“The brand called you.” “Free agent nation.” ” The talent market.”
Just look at some of our cover stories over the past year: It’s obvious that we believe in the new economy’s promise of personal freedom and individual creativity. Who needs an old-fashioned “job” when you can design a do-it-yourself career out of cool projects and interesting consulting gigs?
It’s just as obvious that there’s a fine line between freedom and desperation. Not every “free agent” volunteered for the role. Plenty of self-employed consultants would gladly trade their home office for a corner office. There is a dark side to the new economy. And over the past few years, people raging against that dark side have found a compelling voice – bitter, warped, hilarious – in a collection of print zines and Web sites devoted to the trials, tribulations, and petty humiliations of life as a temporary employee. Meet the dissidents of Free Agent Nation.
“You walk into the workplace as a temp, and it’s like you’re an alien,” complains Jeff Kelly, publisher of Temp Slave!, a zine that debuted in 1993. “There’s such insecurity. No benefits. You never know when your assignment is going to end. Your coworkers treat you as if you’re a threat to their livelihood. It’s abominable.”
If Kelly’s comments sound like a rant, it’s because ranting about life as a temp is his full-time passion. Temp Slave! is a biting collection of articles, essays, and cartoons – all by temps who’ve lived what they write about. Its articles have titles like “Why Bosses Are Assholes” and “Blood! Blood! Blood!” And Kelly is not alone. Temp Slave! is part of a growing movement to give voice to disgruntled workers who don’t have a watercooler to gather around. There’s a Web site called Temp 24-7 (www.temp24-7.com). There are zines called McJOB and working for the man. There’s even a zine called Guinea Pig Zero, which chronicles life in the most dangerous temp gig of all – selling your body for scientific research.
There’s more than enough material to fill these publications. Temporary staffing is a $50-billion-a-year business in the United States, and more than 2.5 million people report to work each day as temps. Microsoft alone employs 5,000 temps – including 1,500 who have worked for the company for a year or more. One in five U.S. corporations uses temps for at least 10% of its workforce.
The unrest in Temp Nation covers lots of ground, from its oppressive economic structure to the daily indignities of temp life. Kelly launched Temp Slave! after he was dismissed from a job at a big insurance company where he’d temped for the previous year. A few months before he was let go, he’d been promised a coveted full-time slot. When he was given two weeks’ notice, he started his zine as a form of protest. He wrote it on company time, used a company copier as his printing press, and distributed the zine throughout the office. (“People were coming down from different floors asking for it,” he recalls. “They were laughing their heads off.”) Temp Slave! now appears twice a year and reaches thousands of readers. It has a companion Web site www.grfn.org/~eric/tempslav.htm , and Kelly has even published a book, Best of Temp Slave! (Garrett County Press, 1997), that collects the zine’s funniest and most popular articles.
In “The Badge,” Malcolm Riviera, who temped for a computer-consulting firm in Washington, DC, describes his humiliation at having to wear an ID badge with the word “TEMPORARY” stenciled on it in huge letters. In “Temp Time Frame,” Leah Ryan, a temp receptionist for an executive-search firm in New York City, wonders about the origins of the motivational phrases that decorate her desk: “Rise every time you fall,” “See life as a daring adventure.”
On the Web, Temp 24-7, based in West Los Angeles, has emerged as what Yahoo! called “the Web site of choice.” It describes itself as “a community for temps to commiserate with others like them and also tell corporate America and the world about their personal struggles with temping.” It offers “Gripe of the Week,” “Temp Tales of Terror,” and a humorous glossary called “Temp Term of the Week.” Naturally, the glossary includes a definition of the word “temp.” Coined in 1931, it originally meant “temporary worker.” It now stands for Totally Exploitable Menial Prostitute – as in “Make the temp do it.”
One goal of the site: to shame companies into better behavior by associating their names with the offenses they commit against temps. “Remember the permanent record you always heard about in school?” asks editor and ex-temp Paul Fairchild, who, along with a group of other former temps, runs Flypaper Press, the small publishing company that produces the site. “Well, this is it.”