The Progressive Populist
June 1, 2001
Title: Temps are Ready for Organizing If AFL-CIO Provides the Muscle
Author: Harry Kelber
Faculty/Community Evaluator: Michael Robinson
Student Researcher: Eduardo Barragan, Connie Lytle
Labor Ready Inc. is a national temporary employment agency that employed over 700,000 people in 2000. Labor Ready has 839 offices in 49 states and in Canada, and stands ready to place temporary workers as strikebreakers in union labor disputes. During the recent Northwest steal strike, it was Labor Ready who provided hundreds of strike breakers to Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane Washington.
Labor Ready temps are often paid minimum wage for what can be very rigorous construction work. They receive no health benefits and can be seriously mistreated in their temporary places of employment. Workers are required to arrive at dispatch offices between 5-6:00 A.M. and wait for daily referrals. Workers are not paid for the waiting time at the dispatch office. Labor Ready workers have to pay an average of $1.58 when they cash their daily paycheck at the company’s cash dispensing machines. In 1999 the company raked in $7.7 million in fees from these machines. Labor Ready’s worker injury rate is three times the national average.
The AFL-CIO Building and Constructions Trade Department (BCTD) has supported class action lawsuits by former Labor Ready employees, and would like to see a national union organizing efforts to protect temporary workers nationwide.
BCTD President, Edward Sullivan stated, “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 everyday.” Some 75 building and construction trades councils, and more than 100 local unions in 30 states are participating in BCTD’s campaign to organize temporary workers. Labor Ready has been forced to close 10% of its hiring offices because of union activities, but there is still no noticeable improvement in wages or working conditions nationwide.
There are practical reasons a national union drive is difficult. Many temp workers are unskilled or semi-skilled, with hourly wage rates of less than one-third the average union scale. Only about one-third of Labor Ready’s employees work in construction. Most workers are used in manufacturing, trucking, landscaping, yard work, and other day-labor assignments. It is very difficult to organize such a transitory labor force.
UPDATE BY AUTHOR HARRY KELBER: As of the summer of 2002, AFL-CIO unions still have not shown any interest in organizing Labor Ready, perhaps the largest employer of temporary manual labor in the United States with more than 750 branch offices that hire out 650,000 workers a year. In fact, the AFL-CIO’s official magazine, America@Work, and its other publications did not carry my story or any other about the plight of the Labor Ready temps, among the nation’s most exploited workers.
The AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept., while it continues to expose Labor Ready’s sleazy business practices, has steadfastly refused to become involved in attempting to organize the company’s employees, even though favorable conditions exist for a successful recruiting campaign.
The AFL-CIO is currently faced with an organizing crisis. It is woefully short of its announced goal to recruit one million new members this year. Labor Ready is an accessible target that is ripe for a multi-union campaign that could enlist the support of local unions in each community where a Labor Ready office is located.
So why won’t the AFL-CIO take on Labor Ready – or at least say why it won’t?