Forever Temp?

Once a bastion of good jobs, manufacturing has gone gaga for temps.

Sarah Jaffe January 6, 2014

On November 14, 2013, members of the Chicago Workers Collaborative stage an action about wage theft in the temp. industry. (Sarah Jane Rhee)

Bet­ty McCray, 53, has moved around a bit in her life­time. She’s worked as a chef, a nurs­ing home atten­dant and a welder. Through­out, she says proud­ly, she has worked union,” even in states with anti-labor right-to-work laws, such as Ten­nessee, where she moved in 2010 to be clos­er to her son.

Despite the many drawbacks of a temp job, anemic job growth during the economic recovery has meant that many blue-collar workers have few options beyond putting in their time as a temp in the hope that they’ll get hired full-time one day.

That changed in 2011, when she found work at a Nis­san auto plant in Smyr­na, Tenn., prepar­ing parts for the assem­bly line. Not only is this job non-union, but McCray doesn’t tech­ni­cal­ly work for Nis­san — she’s employed through Yates Ser­vices, a tem­po­rary staffing agency. She’s one of a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple who do the phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing work of man­u­fac­tur­ing, but who, as temps, have none of the job secu­ri­ty and few of the ben­e­fits that many Amer­i­cans still asso­ciate with the sector.

McCray found the job through the local unem­ploy­ment office, which referred her to Yates. As an asso­ciate” (the firm’s pre­ferred term for temp), she works along­side per­ma­nent Nis­san employ­ees, but she is treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly. She says she is paid less, gets no per­son­al days and has to bring a doctor’s note if she is sick. Her job feels pre­car­i­ous, like she could be let go at any time.

The path to becom­ing an employ­ee,” that elu­sive goal, is far from clear. Tra­cy Logan, 34, worked through Yates on Nissan’s assem­bly line for a year before win­ning a pro­mo­tion to a posi­tion as a robot ten­der, over­see­ing the robots that spray paint on the car parts. To his sur­prise, he remained a temp. When I first arrived at Nis­san, that posi­tion was con­sid­ered Class A — only Nis­san per­son­nel can hold that posi­tion,” he says. I put in for it, think­ing that would be a way of get­ting on with Nis­san. Some­where in there, they changed the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the job, but didn’t let us know.”

Such expe­ri­ences are increas­ing­ly com­mon, accord­ing to Leone José Bic­chieri, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Chica­go Work­ers Col­lab­o­ra­tive (CWC), a non-prof­it work­ers cen­ter that orga­nizes low-wage and temp work­ers. Not only has tem­po­rary employ­ment expand­ed into sec­tors that used to be sources of sta­ble full-time employ­ment, he says, but it’s often no longer real­ly tem­po­rary. Some temps are brought on for only days or weeks, oth­ers work for years at the same plant through the same agency.

Orga­niz­ers in the field, Bic­chieri says, now talk about staffing agen­cies” rather than temp agen­cies,” and direct-hire” work­ers rather than per­ma­nent” employ­ees. It’s not a temp’ job,” Logan says,“but it’s temp status.”

So is per­matemp­ing the new mod­el in man­u­fac­tur­ing? Nis­san spokesper­son Justin Saia main­tains that tem­po­rary jobs can pro­vide a route to direct employ­ment. Hav­ing con­tract work­ers enables us to fur­ther devel­op the skill sets of these employ­ees to posi­tion them for direct employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties with Nis­san through our Path­ways pro­gram,” he writes in an email. But on the oth­er hand, he notes, The con­tract jobs in our busi­ness mod­el are designed to be long-term, sta­ble jobs with com­pet­i­tive pay and benefits.”

Or, as Logan puts it: They want us to be per­ma­nent temps.”

From Kel­ly Girls’ to strap­ping’ men

Kel­ly Girl Ser­vice, a staffing agency found­ed in 1946, pio­neered the temp indus­try. Temp­ing was orig­i­nal­ly framed as a way for white mid­dle-class house­wives to earn a bit of extra mon­ey, says Erin Hat­ton, a soci­ol­o­gist at the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Buf­fa­lo and author of The Temp Econ­o­my: From Kel­ly Girls to Per­matemps in Post­war Amer­i­ca. Mar­ried women weren’t per­ceived as bread­win­ners in need of full-time hours or fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing wages. That’s how [temp agen­cies] gained entry into the labor mar­ket,” says Hat­ton, but once they gained legit­i­ma­cy, they were able to spread out.” She says that from the begin­ning, temp agen­cies had a toe­hold in man­u­al labor and man­u­fac­tur­ing, but they delib­er­ate­ly played up the girls,” in part to avoid con­flicts with then-pow­er­ful unions. By the 1970s, though, they began open­ly tar­get­ing men. One ad cam­paign from Kel­ly read, Obvi­ous­ly, we can’t call our­selves Kel­ly Girl Ser­vice any more,” as it tout­ed its sta­ble of big, strap­ping” male workers.

Kel­ly Girl Ser­vice became Kel­ly Ser­vices in 1966, and today its work place­ments range from offices to uni­ver­si­ties to banks to fac­to­ries — includ­ing anoth­er Nis­san plant, in Can­ton, Miss. The temp busi­ness has bal­looned, com­pris­ing some 17,000 staffing firms in the Unit­ed States with a com­bined 2012 rev­enue of $117 billion.

2010 report from the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics (BLS) found that while manufacturing’s share of total nation­al employ­ment fell from 16.2 per­cent in 1990 to 9.8 per­cent in 2008, manu- facturing’s use of tem­po­rary work­ers great­ly inten­si­fied.” Because the BLS cat­e­go­rizes temp work­ers as ser­vice employ­ees regard­less of the kind of work they do, the agency has no good data on how many of those lost” man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs sim­ply migrat­ed over to staffing agen­cies. But accord­ing to a 2004 report from the Coun­cil of Eco­nom­ic Advis­ers, a third of all temp ser­vice employ­ees work in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor. If the offi­cial man­u­fac­tur­ing employ­ment sta­tis­tics are adjust­ed by this amount,” the authors found, the decline in the lev­el of man­u­fac­tur­ing employ­ment in the 1990s is elim­i­nat­ed.” In oth­er words, a good num­ber of jobs were sim­ply out­sourced right here at home, offloaded from com­pa­ny pay­rolls onto staffing agencies.

For man­u­fac­tur­ers, says Hat­ton, the log­ic is sim­ple: They have none of the costs of out­sourc­ing with all of the ben­e­fits of out­sourc­ing and all of the ben­e­fits of a native-Eng­lish-speak­ing local workforce.”

In many cas­es, that work­force is high­ly skilled, com­prised of work­ers like McCray who have years of man­u­fac­tur­ing expe­ri­ence under their belts. While temp agen­cies once empha­sized unskilled labor, these days some open­ly recruit skilled labor on the cheap. A job appli­ca­tion obtained this fall from the Smyr­na, Ga., facil­i­ty of gun man­u­fac­tur­er Glock lists six sep­a­rate staffing agen­cies through which one can apply for a man­u­fac­tur­ing or ware­house job. One of the agen­cies, Automa­tion, recent­ly post­ed a skilled machin­ist posi­tion on its web­site for an (unnamed) gun man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­ny in Smyr­na. The list­ing called for an array of skills:

Appli­cants must have expe­ri­ence oper­at­ing the robot­ic machine, must be mechan­i­cal­ly inclined, must have met­al work­ing expe­ri­ence. Appli­cants must also be able to read specs and be tech­ni­cal­ly skilled.

Appli­cants would also have to be extreme­ly flex­i­ble: This posi­tion rotates week­ly between 1st and 2nd shift (this is a require­ment),” mean­ing day and evening shifts. And the wages on offer for all those skills and flex­i­bil­i­ty? “$10 hour to start, but depend­ing on expe­ri­ence, may go up to $13.” Accord­ing to the BLS, the mean hourly wage for a machin­ist last year was $19.65.

So much for the val­ue of skilled labor.

Automa­tion did not respond to repeat­ed requests for comment.

This should remind us that man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs weren’t good jobs because of the inher­ent val­ue of the job, says Amy Traub, a senior pol­i­cy ana­lyst at the non-par­ti­san think tank Demos. They were ter­ri­ble jobs until peo­ple organized.”

From the employ­ers’ per­spec­tive, the temp rev­o­lu­tion is dri­ven more by a desire for a flex­i­ble, con­tin­gent work­force than by a desire to save mon­ey on work­er wages. Accord­ing to Steve Berchem, COO of the temp-indus­try trade group the Amer­i­can Staffing Asso­ci­a­tion (ASA), once the staffing agency’s fees are fac­tored in, the hourly cost of a temp employ­ee to a client firm is about the same as a direct hire. Where the cost sav­ings come in,” he says,“is being able to size the business’s work­force to the demand of the day, so they’re not pay­ing for idle labor that’s not pro­duc­tive. It just makes for a more effi­cient busi­ness operation.”

But data indi­cate that firms also save on ben­e­fits. While accord­ing to the BLS, 55 per­cent of pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers get health insur­ance from their employ­ers (and 79 per­cent of man­u­fac­tur­ing work­ers do), the most recent sur­vey data from the ASA indi­cates that just 17 per­cent of temps get health­care cov­er­age from their agen­cies. Berchem says that whether a temp agency offers ben­e­fits depends on whether the work is high­er skilled.” A com­put­er pro­gram­mer might get a 401(k), paid sick days and vaca­tion that would not be avail­able” to a car­pen­ter. Berchem says many temp agen­cies are gear­ing up to pro­vide health plans to their hires through the Afford­able Care Act, but accord­ing to a 2013 ASA report authored by Berchem, most agen­cies plan to pass the costs on to employ­ees or client companies.

CWC’s Bic­chieri says man­u­fac­tur­ers may be play­ing a long game by build­ing up a temp work­force to throw up obs­ta- cles to union­iza­tion, thus sup­press­ing wages over­all. Some of these com­pa­nies, they’ll have two, three, four dif­fer­ent temp agen­cies at the same place, and some direct hires,” he says. Now go try to orga­nize that! It’s impossible.”

Berchem says there is lit­tle data to sup­port this con­clu­sion, but notes that it’s rare for one of ASA’s clients with a union work­force to use tem­po­rary workers.

Despite the many draw­backs of a temp job, ane­mic job growth dur­ing the eco­nom­ic recov­ery has meant that many blue-col­lar work­ers have few options beyond putting in their time as a temp in the hope that they’ll get hired full-time one day.

The lure of that elu­sive job is used to keep per­matemps around. One of Nissan’s direct hires, Matthew Thorn­ber­ry, 51, describes morn­ing meet­ings at the company’s Can­ton plant, where tem­po­rary work­ers keep get­ting told, Nissan’s going to hire you, Nissan’s going to hire you.’ ” The ASA claims that 43 per­cent of temp work­ers get brought on as per­ma­nent hires, but the temp work­ers and advo­cates I spoke to, such as Bet­ty McCray in Smyr­na, doubt that’s true.

We were promised to be hired on,” she says. Yet she and her fel­low work­ers have remained temps for years.“Lots of temp work­ers have lost hope.”

Tax­pay­er-fund­ed temping

It’s not enough that com­pa­nies are widen­ing prof­it mar­gins on the backs of low-paid temps — in some cas­es, tax­pay­ers are help­ing them do it.

A 2013 report from the pol­i­cy cen­ter Good Jobs First, com­mis­sioned by the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW), which is seek­ing to union­ize Nissan’s Can­ton, Miss., and Smyr­na, Tenn., plants, cal­cu­lat­ed that Mis­sis­sip­pi hand­ed Nis­san near­ly $1.3 bil­lion in state and local sub­si­dies to build the Can­ton plant in 2001. That includes a con­tro­ver­sial type of sub­sidy in which Nis­san gets a rebate on part of the tax­es the state with­holds from work­ers’ pay­checks — in effect, as Good Jobs First puts it, this means work­ers are pay­ing tax­es to the boss.” Accord­ing to the report, this por­tion of the pack­age alone — a 25-year, $160 mil­lion deal — was the largest such sub­sidy ever award­ed, any­where. The report cal­cu­lates that tax­pay­ers are pay­ing more than $10,000 per job per year at the Can­ton plant that in many cas­es start at $12 an hour.

Nis­san spokesper­son Saia declined to dis­close work­ers’ wages, but said, Nis­san has more than met the require­ments for job cre­ation called for in the state’s incen­tive pack­age. Our 5,600 team mem­bers in Can­ton hold some of the most secure jobs in Mis­sis­sip­pi and enjoy com­pet­i­tive pay well above the state aver­age for man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs and strong ben­e­fits.” This seems unlike­ly, as, accord­ing to BLS data, the medi­an pay for a pro­duc­tion work­er in Mis­sis­sip­pi is $13.71 an hour.

Glock, on the oth­er hand, doesn’t get sub­si­dies, but it does get pub­lic sec­tor con­tracts. Lots of them. Most of the Glocks made in this coun­try go to gov­ern­ment agents, the mil­i­tary or police. In just the last two years, fed­er­al con­tracts to Glock topped $250 million.

Either way, pub­lic mon­ey is sub­si­diz­ing these jobs. And that means the gov­ern­ment should have some lever­age over employ­ment prac­tices. The fed­er­al Ser­vice Con­tract Act requires con­trac­tors to pay ser­vice work­ers the pre­vail­ing wage and ben­e­fits for the area where they work, and the Davis-Bacon Act requires the same for fed­er­al­ly fund­ed con­struc­tion and repair projects. By con­trast, the only fed­er­al law cov­er­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing work­ers at gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors required just the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage plus time-and-a-half for over­time, and it was inval­i­dat­ed by a 1963 court deci­sion. But Scott Amey, gen­er­al coun­sel for the non­prof­it Project on Gov­ern­ment Over­sight, says that before award­ing any con­tract, fed­er­al offi­cials are required to look at whether a firm has a sat­is­fac­to­ry record of integri­ty in busi­ness ethics.”

That could be ques­tion­able if they’re using [a] temp agency,” he says.

Traub, who co-authored the 2013 Demos report Under­writ­ing Bad Jobs,” points out that sev­er­al states and munic­i­pal­i­ties have passed ordi­nances that require com­pa­nies receiv­ing tax­pay­er sub­si­dies to pay decent wages. The White House could go fur­ther and pro­pose a high-road con­tract­ing ini­tia­tive,” Traub says, by mak­ing it a cri­te­ria in an award that we can pick by those who pay more, have bet­ter ben­e­fits, have a bet­ter envi­ron­men­tal or labor com­pli­ance record.”

A way out

Mean­while, the work­ers at Nis­san aren’t wait­ing — they have reached out to the UAW and are in the midst of pro­tract­ed union dri­ves in both Can­ton and Smyr­na. Thorn­ber­ry was one of the orig­i­nal group of work­ers at the Can­ton plant to reach out to the union in 2002, after sev­en months on the job. Temps, too, have been involved in the union­iza­tion effort from the ear­li­est stages — a refresh­ing con­trast to a his­toric use of temps by employ­ers to bust union efforts, which dates back to a 1986 rul­ing let­ting employ­ers legal­ly lock out per­ma­nent work­ers and replace them with temps.

Logan, who’s been part of the union dri­ve in Smyr­na since last win­ter, says that the work­ing con­di­tions at Nis­san are the best argu­ment for union­iza­tion — includ­ing the temp sta­tus of a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the work­force. He was par­tic­u­lar­ly upset, he says, when he asked to take a day off to preach in his church only to be told his reli­gion was an unac­cept­able rea­son to miss work.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty between temps like Logan and direct hires like Thorn­ber­ry is key to the UAW’s Nis­san cam­paign, which calls for giv­ing work­ers of all sta­tus­es a voice on the job. The long-term goal of union­iza­tion, Logan says, is to do away with the use of temp agen­cies entirely.

They face an uphill bat­tle — McCray, Logan and Thorn­ber­ry all told me of one-on-one and group meet­ings where man­age­ment pres­sured them to stop sup­port­ing the union. Thorn­ber­ry says man­age­ment hint­ed that the plant would move to Mex­i­co if work­ers vot­ed to orga­nize. Since he got active in the cam­paign, Logan says, super­vi­sors have threat­ened to send him back to the assem­bly line. (Nis­san spokesper­son Justin Saia writes in an email, Nis­san does not tol­er­ate employ­ee intim­i­da­tion. Our his­to­ry reflects that we respect the right of our employ­ees to decide who should rep­re­sent them.”) Con­verse­ly, as union talk grew stronger, some work­ers recent­ly got a raise.

Mean­while, CWC has moved into the leg­isla­tive are­na. It helped push through the Illi­nois Day Labor­er and Tem­po­rary Ser­vices Act, which requires, among oth­er things, detailed noti­fi­ca­tion for work­ers of the terms of their employ­ment and where and for whom they will be work­ing. The group has won sev­er­al class-action suits on behalf of temps as well. And CWC helped found a nation­al staffing work­ers alliance, to uni­fy temp work­er orga­niz­ing across the country.

We view it like end­ing child labor,” Bic­chieri says, some­thing that’s real­ly going to take a social movement.” 

This arti­cle was report­ed in part­ner­ship with The Inves­tiga­tive Fund at The Nation Insti­tute, with sup­port from The Puf­fin Foundation.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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