The Rise of the Six-Month Worker

Chris Carlsson analyses the worldwide growth of temporary agency work in this article for Processed World magazine in 1981.

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 of living.

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 nationally.

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 Week (10/6/80).

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 offices.

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.

(Chris Carlsson)