As Benefits End, Unions Face `Welfare to Work’ Challenges

As of October 2001, thousands of poor families were removed from the welfare rolls permanently, to seek economic support on their own. As welfare “reform” moves into its next phase, some unions are seeing opportunities for organizing.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act passed in 1996 under President Clinton. It created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), which limited families' welfare benefits to a lifetime total of five years. In the meantime, welfare recipients are required to work for the benefits they receive (“workfare”), at pay levels often below the minimum wage.

The first group of families hit the five-year wall last year. Once a welfare recipient's time is up, she and her family are simply dropped from the rolls, to make do with whatever resources she has.

In addition, according to the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, more than 120,000 families have had their welfare benefits cut because of slashed budgets, tighter rules, and penalties for infractions in welfare-to-work programs.


As welfare benefits are eliminated, and former recipients must find work, employers are highly interested in taking advantage of this poor, "bottom tier" of workers. The five-year-old Welfare to Work Partnership is an example. According to its mission statement, the partnership was "created by the American business community” to hire “welfare recipients and other unemployed and low-income workers." The group includes on its board unionized employers like UPS, UAL Corporation, and Marriott International, along with low-pay non-union companies like Burger King and The Limited, Inc.

Government wants to help employers tap into this bottom tier of workers. The Welfare-to-Work Tax Credit is a federal income tax credit that encouraged employers to hire long-term welfare recipients who began work after December 31, 1997, and before January 1, 2002. The credit could reduce employers' federal tax liability by as much as $8,500 per new hire. But companies only had to keep these workers for 180 days.

Meanwhile, state, city, and county governments have saved money through workfare by placing welfare recipients in jobs formerly and currently held by union members, such as trash collection and cleaning of parks and offices.

All this creates big challenges for the labor movement. Workfare workers are not covered by many labor laws, and their low pay makes them a continuing threat to public employee union wages and jobs. The workfare workers themselves are subject to exploitation that cries out for union assistance in organizing.



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Nonetheless, union involvement in workfare has been limited and slow. Unions like AFSCME have not made organizing workfare workers a priority. And often union members have reacted negatively to the presence of workfare workers, turning that hostility on the workers themselves, rather than on the policies that put them there. A blind eye to racism and sexism may have made unions less active in stemming the anti-welfare recipient backlash from members.


But as the 1990s came to a close, union involvement in the welfare-to-work movement began to grow. With workfare being largely out of the purview of the labor laws unions rely on, unions have had to find creative ways to get welfare workers into their memberships.

Unions in various cities have created union-based job training projects for welfare recipients, with the hope of placing them in union jobs. In many cases, the unions receive grants from government welfare-to-work programs to do this. A partnership between AFSCME and the City of Baltimore Housing Authority, for example, created a program to train welfare recipients as maintenance workers. These workers become apprentices and can join AFSCME Local 647 after a six-month probation. The program has language saying these new workers cannot take jobs away from existing union members.

In 1996, San Francisco's Building and Construction Trades Council negotiated with that city's housing authority a program to put welfare recipients into union jobs at union wages. In return, the city agreed to have all contracted construction work be union-built.

Other union-based welfare-to-work programs are under way in Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities.


Dealing with the effects of welfare reform is a big task for unions to handle. With layoffs and the economic downturn, unions are focusing their resources on keeping what their members have, rather than reaching out to hard-to-organize welfare workers.

Like many of the other battles labor has dealt with-such as downsizing and lean production--fighting workfare will require different thinking about organizing. For one thing, unions will need to better involve members in this effort. Members will have the most day-to-day interaction with welfare workers and can help make them part of the labor movement.

And unions also need to think in terms of a greater focus on fighting racism and sexism, which are at the core of government welfare reform efforts, and which play a role in union members' opposition to welfare workers.