GREGORY N. HEIRES
District Council 37 plans to use this election year
to draw greater public attention to the problems of the citys 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.
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.
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 citys 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
citys 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.
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.
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 unions electoral agenda.
37 is also fighting the citys 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 OConnell argued in opposition
to the citys appeal of the Parks ruling, and last month she argued against
its appeal of the clerical ruling.
The unions 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
There should be a real welfare-to-work program,
said President Michael Hood of Local 1505, which represents Parks workers. The
citys WEP program is just substituting lower cost labor for our members.