Labor Union Blues: Inside the E-ZPass Dispute

Labor disputes usually take place outside of the public spotlight: Unless they disrupt the morning commute, they usually affect too few people to make the media pay attention. But taken together, these disputes add up, and influence the cost of living as well as our own wages and working conditions.

Over the next few months, WNYC will be following one such dispute at a call center on Staten Island, where 300 employees process requests from New York state residents who call or e-mail about their E-ZPass tags. The first installment aired this morning. Listen to it here:

Here’s some more information to understand the story.

The Call Center

New York State’s transportation agencies—the MTA, the Port Authority, New York State Thruway Authority, and the New York State Bridge Authority—all contract with a private company, Affiliated Computer Services, to run the call center. ACS, as the company’s known, just merged with Xerox Corporation.

The Characters

Today’s story focuses on how the union fits into the lives of two employees. Both are in the correspondence division, which means they spend most of their time answering letters, e-mails and web requests as opposed to on the phone. Isaac Colinares is 27. He’s been working at E-ZPass for about two years and has emerged as one of the leaders of the union drive. He says he doesn’t have any particular grievance against the company, but doesn’t think it’s treated his co-workers very well.

Adrienne Hirak is 31. She’s a single mother of two who’s been working at the call center for nine years. She says she doesn’t need a union to stick up for her rights and resents the dues she’d have to pay if the union succeeds.

The Dispute

In October 2008, an employee called the Communications Workers of America to organize the work place. CWA started an organizing drive, which culminated in an election May 28, 2009. Workers voted 144 to 126 in favor of being unionized.

But ACS appealed certification of the election, alleging that elected officials improperly pressured employees and the envelopes containing ballots had been tampered with. In August, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of the union. A couple of weeks later, ACS appealed to the full National Labor Relations Board, located in Washington, D.C.

Normally the NLRB—established during the Great Depression to resolve labor disputes—has five members. But right now it just has two—one, a conservative, appointed by former President Bush, the other a liberal, appointed by former President Clinton. Needless to say, they don’t always agree. They need the other members to rule on more than 200 cases, including the Staten Island one. President Obama nominated three people to fill the vacancies, but the Senate hasn’t confirmed them. Sen. John McCain had placed a “courtesy hold” on one of the nominees, which held up the process for months.

The Pay Scheme

The union got going in late 2008 largely because the employer, ACS, announced that it would institute a new pay system. Instead of getting paid an hourly wage (rank-and-file workers start at about $13 an hour), employees would get paid per call. The company won’t give details, but union members say answering a typical call earns them 83 cents, more if it’s a complicated inquiry. That per-call amount can go up or down, depending on how well they handle the call. (Supervisors listen in on a few calls per period and give the customer service representatives a grade from A to D.) The time between calls is also compensated. A “parachute period” has been in effect since the pay system started last summer, guaranteeing all employees to earn at least their old wages.

The union says the incentives cause employees to rush customers off the phone. Leaders say the parachute period will disappear, leaving workers without any guarantees other than the minimum wage.

The company stresses workers are rewarded for the quality of their responses as well as the quantity. ACS is also promising to pay all workers at least $12.50 an hour, even after the parachute period ends, for the duration of its current contract with the transportation agencies. That contract runs about another seven years.