Labor Ready was founded in 1989 by Glen Welstad. Since then it has grown to 712 branches in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Canada. It employed 325,000 workers in 2011 and had 1.3 billion in revenue. It is the single largest employer in the construction industry. Recently renamed TrueBlue, the company now includes CLP Resources, Spartan Staffing, Plane Techs, and Centerline. The company has spawned a whole host of imitators and competitors, including Command Systems, which was set up by Welstad himself after leaving LR. It has redefined employment agencies in the same way McDonalds and Wal-Mart redefined their respective industries. |
Labor Ready sells disposable workers. You can order workers for a day, a week, or a month, and then throw them away when you are done with them. You can fire them for any reason whatsoever and they cannot file for unemployment, or take you before the labor board. If you injure or kill them they cannot sue you and they can only barely sue Labor Ready. They cannot join a union or otherwise effectively exercise whatever limited rights they still have under our system. LR handles all the paperwork, payroll, comp and taxes. You just pay a set hourly fee.
Labor Ready has a simple strategy towards labor and safety law: hire an army of lawyers and then break the law with total impunity. They force the workers to sign an ?arbitration? agreement that makes it effectively impossible for the workers to assert their rights in court. They also rely on the fact that our enforcement agencies are so toothless and lethargic, and have been effectively colonized by big business republicans and new democrats. The company was designed from the ground up to be impossible to unionize and as far as I know no one has ever even managed to hold a NLRB certification election, although there have been some sporadic attempts to unionize.
This leads to problems with safety, of course. The AFL-CIO reports that 25% of Labor Ready?s workers are injured on the job every year. The IBEW has reported 31%. Tracking their safety record is quite difficult because they require their customers to log all accidents in the customer?s OSHA log. Thus the OSHA record of LR reflects only the injuries suffered by the office staff. The safety record is known to those who sell insurance, however, and it is so bad that LR has had serious problems buying insurance coverage for comp claims at any price. This forces the company to collateralize a significant portion of its workers' compensation obligation.
All the Labor Ready halls are linked together vie a national computer system. Customers who fail to pay their bills and workers that give LR a problem can be permanently blacklisted nationwide. Once a worker is blacklisted-for whatever reason-they have no appeal and no recourse. For the people who live in the electronic plantation (see below) this threat reinforces the power of the LR manager over them, and allows the company to nationally purge union agitators, people who file comp claims and OSHA complaints, and any other kind of trouble makers. It is routine for LR managers to openly threaten workers with permanent blacklisting for filing comp claims or accepting offers of regular employment from customers.
All this leads, by design, to a distribution of power and to the type of social relationships you would normally only find in a slave camp or a prison. In one startling case Labor Ready workers discovered a bomb left by white supremacists at an MLK day parade, saving hundreds of lives. They were lauded as heroes by the police and the media. The manager fired them for it. I have no explanation for this bizarre occurrence except to theorize that the manager realized that the bomb might have blown up his workers, thus costing him for their medical care, and this made him angry, so he took his anger out on the workers, even though they had been the ones to report the bomb to the police. This is the redirection of aggression that you often find in conditions of severe oppression, where the powerless become the scapegoats for everything that causes anger or fear in the powerful.
Labor Ready is not only a loaded gun in the face of what is left of the trade union movement and the main source of scabs during strikes, it represents a new paradigm of power relations between managers and workers that is radically worse than the prevailing norms even in non-union jobs. The workers-who do all of the productive work-live in homeless shelters and work release programs. The managers-who do nothing but exploit the workers-are well paid members of the upper class.
In most forms of capitalism there is a conflict between productive and predatory tendencies. In Labor Ready there is no conflict because there is no productive tendency. Even the worst factory owner contributes something to the work that is done, invests in machines, organizes the production in a useful way, purchases raw materials, etc. By contrast the LR?s entire corporate organization and all of their capital investment is strictly limited to a mechanism of exploitation. In a sense the company is like a highly evolved parasite that has become little more than a stomach and a reproductive system. The workers do all of the productive work, and LR steals most of their money and almost all of their rights.
What Labor Ready has done is turn the oppression of workers into a commodity. It is an expensive commodity; you have to pay LR 2 to 4 times as much as the minimum wage the worker will receive. A company that would never dream of paying a laborer $20 an hour will pay LR $20 an hour for a worker that is being paid $5. In the difference between what a company will pay LR and what the worker receives we can actually see the market value of oppression.
Labor Ready is the bloody cutting edge of post-modern disaster capitalism. What makes it exceptional as a form of disaster capitalism is that it is not dependent upon a specific catastrophe but rather upon the structural disasters inherent in our system. The genius and evil of LR?s business model is that it uses tragedies and profound social crisis as its center of gravity. Where any sane human being would see a nightmare of suffering, Labor Ready sees a profit margin.
Homelessness (LR regularly donates money to shelters in order to insure access), chronic unemployment, drug and alcohol addiction (Welstad calls this ?the economic principle of beer?), racism, economic displacement and obsolescence, the failure of the public education system, demobilized combat veterans (LR has a deal with the National Guard that involved massive recruiting posters for the military in LR halls), immigrant workers declared ?illegal?, and most of all, the prison industrial complex, the work release system, and the electronic plantation all create a pool of workers who are desperate and easy to control. These are the people that Labor Ready preys upon, and it has extracted billions of dollars in profits from their labor.
Until recently Labor Ready was probably the largest employer of ?illegal? immigrant workers. This had changed recently as they have instituted the E-Verify system that checks social security numbers against a national database and have gotten rid of the cash machines in favor of paying by check. There is real evidence that Labor Ready was involved in stirring up the anti-immigrant hysteria with one hand while it employed ?illegal? workers itself. They were clearly involved in a number of minuteman style protests in order to advertise themselves as an alternative to hiring people off the street corner. Whether this was just local opportunism by the managers or part of a national strategy to shut down a main source of competition is unknown, but I would not be at all surprised to find out that the company was a major funder of the anti-immigrant movement.
The Electronic Plantation is the largest and most reliable source of useful workers for Labor Ready. Today when you get arrested (not just convicted) for anything this goes onto your credit record. With modern hiring policies, most companies will not hire anyone who has any kind of criminal record, even just an arrest. (I know someone who was turned down for a job because he had been ticketed for not having a paid fare on public transit.) In 2011 over 13 million people were arrested. Most of them were working class, of course. This gives companies a perfectly legal way to discriminate against workers who are part of communities relentlessly targeted by law enforcement. It traps people from these communities in permanent poverty and it gives union police officers, union prison guards, and all the liberal scum who work as psychologists and social workers and endless meal ticket on the backs of the oppressed. North Portland is a historically black working class community that is under a relentless assault from both the iron fist of the state and the hidden hand of the market. Bourgeois bohemians and hipster kids are displacing the previous residents in a cycle that is all too familiar. At the North Portland Labor Ready the usual relationship between Labor Ready and the police state has been taken to a new level. Right next to the hall is the Kenton ?Community policing? office, and you will find police officers inside the Labor Ready going through the computer. In exchange for first pick of the people working for work release, Labor Ready gives the police total access to its computer system and the workers working for it. The police use this access to hunt more victims for the system. Once in the system, the people in the work release program have to give most of their paycheck to the state in exchange for being allowed out to work.