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  Public Employee Press

PEP Feb 2001
Table of Contents
  La Voz

Public Employee Press

Fixing workfare: Union strategy for 2001


District Council 37 plans to use this election year to draw greater public attention to the problems of the city’s workfare program.

Because the mayoralty, comptroller and public advocate and a large majority of City Council seats are up for grabs this year, unions and welfare rights advocates have a unique opportunity to press for major changes in the Work Experience Program.

Representatives of unions, religious groups and community organizations gathered Dec. 14 at DC 37 headquarters for a briefing on workfare. They exchanged ideas about ways to use the political system to help change the welfare-to-work program, which takes jobs and promotions from public employees and is likened by its harshest critics to modern-day slavery for public assistance recipients.

DC 37, New York Jobs with Justice and Community Voices Heard sponsored the forum, where members Dorothy Chambers of Local 1549 and Lester Greene of Local 2507 joined in a lively question and answer session.

Problem: low wages
DC 37 Policy Director Debbie Bell, one of the panelists, said the problems associated with WEP go far beyond the program itself. She pointed to the general need to address the plight of the city’s low-wage workers, which has been aggravated by shrinking opportunities for jobs with decent wages and growing income disparity.

A coalition dedicated to true welfare reform, Ms. Bell said, should convince political candidates to push to eliminate the current workfare program and implement a real public sector jobs program to improve the city’s quality of life. The coalition should also press politicians to back living wage campaigns, tax policies that encourage job creation, universal health care and child care and affordable housing, Ms. Bell said.

“We will not be satisfied until we have eliminated the WEP program and replaced it with a transitional jobs program,” said panelist Eliot Seide, a deputy administrator of DC 37. He criticized the program for displacing public employees, driving down wages and pitting union members against poor and non-union workers.

This year, the DC 37 will seek additional funding for a transitional jobs program for WEP participants, Mr. Seide said. Last year, the City Council adopted the program, but the Giuliani administration has not implemented it. “We will only endorse a mayoral candidate who supports real jobs with dignity,” said Seide, underscoring how important the elimination of workfare is to the union’s electoral agenda.

DC 37 is also fighting the city’s abuse of the WEP program through a series of lawsuits. Last year, the union filed lawsuits over the use of WEP workers in Parks and clerical jobs, and the city unsuccessfully sought to have the cases dismissed. In October, DC 37 staff attorney Mary O’Connell argued in opposition to the city’s appeal of the Parks ruling, and last month she argued against its appeal of the clerical ruling.

The union’s case against the Health and Hospitals Corp. awaits a trial date, and a pre-trial conference was held on a fourth union case dealing with WEPs who are doing the jobs of unionized custodial workers.

“There should be a real welfare-to-work program,” said President Michael Hood of Local 1505, which represents Parks workers. “The city’s WEP program is just substituting lower cost labor for our members.”



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