“We are stronger together than when we are apart.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA– Three years ago, nearly 40,000 Verizon workers in the US went on strike to demand some improvement in their work contract. Its impact reverberated not just in the US but across the Pacific.
Among the Verizon strikers were 13,000 call center workers. But Verizon has been outsourcing jobs in its customer service operations. And so, while its workers in the US were on strike, contact center workers in the Philippines doing Verizon customer support were flooded with increased calls and complaints, forcing them to work even longer hours. Workers in the Philippines were unwittingly being used as scabs. But BIEN Philippines (BPO Industry Employees’ Network) reached out to the US strikers, who soon sent a delegation to the Philippines. In Manila, the contact center workers held a picket in solidarity with Verizon strikers.
A result of the strikers’ delegation to Manila, they were able to tackle head-on the company tact of using workers in outsourcing countries to help mitigate the impact of a crippling strike. But as they held solidarity pickets with BIEN, they also got a taste of local police response to peaceful protests. They experienced being taken in and “manhandled” by the Philippine police. In this country where strikes are routinely demolished with violence and the strikers wounded and jailed in the process, the delegates of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) were held by the Philippine police “briefly.”
Another result of Verizon workers’ strike is the beginning of solidarity work with contact center workers based in other countries, such as BIEN. Based in the Philippines, this network is campaigning for union rights and job security of BPO employees. The strike in Verizon, a CWA union, after 45 days with an improved work contract. They won job security for all members of the union. The strikers also got them to promise to hire 1,300 more call center workers.
The union has its work cut out for its members and would-be members as their four-year contract nears its end. “People who have worked hard for decades are being pushed out,” as Brenda Roberts, union member in the US for 40 years, told Bulatlat. Today, they continue to stare at the problems posed by outsourcing. Companies such as Verizon are shrinking their workforce through attrition. [Update: the union in Verizon has lost a lot of members since the 2016 strike.]
Fighting to save jobs, benefits
Last week, some union leaders including Roberts from CWA met to discuss with BIEN the communication workers’ plight. They hoped to work out strategies for unionizing and mobilizing the communication workers.
Whether in the US or in the Philippines, they notice a similar trend: jobs and benefits are continuously being eroded.
Thousands of call center and BPO jobs have left the US since the 90s, when BPOs began “booming” in the Philippines and in other countries such as India. Nowadays the Communications Workers of America, for example, has shrunk to three times its former size two decades ago. The CWA current membership is around 700,000.
“The culprit is not the workers but the corporations,” said Roberts.
In the Philippines, wages and benefits of communication workers including the BPOs and call centers are getting worse rather than improving as the government steadily supports moves to bring the BPOs outside of the National Capital Region. Outside of the NCR, wages are set lower by the National Tripartite Wages and Productivity Board.
The BPO companies in the Philippines have also been harsh to employees forming unions. In Alorica where employees succeeded in forming the first union in a call center here, the management fired the union president despite her long, fruitful job record in the company.
CWA held protests in the US in solidarity with the Filipino call center unionists. They wrote President Trump and the management of Alorica urging it to respect union building in the Philippines.
“Neoliberalism is impacting all workers no matter their race,” observed Nell Gaiser, assistant director of research in CWA. “That’s why we are in solidarity,” added Brenda Roberts. “We are stronger together than when we are apart.”
Countering big lies
In the US as in the Philippines, governments have been reducing the costs of doing business, including corporate taxes, at the expense of the workers.
The Duterte government promoted its TRAIN (Tax Reforms for Acceleration and Inclusion) saying certain employees (including call center workers) will pay less taxes because of it. But when TRAIN began to be implemented, costs of goods and services increased due to higher taxes imposed on it.
In the US, communication workers decry a similar case. Kendra Williams scored “one big lie” of President Trump and AT&T, for example. Trump apparently got Congress to pass massive tax cuts favoring the corporations. AT&T has saved $4 billion each year since December 2017, said Williams. But the telecom company did not deliver on its promise in exchange for the tax cuts. The promise was, there would be 7,000 new jobs per $1 billion tax cut. On the contrary, AT&T even cut jobs, said Williams. Now the CWA wants Congress to investigate.
“We’re trying to hold them accountable,” Williams said of AT&T.
The CWA bargains with AT&T once or twice every year because CBAs with AT&T are regional. This October, AT&T Mobility Southwest where Williams work is set to bargain with management for a new contract.
CWA and BIEN note that there is “a very hostile political environment” facing workers today. But one way to keep strong is of course to mobilize and continue forming and strengthening unions. Unlike the CWA which has long been an established union in the US, Philippine BPO workers are still struggling to register and utilize unions for seeking improvements in job conditions.
A number of big BPOs including Alorica, Teleperformance, AT&T and others more operating in the Philippines perform jobs that used to be solely the work of CWA unions. The main driving force of the global outsourcing is the cheaper wages in countries outside of the US, which the unionists hope to counter.
This is why according to the US-based CWA representatives, they are working in solidarity with their counterparts in the Philippines. They don’t look at other unionists or workers as rivals. As unionists, “We want to maintain the same level of wages and benefits being received in the US with other workers,” said Roberts.
[Note: This is updated on September 15 to correct data on Verizon commitment to hire more call center workers, from 300 earlier stated to 1,300; to restate the circumstances that led to the solidarity picket of Filipino contact centers and a delegation of Verizon unionists during their strike; and add information regarding the regional scope and frequency of union bargaining with AT&T.]