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"NY ACORN/WEP Workers Organizing Committee,"

by Milagros Silva July/August 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is a grassroots organization of low- and moderate-income families. Founded in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1970, ACORN has grown to a membership of over 90,000 families in 26 states and the District of Columbia.

Since its beginnings in 1983, New York ACORN has recruited 22,000 dues-paying member families from every borough of the city, who organize around a variety of community concerns related to public schools, public safety, infrastructure, housing, employment opportunity and welfare rights. In each of these areas the organization has pioneered new winning strategies and built new, community-controlled structures to protect and implement victories of ACORN members:

• The Mutual Housing Association of New York, along with a non-profit ACORN Housing Company, has overseen the development of nearly 500 units, most of which will be owned cooperatively by very low- income families.
• The ACORN Schools Office provides the technical assistance needed to plan and establish a number of community-controlled public schools won by the members, the parent training needed to oversee the schools once they are set up, and the policy analyses to expose the deep flaws in the New York City public school system.
• ACORN Community Hiring Halls help translate corporate commitments for jobs and training into employment opportunities for residents of the Bronx and Brooklyn and serve as a recruiting mechanism and platform for leadership development for our jobs campaigns.

Last but not least, the WEP Workers Organizing Committee serves as both a welfare rights organization and workers’ union for the tens of thousands of public assistance recipients forced into New York City’s high-profile work experiment, the Work Experience Program.

With 42,000 participants, the New York City Work Experience Program (WEP) is the single largest workfare experiment in the United States. Public assistance recipients are expected to “work off” their meager grant checks in dead-end, low-skilled jobs, such as sweeping gutters in the streets, picking up trash in the parks and emptying wastebaskets in City offices such as the Parks and Sanitation departments. According to a 1997 Hunger Action Network of New York State survey of 182 WEP workers, 31% were outdoors with Parks and Sanitation, 53% were in other City buildings and 9% were with public housing. Of outdoor workers, a third were picking up trash and a quarter were sweeping. Indoor workers were doing general cleaning (40%); picking up trash (32%); cleaning rest rooms (25%); sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, polishing windows, etc. (17%); and heavy cleaning and heavy lifting (4%). The day-to-day operation of the Work Experience Program is oriented to shrinking the rolls, not preparing people in any meaningful way for jobs at living wages.

In the past 3½ years, the public assistance caseload in New York City has declined by 424,000, to about 736,000 people from its all-time high in March 1995 of 1.2 million. The City’s fiscal plan for FY 99 anticipates dumping another 18,000 people off public assistance. The State Comptroller’s 1998 analysis of the City budget, however, suggests that the City must also have an additional 30,000 adult public assistance recipients, “mostly women, with children” working or engaged in work-related activities to meet federal welfare reform requirements. Given the inability of the local economy to absorb that load, the Comptroller’s office predicts a significant expansion of the WEP program. We predict that pressure to move people off the rolls altogether will be even stronger.

Although City officials attempt to connect the decline in welfare rolls with a transition to economic independence, they deliberately collect no data to substantiate their position. A 1998 New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance study, however, determined that 71% of former New York TANF recipients had no employer-reported earnings (mid-1997). Most of these TANF recipients are in New York City. Moreover, 46% of those who were working six months after leaving welfare in NYC had no health insurance, despite the fact that all of them were eligible for transitional Medicaid – and the true percentage likely is higher, since the study drew on a sample of people who had phones and were easy to reach, i.e., the more “successful” of the ex-recipients.

Prevented from receiving assistance when they apply, under constant threat of sanction when they do receive it, and required to devote inordinate amounts of time to dead-end chores rather than real preparation for employment, workfare participants have organized to secure as a group what is theirs under state and federal law and to prevent the loss of welfare benefits they need to feed and clothe their children.

New York ACORN organized the WEP Workers Organizing Committee (WWOC) in late 1996 to defend the rights of WEP participants as welfare recipients and as workers doing jobs once done by unionized city employees for significantly more pay and better benefits. Within a year, WWOC had organized and resoundingly won a recognition election in which 98% of nearly 17,000 WEP workers designated the organization as their collective bargaining agent.

By the end of 1998, WWOC members had organized scores of job site actions around health, safety, training and human rights issues and won improvements in these conditions for WEP workers. The organization then started a campaign to win a grievance mechanism for WEP workers as a way to protect their workplace rights. WWOC has succeeded in getting legislation creating the grievance procedure introduced in the local City Council and now endorsed by District Council 37, the largest union local representing municipal workers. It has also started organizing and already seen modest initial gains in their campaign to prevent the City from driving low- income parents out of college programs which might eventually lift their families out of poverty and off welfare.

Ultimately, WWOC is building an organization of welfare recipients and workfare workers with the power to challenge the public and private sector on policies regarding poor people’s opportunities to employment with decent wages.

Milagros Silva is Lead Organizer for ACORN’s WEP Workers Organizing Committee (88 Third Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217, 718/246-7939)

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