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Temp Towns

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I had missed this story at the time, but you need to read Michael Grabell’s Sidney Award-winning article on temporary work in modern America. Essentially, there’s an entire temporary work economy that has sprung up under our noses, even more so than I thought. Employers are simply refusing to hire workers in traditional arrangements any longer, offloading the risks of permanent employment onto employees and profiting richly.

The temp industry has lobbied for decades to expand their reach and pliant state legislatures have happily obliged:

Gradually, temp firms began moving into blue-collar work. At the end of the 1960s — a decade in which the American economy grew by 50 percent — temp agencies began selling the idea of temping out entire departments. Relying on temps only for seasonal work and uncertain times was foolish, the agencies told managers over the next two decades. Instead, they said companies should have a core of, say, five employees supplemented by as many as 50 temps, Hatton wrote.

The temp industry boomed in the 1990s, as the rise of just-in-time manufacturing drove just-in-time labor. But it also gained by promoting itself as the antidote to bad publicity over layoffs. If a company laid off a large portion of its workforce, it could make big news and leave customers feeling sour. But if a company simply cut its temps, it was easy to write it off as seasonal — and the host company could often avoid the federal requirement that it notify workers of mass layoffs in advance.

More recently, temp firms have successfully lobbied to change laws or regulatory interpretations in 31 states, so that workers who lose their assignments and are out of work cannot get unemployment benefits unless they check back in with the temp firm for another assignment.

While there may be cases where temporary workers make sense, this industry not only needs to be heavily regulated (which it is not), but most of these situations should be illegal and employers should have to hire full-time workers. BMW does not need temporary workers to staff the majority of its position in a car manufacturing plant. Those should be full-time workers. The majority of workers in a processing plant that a constant business with Wal-Mart should be full-time workers. There is simply no good reason the exploitation of poor people through temporary labor should exist. That most of this exploitative labor system targets at African-Americans and Latinos reinforces the structural racism flowing through American society.

As Grabell shows, while unions haven’t done much for temp workers, the law basically prevents them from doing so anyway. Temp agencies openly operate as union-busting institutions while untrained temp workers with no real rights on the job die at the workplace in easily preventable accidents. As we recreate the Gilded Age, it’s again going to take workers standing up for themselves in the face of great danger to their livelihoods (and possibly their lives) to eventually force corporate America to stop exploiting them. I’m not looking forward to another half-century of horrid labor struggles like the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but that’s realistically what we are facing. The American dream is dead for many Americans. The middle class is dead as well, although we are loathe to admit it. With each passing day, we move back to the Gilded Age, a terrible time in American history and in the American future.

This is the second in a series of articles by Grabell on temp work and I highly recommend the first as well, I highly recommend the first as well, on the exploitation of the transportation system that moves temp workers from place to place, which is both illegal and robs workers of wages.

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