David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Welfare Reform - The Race to the Bottom
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (2/26/97) - In an act of political schizophrenia, last week the AFL-CIO's executive council welcomed Vice-President Gore with open arms, and then denounced the Clinton welfare reform. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, praised Gore's "prolabor" speech, and two days later announced his union was mounting an organizing drive of the workfare workforce welfare reform creates.

There's nothing wrong with organizing workfare recipients, and other organizations are also trying to do it, from ACORN to grassroots projects in Brooklyn. It's a step towards organizing the unemployed, something labor and community groups haven't tried since the Welfare Rights Organization of the 60s and the unemployed councils of the 30s. This step has again become an historical necessity.

But in an era of growing permanent unemployment in a globalized economy, these creditable intentions increasingly conflict with the demogogy of both polticial parties. "When you flood the labor market with workfare recipients," explains Fran Bernstein, from AFSCME's national office, "you see enormous wage depression for the bottom third of the workforce. That's intentional."

The U.S. job market is glutted with millions of unemployed workers. Welfare reform throws workfare recipients onto that market, pitting them against other unemployed workers, and even employed ones, in a devastating race to the bottom.

Americans have grown accustomed to chronic, rising joblessness. Today an unemployment rate of 5%, or 6 million people on the street by official undercount, is considered a full-employment economy. The same rate marked economic recessions thirty and forty years ago. And in the economic downturn certain to take place before the end of this administration's four-year term, the rate will likely double.

Unlike election campaigns of years ago, last fall produced no promises of jobs programs or relief. Instead, we got a welfare reform bill, produced in an orgy of moralism about lazy recipients, which creates no jobs, while forcing people to work for their benefit check.

Since the bill passed, cities have begun to look at workfare recipients as a pool of low-cost labor which can replace existing, unionized employees. The threat of such replacement has become a powerful lever for extracting cuts in wages, benefits and working conditions.

Last August New York City's Municipal Transit Authority told the Transit Union for subway and bus workers that many of its members would be replaced. Negotiating with a gun to its head, the union agreed that 500 workfare recipients would take over union jobs cleaning subways.

Only a few workfare recipients may eventually qualify for permanent, normal-wage, union jobs. The MTA's goal is really a workforce of subway cleaners who receive the equivalent of minimum wage or less, doing the same job union employees now perform for a much higher one.

At the end of two years, benefit checks stop coming. Meanwhile, workfare workers have received no job training and developed no skills. They are no more "employable" than they were when they picked up a broom. Since New York City is unlikely to run short of poverty-stricken people desperate for benefits, there will always be a ready pool for the MTA. In a revolving door, the old get bounced out and the new brought in.

Since the bill's passage the New York City administration has announced it intends to expand its workfare workforce to 60,000 by 1998.

Private employers are also eyeing the possibilities. "We cannot create enough public-service jobs to hire these folks," President Clinton says. "This has basically got to be a private-sector show."

Marriott Corporation, which has mounted a scorched-earth fight to keep its regular employees from organizing unions, developed one of the first efforts to bring workfare into its workforce. The company understands the advantage it has when the weekly benefit check is all that stands between a worker and the streets.

Employers contend that workfare recipients are not workers at all, and have no right to organize, file discrimination or health and safety complaints, or get overtime and the minimum wage.

Public employee unions have historically supported the creation of jobs for welfare recipients and unemployed people. But workfare, they say, offers no solution.

With no guarantee of workplace rights for workfare recipients, or an eventual permanent job paying a liveable wage, welfare reform pits pits them against currently-employed workers in a race to the bottom. In the process, it promises to transform jobs which can support families into ones which can't, and to rob the people who perform them of security and their dignity as workers.

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