Resistance in the Digital Workplace: Call Center Workers in Bell Telephone Companies, 1965-2005

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Resistance in the Digital Workplace analyzes the ways in which a predominantly female unionized workforce contested the degradation of the labor process and downward pressure on living standards and job security in the automated call centers of two leading telecommunications companies, AT&T and Bell Atlantic (now Verizon) in the latter decades of the twentieth century. In their struggles with employers, the call center workers and their union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), fought for good, secure, humane jobs amidst the digital revolution, neoliberal policy regime, the financial turn in capitalism, and the decline of unions. The study argues that the very forces that were driving change in the call centers also shifted and frequently narrowed the terrain upon which these call center workers struggled with management for control and power. While CWA and its call center members scored impressive victories in placing limits on abusive surveillance, work speed-up, and some forms of outsourcing, the study also demonstrates the boundaries of collective worker power in the highly automated call center environment. Resistance in the Digital Workplace examines key questions of labor history: workers’ struggles for job control in automated workplaces; the opportunities and constraints of the U.S. enterprise-based collective bargaining system; the failure of U.S. labor law to protect workers when organizing; alternative organizing models such as CWA’s bargain to organize strategy; the impact of neoliberal regulatory and economic policies on the decline of union power; the rise and fall of labor-management partnerships in the 1990s; the financial turn in capitalism; the fissuring of employment systems; global outsourcing of service work; and the successful strike against the corporate giant Verizon in the year 2000. The contests of CWA and its call center members, operating in one of the most dynamic and important sectors of the U.S. and global economy, highlight the opportunities, challenges, and constraints that so many U.S. service workers face in their struggles for power in the post-industrial service economy.