Managing: Treating Temporary Work as a Permanent Fixture
BY Jerry Useem
Here is a start-up non-profit that just may do for temp work what the labor unions did for employees in the 1930s.
In conceiving her New Age labor movement, Sara Horowitz has grasped a pivotal truth: not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur.
Or not, at least, in the sense that the term has been batted at American workers in recent years. The argument, spouted by countless big-picture types, usually follows the same reasoning: to prosper in a ruthless global economy, companies need all the flexibility they can muster, which includes adapting to their inventory of humans the same "just-in-time" mind-set they've brought to raw materials. Smart workers should treat their careers just as entrepreneurs behave toward their businesses: constantly casting an eye toward adding marketable capabilities and keeping in mind that they'd better provide for their own job security.
All of which makes for a wonderfully efficient economy, except for one problem: it's awfully scary.
That's where Horowitz's nascent movement, Working Today, comes in. The group seeks to draw its rank and file from the country's independent workers--the home-based entrepreneur, the downsized-manager-turned-consultant--who number between 10 million and 20 million, according to data gatherers. Based in New York City, the nonprofit aims to give that atomized constituency what the original labor movement gave industrial workers: an organized voice and better working conditions, including access to collective health-insurance purchasing, legal services, and discounts on office supplies.
Charles Heckscher, a professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University who chairs Working Today's board, likens the plight of contingent workers today to that of manufacturing workers at the turn of the century. In both cases the legal and institutional safety net was slow to adapt to basic changes in the economy. "In a sense the mode of representation has to catch up," says Heckscher. "Right now people are floundering."
Horowitz has set an ambitious goal: to marry the social mission of the labor movement with the harsh economic realities of the 1990s. "We have to find ways to help people in the new way they're working," says Horowitz, 34. "There's a new mobile, flexible workforce, and the traditional workplace-based union structure just doesn't work for it."
What will work, exactly, is hard to predict. As Horowitz points out, the distinction between labor and management has lost its sharpness. "If you're in a traditional union setting, it's labor versus management," she notes. "But if you're a freelancer going from project to project, whom are you going to be adversarial against?"
For starters, the government: Horowitz says the real oppressor of the new workforce is an outmoded set of laws. So public education, not collective bargaining, will be Working Today's focus. Among the legislative remedies Horowitz advocates: clarification of the definition of independent contractors; elimination of double Social Security taxes for the self-employed; and a better system of portable health insurance and pensions. She also promotes letting the self-employed set aside pretax income for "dry spells," to help offset the effects of fluctuating earnings.
To be effective, though, Working Today has to attract members: only 2,000 have paid its $10 fee. "We'll probably see a series of cuts on this problem," predicts author William Bridges, whose 1994 book, JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs, documents what he dubs the "de-jobbing" of America. "Whether this will be the group that succeeds, I don't know."
The first 53 pages of William Bridges's JobShift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs (Addison Wesley, 800-552-2259, 1994, $13) offer a clear-eyed account of the disappearance of the traditional job. The rest of the book provides prescriptions for thriving in our increasingly "jobless" economy: consider yourself a corporation with many assets, market yourself to employers, create your own job security, and so on. This month Addison Wesley publishes Bridges's follow-up, Creating You & Co.: Learn to Think Like the CEO of Your Own Career ($22).
WILLIAM BRIDGES, 38 Miller Ave., Suite 12, Mill Valley, CA 94941; 415-381-9663; fax, 415-381-8124; firstname.lastname@example.org 28
CHARLES HECKSCHER, School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08903; 908-932-1412; fax, 908-932-8677; email@example.com 28
WORKING TODAY, Sara Horowitz, P.O. Box 681, Times Square Post Office, New York, NY 10108; 212-840-6066; fax, 212-840-6656 28