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Posted on 18 April 2011 at 14:15 GMT

Enthusiastic support for PCS call centres strike

PCS pickets at Cobalt Park Jobcentre Plus call centre, photo Elaine Brunskill

PCS pickets at Cobalt Park Jobcentre Plus call centre, photo Elaine Brunskill   (Click to enlarge)

Wales

Hundreds of call centre workers in Wales supported the strike by the PCS civil service union in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) today over inhuman working conditions and a bad service to benefit claimants.

Call centres in Wales at Bangor, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Newport and Pembroke Dock support the PCS DWP strike, photo by Socialist Party Wales

Call centres in Wales at Bangor, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Newport and Pembroke Dock support the PCS DWP strike, photo by Socialist Party Wales   (Click to enlarge)

The five call centres in Wales at Bangor, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Newport and Pembroke Dock were all heavily affected by a massive stayaway by PCS members.

In Newport the picket line was bathed in sunshine as workers turned back from the picket line and refused to go into work. A group of managers completely failed to intimidate members into breaking the strike and were heavily outnumbered by pickets and by great support from the rest of the trade union movement.

There was a number of discussions about how to bring about coordinated action on 30 June when action over pensions is possible. At Pembroke Dock a breakfast barbecue replaced the traditional pickets' brazier as PCS members were supported by trade unionists and supporters from Swansea, Llanelli and Milford Haven.

In Bridgend there were over 20 pickets as members enthusiastically opposed what the DWP is trying to do to the service to claimants. Pickets scoffed at the DWP statement that "we have to ensure that our service is available when our customers, who include some of the most vulnerable people in the country, need us".

PCS DWP group vice president Katrine Williams replied: "The problem is that management is obsessed with targets. We should be able to use our judgment about how long a call takes.

Pembroke Dock PCS DWP strike 18.4.11, photo SP Wales

Pembroke Dock PCS DWP strike 18.4.11, photo SP Wales   (Click to enlarge)

"We want to spend the right amount of time with the person on the phone. It's very difficult doing that - and we can potentially be disciplined if we spend too long on the phone with somebody.

"Most people would be pleased if we could actually answer and deal with the query on the phone the first time they ring up.

"It's a very complicated benefits system and navigating that is very difficult and what somebody doesn't want to have happen to them is be fobbed off on the phone and be rung back some number of hours later by another member of staff that's also very hard pressed.

"Management are absolutely adamant that the call-handling time targets and the number of calls we take is more important than how we deal with people on the phone".

Alec Thraves (Socialist Party) spoke to Sian Thomas, PCS branch organiser at Pembroke Dock call centre:

'Around 85% have responded to our strike today which is an indication of how strongly our members feel about our deteriorating working conditions. We want genuine access to flexi time; we want an end to the unrealistic monitoring that's taking place at the moment and we want to be able to provide a good customer service.

'There's loads of pressure on staff, particularly with the excessive monitoring that tries to force us to reach unrealistic targets. Today has been a big success but hopefully we can move on and have coordinated action with other unions, working towards a one-day public sector general strike'.

Another picket explained that management are only interested in reaching government targets even at the cost of good customer service:

'When I'm dealing with customers and it's coming close to my three minute allocation time, I know my call may be monitored and listened to, so I tell them that I will be unable to complete their query as I am only allowed three minutes to speak to them otherwise I could get disciplined.

'This is the type of barbaric, uncompromising regime being forced upon us and it is preventing us from doing our job efficiently and sympathetically'.

Because the strike was so well supported and there were very few cars entering the call centre, the PCS branch organiser kept herself busy by cooking up BBQ sausage and bacon rolls for some extremely grateful PCS pickets and Socialist Party members.

One of the pickets commented - PCS has taken on a new meaning from today: Pickets Cooking Sausages!

Socialist Party members across Wales

North East - Cobalt Park Jobcentre Plus call centre

PCS pickets at Cobalt Park Jobcentre Plus call centre, photo Elaine Brunskill

PCS pickets at Cobalt Park Jobcentre Plus call centre, photo Elaine Brunskill   (Click to enlarge)

At Cobalt Park's Jobcentre plus call centre near Newcastle, Marc Gebbie (PCS assistant secretary Northumbria branch, speaking in a personal capacity) told us that only a handful of workers had crossed the picket line.

This was despite management putting out a letter saying the strike would be poorly supported.

Marc went on to say that the mood of the call centre staff was extremely low as a result of management's attitude and that the targets that are being set are 'ridiculous'.

He also commented that emphasis wasn't put on successfully processing calls, but only on call volumes.

Another striker said the call centre was more like a production line in a factory. This worker has been told at work that he was 13 seconds outside his target time and this would effect the overall team target.

He went on to say that at a recent staff training session there was no mention of customer service or satisfaction, it was all about targets and the right handling time, which is all to do with seconds.

This striker ended by saying it was 'bullying bosses that made me decide to join a union'.

Elaine Brunskill

Coventry

Coventry members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) working in the call centre at Cofa Court take strike action against working practices and management obsession with targets, photo by Coventry Socialist Party

Coventry members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) working in the call centre at Cofa Court take strike action against working practices and management obsession with targets, photo by Coventry Socialist Party   (Click to enlarge)

Today (18.4.11) in Coventry members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) working in the call centre at Cofa Court took strike action against working practices and management obsession with targets.

The strike was part of national action by around 7,000 PCS members working in call centres across the country. As the PCS leaflet points out they are striking 'in protest over the factory-style working conditions that exist in Jobcentre Plus call centres'.

This dispute is about the PCS attempting to ensure that staff can provide a better customer service for people who need help. The working conditions have caused huge problems - high levels of stress and turnover of staff.

2,779 staff have left these call centres in the last year - over 20% of the total workforce. This is at a time when unemployment is rising - which shows how bad conditions are.

Carol Dunne, PCS rep in the Coventry call centre said: 'this is about terms and conditions of our staff, general working conditions and the draconian management we face.

It is making people ill. We will be looking at further action including an overtime ban and a work to rule'.

The picket was joined by other trade unionists, including from the Unison local government branch. Socialist Party Councillor Dave Nellist attended to show support.

This dispute is just one aspect of the attacks on public sector workers and public services as a whole. The PCS needs as much support and solidarity in this dispute as possible and unions across the public sector urgently need to coordinate industrial action to defeat the cuts.

Coventry Socialist Party

Derby

There was a good mood on the Derby Jobcentre Plus contact centre picket line on 18 April. There seemed more managers policing the line than there were pickets on it, but support for the strike over bad working conditions meant that pickets did not need to be out in force as the majority of the PCS members at the site did not turn up for work.

The sight of near empty 'park and ride' buses normally packed with workers stopping outside the gates was a great boost to morale. PCS DWP members from Leicester and the PCS DWP regional secretary supported the picket with the Socialist Party also in attendance.

It was a good start to the campaign to get conditions improved.

Tony Church, PCS DWP Leicestershire

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