A Temporary Fix: A Rapidly Growing Contingent Workforce Could Benefit from Labor and Management Partnerships, but the NLRB Stands in the Way

Article excerpt

WITH THE WHITE HOUSE AND congressional conservatives ramping up to make the coming four years as memorable as the last, it is easy to miss some of their less conspicuous exploits. Many of those have taken place at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which has issued multiple decisions that are costing millions of Americans their best chance to join the middle class.

One such decision came in November of last year, when the conservative-dominated board overturned the MB Sturgis decision. Sturgis, as it came to he called, was the 2000 NLRB ruling that acknowledged that workers who perform the same job for a company under the same supervision as regular employees can share a "community of interests" even though they may be employed through a temporary-services agency. By removing a legal obstacle preventing unions from organizing and negotiating for these workers, Sturgis gave the labor movement a new opportunity to grow and gain strength in industries that rely heavily on temps. In overturning Sturgis, the NLRB reinstated an obsolete policy allowing temp workers to join forces with permanent employees and unionize only if both the temp agency and the employer agree to it. As union organizers point out, the chances of that ever happening are somewhere between slim and none.

Commenting in The Washington Post, Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor issues at the University of California, Berkeley, observed, "It's going to be an almost impossible set of permissions to be met. I think it is meant to and will discourage organization among temporary workers."

THIS MATTERS BECAUSE, FOR AN ever-growing number of Americans, working as temps and at a succession of other contingent jobs is the closest they will ever come to having a career. As America entered the new millennium, 26.6 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in these nonstandard arrangements. Given the growth of the contingent workforce, it is little surprise that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, between 2002 and 2012, the $62 billion a year "employment services" industry (temporary-staffing services) will grow by a stunning 54 percent.

Some industries see the use of contingent workers as essential to their success. For example, in the tech industry, many innovative firms say their success hinges on their ability to move rapidly to seize new opportunities. Rather than be encumbered by a large, permanent workforce, these enterprises prefer to partner with other firms as needed and employ much of their workforce on a project-by-project basis. Some add that subcontracting to skilled freelancers can even be fundamental to the creative process.

For their part, many young techies enjoy the diverse work experiences and sense of independence that nonstandard work arrangements can offer. However, they are more the exception than the rule.

Estimates are that more than half of all contingent workers would prefer to have regular, full-time jobs. And for good reason: Contingent workers earn significantly less than their full-time counter-parts. By one measure, part-time workers were paid almost $4 per hour less than full-timers. The same goes for benefits. For example, it is estimated that less than 17 percent of part-timers receive health insurance through their jobs.

As the leader of the San Jose-area AFL-CIO, Amy Dean spent a decade helping contingent workers in California's Silicon Valley. She points out that given their second-class status, contingents are rarely able to access the training opportunities that may be available to permanent workers. "The question is not whether the economy is trending away from offering traditional, full-time jobs," Dean says. "The real issue is what institution can fill the vacuum that's creating."

With nonstandard jobs now a permanent and growing feature of America's economy, there is a dire need for "labor-market intermediaries" that can help contingent workers gain better wages, benefits, training, and job-placement opportunities. …

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