In parts one (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 36, p. 6) and two (DigBoston, Vol. 20, Iss. 40, p. 6), I discussed how working a temp factory job at Belden Electronics on assignment for Manpower for several weeks in early 1989 in Vermont led to my sustaining a sudden and permanent spinal injury while walking to my car just after my last shift. And how I drove myself one-handed through a snowstorm on country roads in the middle of the night to an emergency room—only to receive substandard care as a poor person. Leading me to make the mistake of letting cheaper chiropractors hurt me more over the next six years. In this final installment, I review my turn to labor activism on behalf of myself… and workers in bad jobs everywhere.
I recovered from my spinal injury within a few months. To the point where I wasn’t hurting all of the time. Just some of the time. Yet, as with other life-changing experiences before and since, I wasn’t the same afterward. Physically or psychologically. I was left with the sense that anything could happen to me at any time. Something I had known intellectually before getting hurt, but literally knew in my bones going forward.
Regardless, once it was clear I wasn’t going to be entirely disabled, I resolved to move ahead with my life. Which took some time. But by the summer of 1990, I had returned to Boston from Vermont, I was dating the woman who later became my wife, and I had founded New Liberation News Service (NLNS)—the international wire I would run for the next couple of years.
Journalism had gone from being an occasional thing for me to a regular thing. Unfortunately, NLNS was a small nonprofit serving the left-wing campus press, the remnant of the ’60s underground press, and some larger community media outlets. Most of which were too broke to pay much for the news packets my service was producing for them. Thus, I wasn’t able to make ends meet doing it for very long. And by 1991, I was temping again on the side.
No more manual labor for me, though. That was over, given my damaged vertebrae. This time any temp assignments I took had to make use of my writing, editing, and research skills—which I had developed over the previous few years, despite not having a college degree… and not getting one until 2006.
After a number of short assignments, I found a long-term editing gig via a jobs bulletin board at MIT that anyone in the know could just walk up to and use. Faxon Research Services, a now-defunct database company, contracted me through a temp agency. It was March 1992.
Over the months, I did well enough at the assignment that I was granted my own office and more responsibilities. I also helped the other NLNS staffer of the time to get a similar gig at Faxon. He, too, started getting more responsibility at the office. Soon, I was being groomed for a full-time job by one vice president. He was being groomed by another vice president. The two vice presidents were at odds with each other. My vice president lost the inter-departmental war. And my temp contract was ended in December 1992. Just like that.
Because that’s how temp jobs, and indeed most forms of contingent employment function. Employers want the freedom to use workers’ labor when they need it and to get rid of them the moment they don’t. While paying the lowest wages possible. Saving labor costs and increasing profits in the process.
Faxon assumed that, like every other temp, I was just going to take the injustice of losing my shot at a long-term full-time job lying down.
But not that time. And I would never accept injustice at any gig ever again. I had learned one key lesson from getting badly injured from the Manpower temp job at Belden Electronics three years previous: If I was treated unfairly in the workplace, I was going to fight. And keep fighting until I won some kind of redress.
So, I did something that temps aren’t supposed to do: I applied for unemployment. Because temp agencies and the employers that contract them use such arrangements in part to play the same “neither company is your employer” game that Manpower and Belden played when I got a spinal injury on Belden property.
However, I realized that I had been at this temp gig full-time for nine months and figured I had a chance of convincing the Mass unemployment department of the period that I was a Faxon employee in fact even if I was officially a temp at an agency that played so small a role in the gig in question that I can’t even remember its name.
My initial unemployment filing was rejected. And I appealed it. And testified to an unemployment department official. And won my unemployment. A small victory, true. But an important one for me, and possibly for other temps in similar situations in the years after me. Faxon didn’t fight the ruling. I got my money.
Fortunately, I didn’t need the unemployment payments for long. Back in February 1992, writing as I did not just for NLNS, but also for other publications, I had a chance to join a labor union in my trade. Not the traditional union I had dreamt of helping organize at Belden Electronics prior to—and certainly after—my injury. It was called the National Writers Union/United Auto Workers Local 1981. A small but trailblazing formation experimenting with organizing any of several types of contingent writers—with a constituency of freelance journalists, book authors, and technical writers.
I immediately got active in the Boston “unit” of the local. Was elected as a delegate to the national convention in the summer of 1992. Was the youngest candidate for a open vice president’s seat. Lost, but not too badly. And won enough notoriety in the Boston branch that they hired me as their half-time director in December.
My fight for justice for myself and millions of other people in temp, part-time, day labor, contract, independent contractor, migrant, and many other kinds of bad unstable contingent jobs besides took off from there. In 1993, I joined the New Directions Movement democracy caucus within the rapidly shrinking but still super-bureaucratic and timid United Auto Workers union, and learned a great deal about how all those purposely precarious employment arrangements were being used by employers to crush labor.
In 1994, I started the small national publication As We Are: The Magazine for Working Young People. In 1995, I wrote an article in its third number about the attempt by the radical union Industrial Workers of the World to start a Temp Workers Union, and began actively looking for a way to start a general labor organization for contingent workers. In 1996—just after I published the fourth As We Are, folded the magazine for lack of funds, and took a long-term temp assignment with 3M’s advertising division as a front desk person—I helped launch the Organizing Committee for a Massachusetts Employees Association (OCMEA) with Citizens for Participation in Political Action. A group that straddled the line between the left wing of the Democratic Party and socialists just to their left in the Commonwealth. In January 1997, I quit the 3M assignment a few days before being serendipitously hired by Tim Costello of Northeast Action as the half-time assistant organizer of his Project on Contingent Work there. We rolled the OCMEA effort into our new project and also helped start a nationwide network of similar contingent worker organizing projects called the National Alliance for Fair Employment later that year.
In June 1998, I left the National Writers Union gig—having helped build the Boston branch’s membership from just over 200 members to over 700 members in my six-year tenure—and took one final long-term half-time temp editor assignment through Editorial Services of New England at Lycos, a competitor of Yahoo and other early commercial search engines on the World Wide Web. I organized a shadow union of over 25 fellow temp editors— which won pay parity for men and women on the assignment—before leaving to help Costello break away from Northeast Action and begin raising money to form our own independent contingent workers’ organization in September 1998.
Finally, in January 1999, we had the funding to found the Campaign on Contingent Work (CCW), the extremely innovative labor organizing network that did much to help workers in bad jobs in Massachusetts over the six years of its existence.
That year we also expanded the national contingent organizing group into Canada to form the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAFFE)—which was also based in Boston. Ultimately, Costello was the coordinator of that group and I was coordinator of CCW. And in 2003, during conversations with the CEO of Manpower about a temp industry code of conduct that NAFFE had drafted, Costello started telling him the story of my injury on a Manpower assignment. The CEO cut him off a few sentences in and said, “Forklift?” And Costello said, “Yes.” And the CEO apparently said that years after my injury, so many workers had been hurt driving forklifts in Manpower temp jobs that there had been some kind of settlement with them and the company had instituted reforms. I never bothered to verify the tale. But I don’t doubt its veracity.
Because employers can only push workers so far before we start to push back. And I’ve written this series for one reason: to encourage readers in bad jobs in the (now rather old) “new economy” to push back. To fight where you stand. To stop accepting unstable gigs with no benefits for low pay. To start demanding a better deal. Together with your fellow workers. And to keep demanding it. Until we live in a world where no one will ever have to work a bad job. Or get permanently injured the way I did.