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This article is from the January/February 2011 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The Jobs Crisis and the Art of Flexible Labor

Hundreds of Twin Cities workers learn how to be commodities.

By Dan DiMaggio | October 14, 2010

The unemployment crisis in this country coincides with a decades-long growth in employment by temp agencies, making millions of Americans’ search for secure, decent-paying jobs even more difficult. The bizarre experience I had recently along with over 500 other workers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area sheds some light on many aspects of the current jobs crisis and the growing expectations of absolute “flexibility” if you want a job.

On Sunday, October 3, an ad in the Star Tribune from the temp agency ProStaff advertised 300 immediate call-center positions. By Wednesday they had upped this number, hiring 550 unemployed and underemployed Twin Cities residents to fill these jobs. The majority were people of color, including hundreds of African Americans—no surprise given that as of 2009 African-American unemployment (20.4%) in the Twin Cities stood at three times that of whites (6.6%). We were promised work through October 22, with the caveat that we must be “flexible flexible flexible.”

In the middle of the night Thursday, after four hours of training and one day of work, we all received a dreaded phone call: our jobs were gone. No one had been calling the call center about the class action settlement we were hired to take questions about. So just like that, over 500 people were returned to the ranks of the jobless.

We woke up Friday morning to headlines announcing the loss of an additional 95,000 jobs nationally, with the unemployment rate steady at 9.6% and the underemployment rate rising to 17.1%. Saturday’s Star Tribune seemed to mock us with the headline “For Jobless, No Relief,” a good summary of our lives this week.

Is it me, or is it a sign of just how bad the jobs crisis is in this country that a temp agency promising $12 an hour can hire 550 workers in two days? And they no doubt could have hired a few thousand more if needed.

The woman working next to me, a young mother of two, said she has never seen it this bad in the fourteen years since she came to the United States from Ethiopia. After working for years at Starbucks, as a parking lot attendant, and in other low-paying jobs, she’s been out of work for the past four months, getting no calls back no matter where she applies.

Anyone without a job will report similar experiences. The only option for many people has become working through temp agencies like ProStaff. Among the 64,000 private sector jobs gained in September, “temporary help services accounted for most of” the 28,000 jobs added in professional and business services. The mantra of these temp agencies is “flexibility,” which means you shouldn’t be surprised if you are promised three weeks of work and you only work one day.

“Flexibility” means desperation, disposability, accommodation, quiescence—a willingness to accept whatever they might throw at you. Being “flexible” means acting as much as possible like a commodity rather than a human being. A commodity is a thing to be bought and sold, like a piece of meat, an ear of corn, a roll of toilet paper. Commodities don’t complain. They don’t have families or human lives. They don’t write articles denouncing temp agencies.

“Flexibility” was on full display in the 1.5 days the 550 of us worked. I’m still not sure whether this was an actual job or just some sort of scam by ProStaff and unknown higher powers to train 550 people in the art of flexibility—a seminar on “How To Be a Commodity 101.”

First, after interviewing for the job on Monday, we were told to show up early Tuesday morning for eight hours of training. So we arranged babysitters, reshuffled schedules at our other jobs, and canceled meetings and classes. Then on Monday evening, we were called and told training had been moved to 1pm on Tuesday. So we rescheduled everything again, in order to dutifully display our flexibility.

For training, we weren’t supposed to leave until 8, or 9, or 10pm, depending on which member of the ProStaff team you’d talked to the night before, but when we arrived Tuesday at 1pm, the company smiled and told us, “Don’t worry, we’ll have you out of here by 5pm!” As if anyone without a job wants to make less money—especially when they’ve already paid for a babysitter. This “flexible” approach to time is entirely one-sided; ProStaff’s time sheets are calculated down to the second.

At some point during training, we also learned that most of the shifts we’d signed up for had been changed. And that we were going to be working weekends, despite explicitly being told during our interviews that this was a Monday through Friday job. Then we found out that the actual job wouldn’t start until Thursday, though we were repeatedly told that we had to be available immediately. That’s the thing about temp work—you have to always be available, able to “flexibly” adjust to all your employers’ whims. In return, they don’t have to guarantee you anything.

The supervisor in charge of training laughed whenever she repeated her favorite sentence: “You must be FLEXIBLE, FLEXIBLE, FLEXIBLE.” I’m surprised she didn’t do the temp agencies’ version of the Wal-Mart cheer: “Give me an F!—F! Give me an L!—L! ... What’s that spell? FLEXIBLE!” Eventually she realized she might be offending some people, that our human bone structure sets real limits to our flexibility. She apologized by saying, “We’re sorry, this is just the nature of this work.” This phrase excuses any and all behavior by businesses that hire temps.

Yes, but you see, ma’am, somebody made things this way. “The nature of the work” is dependent upon finding a workforce desperate enough to do it. Somebody made it so that there are 550 “flexible” people out there, willing to come in and work for $12 an hour and no benefits on a moment’s notice. Somebody created this pool of labor that your company uses to make its profits. That somebody includes ProStaff and other temp agencies (though this isn’t meant to take any blame away from the rest of corporate America and its hired political representatives). As professors Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore wrote in 2005, “The Temporary Services Industry has become an important part of the infrastructure of the U.S. labor market, facilitating new kinds of employment contracting on a very large scale, and reshaping workplace and market norms in the process.” It’s only gotten worse since then. This is not a good thing for workers.

You have to wonder how far American workers will continue to bend before they either break or snap back. There are going to be a lot of people out of work for a really long time. There are currently 6.1 million long-term unemployed workers, meaning people who have been out of a job for more than 27 weeks. There are no signs this number will abate anytime soon.

What can be done? In our one day together, my co-worker and I discussed the need for a real Union of the Unemployed. It didn’t take me eight hours to convince her that this was needed—after about 30 seconds, she readily agreed, despite never having been politically active before. We were all set to gather the e-mails and phone numbers of as many of our co-workers as possible the next day. That is, until our plans were foiled when we received the middle-of-the-night phone call informing us we were laid off. Perhaps someone had overheard us.

But this seems like exactly what is needed right now. With one in ten Americans without a job, and one in six underemployed, that means nearly every family is affected one way or another. It’s long past due for tabling on street corners, leafleting outside unemployment offices and temp agencies, and organizing a real Unemployed Workers’ Union. All those people forced to work as temps, or working part-time when they want full-time jobs should be invited to join. This union could act as an organizing center, a support group, a place to put serious pressure on the politicians to do something to address the jobs crisis—something other than tax credits, that is.

The alternative is to leave it up to the government and private sector and to hope that things will turn themselves around. Don’t hold your breath. CEOs at the 50 companies who laid off the most workers earned an average of $12 million in 2009, 42% more than CEOs of other S&P 500 companies.

We can’t accept profit as the sole determinant of whether we are going to work or not. Whether the temp agencies or big companies like it or not, we are not commodities, but human beings, who need to eat, drink, sleep, love, take care of our kids, and live.

We should demand a jobs program that puts us to work doing something useful, like greening our cities and towns, or teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). For the last few weeks, I have been volunteering as a teacher in an ESL program in South Minneapolis. Almost all of the ESL teachers in programs like this around the country are unpaid volunteers, and the few paid teachers and staff are overburdened. Wouldn’t it make sense to expand funding for these programs and hire on thousands of people to teach ESL, which would help integrate the millions of immigrants into our society? Couldn’t there be money for a language interchange, so that more Americans could learn Spanish or Chinese? Of course then we might stop hating each other and blaming immigrants for the lack of jobs, removing an important weapon from the divide-and-conquer arsenal of big business.

If we get ourselves organized, maybe the next time 500 of us receive a call in the middle of the night informing us that we’ve been laid off, we can produce a better response than just rolling over and going back to sleep. It’s long past time to wake ourselves up from this nightmare. Temps of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our flexibility!

Dan DiMaggio is an independent writer, temp worker, and member of Socialist Alternative in Minneapolis, Minn. He has an MA in History from Tufts University and was an activist with the Harvard Living Wage Campaign.

SOURCES: Algernon Austin, “Uneven Pain: Unemployment by Metropolitan Area and Race,” Economic Policy Institute,, August 2010; Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2010; “Temporary downturn? Temporary staffing in the recession and the jobless recovery,” Focus, Spring 2005; Melly, Alazraki, “Paid Off for Layoffs: CEOs Who Cut More Jobs Got Paid 42% More Money in 2009,” Daily Finance, September 2010.

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