Revolt of the Temps

Almost anyone under age 35 knows about temp work -- or, more precisely, lousy, miserable temp work. Jobs that require lots of discipline but offer little prestige. Jobs that appear everywhere yet lead nowhere. Jobs that involve so many mind-numbingly tedious tasks that a 15-minute coffee break feels like manna from heaven.

Crappy temp work has been such a defining trait of the twenty- and thirtysomething set that it's created a cultural stereotype. Consider Douglas Coupland's 1990 book Generation X, which coined the term "McJob" for positions, including temp jobs, that offer low pay, no benefits, and little future. Or the overqualified, drone-like office temps portrayed in such 1990s movies as Reality Bites and Clockwatchers. Dead-end temping has even inspired a literary genre -- the job 'zine. Entire self-published mini-magazines such as McJob and Temp Slave! have chronicled the angst and dismay of temp workers trapped on this treadmill.

Fed up with the grind, temp workers are organizing for improved conditions through groups like the Boston-based Campaign on Contingent Work (CCW), one of dozens that make up an umbrella network known as the National Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE). Last June the CCW, which draws members from 40 unions, churches, and social-justice organizations in and around Boston, staged a modern-day slave revolt. Some 200 temps and their supporters rallied at the State House, waving posters that read JUSTICE FOR TEMPS and TEMP WORK: THE FACE OF GLOBALIZATION. From there, they marched into the city's financial district and hand-delivered to temp agencies a temp workers' "bill of rights" calling for better pay, benefits, and job security.

In spite of today's booming economy, activists see a need to regulate "contingent labor" -- a catchall phrase that describes any job falling outside the bounds of customary, full-time employment. Temp workers, hired by agencies and assigned to companies, are the most obvious ones to wear the label; but it also refers to those who work part-time, who are called on the job as needed, and who are contracted for special projects. Pay for such work ranges from $6 per hour for cab drivers, truckers, and home health aides to $20 per hour for office workers to more than $50 per hour for software engineers.

Despite this diversity, all contingent laborers have something in common: they face discrimination based on their work status. Most earn an average of $180 less per week than their full-time counterparts, according to a 1999 Ford Foundation study. Contingents, too, are less likely to get benefits; only 12 percent of them receive health insurance through employers, compared to 53 percent of full-time employees. And although some workers choose to temp because they're looking for a flexible schedule, federal surveys show that two-thirds of temps would prefer a permanent position.

Today's low unemployment rate is often trumpeted as a good thing for job seekers, but one of every eight new jobs created is a temp job -- making that industry the fastest-growing sector of the American job market. In 1973, just 250,000 workers were hired each day for temp service; by 1997 that number had jumped to three million. In 1998, 15 million workers -- or 12 percent of the nation's work force -- held a temp job sometime during the year. And in a June report, the US General Accounting Office found that 30 percent of the work force toils in temporary, leased, on-call, and other contingent arrangements.

This growth is rooted in a fundamental shift in the structure of corporate America. George Gonos, a State Univeristy of New York (SUNY) at Potsdam employment-relations professor who studies temp work, notes that many businesses reorganized in the 1970s, cutting core work forces -- full-time employees with costly benefits -- to become a "shell of a company." As a result, employers outsource even daily tasks such as bookkeeping, data entry, and grounds maintenance.

Temp workers may want full-time, salaried positions -- with all their perks -- but those are much harder to find than the low unemployment rate suggests. That's why coalitions like CCW and NAFFE want to make temp work itself a better deal. NAFFE, a still-evolving alliance of 35 organizations including temps in Rhode Island, day laborers in Chicago, contract engineers in Seattle, and the AFL-CIO in Washington, DC, has a four-point platform for change:

* Organize contingent workers into existing unions so they can protect themselves.

* Press for state and federal legislation that would correct inequities in pay, benefits, and conditions between contingent and permanent workers.

* Push for government regulation of "nonstandard" jobs to give these workers more clout.

* Persuade temp agencies to adopt ethical codes that safeguard temps.

As Marcus Courtney, a NAFFE spokesperson from Seattle, explains: "Every day, workers see themselves left out of this great economic boom. But now they're banding together to fight for what they deserve."

Nearly every business nowadays relies on contingency workers. Edward Lenz, the senior vice-president of the American Staffing Association, which represents 1400 temp agencies nationwide, says that companies use temps and other contingents to manage "more flexibly." Some depend on temps during seasonal peaks like Christmas. Others contract out tasks that aren't considered essential. An American Management Association survey found that 91 percent of companies hire contingents for "flexibility purposes," while 63 percent do so because of "payroll reduction."

These goals sound rational. Yet Gonos, the SUNY professor, points out that this reliance on contingent labor has created a "secondary labor market," in which whole groups of workers are treated unfairly. "Contingents hear about the great economy," he adds, "and know billionaires have gotten rich because they're underpaid."

Until recently, NAFFE-affilated groups' attempts to organize contingent workers had gone slowly. After all, it's tough to organize a labor force that's not only in constant flux, but is also scattered across multiple work sites and occupational fields. Therefore, explains Christine Owens, the AFL-CIO public-policy director who works closely with NAFFE, "We promote a mosaic of strategies because we need to come at this problem from all angles."

This mosaic of strategies has borne fruit. In Boston, for example, newly hired part-time faculty at the University of Massachusetts used to scrape by without benefits while making a meager $2200 per course, as opposed to the $7400 per course that full-time professors enjoy. Every semester, adjunct faculty scrambled to survive. Some moonlighted for public secondary schools; others actually collected welfare payments -- until UMass Boston's part-timers organized. After 12 months of pickets and petitions, they won health and pension benefits, as well as a pay rate of $4000 per course. "It was a small victory," recalls Gary Zabel, who has taught philosophy part-time at UMass for 11 years.

It was inspirational as well. Success prompted Zabel and UMass colleagues to launch the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), which works to mobilize the 10,000 adjunct professors at 58 area colleges and universities. Right now, members are waging union drives at Emerson College and Suffolk University.

In Seattle, hundreds of software engineers, Web designers, and technical writers have organized their union, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTec), in a field that eschews labor organizing. For years, thousands of high-tech whizzes have toiled as temps at companies like Microsoft and Adobe Systems. Denied pension and health plans, as well as lucrative stock-option benefits, these techies have missed out on the wealth created by the information-technology boom.

"It was the industry's dirty little secret," says NAFFE spokesman Marcus Courtney, who worked as a "permatemp" at Microsoft for close to two years without the perks bestowed on his full-time counterparts. In a complicated lawsuit, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided last year that Microsoft was, indeed, the employer of such permatemps, and that workers like Courtney are entitled to full-time benefits. Because Microsoft has appealed, the court has yet to rule on workers' claims for vacation and sick pay, as well as health and retirement benefits. Nor has it decided on the damages that Microsoft owes to an estimated 10,000 workers.

That a billion-dollar enterprise like Microsoft had gotten away with denying benefits to 3000 "misclassified" temps angered Courtney enough to form WashTec. With 260 members from 70 Seattle-based companies, WashTec has wasted no time. It's worked to improve agency-sponsored benefits and win wage increases for temps. And it's now pushing a measure in Washington state that would force agencies to reveal fees they collect from worker contracts.

Ultimately, NAFFE sees legislative change, especially at the federal level, as the best solution to contingent workers' problems. "We want to level the playing field for everyone in contingent jobs, [rather than] rely on situation-by-situation and state-by-state answers," explains Maureen Ridge, a CCW member and director of her local Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District.

One proposed federal bill would prevent businesses from paying temps less than full-timers who do the same job. Another would amend the tax code so that employers cannot classify long-term workers as contractors, thus denying them access to benefits like health and stock-option plans.

Success is sure to hinge on whether NAFFE can generate momentum among the masses, building up the clout needed to pass legislation. "Real change," Gonos says, "depends on the force of these organizations."

And for NAFFE, strength comes down to heightening awareness among permanent employees. "Full-timers don't see depth of the problem," CCW member Rick Colbeth-Hess says. "They don't see how their standards decline as contingent work grows." For the more that companies have trimmed core work forces and relied on contingents, the more that full-time employees have had to put in longer hours, give up weekends, and cut back on perks like vacation time.

In light of those links, organized labor might seem like NAFFE's most logical and significant ally. In an era of dwindling power and shrinking memberships, however, not every union and AFL-CIO chapter has embraced the fight for contingent workers' rights. SEIU District director Ridge says this uneven response probably results from "unions' feeling the need to protect their own members first."

But more and more traditional unions are reaching out to temps. Last April, the building-trades unions launched a national campaign to organize day laborers. And in 1999, in Los Angeles, 74,000 home health aides joined SEIU after 10 years of pushing the county to act as their employer for collective-bargaining purposes.

More and more Americans are also sympathizing with contingent workers -- either because they know a temp or because they used to be one. People are especially bothered by wage inequality between permanent and contingent labor; both NAFFE and government surveys report that 60 percent of Americans favor laws mandating that temps get equal pay for equal work.

Perhaps most significant, the temp industry is growing more and more defensive. Last June, right after NAFFE was publicly unveiled, the American Staffing Association released a report that lifted phrases right from the mouths of workers'-rights activists, rejecting their arguments as "baseless" and "exaggerated." Even ASA vice-president Lenz admits that the report sounds defensive. "But if we do," he says, "it's only because we've been attacked relentlessly by a small group of people."

All this suggests a bright future for NAFFE. Although its members aren't naïve enough to think they can immediately fix what's called "this problem of corporate America ripping off workers," they do think they'll end up winners -- eventually, anyway.

And the movement, no doubt, has tapped into some very real frustrations. It's identified such real needs that it could be just a matter of time before NAFFE sparks the next great revolution in the workplace.

As CCW member and long-time temp Raheem Al-Kaheem puts it, "What we're doing is so right, it's more American than what those in power are doing to workers."

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