Labor pools Service or servitude? By Richard Vogel Houston The labor pool industry is a part of the economic underworld of American life, the invisible sector of society that Michael Harrington calls “the other America.” Like the rest of that underworld, labor pools need to be brought out into the light. Yet they are so far removed from the mainstream of economic life that, for most of us, imagination must replace direct experience as a means of access to them. Imagine, for example, that you are really down and out, flat broke in some city at 6 a.m. You pick up a newspaper and look through the help-wanted section of the classifieds. You spot this ad: 500 MEN NEEDED PAID DAILY Free Transportation to and from the Job. Report 5:30 Ready for Work. An Equal Opportunity Employer. Your pockets are empty so you head for the address listed. A group of men stand around on the sidewalk near the door. YOU SQUEEZE inside and are immediately struck by the smell of unwashed bodies, cheap wine and stale cigarette smoke. There aren’t 500 men there. \(Most of the labor pool offices are located in old buildings with small rooms There are black men, brown men, white men all poor. A few long-hairs. Young and old, with a noticeable gap between the two extremes. At one end of the room, behind a raised counter, a man is calling out jobs: three men needed. You glance around and raise your hand along with the others. What’s the job? somebody asks. XXX Demolishing Company. Some of the hands go back down. Any of you guys got a car? \(Possession of personal transportation virtually guarantees you work. It cuts a car, the guy standing next to him and you are picked. Fill out one of these cards if you haven’t worked here before. Names are written down and the completed job order is given to the driver. Any of you want a draw? \($2 against your take it. Sign here. Oh yeah, you need gloves for this job. Sign here. \(49q cotton o’clock. Outside, the driver tells you that you blew it. You should have claimed more income tax exemptions on your form at least six. It’s more money in your pocket and they don’t care. He asks you for gas money. The job’s not far away you chip in a quarter. Almost two hours to kill. The three of you stop in a small cafe and the rest of your cigarettes. You’re on the job site at eight sharp. Eight hours later, filthy and exhausted, you return to the office, turn in the work order and wait 30 minutes or an hour to get your check. Eight hours at $1.75 per hour is $14. With the standard deduction your check comes to $8.45. You can cash it at the bar next door, the cafe across the street or the liquor store around the corner. That’s free of charge if you eat or drink in the place, but a 25q charge if you’re going to take the money out of the neighborhood. At 6 p.m. you have $8.20 left. A decent supper might cost you $2.50; a room, $2.50 to $5.00. If you don’t drink up the remainder, or spend it on other recreation, you might come out a little ahead. And, if you feel up to it, you can do it again tomorrow. THE NARRATION above offers a glimpse into the economic underworld of Houston, the largest and fastest-growing city in the Southwest. Poverty in the city, in Harrington’s words, is becoming increasingly invisible. But it doesn’t take much effort to find it all the observations for this story were made within seven blocks of Main Street in downtown Houston. Within this area there are 14 temporary labor contractors, three paying blood banks, three missions, the Harris County welfare office and the Texas Employment Commission Farm and Service Office. The economic underworld is not confined to this area. Just 12 blocks to the west there is another large mission served regularly by the labor contractors, and three more labor pools are located near the TEC offices ten blocks to the south. This southern cluster of offices is adjacent to a low-income white area and one of Houston’s largest black ghettoes. Every morning, men emerge from these neighborhoods and others, from the hotels and missions downtown, ‘from under bridges and freeways, from out of abandoned buildings and hobo camps. The labor pools offer these men a chance to work. According to neo-classical economic theory, the labor pool industry is responding to a demand for manpower in a free. market. Its income is earned by management and administrative services. Most of the pools are small businesses, but the entrance of national chains into the industry indicates that the profit margin is attractive. The going wage paid by the pools is $1.75 per hour. A few handle skilled and semi-skilled jobs; they offer a sliding wage scale, with $2.50 as a top hourly rate. \(Pools which employ women pay Pools’ customers pay from $2.85 to $3.60 per man-hour for the services they receive. The cost covers all insurance, federal and state , .taxes, payroll tax reporting to both federal and state agencies, payroll ‘handling and record-keeping. The pools deliver and pick _up the men they provide. The customer receives a single invoice. This theoretically simple transaction, the sale of day labor, has complex effects on employment. It does provide an employable poor person with some money, but it has serious negative social consequences. First, the wages it provides are minimal. More important, the jobs available are marginal at best. The work is physically demanding and undesirable. Many companies, like the XXX Demolishing Company mentioned above, rely on the labor pools as a primary source of manpower because no other workers are interested. Consequently, the pool system effectively holds down wages in the marginal job market. On more than one occasion, men obtained through the pools have been employed as scab labor. FINALLY, THE pool system militates against steady employment, a for the economic betterment of the disadvantaged. In the case of transients this may not be a critical factor, but persons Oct. 20, 1974 13
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