Resistance and the Refusal of Work in Call Centres

May 31, 2019

Slammin’, Scammin’, Smokin’, and Leavin’: Resistance and the Refusal of Work in Call Centres
Jamie Woodcock

Excerpted from Chapter 4 of the book Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres (Pluto 2016)

This chapter takes up the challenge of studying resistance in the call centre, shifting the analytical focus onto something deliberately hidden. While it is true that aspects of the labour process and the way it is managed – the most obvious being the specifics of exploitation – are obscured or mystified, resistance takes place in a particular context. As the previous chapter on management has detailed, there are multiple ways in which workers are monitored and controlled in the workplace, including timing the labour process to the second and recording all phone calls. This creates various risks for a worker to resist in a call centre: the workplace is overdetermined by surveillance and control, while infractions and failure to cooperate with management is often punishable with sacking.

The aim of this chapter is twofold: to understand how a researcher can begin the search for covert resistance and to present my own experience on the call centre floor. This first hand ethnographic research will be used to highlight the different forms of resistance from the point of view of the workplace itself. For the first part a visual analogy can provide a useful starting point: how can we see resistance in the workplace? Tim Strangleman has discussed the ways in which researchers have ‘seen’ work1, highlighting how Nick Hedges and Huw Beynon’s Born to Work sought to do so by combining photographs and text to try and reveal the secrets of the workplace, or as they put it, to ‘seek out the scene of the crime.’2 In a similar vein, Bolton et al. handed out disposable cameras to child workers who then documented their own experiences of work, providing a window into a world that is usually hidden from sight.3 While visual methods were not possible in this case, the chapter draws on a visual analogy to begin the analysis that is sensitive to the subtleties of resistance. This is a challenge that the Operaisti – the Italian innovators of the workers’ inquiry discussed earlier – sought to take up. As Gigi Roggero explains: ‘the problem of co-research as a style of militancy is exactly to produce new glasses, through which to see what is not immediately visible and perceivable, as well as what it can be or what it could become.’4

In order to craft and focus these new analytical glasses, the first part of this chapter discusses what is meant by resistance, examining the different forms it can take. In particular, broadening out the understanding to cover more than just trade union membership and strike action. This is the first step in focusing the analysis, with the second examining the relationships between the labour process and resistance. The chapter then moves on to discuss the ethnography, considering the different moments of resistance found on the call centre floor. These are understood in relation to Kate Mulholland’s framework of ‘Slammin’ Scammin’ Smokin’ an’ Leavin’’ – or ‘cheating, work avoidance, absence and resignation.’5 These different moments are then discussed and explored as examples of the refusal of work. This refusal is considered as a potential way to reverse the high turnover of workers from a weakness to a potential strength.

What is Resistance?

In order to see resistance in the workplace it is necessary to consider what could constitute resistance, while simultaneously remaining attentive to any new or emergent forms. Before putting on these new analytical glasses it is worth point out that there has often been a blinkered approach to signs of resistance that views certain indicators, like official trade union membership statistics, as representative of the whole. This is a view is limited by blinkers because it obscures much of the overall picture, and like the role for blinkers in domesticating animals, it also has a pacifying effect. As George Rawick has argued, often figures of ‘formal organization’ – like those of membership levels, newspaper subscriptions, or participation in electoral politics, and so on – are often taken as indicators. However, what is really needed is to uncover the details of:

how many man-hours were lost to production because of strikes, the amount of equipment and material destroyed by industrial sabotage and deliberate negligence, the amount of time lost by absenteeism, the hours gained by workers through the slowdown, the limiting of the speed-up of the productive apparatus through the working class’s own initiative.6

This highlights the plurality of other activities and practices in the workplace that are not captured by union membership. It also draws attention to another important reminder: resistance at work is not only limited to the strike. In many ways the strike – the temporary suspension of the labour process achieved by workers withdrawing their own labour – is the archetypal form of resistance at work. It is a collective, visible, and antagonistic rupture of the relationship between labour and capital, bringing contradictions to the fore with a clear dividing line. It conjures up images of physical picket lines (with or without braziers), protests, and solidarity. However, between the placid workplace and the all-out strike there are a range of practices – some collective, others individual – that are worthy of sustained attention.

The difficulty in finding other acts of resistance is no accident. At the point of the strike it is obvious to managers what is happening: the labour process is halted. In response pay is withheld and the dispute takes shape: demands, counter-demands, and negotiations. However, acts of sabotage or slowdown, for example, are not necessarily things that workers would want to advertise to the boss. While it might be satisfying, it would bring the conflict to a head and in casualised workplaces could lead to an immediate sacking. In this difficult context it is worth considering the struggles of people in even worse conditions. For example, Edward B. Harper’s study of lifelong indentured servants found that:

most characteristically expressed discontent about their relationship with their master by performing their work carelessly and inefficiently. They could intentionally or unconsciously feign illness, ignorance, or incompetence, driving their masters to distraction. Even though the master could retaliate by refusing to give his servant the extra fringe benefits, he was still obliged to maintain him at a subsistence level if he did not want to lose his investment completely. This method of passive resistance, provided it was not expressed as open defiance, was nearly unbeatable.7

The existence of this low-intensity conflict in a context in which the indentured worker seems to be relatively powerless is important. Even if there were no outward signs of conflict, below the surface there can still be practices of resistance, expressed in a necessarily covert manner. Similarly, James C. Scott’s study of peasant resistance found that ‘open insubordination in almost any context will provoke a more rapid and ferocious response than an insubordination that may be as pervasive but never ventures to contest the formal definitions of hierarchy or power.’ Therefore peasants engaged in ‘everyday’ forms of resistance, because, like most subordinated people, this form of resistance ‘is the only option.’8

The context of everyday resistance in the contemporary workplace is different. Unlike the indentured servants or the peasants described above, the worker, and in this case the call centre worker, struggles in different conditions. Karl Marx ironically defined workers as doubly-free under capitalism as they are free in two senses: they are free to choose who to sell their labour to and additionally freed from the ownership of capital or means of production.9 They do not have to be in a particular workplace, but economic compulsion – rather than physical coercion – forces workers to choose one. The impact of this is discussed by Harry Braverman, who describes how:

the hostility of workers to the degenerated forms of work which are forced upon them continues as a subterranean stream that makes its way to the surface when employment conditions permit, or when the capitalist drive for a greater intensity of labor oversteps the bounds of physical and mental capacity. It renews itself in new generations, expresses itself in the unbounded cynicism and revulsion which large numbers of workers feel about their work, and comes to the fore repeatedly as a social issue demanding solution.10

In this passage Braverman discusses the way in which the labour process creates resistance even if it is not obviously apparent. The notion of resistance continuing as ‘a subterranean stream’ bubbling under the surface captures an important dynamic. The problem is that there is no divining stick that can guide the search for resistance below the surface, but by approaching the search from the labour process itself, we can (at least) make a start.

Before moving on to discuss specific examples of resistance stemming for the labour process, it is worth briefly reviewing how resistance can be conceptualised in the workplace. For example, Randy Hodson provides a useful definition of worker resistance, that ‘any individual or small-group act intended to mitigate claims by management on workers or to advance workers’ claims against management.’11 This struggle between workers and management can be conceptualised as battle over the ‘frontier of control’ in the workplace,12 that Richard Hyman describes as ‘a frontier which is defined and redefined in a continuous process of pressure and counter-pressure.’13 This situates resistance as a result of the dialectic of struggle between labour and capital, taking place inside the labour process. It therefore includes sabotage14 or the more general acts that can be categorised as ‘the withdrawal of cooperation.’15

Yet forms of resistance exist beyond the dialectic between control and resistance. Even if workers were not acting as ‘fully conscious agents engaged in class struggle, in seeking to control, management did.’ This notion of class struggle in the workplace, that occurs whether workers are actively fighting it or not is particularly useful. However, when considering what fighting might actually involve there are a range of practices that can be included. The theoretical model of control and resistance can miss other practices, for example ‘misbehaviour.’16 This can be broadly defined as ‘anything you do at work you are not supposed to do’,17 which in a call centre is quite a broad definition! To narrow it slightly, it can include behaviours such as ‘incivility, sabotage, culture, humour, leadership or harassment’ which should be ‘analysed as acts of resistance in their own right.’ Importantly, misbehaviour provides a way for workers to deal with the pressure of the labour process, for example to ‘get back’ at management or simply allow workers to ‘get by’ working under harsh conditions.18 To this can also be added the importance of simply “having a pop” at management – something that will be returned to later in this chapter and the next.

It is important to consider the connection between the specificities of the labour process in different jobs the new forms of resistance that can emerge. An interesting example of this can be found with the Cathay Pacific smile strike. The workers drew on the fact the company advertised its “service with a smile” to engage in a specific form of work to rule. The works engaged in a smile strike, refusing to deploy the emotional labour described by Arlie Hochschild.19 In addition to this the workers also threatened to ‘stop providing meals, snacks and beverages like alcohol.’ As Tsang Kwok-fung, the general secretary for the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union, remarked, ‘we cannot smile because of the situation, because of how the company treats us.’20 In many workplaces – call centres or offices immediately come to mind – the withdrawal of the smile would have little effect, but when it is a demand of the labour process it can become an effective point of contention.

This creative approach to resistance could also be developed for call centres. Refusing to participate in certain aspects of the call, the greeting for example, or refusing to ‘smile down the phone’ could have a similar effect.21 For example, call centre workers are increasingly becoming the main point of contact between the company and its customers. This means that workers can potentially damage the image and relationships of a company fairly quickly. Furthermore, regardless of whether this is conceived as a strategy, ‘in subordinated work conditions, workers engage in a recipe of informal collective practices that are organically borne out of their daily work experiences.’22 This creates a difficulty in identifying what forms these could take, but is an important reminder of the need to remain attentive to their emergence. The ability to build sustained resistance or the possibility of organisation hinges on whether or not strategies can be connected to embryonic and emergent struggles.

The nature of the labour process and the use of emotions in the call centre creates further complexities. Emotional labour draws on workers personalities and emotions to extract additional profit. The process by which workers perform this is far from straightforward, yet it remains an undervalued skill. Call centre workers, unlike other service workers, are limited to the extent that they can only express their emotions over the telephone. This makes the content of the phone call crucial to the profitability of the call centre, presenting workers with new opportunities to resist. The scripting for a sales call gives the impression of a standardised and regular call encounter, however in order to make sales there is a demand to go beyond this. The esoteric qualities of successful salespersons are hard to calculate or inculcate, therefore many managers engage in a strategy of hiring ‘stars’ that they ‘assume have a flair for selling.’23 This highlights the difficulty for management in the call centre, as there is no agreement about the best way to make a sale, nor is there any recipe to follow to do so.

The use of phone technology in the call centre also opens up other avenues. For example, Şafak Tartanoğlu found that workers’ organisation in Turkish call centres was being built by subverting the labour process in new and creative ways.24 Activists collectively rang into inbound call centres in what they called a ‘call attack’ and spoke to workers about organising, reaching a large number at the same time. This would then be followed up with meetings, leafleting, and other traditional methods. The new use of the technology, originally designed to centralise and then maximise phone calls, also proved vulnerable to attempts at organising. Although this kind of tactic would not be possible in a predominantly outbound call centre, it highlights the importance of thinking creatively about the weaknesses or vulnerabilities of capital that might not be obvious at first.

Moments of Resistance

My first experiences on the call centre floor did not, as expected, provide great insights into the practices of resistance. Neither did the first few weeks of working in the call centre. Working in a call centre is highly individualised. Calls are ultimately made by you and the aim is to speak to one person and convince them to part with some money. However, working alongside others has a collective dimension, but there are a number of factors that challenge this: the shift patterns can mean that you might only see other workers sporadically, the high turnover leads to some workers only lasting a very short time in the job, and it takes a while to become comfortable enough with the labour process to start talking to other workers between calls and engaging during the shift. As the first few weeks passed two things happened which began to clarify the analysis: the first was getting over the immediate fear of being fired for incompetence – and therefore the project not turning into Robert Linhart’s failed attempts on the assembly line – and the second was beginning to see the same people working and getting to know them.25

The forms of resistance that I began to encounter can be conceptualised as different “moments.” Drawing on Kate Mulholland’s perceptive research on an Irish call centre it is possible to discuss four categories that can capture this informal resistance – three of which applied in the call centre.26 She describes the ‘repertoire of resistance strategies’ used by the call centre workers as ‘Slammin’ Scammin’ Smokin’ an’ Leavin’’ – or ‘cheating, work avoidance, absence and resignation.’ These forms emerge from the antagonism on the call centre floor, in particular the ‘fragmented work and new management initiatives’ yet they ‘reflect traditional patterns of work opposition.’27 The following section will discuss the moments of resistance in the call centre using this framework from Mulholland, before considering the implications of these later in the chapter.

Slammin’, Scammin’, Smokin’, and Leavin’

The first term used by Mulholland is ‘Slammin’,’ which she describes as the process of faking a sales encounter.28 The workers ‘re-deploy “talk time” and the technology to fake sales thus highlighting how target driven productivity encourages them to search for short cuts.’ She explains how the workers describe this ‘with great amusement,’ yet ‘their terse references to “flogging myself for nothing” are illustrative of the deep resentment they share over effort.’ This form of resistance was simply not possible at the call centre. Due to the financial regulations that apply to selling insurance each successful sales call was digitally recorded and then scrutinised by the quality assurance team so fake calls would be easily detected. However, there was frequent discussion about the possible ways in which sales volumes could be boosted. The more outlandish involved considering getting friends to sign up to the insurance, selling to them to receive the sales bonus, then cancelling before the direct debit was due to be paid. The supervisors frequently reminded workers that this method of “selling on cancellation” – although the instance they were referring to was trying to dupe customers into buying the product over the phone on the basis that they could always change their mind later – would result in disciplinary action. It is unquestionable that if there were a relatively reliable method to fake sales this would have become popular as the pressure to make sales was constant.

The second and most common form of resistance is ‘Scammin’.’ It refers to the various attempts by workers to avoid work, whether simply not turning up for work, pretending to be sick, or leaving early without permission.29 There were various methods for avoiding work at the call centre. The shift structure was officially defined in strict terms: two slots of three and a half hours, each with a fifteen minute break, sandwiched around an hour long unpaid break. The exact amount of time that would be spent on the phone selling insurance was subject to a struggle between workers and supervisors. The supervisors tried to demand that workers should arrive fifteen minutes before their shift starts so that they would be ready for work despite the fact this was unpaid. There were then a number of other points of contention during the shift in which the length of time on the phone could be extended or reduced.

At the start of each three and a half hour shift there was a “buzz session” with the supervisors. These played a motivational role as well as providing an opportunity for management to inculcate workers with the various rules of the workplace. The length of the “buzz session” was never officially defined and therefore it was at the discretion of the supervisors. This meant that as long as the games or discussion continued it could be stretched out. This involved a level of informal organisation as one individual worker could extend the session by asking more questions as the supervisors would catch on that they were trying to distract them and therefore cut the “buzz session” short. A successful extension involved a careful balancing act of feigning interest, posing questions, and stimulating discussion. Over the time I spent in the call centre a collective approach emerged around this. Subtle cues would be exchanged under the gaze of the supervisors, a nod or raise of the eyebrows encouraging other to participate in the process. Although even the best attempts – which were then gleefully relayed to others in the breaks – could delay the start of work by at the most forty-five minutes, it was viewed as a significant victory. This flexibility existed because supervisors also did not have to work on the call centre floor during this time, but ultimately they would be held responsible by their managers if the “buzz sessions” became too long.

The supervisors allowed workers to leave early from a shift if they reached their sales targets. This was viewed by most workers as the best incentive to make sales, rather than any of the small prizes or games that could be played. It was common to see workers haggling with supervisors trying to trade in vouchers or prizes to go home early instead. The most bizarre being attempts to quantify the exchange rate of high street vouchers with the value of labour, haggling over how much time off could be bought. This highlights how little workers enjoyed working at the call centre as any opportunity to leave would be seized upon, even motivating workers to make more sales. At one point during my time at the call centre the amount of workers leaving early reached a peak. The call centre manager organised a meeting with the supervisors to introduce new rules as the statistics showed that workers were only logged into the computers for 79% of their paid time, the equivalent of 1 in 5 workers being completely absent. As one of the supervisors relayed to the workers this was “unacceptable” as “the company was paying loads of money per month for people to just sit at home.” While workers considered this a perfect situation, unsurprisingly management did not. The new rules stipulated that no worker could leave before the last thirty minutes of the shift. However, this incentive had proved so useful for motivating workers to sell that supervisors began to circumvent the new rule by taking people off the call centre floor for training in a separate room. The training involved playing games and was a reward, although they would have to stay on site they did not have to use the phones and could then leave thirty minutes early.

There was constant tension over length of the fifteen minute mid-shift breaks. At first glance it appeared there would be no ability to do this as the breaks were timed on each computer with a large counter displaying the time taken in minutes and seconds. Therefore it should have been possible for a supervisor to bring up an individual worker’s statistics and see if they have taken more than thirty minutes per day. However, the break-time setting on the computer was also used for 1-2-1 meetings with supervisors, training exercises, quality meetings after every sale, and so on. The task of supervising breaks was furthered complicated by the fact that not all workers could take the break at the same time. Unfortunately it was not possible to hang up mid-call when the break slot arrived, despite the temptation. This meant that workers began to file off the call centre floor gradually as the calls ended. The supervisors had to physically check the times on the individual computer screens to see if a worker was taking a longer break, walking up and down the rows.

The reliance on visual checking created the possibility for extending the break-times. In order to leave the call centre to smoke or join the smoker’s conversations workers had to exit at the far side of the room. Upon returning, workers checked their computer screen to see the time remaining, and if away from the gaze of the supervisor could quickly log in and out, resetting the timer. Then workers moved to other side of the call centre where the break room was located. The supervisors would come into the break room to announce timers were almost up, which would be disputed by individuals saying that they had come onto the break late. Most of the supervisors handled this badly, rather than formally disciplining workers they would get annoyed, a process that workers strung out to extend the break. The condition to this was not being caught with the break timer over fifteen minutes, which could result in formal disciplinary action. The final opportunity was to sit at the desk with the headset on and not log into the system until the supervisor cast their gaze along the row. This could extend the break, especially if they were busy corralling other workers into leaving the break room.

There was another moment that occasionally occurred during shifts. The computer system that distributed leads – the lists of numbers for the autodialling system to call – would run dry. It then required a supervisor to manually update the leads for each of the campaigns currently running. If the supervisor was not paying attention they would miss the error message popping up on workers screens. The screen displayed a counter stating that it would check automatically after two minutes or on demand. The message would not appear for every worker, just for a section who were on the same campaign. This unexpected break could be extended so long as each worker delayed telling the supervisor, yet had to eventually inform them, as they would notice either way. This collective misbehaviour involved similar cues to the “buzz session”, glances and mouthing words across the call centre floor. Most workers would take the impromptu break and tell the supervisor after a rest, especially because reporting it straight away was generally frowned upon as it would take that choice away from others.

I did encounter more deliberate attempts at sabotage, although these remained covert and were rarely mentioned. The call centre had just enough headsets for workers on a typical day, so if any were to become damaged some workers could be moved off the call centre floor. The wires connecting the headsets to the phone were fairly brittle and with a little effort could be sabotaged, but this could have unforeseen effects. During one shift I started with a “1-2-1” meeting and came late onto the call centre floor. There were no spare headsets except a few with frayed cables that did not work properly – and had recently been under the care of other workers. I incorrectly assumed that this would mean I would not have to make calls during the shift, but the supervisor forced me to make calls balancing the regular handset on my shoulder. Under the threat of losing a day’s pay I continued to call, now feeling like a bad parody of a 1990s stock trader raising my voice over the crackling line to be heard.

While there have been attempts to use sabotage as a guiding theoretical principle for understanding workplace resistance, these have been of limited success. For example, found in the work of Geoff Brown30 and Pierre Dubois.31 However, the problem is that by arguing that ‘anything less than complete conformity sabotages the capitalist project of maximising profit’, it elevates all kinds of minor actions to the level of major challenge to management.32 As can be seen from the example above, minor and hidden incidents of sabotage may well provide a release for workers frustrations, but they do not significantly undermine the process of capital accumulation in the call centre. The proliferation of computers in production has undoubtedly offered new opportunities for sabotage. For example, found in this incident of:

an overworked purchasing agent who maliciously ordered 2500 circuit boards and 1,000,000 batteries through a computer terminal. The circuit board manufacturer queried back because the boards were obsolete and no longer in production. However, “several lorry loads of batteries arrived at the site before the stores manager began making enquiries regarding the purpose and storage of this large supply of batteries”.33

The prospect of destroying of a few call centre headsets looks very minor in comparison!

There was one example of a worker who attempted a more extreme form of ‘Scammin’’ during work. He sat at his desk and would stretch out the time between calls, pretending to be taking notes about the calls. When a customer did pick up the phone he immediately hung up, albeit in the virtual form of clicking a button. One of the supervisors caught on to what he was doing because it was flagged in his records as an anomaly that he was not spending any time on calls. After reviewing his call statistics they were able to identify what he was doing and he was summarily fired mid-shift on the call centre floor. The supervisors immediately called all of the workers into the conference room for an emergency meeting. Over the period of at least half an hour the fired worker – despite having already left the workplace – was made an example of. This show of managerial force was used to illustrate how the rules must be abided to, how they would find out if workers tried anything similar, and that punishment would not be lenient.

The third form is a specific method of avoiding work by ‘Smokin’.’ This provides workers with the ‘opportunity for an extra break, regardless of whether people smoked or not,’ interrupting managements schedule of work. Mulholland additionally found that ‘the habit of meeting is also important for it encourages work group identity and a shared sense of grievance when workers discuss training, staff shortage, disappointments over pay, prize giving, the excessive monitoring, arbitrary discipline and not least productivity pressures.’34 Therefore while smoking breaks may not at first seem that important, they act as ‘informal meetings’ with the potential to build collectivism on the basis of shared grievances, ‘and as such are an antidote to individualizing strategies.’35 There were two fifteen minute statutory breaks per shift at the call centre. Most workers left the building and stood around the corner, regardless of whether they smoked or not. These meetings provided an opportunity to vent about the pressures of work away from the management gaze. The importance of these as moments of resistance was clear from the fact conversations would be cut short the moment a supervisor joined for their break.

The final form of resistance that Mulholland uses is quitting the job or ‘leavin’.’36 Like many call centres, the one studied by Mulholland had a high staff turnover, with around eight percent of the workers leaving each month. While ‘leavin’’ might seem like the archetypal individual act it forms ‘part of a more widespread pattern of work rejection.’ Similarly, Marcel van der Linden discusses how, ‘in a sense, a strike means a collective exit – not with the intention of leaving for good, but to exert pressure temporarily.37 The transition between “running away” and “fighting for better working conditions” is in reality rather fluid.’ This consideration of quitting the job as a form of unorganised resistance – and one that is not that different to striking – is key to understanding that call centres are not workplaces devoid of any form of struggle, despite their low levels of unionisation and officially sanctioned industrial action.

These moments of resistance in the call centre present methodological challenges for an undercover researcher. Each of the moments was a departure from how supervisors wanted workers to behave in the call centre. All of the workers participated to some degree in these actions and even though I was a researcher – and in that sense an outsider in the workplace – I still needed to work and perform the labour process like the other workers. I engaged in the moments of resistance described above and therefore my presence involved an intervention. As Michael Burawoy has discussed in relation to workplace ethnographies, ‘interventions’ do not need to be minimised.38 They ‘create perturbations that are not noise to be expurgated but music to be appreciated, transmitting the hidden secrets of the participant’s world.’ The involvement of all of the workers in a form of misbehaviour – whether on their own or collectively, formally or informally – meant that not taking part in these would be an intervention in itself. I would likely have been labelled as the opposite of a trouble maker, someone likely to make problems for the other workers by following all of the rules which might expose them. The negative reactions that people received when they reported to supervisors that leads had run out ensured they were more likely to engage in collective misbehaviour next time. If this was repeated – which was never the case in the call centre – presumably further social sanctions would be applied. In this sense there was a form of unstated collectivity that emerged in the workplace.

The failure to be accepted by the other workers would have created a serious access problem. It is unlikely that other workers would have shared their experiences or discussed topics of resistance if they thought it would be reported to management, however that is not the only reason to engage in the different moments of resistance. As Taylor and Bain have argued, in call centres ‘it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the labour process is intrinsically demanding, repetitive and, frequently, stressful.’39 The moments of resistance provide temporary respite from these characteristics of the labour process. The researcher who is working, like the other workers, is therefore also pushed by this dynamic into finding ways to ameliorate the situation. Therefore I engaged in a number of these moments, partly out of choice to experience the labour process in the way that my co-workers did, and partly due to the highly pressurised target driven environment. Vincent J. Roscigno and Randy Hodson recognise this dynamic when they argue that ‘rather than such resistance being solely an effort to regain dignity in the face of personal insult and conflict with managers, resistance in such settings may be as much a function of frustration, boredom, and personal stress resulting from organizational chaos.’40

The defensive strand of resistance does pose problems for organisation. While ‘telling the boss exactly what you think, or quitting, or finding small ways to mitigate the relentless pace of work can all be rewarding in the short run, these activities do little to challenge management’s structural power in the call centre.’41 However, the move towards activities that could form a challenge can start from these relatively minor actions. The path towards mounting successful workplace resistance has to build upon grievances, however minor they may appear. For example, issues like access to communal break space, repairing broken equipment, repealing a particular punitive management rule, all have the potential to build momentum and confidence. Mulholland argues that:

Examples of this sort are a missed opportunity for the trade unions to take the initiative over what are conventional workplace issues, when the union has yet to transform this wellspring of conflict into an offensive against management.42

The Refusal of Work

These moments of resistance provide a framework to discuss the various examples from the call centre. However, they also present a challenge of how they could relate to a potential organisational form. The insights from the Operaismo can shed some conceptual light on this. As Mario Tronti put in clear terms, ‘we have to invert the problem’, instead of starting with capital, ‘change direction, and start from the beginning – and the beginning is working-class struggle.’43 The problem with this approach is that there are not a wide variety of open struggles from which to draw conclusions. A potential remedy is directing attention onto the class composition of workers in the call centre. As Gigi Roggero argues, ‘our challenge is to begin once again from the blockages experienced by the struggles of the precarious’ understanding how ‘the political composition of the class is crushed within the sociological mold of its technical composition.’44 This notion of class composition is an important contribution from the Operaismo. It begins with a consideration of the technical composition: the organisation of the labour process, the use of technology, and the conditions of the reproduction of labour power (focused on in previous chapters). The political composition, on the other hand, leads to the specific forms and relations of struggles, a complex factor continually subjected to processes of re-composition. These ‘blockages’ are therefore the result of the technical composition of the working class at a particular point, preventing sustained struggles and giving the surface impression of calm in many workplaces. For example, the limitation of most trade union demands to the questions of wages can results in the abandonment of struggle over the labour process itself. By failing to contest control over the organisation of work by management, workers themselves are left in a difficult structural position. The drastic shift in the frontier of control in the workplace means that it no longer appears as something that can even be contested, leaving significant power in the hands of management. However, these blockages facing precarious workers are neither permanent nor immovable. In seeking to shift the blockages it is first necessary to understand the conditions of the workplace and the class composition at particular points.

A particularly important point to consider with precarious work is the question of turnover. High levels of turnover are a characteristic of the service industry and are particularly acute in call centres. This poses a significant obstacle to organisation as networks that are built rapidly fall away as existing people drop out. However, this can be re-conceptualised by considering Marcel van der Linden argument that the difference between ‘running away’ and ‘fighting for better working conditions’ is actually less than it might appear.45 Rather than considering workplaces with high turnover as un-organisable, the problem can be turned on its head. As Mario Tronti argues:

Obviously non-collaboration must be one of our starting points, and mass passivity at the level of production is the material fact from which we must begin. But at a certain point all this must be reversed into its opposite. When it comes to the point of saying “No”, the refusal must become political; therefore active; therefore subjective; therefore organised. It must once again become antagonism – this time at a higher level.46

The ‘strategy of refusal’ could begin from the moments of resistance discussed earlier in the chapter, whether it is calling in sick to work, leaving mid-shift, or simply not turning up to the workplace again. Therefore the first challenge is to find the moments of resistance that are already taking place, attempt to understand how they could be turned into a refusal, and seek out the organisational forms that could develop this further.

The strategy of refusal builds on the notion of the flight from work. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue, ‘the refusal of work and authority, or really the refusal of voluntary servitude, is the beginning of liberatory politics.’47 However, they also add to this that ‘the refusal in itself is empty.’ Therefore the key to answering the puzzle of contemporary class struggle is not only identifying those moments of resistance, but also understanding the potential of these lines of flight from work, simply refusing is not enough. This can be clarified by returning again to the empirical example. In the call centre there was a distinct lack of identification with the work. As described earlier, every worker had some alternative activity that they would prefer to be doing. There were aspiring actors, musicians, students of all kinds of varied fields, but none who described call centre work as their passion. The package of affects they had to use in the labour process bore no relation to what they actually wanted to be doing. The problem is that for the majority of workers who desire to do something more creative, most would struggle to support themselves in this pursuit alone. While the creative activities may produce value of different kinds, it is likely not to be that which will receive the remuneration necessary to reproduce their own labour power.

The specificity of call centre work makes it particularly susceptible to the refusal of work and kinds of sabotage. In the broadest sense work under contemporary capitalism can be categorised into three types based on the direction of struggle (which is not say that these broad types supersede other analytical categories). The first is work in which the demand for workers’ control does not makes sense. The call centre is an obvious example as it would be difficult to imagine why it would be brought under workers’ control: who would you want to bombard with high speed sales calls? This is because the development of the call centre has been tied closely to the use of methods of surveillance, speed-up, and control. Rather than seizing the means of production a more attractive option is to simply go and do something else. The second kind of work is that which could be fulfilling and useful if it could be radically reorganised. An example of this is privatised care work. In the UK a large proportion of this kind of work is done on a highly casualised basis with low-pay, often organised on a highly regulated basis in which limits are put on how long workers may spend with each user. If this work could be socialised and organised in a different way, it could have a significant impact on both workers and users. The third form is work in which workers retain a higher level of autonomy and the main aim would be to take control of the workplace and run it democratically. An example of this could be lecturers, who could still be researching and teaching, but away from the pressures of managers. In these three cases there are clearly differences in the resistance that emerges and could be successful. If there is an element of the work that is socially important, fulfilling, or indeed enjoyable, then it is worth staying and fighting. In these cases the flight from work does not take on the same importance. However, when work is stripped of these features almost entirely, then the refusal of work not only becomes a useful strategy, but it is also something that emerges organically from the labour process itself.

The development of capitalism and the application of technology to the productive process held the potential to drastically reduce the amount of time that people had to work. Yet David Graeber notes that Keynes predicted in 1930 that by the end of the century the working week would be reduced to 15 hours.48 Not only did this fail to materialise, but the opposite now seems to be true. The potential of technology has instead been exploited to make people work even more. In the place of declining manufacturing jobs there has been an increase in what Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs.’ These jobs are far removed from any fulfilling activity, so much so that many people find it difficult to explain what they are actually employed to do. This has implications for workplace struggle: what demands could or would be raised in this context? Although assembly line work is repetitive and undoubtedly unappealing, the application of technology can vastly reduce the amount labour required and machinery can be put to work for a variety of different ends. There are a range of jobs, often low paid, that if they were to disappear the impact would be immediately felt: transport workers, nurses, or refuse collectors, for example. For those working in ‘bullshit jobs’ it is ‘not entirely clear how humanity would suffer’ were they to ‘vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.).’49

The moments of resistance considered so far are relatively isolated examples, although they have emerged organically from the labour process. My own experience on the call centre floor was able to present this range of different practices, elaborating how workers actually engaged in resistance. It is clear from the number and breadth of examples that under the surface there is the potential for organised resistance in the call centre. The ‘subterranean stream’ that Braverman50 refers to is bubbling away, although at present it does not seem obvious how it will reach the surface. In order to understand this further, the theme of the refusal of work which emerged during the research was developed. The high levels of turnover in the workplace were a clear indication of this, alongside the various attempts to reduce time at work – both from the workers themselves, but also as rewards from management. This was developed with the contributions of the Operaismo to the refusal of work as a strategy. The problem of turnover was then considered in terms of the majority of workers desire to do something else than call centre work and conceptualising it as a ‘bullshit job.’51

While this is an important starting point, the discussion of the refusal still requires some sort of translation into practice. The act of leaving – whether through storming off the call centre floor or just refusing to continue working – is therefore evidence of hostility to work and the lack of a collective channel to change conditions. The struggle in the workplace is taking happening whether or not workers want to be involved, which often means that it is a struggle they are losing. We will now move on to discuss the interventions and collective attempts experimented with in the call centre, addressing the question of organisational forms and considering the potential means by which the tide of struggle could be turned.

  1. Tim Strangleman ‘Ways of (not) Seeing Work: The Visual as a Blind Spot in WES?’, Work, Employment & Society, vol. 18 no. 1 (2004): p187. 

  2. Nick Hedges and Huw Beynon, Born to Work: Images of Factory Life (London: Pluto, 1982): p7. 

  3. A. Bolton, C. Pole, and P. Mizen, ‘Picture This: Researching Child Workers’, Sociology vol. 35 no. 2 (2001): p501–18. 

  4. Gigi Roggero, ‘Notes on framing and re-inventing co-research’, Ephemera, vol. 14 no. 3 (2014): p521. 

  5. Kate Mulholland, ‘Workplace Resistance in an Irish Call Centre: Slammin’, Scammin’ Smokin’ An’ Leavin’’, Work, Employment & Society, vol. 18 no. 4 (2004): p709–24. 

  6. George Rawick, ‘Working Class Self-Activity’, Radical America, vol. 3 no. 2 (1969): p29. 

  7. Edward B. Harper, ‘Social Consequences of an Unsuccessful Low Caste Movement’, Social Mobility in the Caste System in India: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, ed. James Silverberg, Supplement no. 3, Comparative Studies in Society and History (The Hague: Mouton, 1968): p48-49. 

  8. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987): p33. 

  9. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Vol. 1. (London: Penguin Books, [1867] 1976): p272. 

  10. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capitalism: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (London: Monthly Review, 1999): p104. 

  11. Randy Hodson, ‘Worker Resistance: An Underdeveloped Concept in the Sociology of Work’, Economic and Industrial Democracy, vol. 16 no. 1 (1995): p80. 

  12. Carter L. Goodrich, The Frontier of Control: A Study in British Workshop Politics (London: Pluto Press, 1975). 

  13. Richard Hyman, Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction (London: Macmillan, 1975): p26. 

  14. John M. Jermier, ‘Sabotage at Work’, Research in the Sociology of Organizations, ed. Nancy DiTomaso, vol. 6 (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1988). 

  15. Paul K. Edwards and Hugh Scullion, The Social Organization of Industrial Conflict (London: Basil Blackwell, 1982): p154. 

  16. Paul Thompson and Stephen Ackroyd, ‘All Quiet on the Workplace Front? A Critique of Recent Trends in British Industrial Sociology’, Sociology, vol. 29 (1995): p617. 

  17. Stephen Ackroyd and Paul Thompson, Organisational Misbehaviour (London: Sage, 1992): p2. 

  18. Diane van den Broek and Tony Dundon, ‘(Still) Up to No Good: Reconfiguring the Boundaries of Worker Resistance and Misbehaviour in an Increasingly Unorganised World’, Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, vol. 67 no. 1 (2012): p99. 

  19. Arlie R. Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). 

  20. Huffington Post Canada, ‘Cathay Pacific Smile Strike: Cabin Crews Threaten To Withhold Services Over Pay Dispute’, The Huffington Post, 13 December 2012

  21. Phil Taylor and Peter Bain, ‘“An Assembly Line in the Head”: Work and Employee Relations in the Call Centre’, Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 30 no. 2 (1999): p103. 

  22. Kate Mulholland, ‘Workplace Resistance in an Irish Call Centre: Slammin’, Scammin’ Smokin’ An’ Leavin’’, Work, Employment & Society, vol. 18 no. 4 (2004): p709. 

  23. Ibid, p716. 

  24. Şafak Tartanoğlu, ‘The Conditions and Consequences of Informal Organisation in Turkish Call Centres’, International Labour Process Conference, 13-15 April London (2014)

  25. Robert Linhart, The Assembly Line (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981). 

  26. Kate Mulholland, ‘Workplace Resistance in an Irish Call Centre: Slammin’, Scammin’ Smokin’ An’ Leavin’’, Work, Employment & Society, vol. 18 no. 4 (2004): p709–24. 

  27. Ibid, p713. 

  28. Ibid, p714. 

  29. Ibid, p718. 

  30. Geoff Brown, Sabotage: A Study in Industrial Conflict (Nottingham: Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation for Spokesman Books, 1977). 

  31. Pierre Dubois, Sabotage in Industry (London: Penguin Books, 1979). 

  32. Paul Thompson and Stephen Ackroyd, ‘All Quiet on the Workplace Front? A Critique of Recent Trends in British Industrial Sociology’, Sociology, vol. 29 (1995): p616. 

  33. Quoted in Randy Hodson, ‘Worker Resistance: An Underdeveloped Concept in the Sociology of Work’, Economic and Industrial Democracy, vol. 16 no. 1 (1995): p92. 

  34. Kate Mulholland, ‘Workplace Resistance in an Irish Call Centre: Slammin’, Scammin’ Smokin’ An’ Leavin’’, Work, Employment & Society, vol. 18 no. 4 (2004): p719. 

  35. Ibid, p720. 

  36. Ibid, p720. 

  37. Marcel van der Linden, Workers of the World: Essays toward a Global Labor History (Leiden: Brill, 2008): p179. 

  38. Michael Burawoy, ‘The Extended Case Method’, Sociological Theory, vol. 16 no. 1 (1998): p14. 

  39. Phil Taylor and Peter Bain, ‘“An Assembly Line in the Head”: Work and Employee Relations in the Call Centre’, Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 30 no. 2 (1999): p110. 

  40. Vincent J. Roscigno and Randy Hodson, ‘The Organizational and Social Foundations of Worker Resistance’, American Sociological Review, vol. 69 no. 1 (2004): p34. 

  41. Enda Brophy, ‘The Subterranean Stream: Communicative Capitalism and Call Centre Labour’, Ephemera, vol. 10 no. 3/4 (2010): p477. 

  42. Kate Mulholland, ‘Workplace Resistance in an Irish Call Centre: Slammin’, Scammin’ Smokin’ An’ Leavin’’, Work, Employment & Society, vol. 18 no. 4 (2004): p720. 

  43. Mario Tronti, Operai e capitale, 2nd ed. (Turin: Einaudi, 1971): p89 quoted in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Commonwealth (Cambridge, MT: Harvard University Press 2009): p291. 

  44. Gigi Roggero, The Production of Living Knowledge (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011): p23. 

  45. Van der Linden, Workers of the World (2008): p179. 

  46. Mario Tronti, ‘The Strategy of Refusal’, Operai e capitale (Turin: Einaudi, 1966), available at:

  47. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (London: Harvard University Press, 2001): p204. 

  48. David Graeber, ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’, Strike Magazine, 17 August 2013,

  49. Ibid. 

  50. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capitalism: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (London: Monthly Review, 1999). 

  51. Graeber, ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’, 2013. 


Jamie Woodcock (@jamie_woodcock)

Jamie Woodcock works as a researcher.