Temps Taking Over the Workforce Creating Organizing Obstacles

tempNew Orleans   Taking a couple of days off at the end of the year one thing on my list along with mowing the yard in December, which makes living in New Orleans a joy, was an exercise probably of procrastination masked as productivity, to plow through the stack of magazines with pieces I wanted to read, but just hadn’t found the time.  One piece of gold I found buried there was an article by Sarah Jaffe written for In These Times called “Temporary Insanity,” which was a great update and cautionary tale on how the continued explosive growth of temporary employment is distorting the real definition of the workplace and posing huge organizational challenges for unions.

According to Jaffe, temporary workers, even those deployed in manufacturing and other jobs, are all counted statistically by the government as “service” workers no matter what they are really doing, which I might have known, but had forgotten.  Even more importantly she makes this point which is a killer:

“…according to a 2004 report from the Council of Economic Advisers, a third of all temp service employees work in the manufacturing sector. ‘If the official manufacturing employment statistics are adjusted by this amount…the decline in the level of manufacturing employment in the 1990s is eliminated.’  In other words, a good number of jobs were simply outsourced from company payrolls onto staffing agencies.”

Couple that with an earlier point she cited from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that manufacturing employment had fallen from 16.2% of total employment in 1990 to only 9.8% by 2008, and it’s clear that unless we are listening to every whisper in our ear, we are clueless about what’s happening to workers.  Worse, I think this is only part of the story.  Having organized garbage workers in cities throughout Louisiana and Texas, we have found nothing but temporary employment agencies on the back of garbage trucks and even as we have successfully organized a number of them, we have had to contend with multiple agencies trying to contract on the same jobsites.  We have seen the same thing while working with hospitality workers, where we have filed for union elections for hotel chains like the Wyndham to discover that all of the workers are actually employed by a third company, often surprising even the workers, while shielding the parent company from various obligations.  And, that’s not even counting the myriad companies bringing in temporaries and subs to clean the common areas in hotels and a bunch of other public spaces.

All of these work arrangements tied together under the rubric of contingent employment from temporary workers to part-time staff to casual labor, now add up to 42.6 million workers or one-third of the US workforce.  Needless to say, all of this kind of labor, no matter how counted, drives down wages and benefits for companies and therefore income and any notion of security for workers, accelerating inequality and maximizing fear and instability on jobsites everywhere.

So, sure it’s possible to unionize them, but geez, talk about doing something with our hands tied behind our back, the job takes on a whole different degree of difficulty, delays, and potential defeats.   Reading about the newly formed 400-member Model Alliance in New York composed of fashion models, most of whom fit the role of temporary workers even better than they fit the clothes they are showing, and the advice they were given by the Fordham University law professor to not form a union but just become advocates, you start to get the sense that even talking about unionization strategies in the contemporary labor market has become passé.   Probably because we have a damaged “brand” or something.

Nonetheless for those of us who are still dinosaurs roaming the land before we’re declared extinct, it’s worth remembering that one of the first tasks in organizing is finding where the workers are and who they are working for, and that’s still a good starting point in dealing with this “temporary insanity” that is becoming a permanent fixture in the USA workplace.

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