A New Labor Movement
By Spencer E. Ante
is a born labor organizer. But, after years of working within the
traditional labor movement, the 35-year-old activist has become
deeply frustrated with public and private institutions unable to
keep up with the hyper speed world of business. So she has come
up with a plan to rewrite the rules of labor.
that the whole legal framework of the 1930s wasn't working for this
workforce," says Horowitz, the executive director of Working
Today, a two-year-old nonprofit organization for self-employed workers.
"It's a very disjointed world if you're a free agent."
need for such "free agents" to have specially tailored
representation is clear. In 1986, the number of temps employed each
day was 800,000, but the number had more than tripled by last year,
according to the National Association of Temporary and Staffing
Services. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute determined
that self-employed and temporary workers now make up 30 percent
of the American workforce.
these workers are hired as so-called long-term temps: employees
who work at a company for at least one year, have flexible hours
and high take-home pay, but no benefits or job security. High-tech
firms, such as Microsoft, AT&T, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and
Boeing are particularly avid employers of long-term temps.
The use of long-term
temps escalated in the early 1990s, after the Internal Revenue Service
alerted companies that they had erroneously classified thousands
of workers as independent contractors and ordered the companies
to pay overdue taxes. Companies then asked many of the same workers
to sign up with temp agencies, which sent the workers back to their
old companies and old jobs.
is still no prohibition on hiring long-term temps, but such workers
are increasingly restive. Many have filed suits claiming that they
deserve the same benefits as regular workers.
In spite of
these rumblings, labor unions have so far had scant success in attracting
high-tech temps. "New media professionals have very little
time for organizing activity," says Cornell professor Susan
Christopherson, who studies labor practices in the entertainment
industry. "They've got to be convinced that these organizations
are providing them with something that they need. Also, this part
of the workforce is more difficult to organize and more resistant
to organizing because they don't think of themselves as 'workers'
but as 'professionals.'"
increasing numbers of contractors and "professional" temps
are seeking collective bargaining agreements. One high profile example
is the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers or WashTech, which
is seeking to organize thousands of temporary high-tech employees
in the Puget Sound region. Others are springing up nationwide. Just
last week a group of New York computer professionals announced its
intention to start a guild.
Part of the same movement, Working Today is particularly keen on
partnering with wired workers, who are a large part of the contingent
labor force. A Coopers & Lybrand survey of New York's new media
industry, for instance, shows that 47,000, or nearly half , of new
media jobs are filled by freelance or part-time workers, the majority
of whom are employed for less than six months.
Today out of a small office in lower Manhattan, Horowitz hopes to
unite the fragmented workforce and provide individuals with the
bargaining muscle of a union and the political power of a lobbying
juggernaut. So far, the organization claims 60,000 members from
more than 18 professional groups, including Asian Women in Media,
the Computer Game Developers Association, and the Society of Telecommunications
such workers are cheap and concrete. By ponying up Working Today's
US$10 membership fee, workers get discounted rates on health insurance,
office supplies, computer software, and airline tickets. New Yorkers
who join Working Today, for example, can buy a package including
drug, dental, vision, and life insurance with a $1,000 deductible
for $255 a month. Membership also includes a prepaid legal plan.
The next goal
is uniting New York's large community of wired workers. To that
end, Working Today launched a pilot project to explore the feasibility
of creating a health and pension fund for new media workers. The
fund will probably resemble the one devised by the Screen Actors
Guild and will allow workers to keep their benefits as they hyperlink
from employer to employer and project to project. It will also make
it easy for employers to contribute to a health insurance or retirement
plan, thereby increasing the security of free agents.
the New Media project up and running, Working Today is beginning
to attract members of the infotech workforce. In May, the World
Wide Web Artists Consortium, New York's most prominent new media
group, joined the Working Today network.
that organizing contingent workers is a Sisyphian struggle, but
she remains optimistic. "This group of people is learning that
they'd be much better off by forming associations instead of going
at it alone," says Horowitz. "WWWAC, in a sense, is the
new labor movement, but people have been doing this for 200 years."
MS Loses Round
in Temp Case 26.Jan.98
Microsoft Appeal in Freelance Case 26.Jan.98
Wanna Pull an
All-Nighter, Sans Overtime? 22.Dec.97
The Lower-Caste Life of a Microsoft Temp 18.Nov.96
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