Auto’s Permanent Temporaries

Dianne Feeley

THE OVERALL PERCENTAGE of temporary workers in the U.S. economy may not have changed much over the past quarter century — but the use of workers who have no job security has invaded the bastions of manufacturing. As a result of this employer offensive, workers feel an insecurity that my generation rarely experienced.

In the auto industry, temporaries were once students who covered auto jobs over a clearly defined summer vacation period. Today temps can work a full week year after year, never becoming permanent workers. The 2015 Big Three/UAW contract reflects the fragmentation of the work force.

Even though autoworkers fought and won an end to two-tier wages and benefits, the contract lays out an eight-year “in progession” status that doesn’t equalize benefits. The contract also allows for permanent lower wages in certain Big Three parts plants, justified by the company’s need to remain “competitive.”

Temporary work is no longer limited to covering absences at the end of the week. In fact, there is an established wage differential between the “permanent temps” ($17-22) and the new hires ($15.78-19.28).

Those of us who fought against the two-tier wages first introduced into auto a decade ago understood how destructive this employer offensive was. The important principle of industrial unions is that workers in a variety of job titles earn roughly equal wages and benefits in whatever company they are employed. This reduces the corporations’ ability to manipulate the labor cost and protects workers.

Thus the corporation seeks to outsource certain portions of the work — and even certain skilled trades jobs — extend the time period in which workers can be brought in as temporaries, and broaden the distinction among kinds of workers. These are all methods that introduce competition between workers at the workplace and across the same industry.

This attempt to undermine the basic sense of solidarity among workers is probably one of the most characteristic features of neoliberalism. Of course, the use of temporary workers is only one tactic that employers use. Refusing to schedule regular hours, imposing alternative work schedules and outsourcing work are certainly other tools to keep workers from feeling self-confident. It’s not just at the lowest wage service sector that these are used, but also increasingly at the high end.

With the cooperation of the media, workers are taught to envy the more secure sectors: “I don’t make enough money for my family to be able to buy a home, why should they?” “I don’t have a pension, why should they?” And of course those who have been able to maintain higher wages and benefits are taught to look down on the precarious workforce: “They are lazy and that’s why they don’t make a good wage.”

My younger niece, now almost 40, is a contract worker who works for a company folks love to work for. When her contract was renewed for a second year, I congratulated her and said I hoped she’d be able to get a permanent job there. Both her parents had good-paying unionized jobs, as does her older sister. Yet she responded that she didn’t think her generation would be able to have that experience. She’s given up on having a secure job!

As a retired autoworker, if I didn’t have health care and a small pension through my former employer I’d be in desperate financial shape. Yet hiring temps allows corporations to avoid paying these benefits.

May/June 2016, ATC 182