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Temporary Solidarity 

With a new (powerful) champion in Silicon Valley, a recent court victory, and ranks that continue to swell by the day, long-beleaguered "contract workers" have reason to believe their house may not be so bleak after all.

Wednesday, Dec 4 1996
Shannon Morris has business cards with her name on them from Apple Computer. She writes letters on company letterhead. She's traveled across the country on Apple business, represented the company at trade shows, wined and dined the company's clients. But she's not allowed into the corporate fitness center. And though she's been with the company for a year and a half, she won't be invited to the office Christmas party. Despite appearances, Morris (her name has been changed to protect her job) doesn't actually work for Apple. She is a temp.

Morris has been temping for just over three years. She still lives with her parents, and, until she got the more dependable paycheck that came with this long-term assignment at Apple, hadn't been to a dentist or a doctor since finishing university. The health package her temp agency touts, she says, would take too large a bite from her paycheck, and the medical plan's deductible is $2,000. "It would be good if you were hit by a bus," she snorts. "Dental? Vision? No way."

Her introduction to life as a high-tech temp was at software giant Borland International, answering the 1-800 customer service line for $7 an hour. "The day I got there it was amazing," she says. "There were about 50 people, all in their 20s, sitting in these kind of like pits. They monitored how long we were on each call. You weren't supposed to spend more than three minutes with a customer."

As the time she has spent temping has lengthened into years, Morris has put off making any real plans for her future. "You're under this cloud of uncertainty 100 percent of the time," she says. "And you always wonder, 'Is this the morning I'm going to wake up and get that phone call an hour before I'm supposed to be at work, telling me to not show up? Is the person who's been my manager for a year all of a sudden just never going to talk to me again?' "

Her cynicism, she says, was justified after six months at Borland. "Two or three weeks before Christmas, I was supposed to be at my work at 7 a.m. I got a call at 6 a.m. from the temp agency telling me I need not bother to show up at work. I asked for my personal items. They wouldn't let me go up and get them. I was not allowed on the premises. It was like I just didn't exist anymore."

An optimistic labor organizer might say that temps like Morris, who make up a huge and fast-growing underclass of workers, are naturals for unionization: They are at the mercy of large agencies that underpay them, provide meager or cost-prohibitive benefits, and offer no job security. Not so coincidentally, such an optimist is starting to make herself heard in the South Bay.

"I believe there will be a labor renaissance in this country and that Silicon Valley will be one of the hot spots," says union activist Amy Dean.

Dean, a native Chicagoan in her early 30s with auburn hair and large brown eyes, is the South Bay Labor Council's executive officer and a rising star in the national labor movement. Her rows of gold rings on each hand resemble brass knuckles; when she clenches a fist, solidarity-style, you believe it.

The South Bay Labor Council -- the local branch of the once-mighty AFL-CIO -- operates out of an aging concrete building in San Jose. Inside, past a sagging vinyl couch in the lobby, staffers answer phones beneath mementos of the local labor movement's victories, a shrine to solidarity that's crowned by a photo of Cesar Chavez addressing a group of farm laborers in 1962.

The image is a poignant reminder of how far the labor movement has fallen. Back when Silicon Valley was still blanketed by orchards, the AFL-CIO represented 35 percent of the American work force. Today, only 16 percent of workers are members of its affiliate unions -- a mere 11 percent, if you don't count public-sector employees. The labor movement's traditional power base is disappearing, and it has proven slow to adapt to the new, service-based economy.

Dean is fighting to turn that around. Organized labor, she thinks, needs temps as much as temps need organized labor. (Also see "Temps of the World Unite," Bay View, June 28, 1995.) But although a recent court ruling, her own savvy, and an arguably critical mass of disaffected contract workers could offer Dean support, she confronts a deeply entrenched and profitable status quo. So, as she pushes her vision, Dean must not only convince the rest of the labor movement; she must persuade the temps themselves.

Amy Dean started her career as a union activist in the mid-'80s working for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) as an organizer on a summer internship. She liked the job so much she postponed graduate school, quickly rising to run the union's regional education efforts, and later moving to San Francisco to take the same position here. But because she had long thought local labor councils had the potential to become a lot more active in their communities, when the South Bay went looking for a new executive officer, Dean applied.

Labor councils, umbrella organizations for area unions, aren't usually hotbeds of activism, and until Dean started shaking things up in the South Bay, most insiders thought of them as pre-retirement homes for aging union officials. But John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's new president, obviously likes what Dean's doing. He recently appointed her head of a national committee on labor councils. Even before she joined the South Bay Labor Council in 1993, though, Dean says she was fascinated by the area's high-tech businesses.

"The exciting part about working here is Silicon Valley," she says. "Twenty-five percent of national manufacturing exports come right out of here. This is an enormous economic engine in the nation." At the same time, she's no fan of the Valley's labor practices. "I really believe this industry has gotten away with a lot," she says. "It hasn't done enough for people."

About The Author

Laurel Wellman


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