ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.



August 2019



Working the Phones by Jamie Woodcock

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Finished: 1 August 2019

Award Winner: 2016 Labor History Best Book

Best for:
Those who enjoy a good case study / ethnography and are interested in the state of organizing today.

In a nutshell:
Academic Jamie Woodcock is interested in labour organizing and, as his PhD dissertation spent time in a call center to learn more about the work — and the resistance — taking place there.

Worth quoting:
“‘There were all sorts of rules.’ For example, ‘hanging coats on the back of your chair was banned, little things like that.’ These were things that did not affect the productivity of workers directly. This suggests the rules were more about power.”

“The advent of computer surveillance means the fiction of the ever-watching supervisor could become reality. Even if they were to miss something at the time, the records can be scoured for transgressions after the fact.”

Why I chose it:
I know the author through my partner. We were at his flat for dinner, and I noticed the book on the shelf and asked if I could read it.


As mentioned above, I have met the author.

Right up front, to be clear: this is an academic book. Some people who write particularly interesting dissertations on topics that might be of interest to the general public are able to convert their dissertation into a book, as Woodcock has done here. And it generally works quite well. Yes, there are some sections that are a little hard to follow as I don’t have a strong background in labor writing (I’ve yet to read any Marx, for example), but at no point was I confused as to the general points the author was making.

The book looks at call centers in the UK and how organizing might be able to take hold there. In order to better understand the work, Woodcock didn’t just research it, he performed it, getting hired at a sales call center that peddled insurance. From that vantage point he was able to better understand the pressures and stresses in the center (sales targets looming large overhead, bonuses that management push as simple to obtain but that few ever get) and experience the little ways that the workers resist management attempts at exerting power over the workers.

Call center work sounds horrible in general — no one getting a sales call is happy to get one, though some folks might listen long enough to become interested in the product. But the working conditions are so stressful, and management puts in place little rules (like needing to wear business casual clothes even though no customer sees them) designed to remind workers that they are at the mercy of management. They are also on zero-hour contracts and can be fired at will. It’s not great.

But can it be better? I mean, other than eliminating the industry altogether, what options exist for those who do need this work, at least as a stopgap? That is what Woodcock looks at in relation to his time there — what can those who can be fired mid-shift do collectively to get better working conditions or pay? Are unions still relevant, and if they are, are they set up to support this type of work?

As I said upfront, this is an academic book, but it was an easy read, and I felt I learned a lot about labor studies, labor history, and organising.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a Friend — my partner

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