[OPE-L:2171] the political economy of call centers (1/2)

From: Gerald Levy (glevy@PRATT.EDU)
Date: Sun Jan 16 2000 - 10:55:27 EST

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This might be of interest to listmembers. Any comments on the
methodology of the proposed empirical study? Like Steve Wright, moderator
of the aut-op-sy list, I have no knowledge about the organizing group.
  In solidarity, Jerry

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2000 13:18:55 +1100
From: Steve Wright <pmargin@xchange.anarki.net>
Subject: AUT: 1/2 Proposal for an Investigation of Call Centers

I just received this, but don't know anything about the organising group.

Does anyone else? Any comments on their project?

Please try to respond without remailing the original post . . .



>Date: 14 Jan 2000 00:00:00 +0000
>From: kolinko@koma.free.de (Kolinko)
>To: pmargin@xchange.anarki.net
>Subject: Proposal for an Investigation of Call Centers
>X-Mailer: CrossPoint v3.11
>MIME-Version: 1.0
>X-MIME-Autoconverted: from quoted-printable to 8bit by xchange.anarki.net id
>Status: RO
>Dear Comrades,
>we have sent the enclosed proposal and questionnaire to groups in various
>countries. We hope the proposed investigation can become the base of a
>common and broader intervention. In case you know other groups or
>individuals who try to push forward revolutionary initiatives from within
>the sphere of exploitation, please pass this on to them.
>Let us know, if you want to be on our mailing-list and whether your
>contributions and critique should be published there.
>Tell us, if we can reach you through email and whether you use PGP-
>We will document our discussions and results on our website. You will find
>a version of the proposal and questionnaire there in English, Spanish and
>German (we try to get one in French and Italian as well).
>Love and Strength!
>The kolinkos
>Kollektiv in kommunistischer Bewegung (Kolinko), Ruhrgebiet/Germany,
>November 1999
>Where is the revolutionary tendency in present class reality?
>Proposal for an Investigation of Call Centers
>Dear Comrades!
>With this letter and questionnaire we propose a collective investigation
>of the state of exploitation in Call Centers. Furthermore we want to
>contribute to a renewed and general debate of the aims and tasks of
>revolutionaries. We ask you to send us your critique of our questions and
>propositions and to take part in the investigation through information and
>contacts from your region.
>In the first part of this letter we briefly present our political starting
>point. In the second part, we explain why we start with an analysis of
>Call Centers in our region. You will find our original questions and first
>propositions in the third part. In the fourth we make proposals for
>further discussion and the exchange of experiences. The questionnaire for
>interviews with Call Center-workers is at the end.
>1. Who we are: Kollektiv in kommunistischer Bewegung (Kolinko)
>We want to bring an end to capitalism because it transforms our lives into
>everyday labor and scarcity. Because, in capitalism, produced wealth only
>increases capital and otherwise creates poverty. Because the development
>of the social forces and technological opportunities in capitalism do not
>lead to liberation from drudgery but to increased exploitation and crisis.
>In order to contribute to the over-coming of the current blockade in the
>world-wide class struggle we need to search for the material basis of
>liberation in the daily movement of the exploited within the capitalist
>production process. In the context of the world wide expansion of
>production chains, the migration of workers and the circulation of their
>experiences, the new organisation of labor and machinery creates anger,
>strength and the organizing of a new class composition. There, and not in
>the principles of political organizations, developes communism as a
>We neither want to organize Call Center-workers in union groups nor create
>new types of mediation. We are looking for the revolutionary tendencies,
>for worker's power and the desire for communism. We want to strengthen the
>forces of self-organizing and self-liberation. Therefore, we act
>collectively within this exploitation - some of us currently work in Call
>Centers - and propose this investigation.
>2. Why investigate Call Centers?
>Bosses, politicians and unions leaders agree that the boom of service
>industries and the new information technologies can lead capitalism out of
>crisis. Of central importance is the expansion of electronic data
>processing through telephone and computer-nets.
>They use Call Centers as an example to discuss the future of labor. The
>capitalist management declares that the work in Call Centers - due to its
>flexibility - should be seen as a general example of "modern labor".
>Representatives of the state emphasize that Call Centers create jobs for
>people who otherwise had few chances in the labor market. Bourgeois
>sociologists take Call Centers as the best example of new forms of labor
>in the "society of service and information".
>Unions criticize Call Centers as unproductive sponges of subsidies or new
>forms of precarious labor relations without regulated standards. They try
>to get a foot in the door through increased organizing efforts, also in
>order to make up for their crisis as representing bodies for the workers
>in other areas and to introduce or defend "bargaining achievements".
>Whatever the interest may be, they produce different myths in order to
>justify their hopes for changes within the boundaries of capitalism.
>We have to destroy the capitalist myths and investigate the real
>tendencies of exploitation behind them. Taking the development of the
>information technology, we have to make clear that capital (as a class)
>does not have any power of innovation. It can only confront us as a power
>as long as we do not recognize that we ourselves - and not capital -
>develope the productive forces through our increased social cooperation.
>Furthermore, we have to emphasize that increased productivity offers no
>escape from capitalist crisis but instead reproduces and aggravates it.
>After all capital (as value) can only increase itself by exploiting human
>labor. Therefore, the "achievements" of information technology, increased
>productivity and reduced utilization of human labor, lead to greater (!)
>amounts of drudgery in Call Centers or in the assembly of circuit boards.
>We have started this investigation of Call Centers because workers are re-
>concentrated there, with an organization of labor of a different type.
>Therefore, they could possibly become a central focus of struggles of a
>new type of worker. Particularly in our region, capital is pulling more
>labor force into Call Centers than into any other industry. We know that
>many Call Centers are being built in other European regions too, and that
>workers from Dublin to Lisbon will have similar experiences in them. We
>see a chance here to investigate the development on a European or
>worldwide level. This can be a first step towards understanding the whole
>process of re-composition of the working class.
>We want to attack the question of whether there is a broader tendency of
>capitalist development and the possibilities for communism behind this
>formation of a new type of worker.
>3. Questions and propositions for the investigation
>Revolutionary investigation has to attack on several levels. Its starting
>point is an analysis of the laws of motion and contradictions of
>capitalist development. We need a sharp view if we want to open up a way
>through the jungle of details, statistics and the propaganda of Call
>Center management, making our own experiences as human answering machines
>at the same time. Against this background our interviews and discussions
>with other callboys and -girls will address the question of the formation
>of a new worker's subjectivity. This is a process which will lead us along
>the way to the focus point of a revolutionary intervention.
>We use the following framework of questions and propositions as a first
>reference point for our investigaton. For you, it should be an instigation
>to your own contributions:
>a) Cycle of accumulation
>What significance do Call Centers have in the whole cycle of accumulation
>of capital in a society? The position and function, within the process of
>accumulation, is important for an accurate distinction between different
>Call Centers.
>Most Call Centers are situated in the circulation process of capital. In
>the case that Call Centers contribute to an acceleration of the turnover
>time of capital in the money- and commodity-form, does that counteract the
>tendency of the the rate of profit to fall?
>Other Call Centers act as the interface in the organization of supplies
>and transport and therefore are part of the direct production process.
>What effect does out-sourcing of coordination functions, from the old
>planning apparatus of capital, have on the whole process of production and
>the composition and conditions of workers?
>Against the myth of "information capital" without crisis, we have to ask
>whether call centers are not just a special expression of the crisis of
>capital which must escape into "non-productive" areas of low organic
>composition of capital, due to the increased productivity and high organic
>composition of capital in factories.
>This leads to the question of whether many Call Centers are just state-
>subsidized machines for job-creation and re-composition in de-
>industrialized regions, or just ways of publicizing the service
>orientation of big companies? Will they remain, without their own
>"profitability" and historical significance, for the reproduction of
>The understanding of the function of Call Centers within capitalist
>development is important for the discussion with other workers, in order
>to make clear that their appearance is not due to a "natural process", but
>to specific exploitative and contradictory relations of production. The
>significance of Call Centers in the process of accumulation is an
>important factor for the possible development of worker's power!
>b) Region
>1. Obviously capital concentrates Call Centers in certain regions. Which
>strategies of capital and the state lie behind this? Call Centers
>functions as a "revolving door" through which masses of pupils, students,
>"housewifes", "unemployed", young workers and "precarious" employees are
>sent. How does this mobilization effect the regional labor market?
>2. What kind of material reasons (apart from the state subsidies) are
>behind the regional concentration of Call Centers? The existence of
>certain sectors that depend on flexible and network-based communication
>work can be a reason, as well as the existence of a Call Center
>proletariat, which has specific skills that can be exploited. What are the
>reasons for the concentration of call centers in countries like Ireland?
>What is especially interesting to us is where we find parallel
>developments in class struggle and whether there is an exchange of
>worker's experiences that we can support.
>c) Composition of capital
>Does the outsourcing and re-concentration of certain "office jobs" in Call
>Centers include a change in the composition of capital? Has the relation
>of constant capital (machinery, buildings etc.) and variable capital
>(labor power) changed profoundly? In which sectors do Call Centers work
>have a "rationalizing" function? A first thesis is, especially in the
>banking sector, that the rhetoric of service- and customer-orientation is
>used to conceal that the creation of call centers is just a step in the
>transition to a broader restructuring and re-composition as an attack
>against workers (rationalization of customer care, "taylorization" of
>office work, attack on the negotiated standards of branch-workers,
>deskilling, conversion to electronic commerce).
>d) Technical class composition
>At first sight it is obvious that a predominately young, mobile and female
>labor force is being exploited in Call Centers, often for short periods.
>Capital has difficulties in urging and manipulating the necessary social
>qualifications of this labor force (abilities in stress-handling,
>communication etc.) into a certain formal profession.
>According to our experiences so far, capitalist management has not really
>got a clue about how to organize the complex work flow in Call Centers. It
>depends on the self qualification of workers within the work process. Will
>management be able to appropriate this worker's knowledge? Can it use
>this knowledge, claim it as its own, and use it to confront the labor
>force with an image of a new profession? There is a trend towards
>standardization in the training of bank- and administration-workers in
>Call Centers. This is possible because of the technical devices for the
>distribution of information. Therefore, the training periods can be
>shortened, which is a necessary condition for the accelerated rotation of
>the labor force and the reason for an increasing "proletarization" of the
>The majority of Call Centers do not ask for "specific" qualifications. In
>the ordering department, you find mostly women working for especially low
>wages. In other Call Centers male technicians answer, for example,
>questions about complex problems in computer programming. The sexual
>division of labor is maintained here, while it apparently is falling apart
>in many other Call Centers.
>We must investigate whether the different conditions lead to common
>behavior by the exploited. Where do new possibilities for collective
>struggles develope?
>e) Organization of labor
>1. Concentration
>The often mentioned spacial "atomization" of the labor force through
>information technology has not taken place in call centers. On the
>contrary, new concentrations of workers were created. We have to find out
>why capital counts on these concentrations although it knows the dangers.
>One question is whether the expenses for constant capital can be lowered
>through the concentration of workers. More important is, whether capital
>depends on the (informal) cooperation of workers in order to keep the
>technical apparatus going and make the work flow more productive - in
>comparision with what is possible with a spacially isolated work force.
>2. Division of labor and cooperation
>Are Call Center workers part of a divided work process that goes beyond
>the Call Center (i.e. not only speaking to "private customers" but, for
>example, getting and passing information or organizing the transport of
>supplies and materials)?
>Is there a division of labor and a cooperation within the call center and
>how is it organized? Here we have to distinguish between the "official"
>cooperation (after instruction) through the organization of the work
>process and the "informal" cooperation (improvised) which is organized by
>the workers themselves.
>These questions are important because they lead us to the dependence of
>capital on the labor force and therefore allow us to understand the power
>of possible organized worker's struggle.
>3. Machinery
>Is telephone- and computer-equipment capitalist machinery? Any call center
>worker can tell how the means of production represent means of controlling
>their work at the same time, that calls are statistically analyzed and
>monitored. Do the technical devices mediate the cooperation between
>workers and therefore can they be presented as the power of capital?
>How can capital appropriate the knowledge of the workers and use it for
>the further technical development of the machinery? In many Call Centers
>the workers are just human interfaces between the telephone- and the
>computer-system. Can they technically be replaced by the expansion of the
>internet and voice response systems?
>As revolutionaries we have to investigate how the workers use their means
>of production as well in order to gain a certain control over the work
>process and whether it is possible to appropriate the means of production
>as a weapon and organizing tool in struggles (e.g., the intranet as a
>"virtual strike committee").
>4. Hierarchy
>At first sight there are only a few hierarchical levels in Call Centers
>due to the minimal division of labor and small differences in skill. Which
>ways does capital have to establish a hierarchy in order to instigate
>divisions and give incentives for promotions (e.g. the difference in
>seniority, work contracts, working hours like part-time and full-time and
>therefore wage differences).
>In factories, capitalist management has to explain the hierarchy by
>pointing at the production process and the necessity of having to organize
>it. How does the hierarchy gets legitimized in Call Centers? Which
>"productive" and control functions does it fulfil?
>Which role do works councils and unions play within the capitalist order?
>What difficulties or interests do they have in organizing the labor force,
>which due to its mobility is hard to represent through union structures
>(based on professional categories)? No wonder that the union mobilizations
>in Call Centers present themselves as coming from the rank and file and
>often (have to) pretend to be "workers self-organizing".
>5. Working hours and wages
>Call Centers are seen as experimental fields for developing models of
>working hours and wages. With Call Centers shift- and Sunday-work is being
>expanded into the "white collar-sector". The standardization of work
>routines and the therefore possible assessment of individual work
>performance paves the way for the introduction of "piece-wage", like in
>factories, into office work. We know that there are conflicts between
>managements and workers around these issues. We have to analyze them

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