Temps of the World, Unite!

The Wobblies set out to organize temporary workers

I've got about 90 things that need doing,” says Ray Levy of the San Francisco branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Slumped over his desk in the IWW's dingy one-room office at Seventh and Market, this self-proclaimed anarchist could have fallen right out of a Dos Passos novel. Except something's not quite right. The shaggy-headed Wobbly hands me a laundry list of “things to do” a foot-and-a-half long. About halfway down, I read this notation: “Find an accountant.”

June has been a busy month for Levy and the IWW. Between organizing the Food Not Bombs world summit, planning the Wobbly contingent in the gay parade, and arranging the Wobblies' 90th birthday party, Levy is also spearheading the local IWW's attempt to remain a viable and relevant radical labor movement in a Newtered nation. Taking a page from the capitalist handbook, the Wobblies are staking a little entrepreneurial claim in the burgeoning temp industry.

“It's still embryonic,” Levy explains. “As you can see from the list, there's a lot to do.” He's already started a local Temp Workers Union, and begun collecting donations of money and office supplies for the worker-owned-and-operated temp agency Levy hopes to have up and running by this fall.

“Noam Chomsky sent us a check,” he beams. “We photocopied it.”
The San Francisco IWW is amassing, egad, capital to invest in a not-for-profit temp agency that will train and place temps in corporate offices downtown. And why, you might ask, would John Q. Corporate hire a Wobbly temp? Theoretically because the co-op temp agency's low overhead will enable the Wobblies to underbid the profit-oriented temp-pimps like Manpower and Kelly Temporary Services — or so Levy hopes. Everyone will earn $10 an hour, including the Temp Workers Union staff, he promises, with no surplus value extracted from the workers.

“All we want to do,” he says, “is provide a livable wage for temps, $10 an hour, enough to go to the movies, put a little jingle in their jeans, and give them a say in where, when, and how they work.”

The Industrial Workers of the World are no strangers to the plight of temporary or “casual” employees. Under the guidance of William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, the IWW made a name for itself organizing the hobos who followed the wheat harvest across the Midwest in the years just prior to World War I. Haywood's down-home demeanor and the Wobblies' refusal to disavow sabotage and violence (which got the IWW kicked out of the more genteel Socialist Party of America in 1913) appealed to the disenfranchised workers in the West, workers the mainstream unions considered too rowdy to organize.

During its heyday in the teens, the IWW boasted 35,000 members. But after the Red scare of 1919, most of the Wobbly leaders were jailed, and Haywood jumped bond and split to the Soviet Union. Corin Royal Drummond, who recently resurrected the San Francisco Wobblies' newsletter, The Wildcat, estimates current IWW membership to be about 450. Which begs the question: With unionism on a low ebb and radicalism all but washed away by the changing political waters, can the IWW make a difference in the world of the workaday temp? Perhaps seeing shades of its own past in the current temp culture, the IWW is attempting to organize the millions of American workers who fall between the slices of the American pie.

By necessity, the Wobblies must start small — because they are. Levy says the group counts about 70 active members locally, with 17 branches in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., for a grand total of 450 members. Pushed further for personal history, Levy won't budge: He declines to give his age (he looks to be in his late 30s) and, though he volunteers that he's Wobbled since '92, won't say what he did before. Like other Wobblies, he declines to be photographed.

Comparing the occupation of temping to “death or heroin,” Levy says the nation's temporary workers are ripe for organization. And he just may be right. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nearly a third of the American work force is made up of “contingent workers,” though there is currently a debate among economic statisticians about how to interpret the Labor Department's category. The BLS's 35 million “contingent workers” include day laborers, office temps, independent contractors of all stripes, free-lance writers, and self-employed doctors and lawyers — anyone who offers his services to an employer on a part-time or temporary basis.

But even if this definition is honed to include only office and factory temps, the numbers are still telling. In the last decade, the temps' share of the work force has grown by 250 percent; 15 percent of the 8 million jobs created in the latest “recovery” are handled by megalithic temp agencies like Manpower and Kelly, making temp jobs the fastest-growing sector on the work scene. Wisconsin-based Manpower is the nation's largest single employer, placing 750,000 temps in offices and factories each year.

All of which makes Levy and the IWW see red, so to speak. As the Wobblies tell it, temp workers have become a disposable commodity in a new economy that jacks up profits by skimping on employee costs. Temps float in a kind of limbo, sometimes for years, unable to collect benefits and subject to summary firing. Levy, who has a knack for making abstract economics more visceral, puts it in lay terms. “Who gets the shit?” he asks. “The shit falls on the temp.”

The shit isn't excreted solely by the private sector. In June, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to extend retirement benefits to the city's “perma-temps,” some of whom have been working in the civil service for a decade or more. These temps are actually full-time employees waiting for their respective civil service exams. The city's Human Resource Department, which administers the exams, is so backlogged that the city hires employees on a “temporary” basis to bypass the wait. And even though these 1,800 civil service perma-temps can now collect retirement benefits, they still will not become permanent until tested.

While the IWW might not be able to do much for the city bureaucracy, they plan to establish a hiring hall where the city's day laborers can find work instead of standing around on street corners waiting for whatever piecemeal jobs pull up.

When a septuagenarian teacher of English as a Second Language calling herself “Welcome” wanders into the Wobbly office with questions about finding work, Levy tells her, “Eventually, we would like to have ESL classes for these guys available through the hiring hall.”

The Wobblies took a stab at temping in 1992, but failed miserably.
“We made a lot of silly assumptions,” Levy says. “Like, we thought it was demeaning for the temps to call in to see if there was work. So we set up these phone trees, y'know, one person calls five, and each of those five calls five more, and so on. Our phone bills alone were astronomical. We learned a lot from that.”

Or at least enough to wade into the entrepreneurial waters again; this time, if everything goes as planned, the program will be used as a model by IWW branches across the nation.

All of which means Levy, who works nights, is a very haggard man.
Despite appearances, he isn't alone. Resident Wobbly computer guru Kevin Davis is working on a World Wide Web site that will carry news of the Temp Union and agency as well as choice rants from the zine Temp Slave. He's part of a core group of six other San Francisco Wobblies Levy has organized to handle the Temp Union's “bureaucratic shit-work,” which right now amounts to answering questions, passing out leaflets in front of downtown temp agencies, and trying to find somebody to repair the pile of secondhand computers stacked in the corner of the office.

Levy hopes to use these computers to keep union temps up to cybersnuff. Supplying clients with well-trained temps hip to the latest word processing and data-base programs means more business for the agency, which sounds very competitive. There're a lot of capitalistic ideals at work here.

“Yeah,” Levy laughs. “With one major exception — our goal is to place everyone in a permanent job, to put ourselves out of business.

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