Volume , Number 0
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Freeport - McMoran Mining Corporate â€¦
Jenna e. Ziman
One Minute You're Changing Diapers, â€¦
The Asian Crises and U.S. â€¦
title("Washington's Role in Colombian Repression")
Senate Hearings Missed the Real â€¦
Rob richie and steven Hill
The Human Rights Charade
Editorial: Media Madness
Welfare Rights Redux
Christopher d. Cook
Slippin' & Slidin'
MAQUILADORA WORKERS ELECT THEIR FIRST â€¦
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Welfare Rights Redux
Christopher D. Cook
Radicalized by welfare "reforms" that are eliminating aid for millions of families and forcing many into hazardous, low-wage workfare jobs, unions and welfare advocates convened a "Labor-Welfare Summit" in San Francisco this September that could mark the rise of a new welfare rights movement. Despite considerable turf-war friction between organized labor and ACORN over who will organize workfare workers, an urgent militancy pervaded the two-day affair, which drew some 400 activists and recipients from ten states.
Two immediate campaigns top an agenda that as yet lacks much organizational structure: 1) waging fierce street protests and civil-disobedience actions against what the Kensington Welfare Rights Organization's Cheri Honkala calls "human rights violations" - brutal workfare conditions and benefit cuts that are leading directly to homelessness and death; and 2) organizing workfare workers into existing unions or a new political force to gain employment rights, skills training with labor-market value, and guaranteed transition into living-wage jobs.
The Summit established crucial links between the increasingly successful living-wage jobs movement and the nascent struggle for workfare workers' rights. The intent is to fashion an alliance between low-wage and no-wage workers in an era of public-sector downsizing, privatization, and the proliferating reliance on contingent employment. Frances Fox Piven, intellectual architect and veteran of the 1970s' welfare-rights movement, calls for renewed insurgency in the context of "the growing insecurity that defines work in the United States."
"We have to work and hope for political movements from the bottom of society," Fox Piven says. "The obvious agency to make this happen is the unions," which must "make good on their promise to organize the unorganized." But a formidable barrier threatens to derail this pledge: unions, Fox Piven pointed out, "respond to age-old imperatives, the need for dues and members...Workfare may not provide a good source of dues."
The hard reality exposed by the Summit is that the seemingly natural marriage between workfare workers and unions is riven by contradicting interests. Especially ominous is the quarreling over leadership between unions and ACORN, both dues-gathering organizations that have a history of tense relations. One potential bridge-builder is the AFL-CIO's Bill Pastreich, a long-time welfare-rights and ACORN activist and SEIU organizer who will be attempting to organize workfare workers in Los Angeles. Pastreich wants to bring workfare workers into existing unions: "If [unions] represent specific job categories, we think workfare workers should be in that union. They should get those jobs."
But ACORN-L.A., which has already signed up 4,000 workfare workers, takes offense to the notion that unions will reinvent their wheel. Pastreich concedes Labor has been sluggish and reluctant to oppose workfare. "In some ways it snuck up on us. General Assistance [workfare programs] in New York expanded rapidly without the unions jumping in. All of a sudden, welfare recipients were workers."
The "struggle for recognition," as Pastreich terms the drive for workfare workers' rights, rests on a potentially unifying principle - the need to gain employee status. The linguistic shift from "recipient" to "worker" is crucial: employee status is a critical linchpin for union organizing, minimum-wage (and living-wage) guarantees, health and safety protections, and other basic rights currently denied workfare workers and welfare-to-work "trainees" employed by private firms.
In San Francisco, an uneasy but promising alliance is germinating between labor unions and a feisty and effective group of workfare activists called People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). "Our interactions did not begin well," says POWER coordinator Steve Williams, noting that when unions joined a city-run workfare committee with corporate management, they refused to help get workfare workers a seat at the table.
Belatedly, the San Francisco Labor Council and several locals are voicing support for POWER's pressure campaign on Mayor Willie Brown to create workfare grievance procedures, seniority credits counting workfare toward future civil-service employment, and free transportation. However, Labor Council President Josie Mooney says her primary focus will be to pressure businesses to hire welfare recipients as union members.
But simply placing workfare workers in unions skirts the fundamental issue - the need to redefine and expand public-sector work on a massive scale. Says Fox Piven, "One role we can play in job creation is advocating for more public-sector service programs that are useful for people," such as child care and 24-hour community centers. "I want to create jobs because I think the work is needed by the community."
Christopher D. Cook is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist who has covered welfare for The Christian Science Monitor, The Houston Press, and others.