The New Heartland: “We’re Like the India of the U.S.”

Rob England, the statewide political coordinator for the Communication Workers of America, has an easy laugh and a perceptive expression; he is 31 with dark hair, a plaid shirt and a neatly trimmed short beard. I interviewed him on Thursday at Dagny’s, an unassumingly cool downtown Bakersfield coffee house that serves good coffee in colorful, mismatched ceramic mugs.

Young progressives and activists like Rob are energized in Bakersfield: There have been concerts and protests and petition drives. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy can scarcely poke his nose out of his Bakersfield residence without being confronted by constituent Rob England, who has more than once crashed a local photo op or publicity appearance in order to ask inconvenient questions, such as: “Congressman, how are you going to vote on immigration reform?”

Today was Rob’s last day of work after 12 years at the AT&T call center here — his job disappeared along with some 60 others. There are now 63 employees left.

What happened to the work?

At its height there were about 500 employees working there. Residential call center reps, so they help AT&T customers—though at that point it was Pac Bell, still a good company at that point—which was acquired by AT&T out of Texas, which was then called SBC, Southern Bell, and that’s when things started to change.

We noticed that they were treating workers differently, scrutinizing us much more closely — nitpicking our work, because we deal with customer interaction. Our calls used to be monitored, where they could listen to us […] Eventually it got to the point where if you would miss one little word, they would put you on a step of discipline for it, where they wouldn’t have done that before.

One word?!

Say you’re a customer, and you call in, and the first thing I’m scripted to say is, ‘”I can help you with that.” Well, instead you might say something like “Sure, we can get that done,” or “No problem,” or “We can help.” But if you weren’t verbatim they’d start to pick at it, even if it was in essence the same thing that you were supposed to say.

What’s a “step of discipline”?

We have a union contract which would allow us to have first, a step where they counsel you, and then they put you onto a warning, and then a suspension: there’s a whole process. But they kind of found a way to just nitpick at everything, to where you were always under scrutiny, they were always going to find something wrong: You could never have a perfect call.

Why am I hearing so many stories about the exploitation of working people here in Bakersfield?

You’ve got to look at the two main industries here: oil and agriculture, right? People who come into the work world here only [have] a couple of options. You can either go to college, or you can get whatever job you can get.

Or, you can go work in the oil fields and make good money, but they’re very conservative, very anti-union, out in the oil fields. It’s very tough. They listen to Rush Limbaugh all day long, and Fox News at night. Agriculture, you’ve got a lot of abuses there, because you have undocumented folks working under the table, you’ve got horrible conditions, they don’t have the same protections, so they’ve got it tough.

It’s a good ole boy town. It’s really easy to play with such poor people as pawns, use them to your own advantage.

Are you a local?

I was born and raised in Bakersfield; my parents are both staunch Tea Party Republicans. Into my young adult life I totally held those values, brought them into the company when I started at age 19. The union approached me to join, and work as a steward, and I said no, I am anti-union, right? And when I went into management, I was told that I needed to fire these two people: find something to fire them for. And thought, I wonder why? I mean, they weren’t my worst reps. So I started digging deeper, and at least one of them was about three or four months away from retirement.

How did that change your outlook, as a boss?

I thought: No, that’s not right.

So I spent the next two months working exclusively with them, to make them as perfect as possible. They never got fired, but I got demoted. That’s when I went back to the union—I was probably 24, 25—and I said, You know what? I’m ready to listen. So that’s six, seven years now, and I’m the president of the Central Labor Council here. One-eighty, my political views have flipped. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal now.

How did this affect your relationship with your family?

I will say it has positively affected it. My brother’s now a shop steward in his work, over at the county, and my father, the anti-union guy that raised me, is now a shop steward for the FAA. He’s still staunchly conservative, but he’s a pro-union conservative now.

Did you ever feel there was a light at the end of the tunnel for your fellow workers?

Over the years the attendance policy got worse and worse. Back in the day, you could have a certain amount of occurrences—days off work, throughout the year, and then it would reset. But then they took that away, so that for the rest of your career, you could only have X number of absences, or you were going to get fired. They’re setting it up for failure. That’s another example of the stuff they’ve used to sort of whittle us away.

What else has the company done to cut its workforce?

When I came on in 2003 there were about 350 — today, there are 63 people left there. And that’s how they’ve managed, not only in our office, but in offices all over the state. The goal is to whittle it down to the point where they can say: Oh, it’s no longer operationally viable, we must close this facility down.

The trick is that the company doesn’t tell us where the work is going. Which they can get away with by not calling it a layoff—they’re calling it a “consolidation.” So by “consolidating” the work, they’re saying yeah, we’re keeping it in California, you can go to the lovely city of Pasadena, or San Diego. But as we know, the reality is that here in the Valley we can’t afford to move to those types of places, especially with families.

Are many of your co-workers likely to relocate?

I’ve been here my whole life… we’re talking twice the living cost, if you want to maintain the same quality of life. The reality is that of the 60 [who lost their jobs] there are six who are following the work to one of those locations.

So if you combine all those 60 people, they’ve given almost a thousand years of service to AT&T, in that one office, and six people are following that work, and what of the rest? They’re not going to rehire all those people in San Diego or Pasadena, the jobs are either going to come up somewhere in the South or the Midwest, where it’s “right to work,” where it’s literally half of what we make. Nobody in my office made less than thirty bucks an hour, but you go to Missouri, or Texas? They’re making 15, 16 bucks an hour.

Are the call center shutdowns a new development?

These office closures have been going on for a decade. There have been places like Atwater, California, where they shut down their call center—that was about three or four hundred people—and a couple of small businesses had to close as a result, because that’s where those people ate their lunch—that is a small fraction of the hit the economy is going to see. Like in Bakersfield, you’ve now got 60-some people who are not going to be able to maintain their quality of life, not be able to afford the same kinds of services, or pay their taxes… and they’ll be on unemployment! The company does not care. Even though the majority of the money AT&T makes is in California, they don’t care about the workers here.

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American culture is predicated on this idea that anyone can “pull himself up by the bootstraps” and so it’s your own fault, if things aren’t going well in your life. You messed up, and that’s why you’re poor! But Rob’s story makes one wonder if the magical levitating bootstraps ever existed. Were they just a fairy tale told around a Labor Day barbecue, told to conceal systematic oppression? Maybe that realization is dawning in a community where 90 percent of the state’s fracking is taking place, and where the drought is hitting hardest and where the air quality is the worst in the country.

California progressives interested in labor issues shouldn’t be looking at Bakersfield last. We should be looking here first. This region, with its large, poor and vulnerable population ripe for One Percent exploitation—and with few to see or stop it.

When a company in Bakersfield wants to cut labor costs, it can also do it through employing temp labor from hard-hit neighboring communities like Arvin, 30 minutes to the east, where unemployment is around 30 percent. England told me:

A lot of people in those communities will take temp work. There’s nothing to retain them. All the cheap labor gets sourced here, into the Valley. We’re like the India of the U.S.

Pictured: Rob England in front of an AT&T building. All photographs for Dispatches from the Open Highway are by Elizabeth Fladung. Elizabeth Fladung is a Brooklyn-based, CalArts-trained photojournalist. Her work has appeared in The Nation, La Repubblica, The Fader and Wax Poetics Magazine.

Cross-post from Capital & Main on February 6, 2015