The Rise of the Six-Month Worker
In my experience as a temporary worker in downtown San Francisco,
I have met many young people working in offices who have no pretensions about
the importance of what they do. They seldom have any attachment to their work,
though most are usually careful to do it right, and they don't expect to keep
the job longer than from a few months to a couple of years.
Most office workers are temporary, regardless of their official
status, and feel they have something better to do with the time they are selling
for a living. This something better to do is often, but certainly not always,
some kind of creative expression--music, photography, dance, theater, etc. But
there are not many commercial opportunities for the aspiring photographer, actress
or writer who insists on pursuing his or her own desires and inclinations.
There are many women and men who would like to quit working
and spend time raising their children. But in this era of rampant inflation and
falling real wages, one income is not enough to support a "middle-class" standard
There are also countless students and liberal arts graduates
(frustrated philosophers, language majors, etc.) who are forced into office work
while they go to school or until they make a connection for a job as an editor,
writer, academic, or until they develop a marketable blue-collar skill. For most,
though, this temporary interlude becomes a semi-permanent condition, especially
when the "good position" in the university or government turns out to be little
more than glorified office work. There might be different companies or agencies,
the bureaucratic procedures might vary with different jobs, but there always remains
the endless stream of disconnected numbers, reports, memos and invoices to be
generated, stored, processed or revised.
Meanwhile, a growing proportion of clerical workers seem
to reject the notion of a career in the office and express this attitude by choosing
the temporary road. This impression is borne out by statistics both locally and
The S.F. Chronicle, in an Oct. 19, 1980 special section
on "Career Opportunities" ,characterized the thousands of temporary workers in
the San Francisco area as mostly in their 20's and 30's, about 2/3 female and
having an educational background ranging from high school dropout to Ph.D. This
includes only people who actually obtain work through agencies, but it can be
assumed that there are thousands more who come and go from company to company
without the "help" of an agency.
Short-term employment (2 years or less) is the norm in office
work, especially in the lower level jobs. Fifty percent annual turnover among
clerical workers is common. At the recently struck Blue Shield offices in SF,
for example, there was a near 100% turnover in one department during the year
preceding the strike.
According to Business Week (10/6/ 80) 90% of all US companies
are now regularly using temporary workers. For the parasitic body shops known
as 'temporary employment agencies' sales "have tripled to 62.6 billion since 1975
and could triple again in the next five years." About 60% of this temporary market
consists of clerical jobs.
STRUCTURAL CHANGE AND INTEGRATION
For many office workers temporary agencies are offering
benefits that are more in tune with what they want than what unions offer. Above
and beyond the economic benefits, which vary widely from agency to agency, and
union contract to union contract, temporary agencies offer the possibility of
employment when it's necessary and freely chosen unemployment when there's adequate
cash-on-hand without the stigma or penalties that come with not being willing
to hold a job.
Temporary employment also offers a certain freedom from
the expectations for sacrifice and dedication that permanent workers face. As
Manpower, Inc.'s "Secretary of the Year" Edi Mohr said in the S.F. Chronicle (4/22/81)
"...because I'm a temporary, I'm not stuck there like everyone else. So I have
nothing to lose by having myself a good time."
Capitalism has survived so long because it has a unique
flexibility, a capacity to channel rebellious energies and harness them to its
own needs. Wave after wave of mass struggles for better pay, better working conditions,
more say in the running of society, have driven the system forward as the market
forces beloved of the Reaganites could never have done alone.
A classic case from the recent past is the history of the
big industrial unions, like the UAW, the Steel Workers and the Rubber Workers.
Formed in the huge and often violent strike movements of the 30's, these unions
were rapidly transformed into appendages of the giant corporations their members
worked for. In exchange for the closed shop which guaranteed their existence as
institutions, they set themselves to maintaining discipline and productivity,
beginning with the no-strike pledges they signed at the onset of World War II.
The young workers who entered the factories after the war were increasingly indifferent
to their jobs, preferring to concentrate on making their home lives as comfortable
as possible. Consequently, the unions were able to trade away the control over
production and working conditions, won during the struggles of the thirties, for
better pay. This steady increase in real wages for hundreds of thousands of workers
in turn fueled the booming consumer economy of the fifties and sixties. Temporary
agencies play a similar role in relation to the young office worker of today.
They allow individuals who hate submitting to the unquestioned authority of bosses
and managers, who despise selling their skills and time, to stay out of the work-world
as much as possible.
For business, on the other hand, temporary agencies offer
the ability to get rid of an unsatisfactory or rebellious worker immediately--and
without repercussions. Also, com-panies do not have to pay fringe benefits, payroll
taxes, costs for personnel record keeping, advertising, recruiting, screening
or training of employees.
By using temporary agencies companies can compensate for
the problems of widespread absenteeism. Bringing in temp workers also helps to
cement and augment the hierarchy in the office. Lowest-level permanent workers
are permitted to enjoy the responsibility and authority, as petty as this may
be, of supervising the temps. In return the company may demand greater loyalty
and commitment from permanents who are relieved from the most tedious and boring
tasks: "One highly placed executive in a mammoth insurance company commented that
'tender minded' academics were 'downright naive' in their concern about worker
turnover... It was his 'informed judgment' that clerical personnel are easily
trained for their jobs, that if they stayed in larger numbers they would become
wage problems--we'd have to keep raising them or end up fighting with them, they
would form unions and who knows what the hell else." (Ivar Berg, Education and
Jobs: The Great Training Robbery, New York, Praeger, 1970,p.152)
"PROGRESSIVE" TEMPORARY AGENCIES
Competing for workers, Temps Inc., a small temporary agency
doing about 4.5% of the business that industry giant Manpower, Inc. does provide
vacations, bonuses, a major medical plan, and relatively high wages ($6.69/hr.
for typists to 610.76 /hr. for word processors). "We developed a comprehensive
fringe benefit program to give ourselves an identity as an employer and not just
a body shop" explained Barry Wright, founder and president of Temps Inc. in Business
Not coincidentally, Temps Inc. and similar agencies make
a big deal about how vital you are, the need for "professional" performance on
the job and the "special" relationship between the agency and the temporary workers.
They "respect" you a lot--the syrupy insincerity of their "friendship and concern"
pervades every conversation.
The ability of Temps Inc., Pat Franklin Associates and other
"progressive" agencies to offer comfortable wages and conditions is entirely dependent
on the current prosperity enjoyed by SF's financial district. In the 60's France,
experiencing very low unemployment rates and an expanding economy, had a similar
boom of temporary agencies. (There are now approximately 80,000 temporary clerical
workers in France, mostly in Paris.) Temporary work grew rapidly to compensate
for increasing absenteeism and to do jobs that permanents wouldn't. Initially
French temporary workers received pay that was equal to or better than many permanent
workers. Since the world-wide economic crisis of 1974-76 however, real wages have
fallen for all French workers, and many temporaries now get minimum wage. As economic
activity has stagnated and fewer permanent jobs have become available, more French
workers have turned to temporary work. Once employed as temporaries, workers are
finding themselves increasingly trapped: jobs are of shorter duration with more
time between jobs, wages are low and the chances of breaking out of the low-income/
"underemployment" cycle are very poor.
French capitalists, through the development of temporary
agencies, have gained a low-wage workforce easily hired and fired as needed. They
also have undercut the unionization of banks, insurance companies and government
TEMPORARY EMPLOYMENT: PERMANENT RESTRUCTURING?
The pattern of development of the 'temporary industry' in
France is strikingly similar to that of the US temp market. In the US the prosperity
of banks and insurance companies might sustain "reasonable" wage and employment
conditions for a while longer. But there is every reason to doubt that this will
last. Notwithstanding the ridiculous ex-pectations of "supply-side" economists,
the long post-W.W.II economic boom is clearly over. The re-emergence of a highly
competitive world market ensures that the current stagnation will lead to recession
and probably to global depression.
In the meantime, though, capitalists around the world are
scrambling to restructure their national economies for the battles ahead. "Reaganomics,"
with its huge cuts in taxes and social services combined with equally huge increases
in military spending, is designed to transfer income away from workers and the
"unproductive" poor and make it available as fresh investment funds for the most
highly-mechanized, "capital-intensive'' sectors of US industry. These sectors-steel,
auto, electrical, aerospace--are already being hurt badly by foreign competition,
especially from Japan and West Germany. As a result, they are now leading US business
in a drive to cut costs and increase efficiency through automation, robotization
and "job redesign."
The effects of this drive on the industrial workforce can
already be seen--massive layoffs, speedups, the negotiation of wage cuts by the
unions. But clerical workers will soon be feeling the pinch as well.
In the office automation is advancing rapidly. There are
more than 7 million data terminals operating in the US and this figure is expected
at least to quadruple in the next 5-10 years. Ever "smarter" machines and the
advent of the "executive work station" (putting the managers themselves on terminals
that will produce finished memos and documents) will erode the need for the bulk
of clerical/secretarial work.
The increasing use of temporary office workers gives companies
greater flexibility in "letting people go" when productivity gains through automation
are realized. Companies don't have to worry about the severance pay and unemployment
benefits they are obliged to provide for discharged permanent workers. While the
new systems are first being implemented and there are still bugs to be worked
out, the office temp market is booming and "decent" wages are. available for some
skills (e.g. word processing). But these conditions, alas, are as temporary as
the jobs that currently provide them.
WAGE LABOR: A TEMPORARY CONDITION?
The push to unionize office workers will not avert the falling
real wages or the imposition of work restructuring, though it may slow them down
a bit. But unions are based on contractual bargains over a relatively long period
of employment. During periods of expansion, they offer higher wages, more job
security, seniority rights, contractually established production standards, etc.
But for thousands of temps these things are meaningless since we are not planning
to stay at any job very long, especially where there's a heavy workload with little
time for breaks and conversation.
Temporary workers, and office workers in general need to
develop means of communication and association outside of any particular workplace.
This is essential since so few people stay at specific jobs or locations for more
than a couple of years at most (usually less). Above and beyond specific work
experiences, we have in common our general relationship to Corporate Office Land,
and it is based around this collective predicament that we should begin associating.
It's time to take the typical "temp" attitude to work one
step further. The problem is not only that office work is boring and useless to
individuals who do it and wasteful for the society as a whole. Wage labor itself
wastes the hours and lives of hundreds of millions around the world. At the same
time it robs us of the power to decide what work should really be done to meet
our needs and desires. The society based on wage labor is what must be challenged.
In it place we can create a society where work is done directly for social and
individual needs and where everyone can participate directly in determining and
planning for these needs. Such a society would have no built-in ten-dencies, as
the present one does, to constrict our intelligence and imagination into the strait-jacket
of "job" and "career." On the contrary, it would depend on the all-round development
of the brains and talents of every individual and their voluntary matching to
the tasks at hand. The desire for variety and new experience, which is the positive
motivation for so many modern workers to move restlessly from job to job, would
become a basic principle of life. People could spend their time planting or harvesting
one month, building houses the next, programming computers the one after, playing
music every night --all without ever being farmers, construction workers, programmers
or musicians. But the need for developing our brains and talents does not begin
with the birth of this still-imaginary world. We can use the (relatively) free
time that "temping" still affords us to create a subversive arsenal, to shatter
the system's grip on our minds and those of our fellow humans.
Autonomous groups of workers, unbound by constitutions
or laws, provide a starting point. If and when actions are taken and groups
begin to link up with one another, goals, strategies, and tactics can be explored.
The pages of Processed World are open to further discussions and explorations
of these questions.