It was 5:20 a.m. yesterday and it was very cold. I was barely a mile away from Cross Campus and about 10 black men were doing the same thing they do every morning at 5:20 — trying to sell themselves for the day. Ten black men wearing jeans, sweaters and heavy boots sat among the 40 plastic chairs that lined the walls. They were waiting. The huge banner hanging above the front counter read in huge letters, “Depend on Temps Now! People available 24 hours a day!” The banner listed the occupations for which warm bodies were available — assembly, construction, sanitation, food service, manufacturing and general labor. The only white man in the room, Ray, hovered behind the counter, wearing the only collared shirt in the room. He smiled widely as he talked loudly on the phone: “You’re calling me early. So how many do you need today?”

Temps Now! has operated on Whalley Avenue for the past four years. It is only one of at least five different temporary labor agencies encircling the downtown New Haven area that compete vigorously for both labor and customers, such as Waste Management, whose annual estimated sales fall between $5-10 million a year. Each of these agencies contracts between 30 and 50 workers every day. It was difficult for me to find a black man on Whalley Avenue who had not been employed by one of these agencies. Workers arrive at 5 a.m. dressed for work and wait for employers, often from Hamden, Orange, East Haven and West Haven, to call in and place “orders” for “warm bodies.” Customers pay Temps Now! for the workers. Workers get paid the same day, or weekly, if they receive a longer-term assignment. They receive no health care benefits. They pay Temps Now! for transportation each way. Ray, the manager, said he couldn’t tell me what the company pays its workers, but that it varied according to the job and their skill level. The 20 men I talked to were all paid the same wage–Connecticut’s minimum wage of $6.70 an hour.

Cliff was reading the Bible on one of the chairs, but he smiled and said hello when I sat next to him. Cliff has been coming to Temps Now! almost every day for the past five months. For years he cleaned rooms at the Candlewood suites in Meriden. Now he is 40 years old and lives on Dixwell Avenue in New Haven. He occasionally works in factories or loading and unloading materials. Sometimes he spends five or six hours waiting in the blue plastic chairs without getting any work at all. Most days, however, he, like most of the men I talked to at Temps Now!, is sent to Waste Management for 10 hours to transfer manually can after can of garbage into a garbage truck. “I hate it,” he said. “I don’t got any choices so I have to do it. I’m not going to do it today. People have maggots in their trash. Last time, the white maggots smelling like rotting meat got on me and stuck to me all day. It’s worse when it rains. The cans get so heavy. I hurt my back.” According to the Department of Labor, the national mean hourly wage for a garbage collector is $12.22. Cliff gets paid Connecticut’s minimum wage: $6.70 an hour. He receives no health benefits. And then there are those days without any work at all. “I just sit here and wait. I don’t have any choices. It makes me sad,” he said, shaking his head.

Cliff told me that he wouldn’t go to Waste Management because of the heavy, rain-filled cans and the white maggots. But another white man strode in. “I need two more,” he told Ray. Ray looked at Cliff. “You don’t want to do garbage, do you? But that’s all we might have today.”

Cliff got up. “I can’t afford to be picky. I’ll do it,” he said, putting his Bible away.

Neither Temps Now!, Ray, Cliff, or New Haven are unique. Temporary labor agencies throughout the country have experienced explosive growth rates during the past 20 years. One in every four jobs created since 1984 has been a temp job, while in some states and urban centers, this number is as high as one in two. The sector represents one of the most important sources of employment to inner city residents throughout the country. In 1973, there were only 250,000 recorded temporary workers in the United States. By 1999, the General Accounting Office recorded 4.4 million. Thousands of temporary agencies have emerged as a part of this phenomenon, including huge international conglomerates such as Manpower, Inc., nationwide companies like Labor Ready, and more locally based businesses like Temps Now!

Throughout the country, cities such as New Haven are forced to confront the economic reality that remains after the dramatic restructuring of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when manufacturing jobs fled urban cores nationwide, gutting neighborhoods of their job base. Nationwide, this has fractured the employment networks of millions of inner city residents, who find themselves stuck in low-income, inadequately serviced neighborhoods that are far away from jobs. The fastest growing industries in many of these cities have been centered around exploiting the one resource that remains in plentiful supply — cheap and flexible labor.

These agencies argue that they are providing low-income black and Hispanic inner city residents with the only chance they have. For example, Manpower’s Mitchell Fromstein said, “We are not exploiting people. We are not setting the fees. The market is. We are matching people with demands. What would our workers be doing without us? Unemployment lines? Welfare? Suicide?”

While agencies such as Temps Now! provide New Haven’s residents with vital economic opportunities, they simultaneously institutionalize patterns of exclusion and inequality in the labor market. These agencies do not simply reflect the casualization of labor and the weakening of labor unions — they powerfully catalyze this process, aggressively recruiting new customers, opening up more and more industries to temporary labor by providing a steady alternative to the stable living wage jobs with benefits that are more expensive to employers.

While we in New Haven have yet to engage this issue appropriately, thousands of temporary workers around the country are organizing in different ways to reclaim the hard-won autonomy, wages and benefits that are being rapidly but insidiously eroded by the new service-dominated economy. Groups such as Working Partnerships, U.S.A., based in San Jose, Calif., are attempting innovative alternatives, such as nonprofit and worker-owned temp agencies that provide health care benefits, worker training and a constant paycheck. The National Alliance for Fair Employment represents a coalition of citywide and statewide campaigns throughout the country working collectively to attack the problems posed by temporary employment through legislation, which is critical to obtaining fair pay and benefits for temps because of the varied and mobile nature of temp jobs. Among the most promising of proposed bills to date was the Massachusetts Workplace Equity Bill, which would have required equal pay and benefits for contingent workers who do the same work as permanent employees. Other states have commissions in effect to investigate temporary employment and consider what the best legislative response would be.

As the 2003 state legislative session draws near, New Haven’s state delegation should consider and aggressively pursue the creation of policies that will allow Connecticut’s inner city residents to reclaim the autonomy, dignity and fair share that are the right of every worker. Without this legislation, New Haven’s workers will remain marginalized and the economic transformation of the city will remain incomplete.

Shonu Gandhi is a senior in Saybrook College. Her column appears regularly on alternate Tuesdays.