E-ZPass Workers Face Stiff Resistance to Unionizing

Akito Yoshikane

Fourteen employees at a New York City customer service center for E-ZPass, the electronic toll system, were fired last week after trying to get their employer to acknowledge their recent unionization.

The firings were the latest by an employer that has so far demonstrated its unwillingness to deal with a unionized workforce. The conflict has been already been precluded by wage disputes and grievances filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

The trouble started last May, when the roughly 300 workers at the E-ZPass call center in Staten Island voted to unionize. Within hours of the vote, the company announced their pay was changing to piecemeal work based on the number of calls they take instead of an hourly wage.

The E-ZPass call center is privately managed by Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), which recently merged with Xerox. ACS handles the administrative issues for the highway toll booths.

Workers are upset with the new pay-per-call system for a number of reasons. The weekly pay is now affected by the number of calls handled, which is 87 cents per call; management can listen in on calls; and their time cards are monitored to check their punctuality with pay deducted for tardiness.

The management contends that the new pay-per-call system has increased wages for three-quarters of employees at the call center.

But the union has said that it’s a scheme to squeeze the most out of the workers reduced and unstable wages. The workers at the call center have even stopped taking calls in Spanish and now only take calls in English: Customers who call in Spanish usually take much longer on the phone. As a result, the Spanish-speaking employees were earning paychecks much lower than their coworkers.

The company maintains that their employee wages will be no less than $12.50 per hour, but past experiences at other ACS call centers have shown the contrary. Workers in Auburn, Wa., began earning only minimum wage and filed a complaint against the company in 2005.

The Staten Island union is represented by CWA Local 1102, part of the Communication Workers of America. They view the wage issue and the recent firings as part of a plan to hamper the formation of a union.

An ACS spokesman this week told the Gotham Gazette that last week’s firings were part of a process to make their system more technologically efficient. But the CWA describes last week’s firings on their website with a much different angle. The 14 workers who were fired were union activists.

One by one, 14 union supporters at the E-Z Pass administrative center in New York got a call from their boss on Monday asking them to come into my office.” Then, one by one, all union supporters were told that their services were no longer needed. One union activist, Frank Buonvicino, was told that we know you were one of the union leaders,” as he was let go. On the Friday before they were fired, all these workers had sent a message by standing up for 60 seconds while continuing to work.

At large, the workers are left without a contract. But part of the deadlock at the call center is due to the deadlock in Washington. Though the National Labor Relations Board has recognized the union, the company is appealing the matter on grounds that all E-ZPass workers in the state should have been included during the union elections.

Until the case is settled, the company refuses to negotiate. That might take a while because there are currently only two members on the five-panel NLRB. With one Democrat and one Republican, most cases are at a stalemate. The stalled confirmations have created more than 200 cases that need to be reviewed.

The Communication Workers are hoping to pressure other state municipalities like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Port Authority to end their contracts with ACS.

Meanwhile, the company shouldn’t hide behind the appeals process of the NLRB to prevent workers from unionizing. The workers have the right to organize.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Brandon Johnson
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