From Welfare to ... Unions?

Big labor makes bid to organize 38,000 who must work for benefits, raising GOP ire.

In the 1950s, New York Mayor Robert Wagner Jr. became the first mayor in the US to recognize municipal labor unions - thus unleashing a new political force.

Now New York is home to another pioneering - and controversial - labor move: an attempt to unionize 38,000 welfare recipients who must work for their benefits.

The action is causing ripples nationwide, especially among anti-union Republicans. Critics argue that paying union-scale wages and benefits to welfare workers would make the program so expensive that it would undermine the biggest welfare overhaul in 60 years.

New federal laws require that 25 percent of eligible welfare recipients in each state - or about 3 million people nationwide - be enrolled in a work activity. The AFL-CIO has targeted welfare workers for organizing, arguing that union membership is crucial to protecting the new workers' rights

But conservatives are balking: "Workfare is meant to move welfare recipients into private employment, not bolster union ranks," says Rep. Jim Talent (R) of Missouri.

Indeed, the prospect of welfare recipients forming a union has Republicans fuming. They argue that welfare recipients are performing a community service in return for their benefits. Unionizing these workers would also boost the political power of what was once perhaps the most disenfranchised group in the US.

This fall, both the House and Senate passed legislation that would have precluded the welfare recipients from being considered employees in the legal sense - thus preventing them from organizing.

But President Clinton threatened to veto the measure, which was inserted into some spending bills. The effort was ultimately dropped, but the expectation in Congress is that the issue will ultimately be decided by the courts.

Bucking for recognition

Before the litigation begins, the New York union organizers plan to try to place pressure on the city to let the workers be represented for grievance purposes by a group called the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a national low-income community organization. But the organizers also hope to get New York's City Council to recognize the union.

"Right now the strategy is to put moral and political pressure on the city to recognize them," says Dean Hubbard, a partner at Eisner & Hubbard, a law firm working with the organizers.

As part of the effort to alert the city to the effort, the 38,000 welfare recipients who are involved in the city's Work Experience Program (WEP) will vote on Oct. 20-24 on whether to unionize.

Last week, a group of labor activists said they had already collected 20,000 signed cards from the WEP workers asking for union representation. However, the vote will be nonbinding and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a man who is no friend of the labor unions, says he will refuse to recognize the workers.

Cristyne Lategano, communications director for the mayor, says it's against federal law for the city to recognize the union. "It's a non-issue," she says.

Not so, says Mr. Hubbard. "There is no federal law prohibiting them from recognizing this as a union."

The US Department of Labor says some people on workfare may be considered employees who are covered under existing labor laws, such as the requirement they be paid minimum wage and overtime, as well as afforded workplace protections. States or cities can calculate their welfare grants as part of the minimum-wage requirement.

But it's less clear if welfare workers doing community service for a city can form a union. This may depend on state and local laws. For example, in 1981, workers involved in a jobs program called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act were considered public employees in New York State and allowed to unionize. The workers involved in WEP - who receive city and state benefits for their work - may have the same rights.

Organizing success in California

In California, ACORN organizers claim to have had some success in winning safety equipment and proper clothing for the 25,000 to 30,000 workfare individuals. So far, they have collected 4,000 signatures of welfare recipients who want to join a union. In addition, Nathan Henderson-James, operations manager for ACORN in Los Angeles, says the organization is close to negotiating a grievance procedure with the county.

New York organizers clamor for the same thing. Welfare recipient Carrie Tillman, who works in a New York employment department, complains that she does regular office work. "I feel like I'm doing more work than the city workers do," she says. "A lot of us don't know what our duties are." City officials say such issues can be worked out with supervisors and that unions aren't needed. Indeed, Ms. Tillman recently met with her bosses to iron out her responsibilities.

Instead, city officials wonder if the organizers' goal is to get more money for the recipients. They are not far off. Organizers say bargaining over contracts and wages is also on their list. "We want the country to treat workfare the same as they treat other workers since they do the same jobs," says Mr. Henderson-James.

No way, says Lategano. "This is just a temporary situation to get them into a real job. If you change the dynamics, it would be very damaging."

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