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

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

Christopher D. Cook is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist
who has covered welfare for The Christian Science Monitor, The Houston Press, and others.