Temps Demand a New Deal | The Nation


Temps Demand a New Deal

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Don't Mourn, Organize

About the Author

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

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

While Working Partnerships USA and others stress the need for innovation, some unions have found success organizing temps the old-fashioned way. "Too many people have bought the notion that temporary workers are unorganizable," says Wade Rathke, whose union, SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans, has organized and won contracts for temp garbage-truck workers. When New Orleans privatized its municipal garbage collection in the eighties, "all the laborers on the back of the truck were contracted to a variety of temp agencies, some of which existed almost solely to provide labor for the sanitation department," says Rathke. Suddenly 250 longtime city "hoppers," who toss trash into the trucks, were temps receiving minimum wage and no benefits.

"The irony is these workers had a lot more control over the jobs than you might think," Rathke notes. "They controlled the work because they were the ones who knew how to do it, and when they had an issue the garbage still had to be picked up." Precisely because they were temps, the hoppers could choose just when to withhold their labor. A few years ago, in the middle of a scorching New Orleans summer "we came to one of those periods where we were just too damn tired to work," says Rathke, forcing the companies to come to the bargaining table or risk losing their contracts as resident complaints piled up by the hundreds. The key tactic for temps, he says, is "to look at the combustion points, where they have to be there for the work to be done, and you have some power in the situation."

On the other end of the temp spectrum, contingent high-tech workers at Microsoft and other Washington firms in the Puget Sound region are crafting their own union, called WashTech, in a steadfastly anti-union sector. They are targeting thousands of web designers, technical writers and software engineers--including more than 3,000 at Microsoft alone--employed for years through temp agencies and denied access to company healthcare and pensions, as well as stock options. So far 250 temps at fifty high-tech companies have joined the union, affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.

High-tech temps "might want flexibility, but they are not choosing to go without healthcare, without a pension plan and without the same kind of labor protections that are afforded other workers in this country," says WashTech co-founder Marcus Courtney, himself a temp test engineer at Microsoft. Instead of focusing on the temp agencies, WashTech organizes temps at their work sites, says Courtney. "Our organization is not about some agency that doesn't employ them, it's about where they work."

Battling temp isolation and "employers' tactics of fear and intimidation," WashTech is using the Internet and e-mail, as well as collective actions, to bring temps together, says Courtney. When twenty Microsoft temps represented by WashTech tried to form a collective-bargaining unit, neither Microsoft nor the four temp agencies involved would recognize them. But the workers' pressure paid off, as Microsoft quietly began acceding to their demands for wage parity and job reclassifications to reflect their skill levels. "They got those changes because they organized," says Courtney. Their efforts have been buoyed by a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last May that Microsoft illegally misclassified regular staff as temps and independent contractors to deny them stock options and other benefits. This January the US Supreme Court, for the second time, refused to hear Microsoft's appeal of the circuit decision. Now, however, Microsoft is fighting back by limiting the terms of temp workers to avoid paying benefits.

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