BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo labor and employment
sociologist says before we can resolve the economic crisis, we need
to understand how we got into it, then get out and stay out.
Erin Hatton, Ph.D., visiting professor of sociology at UB, says
there's plenty of blame to go around, but she points her finger
directly at the temporary employment industry.
"For 50 years, the temporary employment industry -- now one of
the fastest growing sectors of the American economy -- has
deliberately and strenuously worked against government regulators,
unions and public opinion to divest business of its investment in
permanent employees," she says.
"In doing so, it has helped change the very meaning of work in
America, undermining employment standards for all workers."
Hatton says her work illuminates one of the paths that brought
us to the point of economic collapse: a path along which workers
became commodities and work became abstracted from the
"If we understand this," she says, "we can also grasp such
things as how real home mortgages could become default swap
mirages. My research offers a diagnosis of the problem and
describes how something like this could happen. It also offers a
prescription for change that will keep us out of this mess in the
"Perhaps surprisingly to some," Hatton says, "it was the 'Kelly
Girl' -- the bright-eyed, white-gloved icon of the post-war temp
industry -- that helped undo the traditional employment
relationship based on a long-term agreement between employer and
As advertised, the Kelly Girl -- despite her low pay, lack of
job security or employment benefits -- was possessed of a
ubiquitous smile and an eagerness to please. She was, in temp
parlance, the ideal employee.
Hatton says most observers think the emergence of the temp
industry after World War II was a natural response to such
structural changes in the economy as globalization and
deindustrialization, but she says that is not the case.
"Although the temp industry itself fosters this view, the
industry was never driven by the market alone," she says
"Leaders of the temp industry developed and aggressively
marketed a 'no strings attached' model of work in which permanent
employees -- with their job security, health benefits and vacation
days -- were considered a drain on the bottom line," she says.
"To reduce this profit drain, industry leaders sold owners on
the idea of replacing permanent employees with temps," Hatton
"Not only that, they taught employers how to do this by, for
example, shifting permanent employees to the payrolls of temp
agencies or by outsourcing whole departments -- like the mailroom
-- to a temp agency."
She points out that this didn't happen in the 1990s, but in the
1960s and '70s, long before these strategies had become what they
are now, a normal way of operating in the business world.
"Because that 'standard' long-term employment agreement was only
promised to certain workers -- that is, white men -- the temp
industry could easily gain entry into the labor market by selling
temporary work as 'women's work,'" she says. So they did.
"Although temp industry employed substantial numbers of men,"
says Hatton, "early industry leaders sold temp work -- using the
'Kelly Girl' icon -- as perfect for white, middle-class housewives
'with a little extra time on their hands.'"
In so doing, she says the industry established an entirely new
category of work -- at once 'respectable' (white, middle class) and
'marginal' (part time, low paid, no benefits, expendable).
"Later, as the temp industry expanded across the labor market
beyond the pink-collar sector to include factory workers,
engineers, doctors, lawyers and even CEOS," Hatton says, "the temp
industry's model of work helped undermine employment standards for
all workers, including those once protected by the traditional
Hatton's research focuses on work, poverty and public policy,
including topics such as the changing nature of employment, the
modern strikebreaking industry and businesses that profit off of
the poor. She is the co-author of "The Coffee Pot Wars: Unions and
Firm Restructuring in the Hotel Industry," in Low-Wage America: How
Employers are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace (2003, Russell
Sage Foundation). The title of her forthcoming book is The Temp
Industry and the Transformation of Work in America since World War
II (Temple University Press).
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.