Robots with Flesh

WILLIAM NEIKIRK

July 06, 1993|By WILLIAM NEIKIRK

Washington. -- Jimmie Ruth Daughtrey of Nashville, Tennessee, and Wendy Perkins of Scottsdale, Arizona, could tell Hillary Rodham Clinton something about the ''politics of meaning'' in real, down-to-home, non-ethereal language. There is nothing hypothetical about a life where one is made to feel detached from the real action and given no encouragement to excel at what one does.

Ms. Daughtrey and Ms. Perkins -- and some 36 million other Americans -- make a living as contingent labor, temporary workers unable to find a full-time job.

They are like robots with flesh. ''I have been approached on a new assignment with, 'Hey, you, we ordered you today,' to which I replied, 'My name is Wendy but I am not a hamburger,' '' Ms. Perkins told a Senate Labor subcommittee.

They would scorn those who squeal about having their ''entitlements'' cut. They have seen how easily things once considered permanent can be taken away -- health insurance, pensions, workers' compensation, a steady job, all the legal protections that being a full-time worker provides.

They would like some entitlements of their own. They would like to be fully protected by the pension and labor laws.

Ms. Daughtrey filed an age-discrimination suit against Honeywell Inc. after being laid off as a consultant in 1988. The judge threw it out of court, saying she wasn't an employee. But she had been an employee earlier. Honeywell had laid her off, then shortly thereafter hired her as a consultant, all in the name of cost-cutting efficiency.

She learned from this experience that ''the word 'employee' has a very technical legal meaning.'' Indeed it does. To some it is synonymous with citizen. In many respects, being a temporary worker is like being a non-citizen.

Listen to Ms. Perkins:

''There is no recourse for a temp who is harassed or discriminated against in any way,'' she said. ''The agency quickly tells the temp worker her job is finished, and brands her as a troublemaker, not worthy of choice assignments.''

Now 40, Ms. Perkins is teaching part-time at a Scottsdale community college while promoting the plight of the temp worker with her writings, but she still cannot claim a permanent job.

Ms. Daughtrey, in her mid-50s, raised a family before entering the work force and is bitter about her job-seeking experience.

The sense of alienation that these two women feel is all too typical. And U.S. companies hell-bent on creating millions more inexpensive, disposable workers should realize that there is a terrible cost.

That cost could be a total undermining of the U.S. economy. Eileen Applebaum, associate director of the Economic Policy Institute, told the panel that the key to a higher American standard of living is for companies to be able to compete worldwide on quality, speed and service.

But firms that gear up to create high-performance work systems to respond to competitive pressures discover high up-front training and administrative costs, she said. If competitors are pursuing a short-term strategy of hiring contingent workers to cut costs, good companies might be forced to abandon plans that might help them in the long run.

This, too, is short-sighted. Abandonment of training responsibilities and other benefits will only force the public sector to come to the rescue of workers and force firms to become subject to tighter regulation and higher taxes. The impetus for universal health care rises from this cause.

Michael Hobbs, president of a small construction company in New Canaan, Connecticut, said firms that hire contingent workers often land contracts at his expense, but he and other employers wind up paying larger health-care costs to cover the uncompensated costs of his competitors' workers.

There are also civil-rights issues involved. Ms. Applebaum said, for example, that civil-rights laws should be changed to ensure that workers do not suffer discrimination in hourly wage rates because of their work status.

Pension rights also should be reviewed, she said.

In his powerful, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ''The Radicalism of the American Revolution,'' Gordon Wood chronicled how the colonists launched a revolution that ended all the old economic and social dependencies based on the British monarchial system.

Now there is a new revolution. Many companies want to end the dependencies that grew up, and helped them thrive, under modern capitalism. Unlike the American revolution, this one could be truly destructive to democracy as we know it.

William R. Neikirk is a senior writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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