The nation’s growing army of contingent workers is increasingly demanding, and often winning, higher pay and benefits and union membership, pushing back against efforts by companies to deploy a less costly, more flexible workforce.
An Ohio supplier of axles to Ford recently agreed to let its entire staff of 58 temporary workers join the United Auto Workers after they threatened to strike. Last month, Washington University in St. Louis announced a tentative four-year contract that raises the pay of adjunct professors. And a new Seattle law would allow Uber and Lyft drivers to form unions.
“These workers are standing up and claiming a greater share of the profits their labor has generated,” says Sarah Leberstein, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.
Some, she says, have been inspired by walkouts by fast-food workers, many of whom are part-time, and their demands for $15-an-hour pay, a movement that led to legislation setting that pay floor in California and New York over the next few years. And with unemployment at 5%, the victories reflect a tighter labor market that has shifted leverage to workers and the power that temporary and part-time employees are beginning to wield as their ranks swell.
“Employers are going to start having trouble finding workers they need at the wages they’re paying,” says Susan Houseman, senior economist at the Upjohn Institute.
In recent years, businesses have relied increasingly on contingent workers to cut costs, meet fluctuating demand and tap specialized skills for short-term projects. The trend intensified during and after the recession in 2007-09 as firms tightened their belts. About 20% of the U.S. workforce is made up of contingent workers — including temporary and part-time employees, contractors and freelancers — up from 12% in 2010, according to research firm Staffing Industry Analysts. Temps typically earn less, have fewer benefits and little job security.
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