WEP (Workers Expect Paychecks)

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The work week usually starts winding down by 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoons at the Sanitation Department office building in Lower Manhattan. This Thursday seems about the same. All is quiet in the lobby. Until 4:05, that is, when nearly 100 men and women in well-worn laborers’ clothes push open the front doors and head for the elevator bank.

They want the seventh floor, where Commissioner John Doherty works.

Two cops intercept them. “Where do you think you’re going?” says Officer Fernandez, drawn into the press of bodies, eyes darting left, right and center. “Where you’re going is not a public area. Back up. Just back up.” Officer Hawkins blocks the men and women from stepping into the elevators. Bewildered bureaucrats take haven in the back of the lobby.

“What do you want here?” asks Fernandez, providing the cue for the protesters to begin chanting.

“We want work! We want work,” they shout over and over. It’s not that they don’t have “work” per se–they are on welfare, enrolled in the city’s workfare Work Experience Program (WEP). They spend their days picking up litter on city streets. What they want is real work with a real paycheck.

The cops don’t like the frenzy. Hawkins threatens the leaders at the front of the crowd with arrest. Sirens bellow on the street and five more cops rush inside.

That’s when the police pull an old trick. They offer to take five leaders from the group–including a pair of organizers from ACORN, the Brooklyn-based activist group that planned the protest–upstairs to meet the commissioner. First, the rest of the group has to move outside. The leaders agree. But once they are on the seventh floor, Officer Fernandez informs them the commissioner and his aides don’t want to see them.

“So we came up for nothing,” says an incredulous Sharon Bush, one of the organizers. “He’s dissing us right now.”

“We could lock you up right now,” replies the cop, as his partner hurries a few worried department bureaucrats to an inner door. “It’s time to leave the building.”

Outside, a man wearing a cap and a vinyl coat stands at the edge of Tom Paine Park beside the cop cars and 70 or 80 other WEP workers. His name is Julius Manigault. He’s just finished his shift sweeping the streets in Washington Heights. “I clean streets 41 hours every two weeks wearing filthy clothes other people have worn, picking up garbage bags in drug-infested areas with needles and all kinds of contraband. That’s not right,” he says.

“If they need this work done, they should give me a job,” he adds. “But this program, it’s not designed for that.”

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The Sanitation Department happens to be headquartered in an art deco box of a building put up at the height of Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration in 1935. That’s when the government put millions of unemployed men and women to work–and gave them a paycheck, not a welfare check. The historical irony was apparently overlooked by Doherty, the cops and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In the weeks since his officers subdued the mid-February WEP workers’ demonstration, Doherty has still refused to meet with them.

But City Hall may not be able to ignore the WEP workers and their demands much longer. Mayor Giuliani has been stoking the WEP program up to full fire for more than a year, placing tens of thousands of welfare recipients in low-skilled city jobs and getting huge value from what was once just a welfare check. During most of that time he has kept municipal union leaders mollified by convincing them their members’ jobs and work standards would not be undermined by the presence of a massive new unpaid labor force. But the mayor’s assurances have begun to ring hollow in the halls of big labor.

As City Limits goes to press, Executive Director Stanley Hill of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees–which represents about 120,000 city workers–is deliberating with leaders of the AFSCME International on how to begin organizing New York’s workfare workers on a much larger scale. The move comes on the heels of the February 18 passage of a resolution at the national meeting of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles, which called for an all-out organizing campaign to secure collective bargaining rights for people on workfare.

This could mean serious problems for Giuliani’s massive workfare program. In their preliminary outline of the campaign, union officials say they want workfare programs to abide by all labor laws, to ensure workers’ access to education and training–and to guarantee that there’s a clear ladder from workfare to paid, union-scale municipal jobs. The mayor’s program offers none of these things.

“These workers should be treated with the same respect and dignity as our membership,” Hill says. “They are workers who need some collective bargaining. And I have to represent my members as well, so that there won’t be any displacement.”

While Hill insists this doesn’t mean he’s preparing for a confrontation with Giuliani, a top DC 37 aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, is a bit more direct. “A lot of us are looking at this as the fight of our lives,” the aide explains. “We will do everything we can to win this one.”

The Personal Responsibility Act President Clinton signed into law last year authorized a plan to move millions of welfare recipients into jobs or workfare over the next few years–including hundreds of thousands in New York City. Soon after the bill became law, national union leaders began worrying about the danger of creating a new, unpaid labor force that could knock the floor out from beneath their members’ wages and work standards. When they saw how the program was playing out in New York, their concerns mounted.

“It’s an attempt to substitute one class of poor people for another class of workers, who, if you succeed, will become poor themselves,” charges Paul Booth, director of organizing for the AFSCME International. “The politicians are trying to drive down the standards of the rest of the workforce. That’s their brilliant and evil motivation.”

Ultimately, labor leaders also began to learn how workfare workers might be effectively organized–thanks in part to close ties between ACORN and the Service Employees International Union, which represents municipal and low-wage workers in many cities, and between AFSCME and another community organizing network, the Industrial Areas Foundation.

“Workfare programs in New York and Los Angeles have been sort of canaries in the mine shaft,” says ACORN founder Wade Rathke, who is also the founder of the two fastest growing locals in the SEIU. “There’s no more dramatic situation than what we’ve seen in New York. It’s not a pretty sight.”

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Over the winter, WEP workers wearing their own clothes beneath reflective orange vests, walking the streets with garbage bins alongside, have become as ubiquitous as cops on scooter patrol. They trudge through the parks in groups, clearing brush and plucking up litter. They clean and paint hallways in city housing projects. And they process paperwork in city offices. The number of hours they work is based on the value of their welfare check and food stamp allotment, divided by the $4.75 minimum wage. For those on Home Relief, the welfare program for adults without children, that can mean roughly 70 hours of work each month for just over $320 in benefits–less than half of it in cash.

If they miss one day of work, they can be bumped off public assistance entirely. Only a few dozen have moved into paid city jobs, most through a special program set up by AFSCME and the Board of Education to train cafeteria workers.

These men and women are walking evidence not so much of a new agenda of “personal responsibility” in welfare, but rather of the awesome labor and welfare savings achieved by the Giuliani administration during the last two years. The welfare rolls are down by more than 220,000 since March 1995, saving the city $58 million each month, according to the city comptroller. WEP is one of the mayor’s most effective tools for moving high numbers of men and women off the welfare rolls. And his gains are quickly mounting.

During the 16 months ending last October, the city placed a total of 166,683 men and women into the program, according to the Mayor’s Office of Operations. That’s nearly 10,500 new people each month. Yet the HRA press office says there are currently only 38,000 public assistance recipients in WEP. If the administration’s numbers are accurate, then, as many as 130,000 people have either been kicked off the welfare rolls for failing to abide by the strict work rules, been moved temporarily out of the program, or they’ve left welfare of their own accord.

Those who’ve stayed have many complaints, ranging from the lack of uniforms to reports of demeaning or dangerous assignments. WEP workers report that supervisors have forced them to clean toilets and do other janitorial work even though they’ve been assigned to a clerical job. Others say they’ve been asked to handle dangerous cleaning chemicals without the proper gear. But the most common complaint heard from these workers is more fundamental.

“It’s a matter of respect,” says Keith Brabham, a sanitation department WEP worker. He and his colleagues standing outside a Brooklyn sanitation garage say they want assignments that teach them new and useful skills and offer the promise of a real job. And those already enrolled in college or training programs want to continue with their studies and not have to clean city streets for 20 hours each week.

Many WEP workers struggle with their pride when they talk with outsiders. They are defensive, pointing out that they’ve worked and paid taxes much of their lives, and angry that the program looks more like public punishment than a job. It doesn’t help that WEP workers have to walk the streets and parks sheathed in fluorescent orange vests.

“It’s like a chain gang,” says Wayne Hargrove, a former air traffic control dispatcher in the Air Force who also worked as a medical lab technician in the 10 years since he left the military. He’s been on Home Relief for a year.

Hargrove says he sought training to update his skills, but the city was no help in finding a program. He was doing clerical work at the parks department as a WEP. But now he’s assigned to pick up garbage in the park. “When people learn some new skills, that’s when they put them out picking up garbage. It’s debilitating.

“It’s fine to demand that people look for jobs. Give people skills. I need my lab skills upgraded. I haven’t been an air traffic dispatcher for years. But there’s absolutely nothing for training. I’ve looked all over for a training program. There’s nothing.”

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Up until now, only a handful of small community organizations have set out to organize the WEP workers. ACORN is the largest among them, with the most organizing resources and longtime support from philanthropic powerhouses such as the Catholic Church’s Campaign for Human Development.

ACORN has been working to build a mass base of low-income people for nearly three decades. Its earliest work was in the welfare rights movement. By expanding WEP, says ACORN New York Director Jon Kest, City Hall has handed the group a major opportunity.

“Normally it’s very hard to do welfare rights organizing,” he explains. “But now you have pissed-off people forced into easily organizable units. They’re at the workplace, at the sanitation garages and housing projects. They set these people up to be organized.”

Yet as it stands now, ACORN has only seven full-time organizers devoted to the campaign and is unlikely to muster the numbers they need to become a collective bargaining force representing a majority of WEP workers. “Only the unions have the resources to organize this many people,” Kest says.

On Valentine’s Day, Stanley Hill and AFSCME International’s legislative director for the northeast region met with Rathke, Kest and a handful of others to discuss what each organization was doing on the workfare front.

Three days later, the leaders of the AFL-CIO met in Los Angeles and issued their groundbreaking workfare resolution. The AFSCME International, along with the SEIU and the Communications Workers of America, were committed to organizing the hundreds of thousands–and potentially millions–of people already in or headed for workfare programs nationwide.

It’s taken a long time to reach this point. Here in New York, Stanley Hill has spoken out on the issue only a handful of times, first when pressed by City Limits last summer, saying only that DC 37’s past efforts to organize WEP workers had been blocked by the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining.

Soon after, following enactment of the 1996 federal welfare bill, Hill appeared in the daily papers denouncing the mayor’s rapid expansion of the program. But he quieted his criticism after meeting with the mayor, saying he believed City Hall was responsive to concerns that WEP workers might take positions previously held by unionized workers. Part of the deal he worked out with Giuliani included three joint committees to oversee the WEP program, teaming top municipal union leaders with mayoral advisers including WEP architect Richard Schwartz.

But the committees rarely met. At the beginning of this year, Schwartz announced he was leaving the administration to market his workfare expertise with a national consulting business. And by that time it was increasingly obvious to all who paid attention–and especially to tens of thousands of unionized city employees–that WEP workers were doing entry-level jobs union people had done in the past, from administrative assistants and office aides in welfare offices to administrative associates in the Fire Department. WEP workers have taken over some subway station janitorial jobs formerly done by members of the Transit Workers Union, and, according to Teamsters Local 237 Director Nicholas Mancuso, 2,000 WEP workers are now “custodial aides” at the Housing Authority. Last month, Mancuso threatened to take the city to court on the job replacement issue. Members in some of DC 37’s own locals, particularly the hospital and social service workers, were growing angry.

“There have been a number of major complaints,” says Bill Henning, vice-president of Communication Workers of America Local 1180, which represents 6,500 middle-level supervisors in several city agencies. “Certainly the WEP workers are doing work that used to be done by members of the unions.”

For several months, DC 37 officials said they did not believe they had legal standing to organize the WEP workers. The main difficulty was a 1981 decision by the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining, based on an earlier incarnation of the WEP program, that outlawed workfare unionization. But a number of lawyers and unionists now argue the 1981 decision is irrelevant: the current WEP program, they charge, bears virtually no resemblance to that of 16 years ago.

With the facts underlying the ruling having changed so dramatically, they say, it’s time to make a new challenge. And the unions are finally moving that way.

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On the national front, AFSCME made its support of workfare organizing explicit in January by backing the efforts of a small, new union local in Baltimore.

The union had paired up a few years ago with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national community organizing group, to create the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee/Local 1711, organizing low-wage employees of Baltimore city contractors. The IAF demanded local legislation requiring city contractors to pay higher wages, and the legislation passed. Today, members of the local who were making the minimum wage are now earning $6.60 an hour or more. And jobs that had been contracted to the private sector have returned to government agencies, helping AFSCME’s membership.

Now the city’s burgeoning workfare program is a threat, says IAF organizer Jonathan Lange. “There are rules against displacing city workers. But it’s not considered displacement if a low-wage contract worker loses a job to a workfare worker in a city agency. We don’t want to defend the old welfare system, but nobody supports the notion that reform should be done at the expense of low-wage workers.”

Local 1711 and its 400 members have mounted a campaign to organize workfare workers, demanding they be given all the rights of paid employees–including a living wage, not a welfare check, in exchange for their toil.

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO leadership, including President John Sweeney and national AFSCME president Gerald W. McEntee, are lobbying the Clinton administration’s labor and human services officials to issue regulations that would place workfare participants under the same labor laws as their paid colleagues, reports one top union official.

Workfare participants “are not at this time considered to be employees” as far as the administration is concerned, according to Labor Department spokesman Randy Wilson. Therefore they don’t qualify for the same protections as other workers. But the lobbying appears to be having an impact. Wilson says the workfare labor regulations “are being actively discussed in various working groups between the agencies. It’s something they are agonizing over and talking about.”

But the most crucial fight is at the local level. Mayor Giuliani contends WEP workers are not employees at all, and that if they fail to show up for their shift, they can lose their welfare benefits. Beyond that, his press office refuses to comment on the unionization efforts.

Because WEP workers are working for the city, it’s up to the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining to decide whether or not they can unionize, says OCB spokesman Rory Schnurr. “There’s a great likelihood a case will be filed before long,” he adds. At that point, a ruling will be made by a panel of the three independent OCB members, who are appointed jointly by representatives of the mayor and the unions.

Whatever the city and the Clinton administration say, Rathke says the distinction makes no difference to him.

“The question of whether a WEP worker is an employee is a totally different question from whether or not they can have a union,” he says. “If this looks like a cow then it’s a cow. And they will stampede like cattle to protect their rights.”

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In an industrial area south of Linden Boulevard on the edge of Canarsie in Brooklyn, two city sanitation garages occupy a block-square cinder block shed.

Inside, uniformed sanitation workers stand around talking about the overtime they will be making thanks to two February holidays. Beside them are five WEP workers, all of them black women and older men in civilian clothes, standing around, speaking quietly with ACORN organizer Sharon Bush.

It’s the first time ACORN has sent anyone to the site, and some of the WEPs are wary, reticent. But 50-year-old Hartley Stevenson speaks up, saying how unhappy he is about being given a filthy Sanitation Department coat and second-hand gloves to wear when he started the assignment, never being allowed to take them home and wash them. He says he receives $68.50 every half-month from Home Relief, plus a monthly installment of food stamps. For that, he is supposed to work seven hours a day five days a week, every other week. He can’t afford not to–it’s just about his only source of income.

Stevenson signs an ACORN paper authorizing the group to represent him in any collective bargaining with the city. Others sign as well, offering their phone numbers and addresses. One man says he can’t afford to clean his work clothes–he just wears them day after day. “I don’t mind the work,” he adds. “I just want to be paid.”

Within a few minutes, two badge-toting supervisors ask Bush to leave the garage. Outside, as a dozen trucks roar past, the two supervisors tell her she should not be speaking with the WEP workers while they are on duty. Bush promptly turns her organizing charms on them.

“We’re not here because of you all,” she says. “It’s the WEP program we have problems with. Don’t you think it’s disrespectful that these men and women aren’t given coats of their own that they can take home and wash?”

“Yeah, I see what you’re saying,” says one of the supervisors, Mr. Sampson. But it’s not his business. “Talk to the assistant borough supervisor,” he says.

Bush is careful not to antagonize the bosses. Her approach has its payoff: At 8 a.m. in the District 5 sanitation garage on Montauk Avenue, WEP workers are piling into a van to head out to their street assignments. The supervisors turn their backs and head into their offices as Sharon goes into the garage to chat for a few minutes with the workers, most of whom know her. She’s pushing them to come down to an ACORN meeting on Lincoln’s Birthday, a city holiday. And she lets one or two of them know that the group may try to shut down a work site in a couple of weeks if Commissioner Doherty doesn’t agree to meet with the workers.

At this point, Bush and the other organizers are visiting their sites at least once a week, maintaining contact. Despite orders from headquarters to keep community organizers out of the garages, some Sanitation Department employees are quietly allowing the organizing work to go forward. ACORN reports it has gathered collective-bargaining authorization signatures from about 2,000 sanitation WEP workers (many whom may have since left the program), and about as many altogether from within other city agencies.

However, that’s only a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of people flooding into the WEP program.

Seven community organizers are nothing compared to the power of an established union’s potential organizing and lobbying capacity. When DC 37 gets involved, the participation of paid city employees is likely to become far more explicit.

Paul Booth, the AFSCME International’s organizing director, says one of the union’s most powerful tools will be its shop stewards, who already work at most of the sites where WEP workers are assigned. “Combined with the groups doing the organizing on the outside, I think we will have the ability to reach 35,000 or 50,000 workers,” he says. “The stewards will give them a card to sign up for the union at the appropriate stage.”

Neither he nor Hill will give any details about when the union effort will kick into gear, nor will they say how many organizers are to be committed to the task. As City Limits went to press, Hill said he was scheduling meetings with AFSCME International to lay out the strategy. In the meantime, AFSCME and its fellow AFL-CIO unions are working on the Clinton administration. “Congress left undefined whether these people are workers,” says Booth. “We will make government change their mind.

“A worker is someone who is commanded to work. We’ll just have to get the government to do what’s right.”