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Part-Time Work is Not the Problem

November 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Contingent Staffing, Labor Relations, Featured Article
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Mystery writer Agatha Christie once observed that, "The oddest things in life, I think, are the things one remembers." My experience is that she was on to something; the seemingly random pieces of conversations or sensations that pop unexpectedly to the forefront of our thoughts are, indeed, quite puzzling.

I was reminded of Christie’s observation once again when I first heard the news on August 4 that United Parcel Service (UPS) drivers had walked off the job. Suddenly I recalled a conversation I’d had with a UPS senior-level HR executive at a party more than three years earlier. Predictably, we were talking about current business challenges, and he expressed some concern that UPSmight soon face a strike. At the time, he saw benefits as the likely bone of contention. His worry was that the demand for benefits—and particularly for health-care coverage—would outpace UPS’s ability to pay for them.

That crisis, we now know, never happened. Nonetheless, I was struck by how much difference just a few years makes in shaping how we look at issues. In 1994, rising health-care costs was a primary concern everywhere, and it constituted a major part of our editorial coverage, too. Today, that issue—which remains unresolved—has fallen far down most HRpriority lists. In 1994, the labor market was such that most employers could afford to be choosy about whom they hired and often could dictate terms. Today, the labor market is such that job prospects are often in a better position to dictate terms.

Shari Caudron’s cover story does a good job of articulating the stated and unstated reasons for the strike and for the public’s broad support of the union. Clearly, there are lessons to be learned by all of us in business. I don’t think it takes anything away from Shari’s story, however, to caution against losing sight of the forest by looking too closely at the trees.

Right now, our attention is properly focused on the use of part-time labor. Each side has stated its case, and there are truths in all the arguments stated. But there are other questions to be asked.

It may be true that the average employee has yet to see the benefits of our healthy economy in real wages. However, those same employees are enjoying unparalleled clout as consumers, keeping prices low and demanding ever-better value. The new Honda Accord, for example, features more power and better features than its predecessor, yet it’s priced about the same.

It doesn’t take Einstein to see that sooner or later something’s got to give. The public can’t successfully demand low prices and high wages simultaneously. Which, as a society, do we value more? It’s an unanswered question.

Rhetoric about the merits of a part-time workforce also obscures the tougher questions. Employers argue that in order to stay flexible and competitive, they need to use contingent employees. Dissenters argue that part-time jobs are designed for the sole purpose of avoiding benefits costs. The reality is somewhere in between.

Missing from the dialogue, however, is an acknowledgment from either side that the nature of work is changing, and with it the traditional definition of jobs. Both are changing, whether we like it or not. We do nobody any favors by continuing to pretend that some variation of traditional reward structures will keep working. They won’t. And until we step back to redefine jobs—and the way work is rewarded—events like the UPS strike will continue to happen.

Workforce, November 1997, Vol. 76, No. 11, p. 4.

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