Learning the Art of Flexible Labor

The unemployment crisis in this country coincides with a decades-long growth in employment by temp agencies, making millions of Americans’ search for secure, decent-paying jobs even more difficult. The bizarre experience I had last week along with more than 500 other Twin Cities job-seekers sheds some light on what “flexibility” means in today’s labor market.

I responded to an ad in the Minneapolis Star Tribune from the temp agency ProStaff advertising 550 immediate call center positions to answer questions about a class action settlement. The jobs promised $12 an hour.

They hired quickly. In two days the spots were filled, mostly with people of color, including hundreds of African Americans—little surprise since African-American unemployment in the Twin Cities, 20 percent, is more than three times that of whites. We were promised work through October 22, with the caveat that we must be “flexible flexible flexible.”

But after four hours of training and one day of work, we all received a phone call in the middle of the night: poof, our jobs were gone. No one had been calling the call center.

We woke up the next morning to headlines announcing the loss of a further 95,000 jobs nationally, with the unemployment rate steady at 9.6 percent and the underemployment rate rising to 17.1 percent.

OUT OF OPTIONS

The woman next to me during our one day of work was a young mother of two. After working for years as a parking lot attendant, Starbucks barista, and other low-paying jobs, she’s been out of work for four months, getting no calls back no matter where she applies.

Anyone without a job reports similar experiences. The only option for many people has become working through temp agencies. Among the 64,000 private sector jobs added in September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that temporary help services accounted for the bulk of the 28,000 jobs added in “professional and business services.”

The mantra of these companies is “flexibility,” meaning desperation, disposability, accommodation, quiescence—a willingness to accept whatever they might throw at you.

After interviewing for the job on Monday, we were told to show up early Tuesday morning for eight hours of training. We arranged babysitters, reshuffled schedules at other jobs, and canceled meetings. Then on Monday evening, we were called and told training had been moved to 1 p.m. Reschedule everything, again.

We weren’t supposed to leave until 8 p.m., or 9 p.m., or 10 p.m., depending on which ProStaff employee you talked to. But when we arrived Tuesday, managers smiled and told us, “Don’t worry, we’ll have you out of here by 5!”

As if anyone without a job wants to make less money—especially when they’ve already paid for a sitter.

This “flexible” approach to time is entirely one-sided. ProStaff’s time sheets are calculated down to the second.

We also learned that most shifts had been changed. We were going to be working weekends, despite being told during our interviews that this was a Monday-Friday job. We always have to be available. In return, they don’t have to guarantee us anything.

“We’re sorry,” said the supervisor in charge of training. “This is just the nature of this work.”

But somebody made things this way. Somebody made it so that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people willing to come in and work for no benefits on a moment’s notice.

You have to wonder how far American workers will continue to bend before they either break or snap back. There are currently 6.1 million long-term unemployed workers, meaning people who have been out of a job for more than 27 weeks. There are no signs this number will ease anytime soon.

What can be done? In our eight hours together, my co-worker and I discussed the need for a real union of the unemployed. She was on board after about 30 seconds. We were all set to gather the e-mails and phone numbers of as many of our co-workers as possible the next day.

With 1 in 10 Americans without a job, and 1 in 6 underemployed, that means nearly every family is affected one way or another. It’s long past due for tabling on street corners, leafleting outside unemployment offices and temp agencies, and organizing a real Unemployed Workers’ Union. Some organizations, including chapters of Jobs with Justice and Central Labor Councils, are moving to embrace unemployed organizing. Now we’ve got to get it to scale.

All those people forced to work as temps, or working part-time when they want full-time jobs, should be in on the organizing. This union could act as a center of activity and support, a place to plan and coordinate serious pressure on the bosses and politicians to address the jobs crisis. (Massive investment in green jobs? A shorter workweek for same pay? Something other than giving employers tax credits.)

The alternative is to leave it up to the government and private sector and hope that things will turn themselves around. Don’t hold your breath. Wall Street seems to love our pain. CEOs at the 50 companies who laid off the most workers earned an average of $12 million in 2009, 42 percent more than CEOs of less layoff-happy companies.

Let’s get organized. Maybe the next time 500 of us receive a call in the middle of the night informing us that we’ve been laid off, we can produce a better response than just rolling over and going back to sleep.