month investigation?

    This article diminishes the integrity of the Mountain Express and David Forbes, and insults the great strides that unions have made for this country.

    Unions were instrumental in correcting harsh working conditions, bringing about the 40 hour work week, overtime pay and safe working conditions while eliminating child labor.

    While Foxconn workers in China commit suicide because of their working conditions, our workers are forming unions because they have to wait an extra couple minutes to use a different bathroom and their *starting* pay is only $0.75 ABOVE the minimum wage (and only $0.35 less than what Asheville considers a living wage–which many entry level jobs in town don’t even pay).

    Brian Lane declares “these people are sitting here making money hand over fist off the sweat of my back.” Really? Have you looked at their financial statements? They lost $50 million dollars last year. Go ahead and check them out at http://www.sec.gov/cgi-bin/viewer?action=view&cik=1414078&accession_number=0001518519-12-000026&xbrl_type=v# . Rather they are LOSING hand over fist.

    Stop sensationalizing and start reporting.

    Let’s put things in perspective people. Having slightly low wages and a broken bathroom does not compare to the working conditions that the unions of yore fought so hard to overcome.

    Ken Ashworth and his friends are perfectly within their right to try to form a union. But making this a front-page story, framing it as a fight against the corporate overlords, and a revival for unions across WNC is disingenuous. What it does is make all unions look like whiny brats who have lost touch with what really matters.

    And, yes, we really need unions. Massey forced the unions out and 25 miners died two years ago because of unsafe working conditions that caused an explosion. Tragedies happen every week that unions could help prevent.

    But if we dilute what it means to have a union, then unions lose their ability to fight for what really matters.

    • Michael Graham

      Martin Brown, I was going to begin this reply by questioning your integrity. I was going to suggest that you are some sort of saboteur, and that you have personal interests in undermining the good and brave people at Sitel who are attempting to assert their right to bargain collectively for decent wages and conditions. I thought about it a little more and decided that it would be better to err on the assumption that you are not thinking through this issue fully, so I will raise some points for you to

      As to the bathrooms concerns, I understand why this might seem a trivial point. But consider this: before the old women’s restroom was switched to replace the old men’s restroom most of the men on that side of the building expected to have to walk to Walmart if they needed to use a sit-down toilet. After the women’s restroom was switched all the women on that side of the building had to rely on a bathroom with just one stall and two urinals. The impracticality of this for most persons should be
      obvious, but some women were placed in the position that they needed to wear adult diapers to get through their day at their job. This may not be a mine explosion, but it is not acceptable in any America that I am going to live in.

      You are right that unions are responsible for forcing employers to limit the most horrible excesses of industrial exploitation.

      I do not know the full story regarding conditions at Foxconn, but are you suggesting that conditions need to be so bad at a job that suicide is common before working people stand up for themselves and unionize?

      You must know that it is a herculean difficulty to provide for a family making the wages that people make at Sitel. People need jobs because they need an income that can sustain themselves and their families. When companies like Sitel pay their employees such a low wage, the rest of us pick up the tab through public assistance. The food stamp program, medicaid, etc. Basically you and I are subsidizing Sitel so that they can more easily exploit their workers. I don’t want my country to work like that. Is
      that how you want your country to work?

      Unions of working people “of yore” fought bravely to secure a decent slice of the pie, if not successfully for the whole pie that they deserved.

      Western North Carolina is one of the least unionized regions in the whole world. If you say that “yes, we really need unions” why are you spending part of your personal time to sabotage a strong effort to unionize one of the largest workplaces in the area?

      I really hope that you are just a misguided fellow and not a bad person trying to hamstring regular working people. You say that you are concerned that unions have the ability to fight for what really matters, but if it isn’t for simply the right to stand together and bargain collectively, then I have to wonder what it is that you think matters?

  4. I'm FREE!!

    I quit Sitel 2 years ago after working there for 3 years. I don’t miss it at all….though I do miss a lot of my former co-workers. That place is so shady! The pay is horrible and the treatment you get from some of the managers is even worse, especially the site director. There are so many stories I could tell about that place and some of the bad things they do. I could really get some of them in trouble with the things I know. I always said we needed a union when I worked there. The workers need someone to stand up for them because you can’t go to management and expect anything. They will tell you that you are wrong and that you just need to mind your own business and focus on your job performance. They may not ever get the union in there, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t fight with all they’ve got. Stand strong, Sitel Asheville!

  5. David Haynes

    Martin Brown – “Let’s put things in perspective people. Having slightly low wages and a broken bathroom does not compare to the working conditions that the unions of yore fought so hard to overcome.

    Ken Ashworth and his friends are perfectly within their right to try to form a union. But making this a front-page story, framing it as a fight against the corporate overlords, and a revival for unions across WNC is disingenuous. What it does is make all unions look like whiny brats who have lost touch with what really matters.”

    Earning a decent living and being able to support your family with dignity without depending on assistance. I think that matters, nothing winey about that.

    Trying to stand up and improve a work environment that is sometimes hostile and usually indifferent to the needs of employees. I’m sure that if you worked there you would probably feel that mattered and you would want to see things improve.Seems courageous to me. Not whiney.

    So Sitel lost $50 million last year. OK. Maybe the management team should be paid based on thier performance. There is a very high turnover rate and and a demoralized workforce. Both indicators of poor management. If they can be believed they tell the employees they are doing a great job and the metrics are as good as they have ever been.So pay the folks that are doing the good work so they can live in dignity and deal with the real problem. Poor management.

    Standing with dignity at work and demanding fair compensation and a decent work environment is exactly what Unions do. Workers everywhere would do well to follow thier example.

  6. Jonathan

    I am really glad the MtnX ran this as a cover story. We get all kinds of news about potential business, tourist, and real estate development here in Western NC, but rarely do we get news about work and working conditions. In that way Forbes’s framing of this news as historic in a community with a big service sector and low union density seems accurate to me.

    I work in a different part of the service economy: child care. But I still feel like efforts to organize at Sitel matter for me and my job and my work. We often hear that our “new” economy is supposed to look more and more like Sitel: Very alienating and individual work environments, where service workers of one kind or another will be geographically separated from the companies and customers that rely on their services. Where the work of employees will have significant bearing on customers’ well being (at Sitel Asheville we’re talking about health and finance) but also will be intangible. And where our work will be poorly compensated and precarious.
    These folks organizing at Sitel are making a significant move to push back against the alienation that is not just part of Sitel’s business model, but which we are told is the future of work for all of us. Even though I hope and believe that building a union at Sitel could make the future of work look a little better for all of us and for the customers, clients, children, etc we serve.

  7. bekahdavid

    I was going to respond to Martin Brown, but Michael Graham said it all perfectly.

    Every worker should have the right to form a union with her coworkers. Dangerous conditions are not a prerequisite for doing so.

    Unions are perhaps the best hope (barring the overthrowing of capitalism) for workers to take back some of the wealth and power that’s been stolen from them by what we’re now calling “the 1%”. Owners and managers might not all belong to the 1%, but the money they earn off the backs of workers certainly funnels straight to the wealthiest… for example, in the form of stocks and purchased goods and services.

  8. Josh

    Mr Brown,
    You mention the Unions are needed in certain industries as you mentioned Coal Mining. Labor Unions do alot more than safety concerns. Some places treat people so poorly that they are demoralized and emotionally crippled. Unions can help give these people a voice where they can stand up to these companies that treat them poorly. Unions do bring more safety to some jobs, but they also give employees a voice, respect, and a better living. Unions are not out to hurt the companies, they are there to help employees work with the company for better working conditions. Todays Unions would surprise you in how much they are wanting to form a partnership with companies and grow and prosper together for the betterment of company and employees.

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