Disposable Goods

On overcoming the exploitative temp industry.

In the May 15, 1931 issue of the Militant, a Trotskyist newspaper published at the time by the Communist League of America out of an office on 84 East Tenth Street in Greenwich Village, an article appeared entitled “The Unemployed Cutters Rebel.” Written by a little-known radical named Abraham Blecher under the pseudonym Albert Orland, it was no doubt overshadowed by a longer and more ambitious piece appearing three pages previous called “The Question of Trade Unity,” written by Trotsky himself.

Blecher’s piece details the struggle of unemployed members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Local 4 of New York, against “the rotten methods of their officials who are responsible for their misery and destitution.” After making clear the depths of this destitution (“Some of them have been unemployed for years and their families have been starving”), Blecher proceeds to outline the demands of the unemployed clothing cutters. Among these demands are the immediate establishment of a 40-hour workweek with 44-hour pay (soon to be reduced to 36 so that the extra four hours can be distributed among the unemployed), the equal division of work, the end to an unemployment insurance scheme that benefits the union bosses at the expense of the unemployed, and “the immediate abolition of temporary cards.”

Later in the article, Blecher exhorts those clothing cutters with steady employment to aid their jobless fellow union workers: “The employed should therefore come to the assistance of the unemployed in their struggle to secure the 40-hour week and the abolition of the temporary jobs.”

Reading this article in a modern context makes clear just how dramatically the labor movement has declined over the past eighty-two years. Nowadays everyone from underpaid Production Assistants to overpaid bankers brag about their 60, even 70-hour weeks, as if shunning one of labor’s most important victories in the name of professional fealty and at the expense of a personal life were something to be proud of. Reducing these absurd workloads by sharing hours with the unemployed members of their respective industries never comes into consideration. And the idea of rejecting temporary employment as insufficient would today be seen as ungrateful, even  “entitled.”

We no longer live in a world where workers demand what they think they deserve. The dominant ethos of the modern American labor market is as simple as it is defeatist: Take what you can get.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the world of temp jobs. Underpaid, deathly boring, without benefits, and too short to build a life on, most temp jobs are the stuff of socialist nightmares. One wonders what Eugene Debs might make of the modern office temp: atomized, powerless, totally replaceable, hunched in a cubicle for an hourly pittance that might barely be described as a “living wage” if not for the fact that it could all be over at the end of the week, rent and loan payments be damned.

I have temped on and off for about six years, utilizing the services of three different agencies. From two-day gigs moving office furniture to six-month trudges through thousands of digitized invoices, I have known intimately the feeling of temp-hood and have even emitted that sigh of resignation I now warn against: “A temp job is better than no job, right?” That’s how you know you’re hooked.

For cash-strapped millennials like myself, temp work is easy to fall into. You start off temping on summer breaks from college to earn some extra spending money, you work a part-time gig after graduation as a receptionist for a Japanese ad agency on the days when you’re not stuffing envelopes at your unpaid internship, and next thing you know you’re four years out of school calling your temp agency connect and pleading for whatever she’s got left: “It’s for a week? Ten dollars an hour? You bet I’m comfortable with Excel!”  It’s a sordid business, temping.

For me, the worst part about temp work wasn’t the boredom of being required to, say, sit in a mailroom all day with no more than an hour of work to do, which I mitigated by such measures as doing the crossword puzzle or listening to Purple Rain in its entirety. Nor was it the low pay, with which I had no higher-paying work experience to compare. No, the worst part was the awareness of my own disposability, the knowledge that I was not needed for any time longer than a brief period or for any task that would challenge the average eighth-grader. And yet the lure of temp agencies — simple, undemanding, easy to reach — proved irresistible.

The history of temp agencies, which facilitated temporary employment’s transformation from the realm of industrial day labor to that of administrative office work, is explored thoroughly by Erin Hatton in her 2011 book The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America. The book traces the origins of the modern temp industry to the late 1940s, when agencies like Kelly Girls marketed temp work to white middle-class housewives looking for extra cash.

By their very nature, Hatton argues, temp agencies were hostile to organized labor:

Unions were natural opponents of the temp industry, as their strength would be severely undermined by the emergence of a sector that relieved employers of hard-won protections, including pensions, health benefits, and other elements of the newly expanding social safety net.

The temp industry was able to avoid the interference of male-oriented postwar unions largely due its gendered depiction of temping as “women’s work,” despite the fact that the leading agencies employed significant numbers of men. The PR campaign worked: by the late 1960s, the temp industry had grown into a thriving sector of the American economy, bringing in $330 million a year.

The labor power available to temp agencies shows no sign of waning. Last year, the Labor Department reported that the number of temp workers had reached an all-time high of 2.7 million. Unsurprisingly for a group unrepresented by organized labor, temps earn 25 percent less on average than permanent workers. There are too many out-of-work people willing to forsake a decent salary if it means being able to make a loan payment or afford rent. Just as unsurprisingly, many managers have remained resistant to even the most widely accepted demands of workers, such as full benefits, and have weaseled their way around such pesky inconveniences by hiring temporary employees with no organizational mechanism to raise pay and improve working conditions.

That is why we need measures like basic income and socialized health insurance, which would shift power away from cost-cutting CEOs and towards members of the neglected underclass — people who are tired of taking what they can get and ready to demand what they need. Roughly half of Americans are in or near poverty and the political sway of this group should be commensurate with its size. The members of a politically galvanized underclass could demand a truly representative government that provides the necessities, in the process freeing them up to pursue their own interests in a way neoliberalism never allowed.

In these improved circumstances, the temp industry, which is fueled by desperation, would find itself out of luck. Why scrape by on a series of temp jobs when you don’t have to scrape by at all? Potential temps would be free from the threat of poverty and employers confronted with a reduced supply of eager short-term laborers would be forced to provide incentives in the form of higher wages and shorter hours.

Only in this radically transformed environment would the appeal of those 1930s cloth cutters have a chance to be seriously considered on a national level: the abolition of the temporary jobs.