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Commentary Last Updated: Dec 20th, 2007 - 00:57:16

Outsourced: How i went from wage slave to independent contractor
By Chris Christensen
Online Journal Guest Writer

Dec 20, 2007, 00:10

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My job was recently outsourced -- not to India or to Mexico -- but to myself. A part-time courier, I drive a route between Portland and Salem, Oregon, picking up blood samples from veterinary clinics for delivery to a diagnostics laboratory.

I�m in my late 60s, and I work to supplement my Social Security income. For five years I worked directly for the lab, using its vehicles filled with gas that they paid for. They supplied uniforms and communications devices. I knew the office people, other drivers, the management. I enjoyed the good folks who ran the office, the other drivers, and even felt appreciated by �the powers that be,� the people who signed my paycheck.

All that changed when the lab announced it would be contracting with a courier service for the pickup and delivery of samples. My fellow drivers and I were given one week to make a choice: work for the courier service or lose our jobs. Not only was the name on our shirts going to change, but there were other changes. The shirts? We�d be paying for them. The cars supplied by the old company? Gone. We would use our own cars, pay for the gas, the walkie-talkies, and anything else that used to be supplied.

After the initial shock, I sank into a few days of depression, anger, and ambivalence before I decided to remain on the job. Compensation includes a pay hike from roughly $8 to $15 per hour, plus a tax write-off for mileage. I like to drive and had developed a rapport with the veterinarians and technicians on my route. I�m fortunate enough to own an eight-year-old car that gets 30-plus miles per gallon, and I�m blessed with a marvelous, supportive partner who encouraged me to stay on. Some of my fellow workers had no such luck. A few immediately lost their jobs for lack of a car; others owned old cars not up to the task, so they �chose� to leave.

A few weeks have passed since I was elevated to the exalted status of independent contractor, and I�ve settled back into the job, driving a bit slower and keeping a sharp eye on gas prices. I harbor no ill will toward supervisors at the lab, who after all, made a business decision based on increasing costs of maintaining a fleet of vehicles. Nor do I hold anything against the courier service, whose managers were friendly and helpful during the transition.

The problem is systemic. I think it�s important to place what happened to me and my co-workers in Portland in the context of what�s happened to millions of wage earners in America over the past generation or so. Although my politics lean left, I think capitalism has proved to be the best economic system, but only when tightly regulated. Capitalism would work even better if a higher percentage of the workforce were unionized. Even Adam Smith, the great capitalist icon, emphasized the importance of a living wage for workers. A living wage provides the spending power that drives a thriving capitalist economy. When unions were at their peak after World War II and into the 1980s, the country�s wealth, created by capitalists and workers alike, was more equitably shared and the nation prospered.

My father�s story is a perfect example. He dropped out of school after the 8th grade and worked on the railroad in Iowa. In the late 1930s he got an apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, eventually earning a journeyman�s card. Union membership allowed him to climb into the middle class and buy a home and provide for his family. The bargaining power provided my father through his union created the middle class and put workers on an even footing with management. In the past 20 years or so, labor unions have shrunk and jobs have simply gone away. Or they�re outsourced and dressed up as �Independent Contractor.� The name may sound important, but the position carries little economic or political weight. The relationship between the contractor and the company is heavily weighted toward the latter. In addition to driving my own car and buying the gas, the contract includes the following:

�Contractor Not Entitled to Company Benefits.�

�Contractor Not Entitled to State or Federal Unemployment Benefits.�

�Contractor Not Entitled to Workers� Compensation Benefits.� Ironically, in the event I need a substitute to drive my route, I am �responsible for providing and assuring� that the substitute �is covered by workers� compensation as required by law.�

Finally, the Independent Contractor is required to pay a �Membership Fee� of approximately $100 per month, a fee that may be changed �at any time.�

One could say to me, why don�t you honor your father and fight to organize a union? As an independent contractor, I�m not allowed to do that, according to federal law.

Independent? I�m independent all right: Independent of any job security, rights to organize, and workers compensation. If my car breaks down, I�m an �Independent contractor� with his thumb out hoping for a ride back to town.

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