Hundreds of Twin Cities Workers Learn How to Be a Commodity

Hundreds of Twin Cities Workers Learn How to Be a Commodity

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 experience I had this week along with over 500 other Twin Cities workers sheds light on many aspects of the current jobs crisis and the growing expectations of absolute “flexibility” if you want a job.

Last Sunday, October 3, 2010, 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 percent) in the Twin Cities stood at three times that of whites (6.6 percent).(1) We were promised work through October 22, with the caveat that we must be “flexible, flexible, flexible.”

In the middle of the night, 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 for which we were hired to take questions. No one. 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 a further 95,000 jobs nationally, with the unemployment rate steady at 9.6 percent and the underemployment rate rising to 17.1 percent.

Is it me, or is it a sign of just how bad the jobs crisis is that a temp agency promising $12 an hour can hire 550 workers in two days? The woman working next to me, a young mother of two, said she has never seen it this bad in the 14 years since she came to the US from Ethiopia. After working for years at Starbucks, as a parking lot attendant, and other low-paying jobs, she’s been out of work for the past four months, getting no calls back no matter where she applies.

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.(2) The mantra of these temp agencies is “flexibility,” meaning 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. 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 1:00 PM on Tuesday. We rescheduled everything again, dutifully displaying our flexibility.

For training, we weren’t supposed to leave until 8:00, or 9:00 or 10:00, depending on which member of the ProStaff team you’d talked to, but when we arrived Tuesday at 1 PM, the company smiled and told us, “Don’t worry, we’ll have you out of here by 5:00!” 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 to 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.” Eventually she realized she might be offending some people, that our human bone structure sets limits to our flexibility. She apologized, saying, “We’re sorry, this is just the nature of this work,” the phrase that 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. That somebody includes ProStaff and other temp agencies. As professors Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore wrote in 2005, “The Temporary Services Industry has become an important part of the infrastructure of the US labor market, facilitating new kinds of employment contracting on a very large scale, and reshaping workplace and market norms in the process.”(3) It’s only gotten worse since then. Now, ProStaff has an extra 550 “flexible” people in their database.

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

In our one day together, my co-worker and I discussed the need for a real union of the unemployed. She readily agreed with this idea, despite never having been politically active before. We were all set to gather the emails 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.

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 percent more than CEOs of other S&P 500 companies.(4)

If we get ourselves organized, maybe the next time 550 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!

Footnotes:

1. Austin, Algernon. “Uneven Pain: Unemployment by Metropolitan Area and Race.” Economic Policy Institute, 6/8/10.
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10/8/10.
3. “Temporary downturn? Temporary staffing in the recession and the jobless recovery,” Focus, Spring 2005.
4. Alazraki, Melly. “Paid Off for Layoffs: CEOs Who Cut More Jobs Got Paid 42 percent More Money in 2009.” Daily Finance, 9/1/10.