As our nonrecovery recovery sputters along, record numbers of people, particularly in areas of the country that are still at or near double digit unemployment territory, are doing temp work. Temporary work provides no security and (in most cases) no benefits like health insurance, sick pay, holiday pay, unemployment benefits or workers’ comp. Temp wages, on average, are 25 percent lower wages for than permanent work, and according to one study, temp workers are twice as likely to suffer injuries as regular employees doing the same work.

But those temp jobs are there, and many Americans who would like much better are making the best of a bad situation by taking on temp work. As Michael Grabell reported recently in Pro Publica:

In June, the Labor Department reported that the nation had more temp workers than ever before: 2.7 million. Overall, almost one-fifth of the total job growth since the recession ended in mid-2009 has been in the temp sector, federal data shows. But according to the American Staffing Association, the temp industry’s trade group, the pool is even larger: Every year, a tenth of all U.S. workers finds a job at a staffing agency.

[Snip] [A]s the economy continues its slow, uneven recovery, temp work is roaring back 10 times faster than private-sector employment as a whole – a pace “exceeding even the dramatic run-up of the early 1990s,” according to the staffing association.

Grabell points out that “the overwhelming majority” of recent growth in the temp industry “has come in blue-collar work in factories and warehouses.” It’s well worth noting that, after Walmart, the second largest private employer in the country right now is Kelly Services, a temporary employment agency — a fact that says something fairly terrifying about our economy.

You may wonder, as I have, what factors gave rise to the temp industry, and why it was able to flourish — particularly in the post-New Deal era, when labor unions were powerful. Jacobin’s Rob Bryan has a fascinating post about temp work that recaps some of the history.

As Bryan notes, early on, in some sectors of the American labor movement, the concept of solidarity very much included not just “regular” workers but temporary workers and the unemployed:

[Radical writer Abraham] Blecher’s [1931] piece details the struggle of unemployed members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Local 4 of New York . . . [Snip} Blecher proceeds to outline the demands of the unemployed clothing cutters. Among these demands are the immediate establishment of a 40-hour workweek with 44-hour pay (soon to be reduced to 36 so that the extra four hours can be distributed among the unemployed), the equal division of work, the end to an unemployment insurance scheme that benefits the union bosses at the expense of the unemployed, and “the immediate abolition of temporary cards.”

Later in the article, Blecher exhorts those clothing cutters with steady employment to aid their jobless fellow union workers: “The employed should therefore come to the assistance of the unemployed in their struggle to secure the 40-hour week and the abolition of the temporary jobs.”

Bryan comments:

Reading this article in a modern context makes clear just how dramatically the labor movement has declined over the past 82 years. Nowadays everyone from underpaid Production Assistants to overpaid bankers brag about their 60, even 70-hour weeks, as if shunning one of labor’s most important victories in the name of professional fealty and at the expense of a personal life were something to be proud of. Reducing these absurd workloads by sharing hours with the unemployed members of their respective industries never comes into consideration. And the idea of rejecting temporary employment as insufficient would today be seen as ungrateful, even “entitled.”

We no longer live in a world where workers demand what they think they deserve. The dominant ethos of the modern American labor market is as simple as it is defeatist: Take what you can get.

Sadly, that nails it. But as temp agencies grew, particularly in the post-war era, why didn’t organized labor make any major attempts to unionize temp workers? And how were the agencies able to get away with employing people without providing even minimal benefits?

The answer appears to be surprisingly simple: gender. Here’s Bryan again:

The history of temp agencies, which facilitated temporary employment’s transformation from the realm of industrial day labor to that of administrative office work, is explored thoroughly by Erin Hatton in her 2011 book The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America. The book traces the origins of the modern temp industry to the late 1940s, when agencies like Kelly Girls marketed temp work to white middle-class housewives looking for extra cash.


The temp industry was able to avoid the interference of male-oriented postwar unions largely due its gendered depiction of temping as “women’s work,” despite the fact that the leading agencies employed significant numbers of men. The PR campaign worked: by the late 1960s, the temp industry had grown into a thriving sector of the American economy, bringing in $330 million a year.

Gender, btw, was also a crucial concept that enabled Walmart to exploit its workforce. Walmart’s predominantly female retail workers were said to be farmers’ wives who were working not because they needed to support themselves and their families (that was the man’s job, of course), but because they wanted a little “pin money” (what is that, anyway?). Bethany Moreton’s excellent To Serve God and Walmart gets into some of this. The point is that gendered notions of labor, and the manly “family wage” vs. silly lady-money for frivolous extras, gave employers an opening to divide and conquer the American workforce. That they did, and we are living with the results. To them, we are all housewives now.

Both Bryan and Grabell report that labor unions have made very few efforts to organize temp workers. Grabell notes one AFL-CIO effort in the early 2000s that fizzled out. To be fair, temp workers are a very difficult group to organize, due to precisely to the transient nature of their employment. And as Grabell points out, recent NLRB decisions have created additional legal obstacles to organizing temp workers.

But organized labor has made some bold moves lately, with the walk-outs and strikes at Walmart and fast food restaurants. Some of the Walmart actions have even led to victories on worker safety and other labor practices. With the growth of the temp industry and the rise of the perma-temps, it may be time for labor organizers to focus some activist energies on temp workers. As for the temp workers, they would have little to lose by organizing themselves — but they could have a lot to gain.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee