As part of the recent round of minimum wage protests and walk outs against employers (primarily large retailers and fast food outlets), a temporary employment agency in Minnesota was also targeted by a group over what they call a “shoddy treatment of workers.”
The event was organized by the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, a relatively new group that says it wants to help low-wage workers get better pay and working conditions.
The group, whose chair is Stephen Philion, sociology professor and Director of the Faculty Research Group on Immigrant Workers in Minnesota at St. Cloud State University, says the staffing agency has fired workers unfairly, and shows a lack of respect towards temporary workers, particularly those who are foreign-born.
Philion claims we are witnessing the transformation of our economy from good-wage, middle class jobs to low-wage, temp jobs, simply so businesses can circumvent U.S. labor laws.
I spent some time on the telephone with him and what follows is an unedited transcript of that conversation:
What drove the formation of your workers organization?
It is our belief that without organization, low-wage workers are not going to be able to advance their interests economically, and they won’t ever be able to do much more than just basically survive.
Did you attempt to communicate with TrueBlue, the new owners and parent company of The Work Connection before your protest?
I was in communication with TrueBlue right before our action in St. Cloud. They asked us to call off the action and meet with them. We said we would be willing to meet with them, but after the action, not before.
Companies simply do not care for – or treat – their temps the same way they treat their regular employees.
Why target a staffing agency to begin with?
I do try to emphasize that my assessments of The Work Connection are drawn from workers’ statements. I haven’t had any direct experience with them. However, here is why we were targeting a temp agency such as The Work Connection. We believe that companies that go through staffing agencies are doing so to evade the responsibilities and liabilities of a full-time workforce. Companies simply do not care for – or treat – their temps the same way they treat their regular employees. We hear stories from workers about this all the time. Let’s say a temp working on the line has a conflict with their supervisor, or manager or another worker. They go home after work, and the next day they receive a call from the staffing agency saying “you don’t need to bother going in today, we’ll call you when we need you.” So now that problem that began in the workplace, between the worker and the company where they were actually working, is now a problem between the worker and the staffing agency. And they have no recourse. Often times these low-wage workers have language issues, and staffing agencies, especially in smaller communities, likely don’t have someone on their staff who speaks the native language of many of their temps. So there are all kinds of issues and liability problems there and workers can get caught in the gap.
As far as the low pay you say these temp workers are receiving, obviously the pay rate is set by the client, and not the staffing company itself.
I understand the staffing agency’s belief that it’s just a response to the market. But is this the best we can do? To just sit idly by while companies make record profits and refuse to re-invest those profits in their labor force? Why should workers tolerate that? They have the right to organize to try and improve their wages and benefits and the way they are treated. They do the actual work to help generate those profits. They could be in a position to consume more if they were paid decently, and that could help our economy grow.
Low-wage workers could be in a position to consume more if they were paid decently, and that could help our economy grow.
Other than the protest, and quite a bit of media coverage, what else has been the response to your workers rights group?
The weird thing about what happens any time we have these collective actions is that people start directing anger towards the workers. “Oh, you’re so lazy.” “If you don’t like this staffing agency, go to another one.” “Just find a job somewhere else if you don’t like the one you have.” And on and on. Often times people also take exception to a worker’s right to collectively organize. Why? Businesses organize. Industries collectively organize. You have chambers of commerce, retail associations, an association of manufacturers, the staffing industry association, and so on. They come together, have meetings, coordinate, they lobby politicians to get things they perceive to be in their interest, and it’s the same with workers. They also will organize and pursue changes in policy they believe to be in their interest. It’s not an American thing particularly to just sit back and say, “Well, I’ll suck it up.” Many people want these low-wage workers to just shut up and go away. That’s an interesting philosophy in a country that prides itself on freedom to speak out and challenge the status quo.
Many people want these low-wage workers to just shut up and go away. That’s an interesting philosophy in a country that prides itself on freedom to speak out and challenge the status quo.
What changes do you think staffing agencies should make to their model?
If a staffing agency says “This is just the way the market is structured and we’re working within the confines of that, etc,” my comeback is why? Why does it have to be structured this way? Can’t we structure it another way to make it more worker-friendly? Can’t we structure it in a way that values these workers? When you talk to a temp worker, and I have been talking to them for a long time, you begin to see a pattern. They tell me they don’t feel valued in the workplace at all. I hear over and over that when these production workers show up on the line they are not treated the same as regular employees. Sometimes they don’t wear the same uniforms, and often they don’t have the same communication with either their permanent co-workers or with management. They are made to feel different, feel of lesser value, all the time. At some point workers might just say enough. This is valuable work, it contributes to the growth and development of this economy, and therefore we should be paid a living wage and get treated like human beings.
Do you think the kinds of things we are seeing this week and the protest on Black Friday and your type of action in St. Cloud will continue?
Yes, it looks to me like it will continue and not go away. I think we are witnessing a kind of collective anger that will result in change to the minimum wage and to the way we treat workers. This cannot be the best that we can do.
As part of this story, I did reach out to Jeff Wold, the founder of The Work Connection and now the vice president under TrueBlue’s ownership. He didn’t return my call, but he did tell the St. Cloud Times newspaper in this article that the company is “committed to fairness” and to “treating people with respect.”
One of the companies that the Greater Minnesota Worker Center had asked to change its hiring practices from fewer temps to more direct hires is poultry producer Gold’n Plump.
The company has reportedly been using The Work Connection for more than five years to provide entry-level staff, and a company spokeswoman told the newspaper they don’t have any immediate plans to change that.
“They provide the support we need when we need it. We don’t necessarily want to specialize in the hiring process.”
“They provide the support we need when we need it,” said GNP spokeswoman Lexann Reischl. “We don’t necessarily want to specialize in the hiring process.”
As for TrueBlue, their vice president of corporate communications Stacey Burke emailed me this response:
TrueBlue and its companies are committed to fairness and are dedicated to putting people to work. We have always reached out to the communities where we live and work. We have reached out to the representatives behind the event and invited them to speak with us about their concerns (we weren’t aware of particular items and are looking in to them). We want to have a long-term relationship with the diverse community in St. Cloud and work together to meet the needs of the community for work.
In terms of any concerns with the overall staffing industry, we view temporary work as a chance for the currently unemployed or under-employed to try different jobs, work in various types of industries, and add new skills and experience. Temporary employment often leads to full-time work. We are proud to be a part of an industry that provides people with the opportunity to find work.