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Organizing based on skill

As "virtual" corporations increasingly dip into the work force for just short-term contracts, unions are responding with a strategy from the Middle Ages: the guild.

Unions are attempting to harness the rise in "free-agent" contractual labor by organizing workers by skill, rather than by a common company or factory floor. They aim to answer the boom in private temp companies with union agencies that seek to provide job stability and top-of-line benefits, say labor experts.

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For example, the South Bay AFL-CIO in San Jose, Calif., this year launched a nonprofit employment agency that has placed nearly 100 clerical workers in regional jobs. Working Partnerships USA pays the temps $10 an hour, or $2 more than rival agencies. It also seeks to gain a competitive edge by offering a health plan.

The union agency plans to expand into a full range of professions, including those in high tech, says Amy Dean, executive officer for the South Bay AFL-CIO and founding director of Working Partnerships USA.

"We envision a high-tech hiring hall that would build a sense of stability for people caught in the middle of a very volatile labor market in which companies hand off responsibility for their workers to an intermediary," says Ms. Dean.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society