Unions, Temp Agencies and the Future of Work

All too often, when people talk about labor unions, they focus on the past. Unions served a purpose, won some important rights, and ceased being relevant. That narrative has been repeated so often, far too many people have come to see it as true.

It is hard to believe that at a time when the middle class has never been so battered, and the gap between the rich and poor has never been so great, that anyone could argue unions are obsolete. In fact, the decline in union density directly parallels the decline in the middle class and the rise of income inequality. As fewer workers had unions, fewer workers could provide a decent standard of living for their families. It seems clear that rebuilding the middle class requires a strong union movement to prevent what is already being called “the low wage recovery.”

In this new emerging economy, not only are there not enough jobs, but the jobs being created offer little hope for making a better life. Coming out of the recession, 54% of jobs created have been temporary work. As one investigation points out, since the 1990’s:

the temp craze has expanded from air-conditioned offices to warehouses and construction sites.

Not surprisingly, a recent report concluded that California temporary workers are twice as likely to be poor as their permanent counterparts.

Unfortunately, as one economist points out:

Temporary jobs are the tip of the iceberg of ways that work has become casual-ized.

Along with the increased reliance on temporary staffing agencies, employers are turning to labor contractors, professional employer organizations, and workers misclassified as independent contractors. We are seeing worksites that depend on layer upon layer of subcontracting to ensure that the company at the top has no obligation to the workers at the bottom.

In the warehouses of the Inland Empire, we see what these trends actually mean for workers. 85,000 warehouse workers, mostly hired by temporary agencies. Workers who have had the same job for ten years but are forced to show up every day as a day laborer to be told whether or not there will be work. No guarantee of work from one day to the next makes it easy to punish workers who speak out about the extreme heat, the unpaid overtime, the lack of meal or rest breaks. When state agencies try to investigate abuses, there is no accountability. The temporary agency points to the warehouse and the warehouse points to the temporary agency. The retailer that owns the warehouse bears no responsibility for the health, safety, or minimum wages of the workers moving goods to its stores. 

This economic model of subcontracting away your employer obligations is bad for all workers. That’s why one of the Labor Movement’s top priorities this year is AB 1855, a bill that would prohibit warehouse contracts that are designed to force down worker wages and jeopardize their health and safety. Another is AB 1744 which requires more information to temporary workers about the wages they are owed and they assignments they are sent on. Another union-sponsored bill AB 2389 requires that companies and local agencies disclose to the public when they subcontract work to temp agencies and private contractors. All these bills are about taking on this new economy where workers are seen as disposable and where levels of contracting make it hard to hold anyone responsible.

How do the conditions endured by workers in a Chino warehouse relate to the role of the Labor Movement in today’s economy? Because the importance of the Labor Movement lies not just in rights won in the past, but in its vision and commitment to a better future. Labor is about building economic security for all workers, an economy where hard work is respected and rewarded and where good jobs help create strong families and stable communities.  Now more than ever, workers must have a voice in their lives and at their jobs. The future depends on it.