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Progressive call center hanging up on requests for union

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The telemarketers at Direct Advantage Marketing call on behalf of the Democratic Party, environmental causes and nonprofit art organizations. But so far, some labor advocates say, calls for union representation have not been heard by management.

Christian Dupain, an employee of the South Side company and union advocate, says workers have been trying to organize since before he came on two-and-a-half years ago. The workers should have a union, he says, to ensure their rights and responsibilities are codified. "I can't get a cell phone without a contract," he says.

Workers begin at an hourly rate slightly above the minimum wage, he says, but compensation comes mostly from bonuses based on how much cash they raise. Health care is available after 90 days on the job, yet he characterizes the rate of turnover as "endless. If the company thought it was a problem, they could do something about it." He says a union -- under the flag of the United Steelworkers -- could help address turnover, which increases the workload on employees who stick around.

He's struck by the irony, he says, of an organization that works for progressive causes like the Democratic National Committee taking an anti-union stance. At the start of each shift, employees receive a packet of materials and information, and Dupain says it frequently contains "some type of anti-union material." Sometimes, he says, it's information on why unions generally are a bad idea, or why the Steelworkers specifically are a "bad organization."

"One of our largest clients, the Sierra Club, just entered into a coalition headed up by the Steelworkers," he points out. The coalition, the Blue-Green Alliance, works to build consensus and understanding between labor advocates and environmentalists, two groups that are sometimes at odds.

Director of Human Resources David Holiday did not return a half-dozen calls seeking comment for this story. An alternate contact person suggested by a company operator, Vice President of Client Services Lisa Drane, did not return three calls.

"The company has been fighting their organizing efforts," says Phil Ornot, organizing coordinator for the United Steelworkers for District 10. "They just want to remain in total control. It's a shame."

A card-check drive has been ongoing at the office; if a majority of active employees sign the cards, the National Labor Relations Board conducts a union hearing and, potentially, a formal vote on adopting union representation. But the level of union support among DAM's workforce is unclear: Neither Ornot nor Dupain would discuss how many valid signatures the effort has garnered.

Both Ornot and Dupain point out that DAM has a "sister company" that is unionized. The company, Integrated Fundraising and Marketing Solutions, is another progressive fund-raiser whose callers are represented by the Communication Workers of America. Both firms are owned by the Share Group, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Unionizing, Dupain says, is "your federal right. I can't imagine not wanting to exercise my federal right."

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