Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #7 May 1, 2001

Temps Are Ready for Organizing
If AFL-CIO Provides the Muscle

By Harry Kelber

For more than a year, the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Dept. has been turning the heat on Labor Ready, Inc., the notorious temporary employment agency that operates 839 offices in 49 states, Canada and Britain.

The tens of thousands of laborers who hire out daily at Labor Ready are among the nation’s most exploited workers, but they’re still waiting for a union to organize them and provide all the advantages of a union contract.

Some 700,000 people worked for Labor Ready last year, about a third of them in construction. They received little more than the federal minimum wage, no health benefits, and were subjected to scandalous mistreatment in violation of the nation’s labor laws.

Along with other temp agencies, Labor Ready has served, in effect, as a national hiring hall for non-union contractors. It has been a major provider of strikebreakers in all sorts of labor disputes. A few years ago, it supplied hundreds of workers to break the Steelworkers’ strike at Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, Wash.

Labor Ready’s workers have to pay an average of $1.58 every time they cash their daily checks at the company’s cash-dispensing machines. (In 1999, the company raked in $7.7 million in fees from these machines.) They also have to pay out of their meager earnings for the equipment used on their job assignment and for transportation to and from work. Labor Ready’s worker injury rate is three times the national average for the high-risk construction industry, according to BCTD.

Company policy requires workers to report to the dispatch offices between 5 and 6 a.m. to receive a daily assignment. Labor Ready pays them nothing for the hours they have to wait around to be hired, travel time to and from the job, and returning to an office where they must wait around some more for their daily pay.

Since last April, when BCTD purchased 55 shares of Labor Ready stock, it has been exposing various sleazy financial deals, including a back-door repurchase of ex-CEO Glenn Welstad’s 4.8 million shares of preferred stock. It is also supporting class action lawsuits by former Labor Ready employees in Georgia, New York, California and Washington. The union’s message to shareholders is that company policies, including its treatment of employees, put their investments at a considerable risk.

As BCTD President Edward Sullivan said last July: “Our Organizing Committee is wrestling with the growing threat posed by temporary employment agencies, which are selling themselves as ‘hiring halls without the union’ and sending thousands of construction workers out to jobs every day.” He estimated that 75 building and construction trades councils and more than 100 local unions in 30 states were participating in BCTD’s campaign to organize workers employed by these agencies.

Nine months later, there still is no national campaign to organize Labor Ready and other temp agencies. Instead, BCTD has focused on undermining the company through legal tactics and rallying shareholders against management. It has succeeded in reducing profits and increasing liabilities, and Labor Ready reportedly has been forced to close 10% of its hiring offices. But there has been no noticeable improvement in wages and working conditions for Labor Ready’s hired workers.

Logically, the construction unions should be the ones to organize them, since Labor Ready workers represent a competitive threat to their members. Many temps around the country are said to be impressed with BCTD’s strength, and they would welcome the protection of a union.

But there are practical reasons why the construction unions haven’t launched a real organizing campaign. Many Labor Ready temps are unskilled and semi-skilled, with hourly wage rates less than one-third the average union pay scale. Labor leaders haven’t figured out how and under what terms such workers can be brought into the construction unions. Moreover, there is no agreement among BCTD’s 15 craft unions on how to conduct an organizing campaign.

Since the labor movement as a whole urgently needs to recruit more members, the AFL-CIO itself should consider targeting Labor Ready. Given the lack of worker loyalty to the company and its vulnerable public image, a well-organized campaign would have a good chance of success.

After all, about two-thirds of Labor Ready’s hires do not work in construction. They are used in manufacturing, trucking, farming, landscaping, yard work and other day-labor assignments. Some sort of partnership that included the Service Employees, Farm Workers and other unions could achieve a real breakthrough.

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