Part-time Work: A Mobilizing Issue

Chris Tilly

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]

Chris Tilly, professor of Regional Economic and Social Development at U. Mass.-Lowell, is the author of Half a Job: Bad and Good Part-Time Jobs in a Changing Labor Market (Temple University Press, 1996), and Work Under Capitalism (with Charles Tilly, Westview Press 1997). He is a member of the editorial collective of Dollars and Sense Magazine.

AT THE CONCLUSION OF THE 1997 STRIKE AT UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal offered up a heaping helping of sour grapes:

Everyone is saying the UPS settlement is a big win for Big Labor, but count us as skeptics. The biggest winner to us looks like the Dick Morris brand of poll-driven, sound-bite modern politics. For what the Teamsters did, in essence, was to borrow the political methods of the Clinton campaign guru and apply them to a strike. They polled and focus-grouped until they found a theme the public seemed to like -- the alleged injustice of "part-time work." Then they dispatched well-scrubbed spokespeople to pound the airwaves with this theme every day. What this strike has revealed more than anything is the paradox of modern union power: Their political clout has increased even as their influence in the private economy has weakened.[But] it can't last. The economic forces that have weakened unions and strengthened the U.S. economy since 1980 continue to move ahead. So the AFL-CIO should by all means enjoy this triumph over UPS. There won't be many more.1

There is much to ponder in this poke at the labor movement. However, I want to focus on one issue in particular: as the Wall Street Journal notes, the Teamsters used the issue of part-time jobs to successfully mobilize support for the strike. But in fact, part-time work as a percentage of the workforce has not increased since the late 1980s, and four out of five part-time workers say they want to be working short hours. Why, then, did part-time work turn out to be such a tremendous mobilizing issue?

The answer is that popular perceptions of the part-time problem tap into a much broader and deeper anxiety about job quality. Hours of work are not the key concern; wages, benefits, and job security are. Coupled with a new willingness to consider collective strategies for better jobs, this deeply felt anxiety and anger can form the basis for a continuing labor counterattack to regain what has been lost over the past two decades.

Part-time Work: the Facts

FOR MORE THAN TEN YEARS, UPS HAS SHIFTED RAPIDLY AND DECISIVELY toward a part-time workforce. Part-timers made up 42 percent of the UPS head count in 1986, and 60 percent ten years later, according to the Teamsters.2 But this makes UPS quite an exceptional employer. Overall, slightly fewer than one worker in five works part-time -- about the same as ten years ago (though substantially more than in the 1960s or 1970s). Part-time employment rose during the early 1990s recession, as it does in every economic recession (and will once more in the next one) -- but fell again as economic growth picked up. Moreover, as noted earlier, most part-time workers choose to work part-time. Only one part-timer out of five is stuck in part-time hours involuntarily. The proportion of part-time workers who would prefer full-time work rises during recessions, but has never amounted to a majority of the part-time workforce.3

All of these statements are based on survey data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Are the statistics misleading? Yes, in small ways. The BLS only counts you as part-time if you work less than 35 total hours per week in all paid jobs. This overlooks multiple job-holding, since the great majority of second jobs are part-time. Multiple job-holders stand near an all-time high at about five percent of the workforce -- but this, too, has changed little (in fact, has slightly decreased) since the lat 1980s. The BLS also changed the definition of involuntary part-time employment in 1994, only counting people as involuntary if they are immediately available for full-time hours -- reclassifying over a million workers from involuntary to voluntary part-time status (a lot of people, but only about one percent of the workforce).

But basically, the problems of part-time employment are the same as they always have been. Most part-time jobs -- whether or not their holders have chosen to work short hours -- are second-class jobs. The average part-time hourly wage is about half full-time average. This holds at UPS in particular, where the part-time entry wage was frozen at $8.00 an hour from 1982 until the new contract resulting from the strike. Part-timers are one-quarter as likely as full-timers to receive health benefits from their employers (though in the case of UPS, as in many union workplaces, the union has won a relatively generous benefit package for part-time workers). About four million part-time workers would prefer full-time jobs, but are stuck with short hours. And a much less widely known problem: a roughly equal number of full-time workers would prefer part-time jobs, but are stuck with full-time schedules -- unable to obtain the schedule flexibility they need for family or personal reasons. It would be hard to say that any of these problems has worsened since ten years ago.

Temporary Confusion?

DESPITE LITTLE CHANGE IN THE SCOPE AND NATURE of part-time work itself, concern about part-time work has clearly intensified. An important clue about why this has happened is the widespread tendency to confuse part-time and temporary employment. Alec Levenson, an economist at California's Milken Institute, deplores the fact that "part-timers frequently are lumped together with other 'bad' jobs, including temporary and contingent jobs."4 Indeed, I've found that all kinds of people, from high-ranking managers to TV reporters, get part-time and temporary jobs mixed up.

And temporary work is expanding rapidly. Employment in temporary agencies has expanded twenty-fold since the early 1960s, to the point where Manpower, Inc. employs more people over the course of a year than any other private employer in the country. In addition, the majority of temporary workers, unlike part-timers, are involuntary: they say they would prefer permanent work. However, the temporary help ranks only amount to two percent of the workforce. Adding in independent contractors, on-call workers, day laborers, and workers provided by contract firms boosts this number to a more substantial eleven percent (three percent of whom are also part-time).5

Even more important, all jobs are becoming more "contingent": businesses are disavowing implicit lifetime employment guarantees, and telling workers they are only hired on an as-needed basis. As AT&T geared up to lay off an estimated 40,000 workers in early 1996, Vice President for Human Resources James Meadows told the New York Times, "People need to look at themselves as self-employed, as vendors who come to this company to sell their skills." He added, "In AT&T, we have to promote the whole concept of the work force being contingent, though most of the contingent workers are inside of our walls." Instead of "jobs," people increasingly have "projects" or "fields of work," he remarked, leading to a society that is increasingly "jobless but not workless."6

So is the public's alarm about part-time employment all just a big mix-up, as economist Levenson would have us believe? No, in fact the fuzzy boundary between part-time and temporary work in the popular mind, while technically incorrect, is actually a fairly accurate reflection of labor market reality. About one-third of temporary agency employees work part-time hours. And second-class part-time jobs typically do not last long -- in large part because dissatisfied part-timers are quick to quit.

But people who mix up part-time and temporary work are also reacting to a deeper truth. Part-time jobs, contingent employment, and downsizing are all part of a broader restructuring of jobs. These different aspects have different timing, and have struck different sectors of the economy. But they have similar causes, and similar negative consequences for working families.

The fundamental cause of these changes is a shift in management strategy in the face of growing competitive pressure. The business press puts a particular spin on this shift: instead of guaranteeing a long-term job with regular wage increases, businesses have moved to an "employability" paradigm in which pay is tied to performance and a job is understood to be one short-term step in a job-hopping career. What a job offers is not long-term security but an opportunity to enhance one's long-term employability by learning new skills and taking on new responsibilities. According to management pundits, this does not make jobs better or worse; they are simply different, responding to a changed corporate environment that demands greater flexibility.7

But while some groups of workers -- particularly those with the most education -- benefit from the new paradigm, the overall statistics reveal that the move to "employability" is a net loss for workers. While voluntary quits -- true job-hopping -- have climbed, what's dramatic is the escalation of involuntary terminations. Permanent layoff rates during 1991-93, nominally years of recovery from a mild recession, were higher than during the deep recession years of 1981-83.8 In turn, displacement rates for the 1980-92 period as a whole exceeded job loss rates during 1968-79. Between these two periods, the percentage of people laid off increased by one-third, and the percentage fired doubled.9 The bottom line is bad news for workers' living standards. The median hourly wage for production and nonsupervisory workers has slumped by 13 percent since 1973, after adjusting for inflation.10 The availability and quality of health insurance and pension benefits have also declined.11 People who frequently change jobs earn less, on average, than those who stay at the same job. Upward mobility in income has become less common, whereas downward slides in income have become more widespread.12 In short, the reality of "employability" is that on the whole it represents a "low road" business strategy: trying to drive down costs by squeezing more out of workers for less. This is the underlying reality that people recognize when they react so strongly to the part-time work issue.

Whom Do You Trust?

THIS "DOWNWAGING" OF AMERICA, AS FORMER SECRETARY OF LABOR ROBERT REICH calls it, has laid the basis for an important shift in public views. In relative terms, Americans have come to trust business less, and unions and government more. The change in views does not represent a sudden loss of faith in corporate America. That trust has been eroding for decades. The percentage of Americans reporting "a great deal" of confidence in major companies slipped from 55 percent in 1966, to 19 percent in 1975, and has stayed at that level ever since.13 But over those same decades, U.S. confidence in unions and government declined at a similarly precipitous rate. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for this cynicism, of course. The Vietnam War, Watergate, and subsequent decades of government dishonesty and corruption, plus the growing domination of politics by wealthy donors, have undermined faith in government. Narrow business unionism and a lack of internal democracy have weakened support for the labor movement.

In a remarkable study, economist Richard Freeman and political scientist Joel Rogers surveyed workers about their views of labor-management relations. They found that a majority of workers held each of the following views:14

The fact that unions lose most representation elections is due in part to fierce management resistance, in part to inadequate organizing efforts by the unions themselves -- but as this survey reveals, it also stems from a profound distrust of unions as representative institutions. A similar distrust of government has fueled repeated tax revolts, starting with California's Proposition 13 in 1979 and continuing to the present. If you don't trust an institution to respond to your needs and wishes, why give it your dues or tax dollars?

The problem, of course, is that distrust of -- and abstention from participation in -- government and unions, in the absence of other institutions defending workers' interests, has left workers disarmed in the face of capital. There is a fundamental asymmetry here. Distrust of corporate America does not prevent business from functioning: by the rules of survival in a market economy, people must continue dealing with businesses as consumers and workers. On the other hand, withdrawal of participation from government cedes political control to business, and withdrawal from unions spells the gradual collapse of the labor movement.

Without recourse to government policies or collective bargaining, what options are left for dissatisfied workers? Unvoiced anger? Absolutely: in a recent survey, 60 percent of workers reported that they are not rewarded or recognized for good job performance, and a majority agreed that "employee morale" comes last in the company's list of priorities. "The vitriolic response was amazing," commented a spokesman for the management consulting firm that carried out the study.15 The popularity of the comic strip "Dilbert" taps this vast wellspring of resentment. (Some managers blame the messenger: a top executive in one company, complaining to me about morale problems, exclaimed, "That damn Dilbert doesn't help things any.") How about theft and sabotage? To be sure: 44 percent of employees in restaurants and fast food services acknowledged they steal cash or merchandise, in another survey. "People want to even the score with their employers," comments Jerald Greenberg, the professor of business ethics who conducted the survey.16

New Openness to Collective Responses

BUT THE RESPONSE TO THE UPS STRIKE SIGNALS a tentative new openness to collective responses to business abuses. An ABC News Nightline poll found that 40 percent of Americans sided with the Teamsters in the strike, compared to 30 percent who supported the company; a Fox News poll found a wider spread of 44 to 27 percent.17 Neither public opinion advantage for the Teamsters was overwhelming, but what's new here is that a plurality actually favored labor over management in a national-level strike. This probably has not happened since the United Mineworkers' coal strike of 1978, if then. The attitude toward government involvement in the workplace is also changing. In the same Nightline poll, 82 percent agreed that part-time workers "should" get the same hourly wage as full-timers for the same work, and 65 percent that part-timers "should" get equal health insurance benefits.18 "Should," of course, does not necessarily denote backing for legislation. But the massive support for the minimum wage increases passed in 1996 -- support that compelled even "free market" Republicans to vote for a wage hike -- does demonstrate readiness to endorse government action on job quality. In Massachusetts, a state bill mandating equal pay and proportional benefits for part-time and temporary workers who do equal work is riding a similar groundswell (though business opposition may still block its passage).

Observant business analysts saw this shift coming. Stephen Roach, chief economist for Morgan Stanley, wrote in an October 1995 report entitled "Worker Backlash":

There can be no mistaking the potential backlash that might ensue from the combined forces of ongoing job losses, limited hiring, stagnant real wages, and adverse shifts in income distribution. As I see it, unless American workers begin to get their "fair" share of the productivity dividend, there is a growing risk of social and economic tension. The so-called majority of public opinion in favor of deficit reduction -- and its associated dismantling of entitlement spending -- is about to be drowned out by a groundswell of worker backlash. Workers want more, not less.

A key reason for this backlash is that workers have learned from the experience of decades of stagnating wages and deteriorating job security. But this is not the only reason that worker attitudes have changed. Also contributing to the change is the upsurge of education, organizing, and public discussion on the issue of declining job quality -- and proposals for how to address it. In an early salvo, the U.S. Catholic Bishops' 1987 pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All," espoused the radical notion that the economy should be organized to serve the people, and that unionization, full employment, and economic planning are needed to meet this objective.19 Prominent public figures from a range of political viewpoints -- Jesse Jackson, H. Ross Perot, former Labor Secretary Reich, Pat Buchanan, even at times Bill Clinton and Bob Dole -- picked up the populist refrain, denouncing corporate excesses and announcing their determination to help working families right the balance of power. Unions and community organizations have been hammering these themes in tens of thousands of workplaces and communities. In most cases these grassroots efforts have remained invisible to the public, but there have been occasional breakthroughs. For example, "living wage" coalitions joining up local affiliates of ACORN (a national network of community groups), the AFL-CIO, and others have won city ordinances requiring companies that receive city contracts or tax breaks to pay a "living wage" (typically $7.50 an hour or so, the amount a full-time, year-round worker would need to earn to keep a family of four out of poverty). Living wage ordinances have triumphed in Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, among other places.

And yes, the Teamsters themselves, led by Ron Carey and his team of reformers, can take some credit for heightened awareness of job quality issues, and the problems with part-time work in particular. Contrary to the claim of the Wall Street Journal editorialist quoted at the beginning of this article, the Teamsters did not simply fish the issue of part-time work out of a focus group while preparing for the UPS strike. Yes, the Teamsters did poll their membership, and found that part-time and full-time workers shared common ground in their distress about lack of full-time job opportunities and the pay gap between part-time and full-time workers. But the union had been pressing demands about part-time work for years. They raised the issue in negotiations with UPS in 1993, and won a modest commitment to 500 new full-time jobs for part-time workers. In 1994, part-time work was the headline issue as 70,000 Teamsters struck the short-haul carriers that bargain together as Trucking Management, Inc. The union struck to block conversion of full-time jobs to part-time, garnered considerable public support, and won their demand after several weeks on strike. Given UPS's intransigence, the 1997 strike was the next logical step in this progression.

The Teamsters' consciousness-raising about part-time work has played an essential role. However, their framing of the part-time problem is limited by male, blue-collar biases. "Part-Time America Won't Work," proclaimed picket signs across the country. But the problem is not part-time work in itself -- it's second class part-time work. Recall that the vast majority of part-time workers -- 17 out of 21 million -- want to work part-time. Another several million full-time workers would like part-time hours, but don't have access to that flexibility on their job. In short, tens of millions of people -- parents of young children, older workers nearing retirement, full-time students, and others -- want part-time work. While it is a serious problem that some who want full-time work get stuck with part-time hours, the much larger issue is that those who want part-time hours can only get them in a package that typically includes few or no benefits, lower wages, and diminished job security. If the labor movement wants to organize service industries disproportionately populated with women and young adults, unions will have to learn how to communicate with workers who want part-time work as well as those who don't. To their credit, the Teamsters at UPS not only bargained for conversion of part-time jobs to full-time, but also won a one-dollar-an-hour reduction in the wage gap between part-time and full-time workers. Other unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have taken this push farther in some contracts, winning workers the flexibility to move back and forth between part-time and full-time jobs without losing pay, benefits, or seniority.

In addition to the bitter economic experience of the last two decades and consciousness-raising from many quarters, a third, more temporary, change has altered public opinion about what can be done to improve jobs. That change is the current buoyancy of the economy, with unemployment dropping to its lowest rate in 24 years. Workers in the midst of a labor shortage tend to get feistier. As a recent Wall Street Journal article headlined "Dilbert's revenge" states, "The seesaw of power is tilting from employer to employee."20 Most of the newfound feistiness takes individual forms: the article bemoans workers' new willingness to demand higher pay and perks and to change jobs if they don't get satisfaction. But a labor shortage also makes workers more willing to strike (if they are unionized), to endorse laws like a minimum wage increase that business lobbyists claim will reduce the number of jobs, perhaps even to take the risk of joining a union. Of course, the effect of a labor shortage on worker consciousness is temporary: the shortage will end, another recession will come, and the seesaw will tilt back toward management. This does not mean that workers' willingness to consider new solutions to lousy jobs will abruptly end. It does mean, however, that labor should take advantage of what could be a short window of opportunity while its hand remains particularly strong, and prepare for some retrenchment when recession strikes.

At the culmination of the UPS strike, a victorious Ron Carey declared, "Working people were on the run, but not anymore. This strike marks a new era."21 On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal editor cited at the outset of this article retorted, "the AFL-CIO should by all means enjoy this triumph over UPS. There won't be many more." Both pronouncements are premature. Certainly, the unexpected burst of support for the UPS strikers is not simply a faddish response to Teamster spinmeisters' manipulation of the issue of part-time work. The outrage over part-time employment reflects a more profound, long-term fear and anger over job quality -- especially wages and job security. There is also evidence of a so far limited and fragile shift toward supporting collective solutions -- legislation, unionization -- for these workplace problems. But it is too early to dub the UPS strike a watershed. Rather, it represents an opening for labor to retake the offensive -- an opportunity that can only become a reality if labor and its allies redouble their organizing efforts.


  1. Wall Street Journal, "Little Big Labor," August 21, 1997. return

  2. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Research Department, "Half a Job Is Not Enough: How the Shift to More Part-Time Employment Undermines Good Jobs at UPS," June 1997. UPS management claims that only 57 percent of their workforce is part-time, but this doesn't change the basic trend. return

  3. For more extensive discussion of the facts about part-time work, including sources, see Chris Tilly, Half a Job: Bad and Good Part-Time Jobs in a Changing Labor Market (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1996). return

  4. Alec R. Levenson, "Part-timers often choose limited hours," Los Angeles Times, August 11, 1997; "Part-time jobs aren't a trend," Boston Globe, August 13, 1997 (these are both the same article under different titles). return

  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 1995. Contingent and Alternative Employment Arrangements, Report 900, Table 5. return

  6. Edmund L. Andrews, "Don't go away mad, just go away: Can AT&T be the nice guy as it cuts 40,000 jobs?" New York Times, February 13, 1996, D1-D10. return

  7. Hal Salzman, "The implications of corporate restructuring for workforce development strategies: 'Employability' vs. 'sustainable employment'." Working paper, Jobs for the Future, Boston, MA, 1996. return

  8. Henry S. Farber. The changing face of job loss in the United States, 1981-1993. Working Paper #360, Industrial Relations Section, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 1996. return

  9. Johanne Boisjoly, Greg J. Duncan, and Timothy Smeeding. 1994. Have highly skilled workers fallen from grace? The shifting burdens of involuntary job losses from 1968 to 1992. Mimeo, University of Quebec, Rimouski, 1994. return

  10. U.S. Council of Economic Advisors. Economic Report of the President 1997. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997. Table B-45. return

  11. Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and John Schmitt. The State of Working America, 1996-97. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. return

  12. Stephen J. Rose, On Shaky Ground: Rising Fears about Income and Earnings, Washington, DC: National Commission on Employment Policy, Research Report 94-02, 1994; Declining Job Security and the Professionalization of Opportunity. Washington, DC: National Commission on Employment Policy, Research Report 95-04, 1995. return

  13. Robert Samuelson, The Good Life and Its Discontents. New York: Times Books, 1995. return

  14. Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers, "Worker Representation and Participation Survey: First Report of Findings," London School of Economics and University of Wisconsin Law School, December 1994. return

  15. Kerri S. Smith, "Study on worker attitudes is bad news for business," Rocky Mountain News, November 5, 1995, 1R. return

  16. Emily Nelson, "Hot goods or just rewards?", Work Week, Wall Street Journal, February 6, 1996, A1. return

  17. Christina Duff, "We are so attached to our UPS man, we feel for him," Wal Street Journal, August 14, 1997, A1, A6. return

  18. ABC News Nightline, "Part-time work -- Are we all headed in that direction?" ABC Transcript #4231, August 12, 1997, p.3. return

  19. Jim Stormes, "Common ground: Bishops' letter on economy deserves support," Dollars and Sense, September 1987, 13-15. return

  20. Joann S. Lublin and Joseph B. White, "Dilbert's revenge: Throwing off angst, workers are feeling in control of careers." Wall Street Journal, September 11, 1997, A1, A6. return

  21. Steven Greenhouse, "A victory for labor, but how far will it go?" New York Times, August 20, 1997, A1, A22. return

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