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The Part-Time Machine 

Sometimes it’s enough to save full-time jobs

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
If you listened to those on the MTA’s side of the fence, where the grass has always been greener, labor got trampled in the 32-day transit strike’s resolution. Thanks to Jesse Jackson’s acclaimed “stay in the room until smoke comes out the windows” bargaining discipline, buses and trains were running, the system was flush with cash, and the United Transportation Union had accepted a slightly larger number of cheap, part-time drivers.

Most importantly, the UTU accepted an 8.3 percent pay raise that might not ever, over the new contract’s three-year duration, equal the striking members’ unpaid month. Less proudly, MTA officials allowed that their agency had accumulated millions of dollars by not running buses and trains since mid-September.

From the union side, you also heard victory talk. But this triumph was more subtle. As Los Angeles County Federation of Labor executive secretary-treasurer Miguel Contreras put it this week, “We’ve shown that labor can rally to protect middle-class jobs — that pay over $18 an hour — for this mostly African-American work force.”

To Contreras, UTU membership, and general chairman James Williams in particular, the major conquest was over management’s bid to turn the gentle art of bus driving into a part-time profession. Keeping the largest possible number of full-time jobs became more important than getting the maximum salary settlement.

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So did both sides get something they wanted out of this 32-day work stoppage that stranded a half-million Angelenos? Management insiders gloated that UTU negotiators turned down full-timer raises they might have gained had more part-timers been let in. According to MTA sources, this might have amounted to a 2 percent raise in pay, had the UTU accepted the MTA’s plan to bring the part-time work force up to 1,400 — “contingent workers” is the official term. These drivers would be paid an average of $476 a week — plus benefits — for a 30-hour week. But the union chose to sacrifice this wage offer to preserve as large a proportion as possible of that incredibly endangered modern social species: the well-paid, full-time, blue-collar worker.

Increasingly, we live in a part-time world. We are nurtured by part-timers in day care, taught by part-timers in college, private and even public schools, and served by part-timers in stores and restaurants. There are undeniably some workers who delight in the flexible schedules “contingent” employment provides. Then there are those with parental duties who often can’t work full time.

And ultimately, there are the people seeking full-time employment in well-trampled fields where the entry-level jobs are nearly all part-time. (This happens to be particularly true of most of the reputable news media, including this newspaper.) Often, one such job leads to another, or even a third, perhaps to pay for your own private health plan, until you get a real job. Somewhere.

But it’s employers who most benefit from a “contingent” work force.

Management usually doesn’t have to pay competitive wages to such employees, let alone for sick days, vacation and benefits. Union representation is marginal at best, and often there’s the terrific performance motivation that is the hope for full-time work.

So what’s wrong with the contingent career? Why not work your way toward full-time employment at a part-time job?

The problem is that, nowadays, there’s a Gresham’s Law of employment, whereby part-time labor tends to drive out full-time. Simply put, the more part-timers get hired, the fewer become the full-time jobs. At an ad hoc legislative hearing downtown, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo was told by MTA officials that the 1,700 new part-time MTA drivers in the proposal the strikers rejected might aspire to one of the 35 new full-time jobs. Contreras estimated that under the proposals of the MTA, 40 percent of the MTA drivers’ full-time work force would have been supplanted by part-timers.

What expanding part-time labor in any job category inevitably does is create a two-tiered work force, the poorer, contingent half of which usually ends up resenting the full-timers. As the full-timers retire or move on to other employment, rather than promote part-timers to the increasing number of vacant, high-wage, full-time posts, management tends to hire more part-timers to do the same work cheaper. Until (one imagines) the last full-timer gets the ritual goodbye sheet cake with his name on it and a brief official farewell. And all of the work force is part-time. Often enough, along with the full-time work force, the original union representation ceases to exist.

It’s interesting how the contingent work force entered our labor market from the top down, starting with the white-collar ranks. The intrusion of temp workers into office culture is now decades old. A less celebrated part-time revolution has occurred in community colleges, where most classes are taught by part-timers. This is also increasingly the case in four-year public universities; contingent work was recently a key issue in the various UC graduate assistants’ job actions.

Nevertheless, over the past decade, union bargainers and even rank-and-filers have tended to favor “today” against “tomorrow.” Again and again, they’ve taken management’s offer of a generous wage increase for present union membership in return for sanctioning lower-salaried, part-time hires. One unsurprising result of this willful strata-faction is a waning support for the official bargaining unit by the new subclass of employee. It’s no wonder that Contreras, the AFL-CIO’s man on the spot, deeply opposes this, nor that the AFL now considers increasing the contingent work force as a straight-up union-busting tactic. Although, in some instances, part-timers have sought to form a union of their own.

According to Neal Sacharow of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, “The MTA tried to create a second tier that would attrite the whole class of high-salaried drivers. In a short time, there would have been far fewer full-timers.”

Which accomplishes the archetypal management goal of getting more work for less pay and fewer benefits. Of course, a part-time–dominated bus system would also be easier to shatter into smaller transit districts, in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, in particular.

Certainly, there were other issues in this strike. In contrast to the last two job actions, this time the MTA played some serious hardball on the work-rule issues it apparently fudged in previous negotiations. The resolution of the 10-hour-day issue mentioned here earlier was sensible. If it came out behind on short-term wage increases, the union won a point on pensions.

Meanwhile, Contreras says he’s working with the local legislative delegation to seek an audit of MTA spending. He’s also supporting state Senator Richard Alarcon’s proposal to revisit how the MTA board members are selected.

“The MTA will never be the same after this,” Contreras avers.

But what ought most to be remembered about this strike’s outcome is that UTU chairman James Williams and his members turned down a short-term gain for a hope of longer-term continuity of the jobs UTU membership has come to symbolize. The same battle will be fought again in 2003, when this contract ends. That will surely be a tougher fight. But this time, at least, solidarity won.

Halfway Home

It was 10 days since Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660 had called off its not-so-general strike and gone back into bargaining. Now its leadership was declaring a victory. So was the county. But the funny thing about the dueling press conferences last week was that neither side could exactly say — let alone agree on — what had been won.

The SEIU may have made some substantial gains. The only problem is, it’s still not exactly clear what. But neither side seemed interested in settlement exactitude. Which may have been better for both.

When last we looked in, 660 was holding fast for 15.5 percent across the board. The county was offering 9 percent. Now, according to the SEIU’s own press release, “11 percent [goes to] nearly 90 percent of Local 660 employees . . . 12.75 to 14.5 percent or more to a majority of Local 660 employees, some will receive as much as 20 percent.” According to the county, however, that latter raise goes to a very small number of people. Okay, so what is the across-the-board average? With this range of figures, it’s hard to say. An SEIU rep guessed 12.5 percent. (My own guess is slightly lower.) County Administrative Officer David Janssen said he didn’t know. But it looks like the union got half of what it asked for. An even compromise, you might say. But you might also say that, by not specifying a figure for the average increase, the union (which still has to get ratification from more than 6,000 of its 47,000 members) could imply a bigger win while the county could imply that it had hung tough to the end.

The most positive single result of the contract struggle was for the lower end of the earning spectrum. All the county employees now earn more than the county’s own $8.36-an-hour living wage. And other lower-end employees are expected to benefit proportionally.

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