The American economic miracle and the slaves who drive it


Theyíre the fastest-growing portion of the American labor force. Far more than zippier microchips and spectacular mega-mergers, theyíre the driving force behind the Silicon economy and the five-digit Dow. And theyíre totally illegal.

Unless youíre a corporate executive, you probably guessed that Iím talking about permatemps. Permatemps are the untouchable caste in a nation of bourgeois Brahmins, and fall into two general categories.

Permatemps and faux indie workers became a widespread practice after the Reagan Adminsitration gutted federal enforcement of existing labor laws and sent out the signal that itís open season on workers.

First are employees of temp agencies who get sent to a company and end up working there for years. They work full-time and have the same responsibilities as regular employees, but merely because they draw their paychecks from a temp agency rather than the head office they often donít get benefits. Microsoft, for example, currently employes between 5,500 and 7,000 permatemps (apparently the company is not sure of the exact number) and 32,000 regular workers. The latter group gets health benefits, a 401(k) plan and stock options. The former group doesnít.

The second type of permatemp is the fake independent contractor. Millions of Americans fall into this no-manís-land of underemployment. These are people who work at least half-time (20 hours a week) for an employer but donít receive paid vacation, sick days, health care, retirement or any benefits whatsoever. According to the IRS and the Labor Department, youíre supposed to get some benefits if you put in those 20 hours a week, regardless of whether you work at home or at the office, but tightwad bosses avoid paying up by designating free-lance types as "independent contractors."

Permatemps and faux indie workers became a widespread practice after the Reagan Adminsitration gutted federal enforcement of existing labor laws and sent out the signal that itís open season on workers. Forget labor unions; they all but died in the í80s. Now the venerable AFL-CIO obsesses on dead and dying industries while making no attempt whatsoever to organize the fastest-growing segment of the workforce; Internet employees.

The Democratic Party, once the proud bastion of the working class, is a wholly owned subsidiary of multinational ó WTO predators. Even in the greatest labor shortage in memory, workers enjoy no clout against rapacious employers as they lengthen their hours, freeze their pay, and replace full-timers with benefits with permatemps.

At long last, all that may be about to change. In January, the Supreme Court let stand a federal appeals court ruling that ordered Microsoft Corp. to pay anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 permatemps (apparently the plaintiffs arenít sure of the precise number affected) for the tasty stock options the companyís regular staffers received while they did the same exact work.

The ruling "has far-reaching implications for the field of employment law," complained a PR flack for the Washington-based computer giant.

Well, no and yes. The Supremes donít break any new legislative ground by denying Microsoftís argument that permatemps shouldnít be able to get benefits from both their temp agency and the company where they work. Recognizing that argument as patent BS from a company that squeezed permatemps in order to shovel more cash into Bill Gatesí ample wallet, the court merely upheld existing law.

Nonetheless, this is a remarkable ruling from a Supreme Court stacked with right-wing Reagan-era appointees and a few squishy moderates who exemplify Clintonís tendency to blow big opportunities. They may be erasing your civil rights one at a time, but as far as worker protections are concerned, the law remains the law.

Of course, itís still grim business for the millions of us whose daily grind looks less like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit than the rowing scene in Ben-Hur. You can call OSHA about that funny asbestos powder on the office carpet, but they still wonít send anyone out to take a look. The boys from Labor are too cowed by years of budget cuts and bad press to take on abusive employers. Corporations are sucking billions and billions for dollars out of your pockets by firing workers and hiring them back as permatemps, and theyíre not about to give up all that cash without a fight.

But now the word is out, and itís official: Permatemps are illegal. People are entitled to equal pay for equal work. After a long rout, working America has won a potentially pivotal battle. It will be tough, and we may fail, but it is up to us to fight for our legal rights ó at least until the next Congress votes them away.

Ted Rall is a cartoonist and columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.

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