Albion Monitor /Commentary

Workfare May Make Things Worse

by David Bacon

Workfare creates no new jobs, and forces welfare recipients into a job market already glutted with the unemployed

Welfare reform -- touted as the way to shake the poor from their passive attitudes -- is about to trigger a frenzied race for jobs. This race is hellbent in the wrong direction, headed for the bottom, not the top, of the workforce, and the runners may include not just welfare recipients but unionized workers, whether they like it or not.

Indeed, the competition between welfare recipients and unemployed workers may squeeze union members off the track altogether.

The fatal flaw in the reform package stems from the fact that the law is written as if five percent of the workforce weren't already unemployed. Forget the fact that five percent of some 120 million equals roughly six million people -- and that doesn't include those who have already given up looking for work or who can barely support themselves on part-time jobs. Forget that 30 years ago five percent unemployment signaled economic recession. The reigning logic in Washington these days is that a five percent unemployment rate is tantamount to full employment.

That's why this fall's election campaign, rather than generating promises of jobs, produced a bill that will drive the jobless even further into the margins. The welfare reform bill forces welfare recipients to enter "workfare" programs, where they work a number of hours at minimum wage to earn the equivalent of their benefit check. Since it also creates no new jobs, it forces welfare recipients into a job market already glutted with the unemployed.

Workfare offers no guarantee of an eventual permanent job paying a livable wage

Not surprisingly, cities are starting to look at welfare recipients as a pool of low-cost labor which can be recruited to replace existing employees, particularly unionized employees.

Last August, for example, with the ink in President Clinton's signature hardly dry, New York City's Municipal Transit Authority (MTA) told the Transit Union, which represents the city's subway and bus workers, that many of its members would be replaced. The best the union could do was to win an agreement that 500 subway cleaning jobs would be eliminated without layoffs, through attrition, as workfare recipients took over their tasks.

The union won on one other point -- eventually a few workfare recipients would be allowed to join the union in permanent, normal wage jobs. That was clearly not what the MTA had in mind. Its goal is a workforce of subway cleaners paid the minimum wage for doing the job that union employees were doing for a much higher wage.

Under welfare reform, the benefit checks coming to these workfare recipients stop coming at the end of two years. But cleaning subways and busses is unskilled work, and they will not have received job training or developed any skills. Since New York City is unlikely to run short of poverty-stricken people desperate for benefits, there will always be a ready pool of new workfare recipients for the MTA.

Public employee unions have long supported the creation of jobs for welfare recipients and unemployed people. But workfare, they argue, offers no solution, since there's no guarantee of an eventual permanent job paying a livable wage. At the same time, the program encourages cities to cut the incomes of their existing workforce to a level which can't support a family.

"When you flood the labor market with workfare recipients," explains Fran Bernstein, from the national office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, "you see enormous wage depression for the bottom third of the workforce. That's intentional." Bernstein says that the union is working with welfare rights and service providers organizations on a basic bill of rights for workfare recipients. It would include the right to the same wage and treatment given other employees, the right to organize unions and protection from unfair discipline.

The stakes in keeping a job are very high for workfare recipients, and that gives an advantage to employers

In September, President Clinton urged expansion of workfare in the private sector. "We cannot create enough public-service jobs to hire these folks," he said, adding that "this has basically got to be a private-sector show."

Marriott Corporation is one of the first such efforts. The company says it is committed to providing extensive support to recipients, and will counsel them about problems like tardiness, rather than simply disciplining or firing them as it does with other workers.

But the stakes in keeping a job are very high for workfare recipients, and that gives an advantage to a company like Marriott, which has mounted a vigorous fight to keep its regular employees from organizing unions.

While the legal status of workfare recipients is unclear, some employers contend they are not workers at all, and have no right to organize or to complain about violations of laws which protect workers' health and safety and guard against discrimination.

With no guarantees about maintaining existing wage levels or protecting the rights of workfare recipients, welfare reform promises to pit currently-employed workers against workfare workers in the race to the bottom. In the process, jobs that can support families may be transformed into jobs that can't, and the people who perform those jobs will be robbed of security, job rights and dignity.

Pacific News Service

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Albion Monitor January 13, 1997 (

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