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Temps Demand a New Deal | The Nation

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Temps Demand a New Deal

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With this issue, we resume our 'What Works' series, which explores effective projects and strategies for improving people's lives through progressive social change.
      --The Editors

contingent 1

About the Author

Christopher D. Cook
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning investigative journalist who reports widely on labor, welfare and other issues...

liable to occur but not certain; possible

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conditional

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accidental

Amid Silicon Valley's torrid dot-com boom, stories abound of peach-fuzzed college graduates pulling down six-figure salaries and, in short order, securing their American dream. For them there is no shortage of opportunity--for new business ventures, luxury cars and seven-figure homes. Yet beneath this gilded veneer a class war is brewing. The Valley's legions of temps dream of getting full-time jobs and keeping homelessness at bay in a place where the median home price has soared to $365,000 and a standard two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,500 a month.

For veteran Silicon Valley temp workers like Julian Cornejo, the stark disparities drive home the point that temps--long underpaid, underemployed and "disposable"--must band together to improve conditions and restrict the ability of employers to exploit their labor. Cornejo's experience illustrates the precariousness of the contingent life. A mechanical designer with thirty years' experience, he has been stuck on the temp-work treadmill, with no benefits or job security, for fifteen years. After suffering a shoulder injury while temping at a Palo Alto semiconductor firm in 1998, Cornejo spent nearly a year fighting his temp agency for workers' compensation, leaving him broke and in debt. His wife and kids moved out to escape the financial and emotional stress. Then, his bills mounting and paychecks dwindling, Cornejo lost his apartment. He has been staying in a homeless shelter for months. Cornejo applied for a community college course on computer-aided design, which could give him the skills to escape temping--but there's a one-year waiting list because the school doesn't have enough full-time faculty.

Fed up with the powerlessness and isolation, in February of last year Cornejo went looking for a temp labor union. What he found, thanks to a story in a local newspaper, was a unique temp workers' association called Working Partnerships USA. Launched by San Jose's South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council in 1995, Working Partnerships runs a nonprofit temp firm and offers health insurance for temps. Emphasizing membership services, it occupies one end of a spectrum of new organizations for contingent workers, rising up both within and outside unions, that are giving voice and structure to a growing chorus of temp-worker frustrations. As Eileen Wodjula, a Working Partnerships member and Silicon Valley temp for several years, puts it, "We have to start all over again, with a new workers' movement."

The explosion of temping and the shifting of employment relationships away from traditional jobs poses what may be organized labor's greatest challenge and opportunity since World War II: organizing the swelling ranks of temps, day laborers, contract and leased workers whose perpetual job insecurity forms the porous foundation of today's supposedly stellar economy. A handful of unions and dozens of advocacy groups are experimenting with a tactically and politically diverse range of approaches. Some are organizing temps directly into existing unions; in LA 74,000 homecare workers classified as independent contractors joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in February 1999, after pressuring the county to set up a public agency to act as their employer in collective bargaining. Other unions and community groups are creating nonprofit temp agencies and Consumer Reports-style codes of conduct designed, in the spirit of constructive engagement, to coax the temp industry into undertaking voluntary reforms. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is helping temps and day laborers, many of whom live in city shelters, to form workers' centers and co-ops to negotiate better wages and conditions. And a New York City-based nonprofit called Working Today focuses on harnessing affordable and portable healthcare and other benefits for New York's self-employed and other independent contractors, while advocating policy reforms for its 93,000 members nationwide.

Spearheading the movement is a thirty-five-group umbrella coalition called the National Alliance For Fair Employment, which promotes a deliberately flexible range of solutions. "We see the need for a multipronged strategy because with the rise of temping and a real restructuring of the labor market, there is absolutely no one fix," explains Tim Costello, director of the Boston-based Campaign on Contingent Work, an alliance member group. With a national "rollout" this spring, the alliance, which includes worker justice groups from twenty states and Washington, DC, hopes to create a national presence to bolster contingent organizing and legislative campaigns. With input from the AFL-CIO and other labor groups, the alliance is creating a network and political profile for initiatives ranging from local grassroots organizing to state and federal legislation aimed at expanding contingent workers' currently minimal protections under equal pay, pension and labor organizing laws.

Although advocates embrace a big-tent approach, there is a "tension in this whole area of contingent work between outlawing the hiring of temporary workers" and reforming conditions, says Chris Owens, the AFL-CIO's assistant director for public policy. It's no coincidence that the rise of contingency has paralleled the decline of unionization--to the point where a stunning 90 percent of all private-sector workers are nonunion. Backed against the wall since the Reagan years, most unions have, until lately, assumed a defensive posture, opposing the creation of temp jobs as a unionbusting strategy rather than looking for ways to unionize temps. Asked how unions can build temp-worker power, one union official says, "I don't feel like we have an answer for that yet. We are at the bottom of the ocean with a teaspoon on this issue."

The AFL-CIO now calls contingent labor a "priority issue," but high-level officials there acknowledge that labor has yet to make the all-out push required to organize temps on any significant scale. "There's a serious question as to whether organized labor will put the money and resources together to do it," says organizing director Kirk Adams. "That's still an open question." Labor's answer will determine not only how (and how many) temp workers are organized but also the extent to which unions wield power and control work in an increasingly temp-dependent economy.

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