Are You One of the New Disposable Workers?

by John Van Doren

Part III - American Dream or American Myth?

At the beginning of the 1900's the industrial revolution was the new engine of the american economy and workers were a disposable commodity. The typical worker lined up at the factory door each morning before dawn hoping to hired on the for the day. Only a few skilled workers (tool and die makers and machine set-up specialists) were "full-time", and there were no regular raises, holidays, vacations, or benefits. Corporations and "trusts" called the shots and workers took what they could get.

Part of our barbaric "Robber Baron" past you say? Think again. Fast forward 100 years and the working world is beginning to look very much the same. Approximately 25% of our workforce is comprised of temporary workers and that number is projected to grow to 40% by the year 2010! The largest employer in the U.S. is Manpower Inc., a huge "temp" agency trading the latest commodity...your labor. The difference between now and 100 years ago is that its not just the labor of muscle and sweat, it is the labor of skill and specialized knowledge, and includes attorneys, accountants, college professors, scientists, software engineers, and business executives. This growing army of "contingent workers" typically works for 8 to 40% less than their "full-time" counterparts, without benefits, and on an as-needed "just-in-time" basis.

Is this new employment model an evil plot by corporate america to suppress the american worker? Not really. Corporations just do what they are structured to do. They minimize costs (including labor) and maximize profits for their shareholders within the boundaries of the market place and the market for labor is now global. During the last 20 years or so the american corporation has quietly evolved and restructured. In large part they have just adapted to a new global and digital economy. It would not be a stretch to say that we are in the middle of a "new economy" revolution every bit as disruptive as the industrial revolution a hundred years ago and that labor (skilled and professional), especially american labor, is at the short end of the stick.

The old corporate model was rigid and highly structured. It was one of high vertical and horizontal integration, somewhat slow to make and implement decisions, highly controlled, and formally structured. It was also highly unionized with a relatively permanent workforce that enjoyed high wages, pensions, and health insurance (i.e. General Motors and U.S. Steel). This model dominated after WWII when the U.S. dominated the world economy and U.S. corporations faced very little global competition.

However, global competition, free trade, and a digital age required a new model capable of rapid change and maximum flexibility. As corporate america evolved into this new model, american workers experienced "re-engineering", downsizing, "rightsizing" (after mergers), off-shoring, outsourcing, the death of pensions and the birth of 401K's, shared healthcare costs, and the rapid rise in population of the just-in-time or "contingent" worker. At the extreme the "new" corporation is "virtual", with a few key employees and executives at the core and a network partner companies and contingent employees always in flux to meet the demands of a rapidly changing global market. This new trend of contingent labor has also spread to the public sector and shows no sign of slowing down or stabilizing. Many highly skilled and educated workers have been turned into reluctant "free agents" whose value has been bid down by a global labor market. These workers may think they are entrepreneurs, but they are really just employees without health benefits, no different than the factory worker of a 100 years ago lining up at dawn and hoping to be hired on for the day.