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Labor councils, umbrella organizations for area unions, aren't usually hotbeds of activism, and until Dean started shaking things up in the South Bay, most insiders thought of them as pre-retirement homes for aging union officials. But John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's new president, obviously likes what Dean's doing. He recently appointed her head of a national committee on labor councils. Even before she joined the South Bay Labor Council in 1993, though, Dean says she was fascinated by the area's high-tech businesses.
"The exciting part about working here is Silicon Valley," she says. "Twenty-five percent of national manufacturing exports come right out of here. This is an enormous economic engine in the nation." At the same time, she's no fan of the Valley's labor practices. "I really believe this industry has gotten away with a lot," she says. "It hasn't done enough for people."
Dean also believes many here are beginning to question this status quo. "For the very first time, there's a conversation that's begun in this valley," she says. "In the midst of this fabulous growth and wealth, for the first time in the history of this industry a lot of people are saying, 'I hear the industry is very successful, but what about me?' "
One reason Valley industries are so successful is their extraordinary reliance on contingent labor. This has less to do with money than with flexibility. After all, once you factor in the surcharge a temp agency levies on its workers' hourly wages, using temps isn't necessarily much cheaper than hiring regular employees. But high-tech is notoriously volatile, and many executives still quake at the memory of the massive layoffs that accompanied the 1985 semiconductor "blood bath" (as one termed it), during which Japanese manufacturers flooded the market with cheap chips, crushing many of their American competitors.
Today, temps offer companies the freedom to make quiet, invisible layoffs whenever there's a downturn in business. After all, as a human resources manager pointed out, "You never want to be on the front page with a headline saying, 'X Company Lays Off 400 People.' " Most large Valley companies therefore consider it prudent to maintain 10 to 12 percent of their work force as temps.
The use of contingent labor isn't limited to Silicon Valley, of course. Manpower, the No. 1 temporary help firm here, is also the nation's largest employer, with 800,000 workers on the books each year. Across the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in temp agencies has grown 10 times faster than overall job growth since 1989.
What makes Silicon Valley unique is that it uses more temp workers more often than any other area of the country. So Dean is convinced that if labor wants to test new organizing strategies for the flexible economy's workers, this is where it needs to start.
The South Bay Labor Council's first move toward unionizing temps was to count them. In January, Dean founded a labor policy think tank called Working Partnerships USA, whose first objective was to study that question. The result was a report that the council mailed to politicians across the state and country, titled "Shock Absorbers in the Flexible Economy: The Rise of Contingent Employment in Silicon Valley." The study found that a quarter of all the Valley's 800,000-plus workers are contingent workers, and that 32,000 of those are employed through temp agencies.
Next, the labor council is launching a Web page on which contingent workers can register complaints about agencies and work sites. Dean hopes to use the resulting on-line database to pressure employers into improving conditions. For instance, she thinks an agency that developed a bad name would have to take remedial steps or find itself unable to attract employees, thus giving temps at least a little more clout than they have now. The council is also organizing employees' rights seminars and legal aid for temps, and plans to paper the Valley with fliers advertising the workshops.
"We don't represent these people -- yet," says Dean. "It's not that easy to represent them. But we can certainly have a Better Business Bureau of temporary agencies on-line for people to tap into." The Web page will help the labor council too, by allowing it to reach temps -- who, as members of the ultimate decentralized labor force, are otherwise difficult to find.
"It's real tough to organize temp workers, because you don't know where we are," says Shannon Morris, the Apple temp. "Obviously, you're not going to get cooperation from the temp agencies in finding us."
Temping was once only a short-term, stopgap job, but as companies increasingly adopt the belief that the way to stay competitive is to reduce long-term costs, many, like Morris, find themselves permanently temporary. Bob Lee, president of Manpower's California Peninsula division, says that in the past five years the contingent labor industry has become a long-term employer. He estimates the bare minimum time a person spends working as a temp in the Valley is about six months, but adds that most end up temping for years, often on back-to-back contracts at the same company. It's not usually by choice: The Bureau of Labor Statistics says nationwide, over two-thirds of temps would prefer regular work but can't find it.