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The South Bay Labor Council argues that if workers are now expected to make careers as temps, someone needs to step in and ensure that temps are treated fairly. And though a recent court ruling suggests to some that government may move to regulate the temp industry more closely, Amy Dean doesn't believe laws will change anytime soon. She thinks unions can do a better job protecting temps than government regulations anyway. And the unions she proposes would also, she says, give temps a lot more control over their futures. "We know we can't guarantee job security anymore," she says. "But we can certainly think about career security."
The unions that Dean hopes will grow from her efforts reflect her belief that the economy is returning to a specialized, niche model, in which work is parceled out to individual specialists, rather than moving down a literal or metaphorical assembly line. "It's back to the future," she says. She envisions craft-based groups in which workers would be organized by specialty -- a technical writers' guild, say, or an engineers' association, that would set pay scales and standards for work done by their members. The guild's hiring hall would ultimately replace temporary agencies as the middleman between electronic cottage workers and employers.
The basic structure of such a union is far from unprecedented. Carpenters, for instance, get work through a union hiring hall, and although they frequently have various employers, they continue to pay dues to and receive health and other benefits from their union. Many film industry workers have similar arrangements.
But Dean thinks the new guild-style unions should go even further, providing training and professional development opportunities for members to help them keep up with new developments in their often fast-evolving fields. "Because the union spans so many different companies, it has the potential to figure out how to cluster certain jobs together in terms of training programs, and create career employment opportunities for people," she contends. "What other institution can do that?"
As utopian a vision as this is, it will take a massive amount of money to make it a reality. So Dean is also marketing the cause of temp unionization to the big national and international unions, who have the kind of war chests required to fight lengthy organizing battles. "My goal is that when the labor movement scans the globe and asks, 'Where are the hot spots for our rebirth?' we'll be one of those places," she says. But she concedes that it may be some time before she can convince the big unions that this is a battle they need to take on. "I think it's going to take awhile before the labor movement catches up and says, 'We want to spend several million dollars in the Silicon Valley.' "
Back in the trenches of the flexible economy, it may also be hard to get temps themselves excited about coming forward and helping with organizing efforts. They fear for their jobs, particularly since a number of temps say blackballing is already practiced by the industry, though agencies deny it.
"The temp worker who takes that step and tries to organize is really risking a lot," says Morris. She says indiscreet temps have already found minor misdeeds -- like typing a personal letter on a company computer -- can put them out of work permanently. "One temp agency will call the others and say, 'Don't send this person on a job, don't send this person on a job,' " she says. "And they'll call all of them, and that person will be blackballed. I've seen it happen.
"I know the law protects you once you're recognized officially as a union organizer," she adds. "[But] you think any temp agency is ever going to hire you or send you on a job again?"
The big unions will likely be watching closely to see what kind of response the South Bay Labor Council gets to its first efforts. After all, the Valley, that bastion of venture capital and cyberlibertarianism, has long been hostile to unions. "Every organizing effort that's gone on in Silicon Valley in a traditional mode has failed," says Chris Benner, the UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate who researched and wrote the labor council's temp workers study. "So I think there's a certain amount of skepticism around throwing a bunch of money and energy into a big organizing campaign unless there's a clear strategy that's going to clearly win."
In fact, five years ago the Campaign for Justice tried to coordinate unions for a major organizing drive in the Valley. Benner says the effort fell apart because of lack of commitment from some unions and infighting between others. In the new arena, uncertainty looms over who the organizing targets should be: the temp agencies, which employ the temps but argue that they're only filling a need, or the corporations, which are the end users.
The situation is coming to a head whether the unions are ready or not. Companies have become especially nervous about the legal status of their temps and other contract workers since October's ruling against Microsoft, in which a three-judge panel held the company had illegally denied contract workers benefits enjoyed by regular employees (see sidebar). The bottom line? Merely calling a worker a contractor doesn't make him or her one. Microsoft, said the court, owes the workers pension, health, and other benefits. The decision could cost the company millions of dollars.