By Eleanor J. Bader

This article is from the September/October 1997 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the September/October 1997 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 213 cover
It is 7 a.m. when Ava gets to her job at a Brooklyn, N.Y. Department of Sanitation garage. After exchanging the usual morning pleasantries with her co-workers, she gets her supplies for the day: a dustpan, a broom and a garbage can on wheels. She then ties her plastic lunch bag to the handle of the can.

"We don't have lockers, so there's no place to store anything," the 49-year-old welfare-recipient-turned-workfare-participant explains. "We're not treated like regular sanitation workers. We don't have uniforms. We don't have shoes. We don't even get training. This is the only place I have to put my lunch. Otherwise, I have to wait till I get home to eat. I leave my house at 6 a.m. and don't get home again until after 3. If I don't do this I'm starved."

Ava is one of nearly 75,000 New Yorkers currently participating in the Work Experience Program (WEP), a welfare-to-work experiment begun even before the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRA) spurred a shift toward such programs in August l996. New York's WEP program is the nation's largest, and places welfare recipients in minimum wage jobs with the City's Department of Sanitation, Parks Department, Board of Education and Human Resources Administration (HRA).

It is HRA that runs the City's welfare programs. While most WEP workers have been placed in custodial positions, some perform administrative duties: from data entry, to filing, to translating documents into Spanish, Creole, Korean, Russian or Chinese, to training incoming WEP workers. In addition, about 4,000 WEP participants are assigned to private, not-for-profit agencies like the Central Park Conservancy.

In theory, workfare requires a welfare recipient to "work off" his or her family's grant. New York divides the household's cash benefits, plus the dollar value of its food stamps, by the minimum wage to determine the number of hours a person must spend on the job. Ava, with a family of five, works six days, and is then off for six days, 12 months a year. She gets no vacation and must provide medical verification for all absences.

"I like what I do because I can see the difference it makes," the high school drop-out says. "But I'd like to get a real job, paying a real salary. I actually have less money now than I had before I started working because I have to do my laundry two or three times a week. I get filthy. I also have to pay for new shoes all the time because they wear out so fast from all the walking I do." A few months ago, Ava called the city to ask the date of the next civil service exam for sanitation employment. "I was told that nothing was scheduled, that no test dates had been set. I've been in this workfare job for almost a year and no new people have been hired, just WEP workers."

Like Ava, the lion's share of workfare participants are simply trying to make ends meet, raise their kids and survive. Unlike Ava, many do not know their rights. For the past year, New York community groups, with the help of several small unions, have been trying to organize WEP participants and force New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and other officials to recognize that WEP workers deserve the same protections as other workers. One of the first was WEP Workers Together, a group formed in the spring of 1996 by a coalition between the Brooklyn-based Fifth Avenue Committee, the Urban Justice Center and Community Voices Heard. It now has three full-time organizers who pay daily visits to WEP sites, trying to mobilize participants around their issues as workers. From the point of view of the Fifth Avenue Committee's director of organizing, Benjamin Dulchin, the coalition is "sowing the fields because organized labor has been slow on the uptake. But because we are not labor, we are not the ultimate vessel of change."

In contrast, the strategy of the community organizing group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is not to organize WEP participants into standing unions but to form a new, unaffiliated one. Its five full-time and seven part-time organizers have already gotten signed "union cards" from about 12,000 WEP workers.

Meanwhile workfare is gathering steam quickly, and threatens to have a devastating impact not only on families on welfare but on labor markets (see article by McCrate). Fifty percent of all welfare recipients must be enrolled in workfare by the year 2002. By July 1, l997, just 11 months after the bill's signing, 25% of New York's recipients were in WEP. New York City expects to "employ" l00,000 WEP workers by mid-l998.

"Workfare has sawed the bottom rung off the economic ladder," says Dulchin of the Fifth Avenue Committee. "Workfare takes away the entry level jobs that people used to get. There is now a hiring freeze in New York City. Why? Because WEP workers are doing the jobs. You go to the Parks Department and they have lost 2,000 jobs in the last couple of years but they have 6,000 WEP workers. You go to a sanitation garage and the foreman says they've lost 20 workers and gained 60 WEP people. There has been massive displacement—around 21,000 workers—through buy-outs [early retirement] and natural attrition. This affects the workforce as a whole."

In addition, Dulchin continues, workfare is "terrible public policy" because it fails to meet its ostensible goal—moving people from welfare to self-support. "The proven way to move people from welfare to work is to increase educational opportunity. But people on WEP are being thrown out of GED and ESL classes. Last year alone 8,000 people were tossed out of the City University. The government thought it was more important for them to sweep the streets than to learn English or get a high school equivalency diploma or degree."

"Certain literacy programs are no longer accepting people on public assistance since these programs are paid by the number of people who complete them," he continued. "Welfare recipients are not likely to finish because they have to comply with WEP."

There has been some headway in improving conditions for those on workfare. In one particularly egregious case, a 51-year-old woman, assigned to work outdoors, hit her head on the street after passing out from the cold last winter and lost her hearing in one ear. Her enraged co-workers called WEP Workers Together and staged a demonstration at the site. They succeeded in pressuring the Parks Department to provide heavy coats and gloves to all WEP workers on that "team." Workers have scored similar victories at other sites.

"You go to a work site and you say, 'You go out all day, every day, and you work hard. You deserve a decent wage,'" says Dulchin of the Fifth Avenue Committee. "And people say, 'Yeah, you're right.' It's a very powerful focus for organizing. It also breaks down the artificial barrier between the working and non-working poor. That's key. That's the barrier that's been exploited by the right wing. It's clear that workfare workers are workers, and if organized labor can appropriate these workers, it will unite what have been two divided movements."

Along similar lines, ACORN's organizers have been pressuring the City to develop a grievance policy for WEP workers. But ACORN also has national goals. According to Jon Kest, ACORN's Director of Special Projects, "We want workfare workers to be able to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit that other low-wage workers are entitled to, and we want WEP participants to be able to do other kinds of programs, training programs, that have more potential down the line."

Still, activists see their efforts as an uphill battle. "There is so much turnover," says Janet Wilson, an organizer with WEP Workers Together. "Every time you go to a worksite there's a different group working. Shifts change constantly. They work three, four, five, six days straight, but which days are they?"

Wilson is heartened, however, by two recent lawsuits challenging WEP implementation brought by the Welfare Law Center, the National Employment Law Project, Inc., the Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Davis, Polk and Wardwell. While both cases are stayed pending appeal, both have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of workfare participants. In one case, decided in mid-May, State Supreme Court Justice Jane S. Solomon ruled that the City must pay WEP workers comparable wages to those provided to regular employees. That is, if the prevailing wage for a City worker is $12 an hour, WEP workers should be entitled to the same amount.

In the other case, decided in March, the same judge ordered the city to stop requiring welfare recipients to take workfare assignments if it interferes with their studies in college or vocational school. She also ruled that all recipients are entitled to an assessment and placement in the type of activity—for instance school or job training, not workfare—that is most to their benefit.

Wilson also sees the efforts of some of the City's smaller trade unions as positive steps in the right direction. While District Council 37 of AFSCME, the union representing the vast majority of City employees, has until very recently been shockingly reticent about opposing workfare or organizing WEP workers. Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 1180 has pulled together a coalition which includes United Auto Workers Local 2325, The Organization of Staff Analysts, The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 726, and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100. The group meets regularly with WEP Workers Together and ACORN to encourage collaboration.

"We lend a certain moral authority to the battle," says CWA's Bill Henning. "We know the difference between real work and something else and WEP is real work. It benefits the city, its residents and visitors. We are impressing upon our members that there is no such thing as bad or menial work. There's only demeaning pay and bad conditions. Folks on public assistance want jobs, but we don't believe in jobs without real benefits or real pay."

What CWA does believe in is organizing. It gives material aid to organizers, advocates for public policy changes, disseminates literature on workfare to its members and rallies for day care for WEP workers. But Henning knows that the struggle to integrate workfare participants into the labor force is a national one, and he is hopeful that more unions will fully commit to it.

In June, the national office of the AFL-CIO joined with women's, civil rights and church groups in opposing GOP assaults on a Department of Labor decision giving workfare workers the right to a minimum wage. Individual unions have also jumped into the fray. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has prepared a state-by-state guide to welfare "reform" and has drafted model contract language to protect both workfare workers and regular staff in terms of wages, health and safety, hiring and firing, and benefits. In addition, several SEIU locals have organized their workers to demand that city governments consult with them before accepting WEP workers.

"Union concurrence language says that if you place people in a unionized workplace, you have to confer with the union before you do it," says Marc Baldwin, assistant director, Public Policy Department, AFL-CIO. "This sets the stage to reduce the sense of us versus them right from the beginning."

While some union activists see such language as capitulation—as acceptance of minimally-paid welfare recipients moving into positions once filled by union workers—others see the language as a way of intercepting the real world. Since their unions barely protested the fiscal cutbacks of the late l980s and early 1990s, they argue, they need to simultaneously deal with last year's welfare "reform" act and also push for a massive, national, job and training program.

Nonetheless, seasoned organizers fear that even this will prove contentious. As the AFL's Marc Baldwin reminds us, the $3 billion that Congress allocated to "job creation" and "positive transitions" from welfare to work may mean huge subsidies and tax breaks for companies that hire welfare recipients and may also whittle away at union-won protections while offering nothing in the way of transferable skills to WEP workers. "We've already seen a feeding frenzy," he says. "Groups like the Chamber of Commerce are saying that the government will have to get rid of every positive labor law—including the Fair Labor Standards Act (which establishes a minimum wage)—to make this work."

While unions are focusing on preserving hard-won wages and benefit protections, and community groups are organizing to extend these protections to welfare recipients, still left to be done in workfare organizing is challenging the pervasive stereotypes of welfare recipients as stupid, untrustworthy, and lazy. Since a broad cross-section of the general public supports workfare, public education must show the real costs of the program. Organizing also needs to stay focused on the big economic development picture—just where are the living wage jobs and child care for low-skilled workers in the "new" lean, skill-based, hi-tech economy?

The sobering reality is that even if Ava wins a locker, a uniform, and a permanent, salaried position, her toehold on economic security will remain tenuous. "I just want to be able to support my family," she says. "But I don't read that well and I can't do office work. I really don't know where to turn."

Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn-based writer and teacher.

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