What I learned on my recent trip to Germany by Kevin Elder, TU Albuquerque
I recently had the great fortune to be a part of a small US delegate of T-Mobile call center workers and representatives from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) that were invited to travel to Germany in order to meet and collaborate with representatives from Ver.di, the union for Deutsche Telekom workers. Deutsche Telekom is T-Mobile’s German parent company.
I want to highlight the truly emotional journey I experienced while traveling with these passionate and brilliant people. Being born and raised in the USA, I am used to the subtle nationalism we are subjected to from an early age. We are, without argument, led to believe that we are the greatest country on earth. We have the best political system, the best schools, the greatest businesses and individuals, and because of our hard work and moral high ground, we are able to give our time and resources freely to other, less fortunate, countries around the world. Though I do not subscribe to the idea that the USA is the best and has nothing to learn from other advanced nations, it still came as a shock to me when I realized that our delegation was going to Germany specifically to ask for the help of Ver.di. It was a humbling experience to realize how much better the German workforce is treated, whether backed by a strong union such as Ver,di, or simply due to the German laws that especially protect middle class jobs. When it comes to workers’ rights and the ability to make an honest and respectable living, the United States is far from being #1. This imbalance for American workers was made especially clear to me when visiting the Deutsche Telekom call centers in Düsseldorf and Dortmund.
There are dozens of small differences between the German call centers and the call center where I work in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The aesthetically pleasing break rooms, small yet spacious window lined work areas, and private soundproof rooms set aside for the front line employees to have private conversations with their coaches or just to rest, are only small examples that point directly towards a monumental difference in how American employees are treated versus our colleagues in Germany. The biggest and most palpable difference is a matter of respect and appreciation. The rights of an American call center worker are far different from what a German call center employee can access on a daily basis. That major gap in expectation can be boiled down to the American corporation’s greed and severe lack of respect and appreciation – and how that greed has no system of checks and balances. It seems to me that any major corporation, German or American, will attempt to maximize profit and minimize cost, no matter how it affects the workforce. However, our German colleagues have a strong union organization and history of workers’ rights that they can rely on in a way that the American worker is completely silenced. This realization was appalling to me; it brought about several questions that I eagerly asked of our German call center colleagues during several question and answer meetings we attended.
As an American call center worker, have you ever been made to feel bad or guilty for taking a day off due to an illness – despite having a doctor’s note to prove your sincerity? I was amazed to find out that this is impossible for German workers who are guaranteed from the government unlimited PAID sick days. Not only has the nation not fallen into a pit of apathy and laziness, they are far more productive and have far less health issues than the average American.
Have you ever felt that your opinion was unwelcome, your voice was silenced, or that you were not allowed to express your opinion – especially when is has any element of disagreement or dissent? German call center workers have a voice that is protected by the union. They are given the freedom to express when they feel subjected to unfair expectations. The German call center worker has a voice and has an advocate for that voice every single day. Management is not allowed to dictate the terms to which an employee expresses discontent.
Have you ever felt like a private meeting with management was devised to intimidate, threaten your job, or simply display the level of power dynamics in play between a regular worker and management? This type of intimidation tactic would never be allowed in a German call center. Management is required to allow a union representative be included in any conversations having to do with performance evaluation. A worker cannot be reprimanded in private, the worker always has the right to have a union representative not only present, but also as an advocate fighting for the rights of the worker.
Can you imagine always having access to a person who only cares about your best interest in the workplace? Can you imagine a company being held accountable for their treatment of workers? Can you imagine being paid appropriately as a valued worker with a very particular set of skills and abilities? This is all possible – it happens every day for our colleagues at Deutsche Telekom. It can happen at T-Mobile and every call center in the USA, but it will never happen without a strong union representation. The corporations will never simply hand over respect. They must be pressured; the workers must unite and demand what they deserve.
There were so many eye opening experiences during my short time in Germany, and far too many to accurately and concisely relate. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from our German colleagues was that they were not embarrassed to work at a call center. They did not feel demeaned or belittled for their profession. It was a respectable job with an income that was capable of raising a family. It is not uncommon to have a person grimace or make a face when you tell them you work at a call center. Those who do not work within our profession have a very hard time imagining what it would be like to work at such a low paying, demeaning, and undervalued job. Where does this opinion originate? It originates from us. We give that impression to the world through our friends and family. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve seen a better way. Ver.di and CWA have shown me that better way. I have seen firsthand what is possible when a company is held to higher standards. I have witnessed the demeanor and appearance of a call center worker who is proud – a call center worker who feels respected and worthwhile – a call center worker who demands the respect that they so desperately deserve. We deserve this same respect. It is not too much to ask for from our management and leadership. We all deserve better.