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Forever Temp?

In These Times

Betty McCray, 53, has moved around a bit in her lifetime. She’s worked as a chef, a nursing home attendant and a welder. Throughout, she says proudly, she has “worked union,” even in states with anti-labor right-to-work laws, such as Tennessee, where she moved in 2010 to be closer to her son.

That changed in 2011, when she found work at a Nissan auto plant in Smyrna, Tenn., preparing parts for the assembly line. Not only is this job non-union, but McCray doesn’t technically work for Nissan—she’s employed through Yates Services, a temporary staffing agency. She’s one of a growing number of people who do the physically demanding work of manufacturing, but who, as temps, have none of the job security and few of the benefits that many Americans still associate with the sector. [...]

In many cases, that workforce is highly skilled, comprised of workers like McCray who have years of manufacturing experience under their belts. While temp agencies once emphasized unskilled labor, these days some openly recruit skilled labor on the cheap. A job application obtained this fall from the Smyrna, Ga., facility of gun manufacturer Glock lists six separate staffing agencies through which one can apply for a manufacturing or warehouse job. One of the agencies, Automation, recently posted a skilled machinist position on its website for an (unnamed) gun manufacturing company in Smyrna. The listing called for an array of skills:

Applicants must have experience operating the robotic machine, must be mechanically inclined, must have metal working experience. Applicants must also be able to read specs and be technically skilled.

Applicants would also have to be extremely flexible: “This position rotates weekly between 1st and 2nd shift (this is a requirement),” meaning day and evening shifts. And the wages on offer for all those skills and flexibility? “$10 hour to start, but depending on experience, may go up to $13.” According to the BLS, the mean hourly wage for a machinist last year was $19.65.

So much for the value of skilled labor.

Automation did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

This should remind us that manufacturing jobs weren’t good jobs because of the inherent value of the job, says Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at the non-partisan think tank Demos. “They were terrible jobs until people organized.” [...]

Traub, who co-authored the 2013 Demos report “Underwriting Bad Jobs,” points out that several states and municipalities have passed ordinances that require companies receiving taxpayer subsidies to pay decent wages. The White House could go further and propose a “high-road contracting initiative,” Traub says, by making it “a criteria in an award that we can pick by those who pay more, have better benefits, have a better environmental or labor compliance record.”