Book Review: Temp Jobs, the Economy's Bridge to Nowhere

CatchingOut

Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers

by Dick Reavis, Simon & Schuster, $23.99, 224 pages.

What “bright spot” is emerging from the dismal reports about the nation’s employment?

For the Department of Labor, increased employment in the temporary staffing industry is the ray of light in an otherwise bleak landscape. The agency reported that between September 2009 and January 2010, more than 250,000 temporary workers were added to industry payrolls, making temporary staffing one of the fastest-growing industries.

Long regarded as a “leading indicator” of macroeconomic change, rising payrolls of temporary staffing agencies are usually trumpeted by economists as a bellwether of an economic recovery.

But for those blue-collar workers who gather each morning in the waiting rooms of light-industry staffing agencies hoping to “catch out” and get a work ticket, each day brings uncertainty.

Dick J. Reavis’s exposé of the day labor staffing industry, Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers, provides readers with an insider’s account of industrial temping from a worker’s standpoint. For several years Reavis, a journalist-turned-professor, worked day labor jobs dispatched through his local temp agency hiring hall.

His chronicle of this “career” takes the reader through a string of manual labor jobs—demolition work, landscaping, road crew flagger, auto-auction driver, warehouse worker—highlighting the confusion and camaraderie that develop among workers who, upon receiving a work ticket from the temp agency dispatcher, set out to unknown worksites to complete loosely specified manual-labor tasks for low pay.

Help Put the Movement Back in the Labor Movement

Become a Labor Notes Monthly Sustaining Donor

Monthly donors receive a free "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt and a subscription to our magazine. Donate Now. »

Reavis refrains from demonizing or glamorizing the work. Instead, he reveals a series of fairly mundane workdays—waiting, commuting to worksites, waiting again, working, commuting back again…and again…and again. These mundane, but never quite routine, workdays of the temp labor force are punctuated by moments of absurdity and, ever so rarely, by acts of solidarity.

Uncertainty is one of the defining characteristics of day-labor temping, as Reavis’s days on the job reveal: “Will I work? Where will I work? What type of work will I be asked to do? Who will my co-workers be? Will I get along with my supervisor?”

This is a far cry from the staffing industry’s public-relations portrayal of its services. According to the American Staffing Association,

Jobs, flexibility, a bridge to permanent employment, choice of alternative employment arrangements, and training—these are the benefits staffing firms offer to today's workers.

Instead, Reavis finds uncertainty masquerading behind claims of flexibility; supervisor exhortations to “work harder” filling in for skills training; and few, if any, bridges to permanent employment. This is life in the burgeoning, precarious labor markets of deindustrializing urban America, where jobs are reduced to fractions of jobs, and where workers take jobs, however meager the wages might be, without any promise or expectation of continuing employment.

Needless to say, worker representation on the shop floor in this segment of the labor market has been rendered virtually impossible by a series of Labor Board decisions making the organizing of temps unfeasible. In this brave new world of temp work, it is largely every man and women for him/herself each morning, sitting on hard plastic benches awaiting the opportunity to re-join the ranks of America’s hidden “flexible” workforce.


Nik Theodore directs the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and researches precarious labor.