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How Fair Is Workfare?

Welfare: Rapid expansion of programs raises new questions about the rights of participants. Critics fear displacement of regular workers and downward pull on wages.

March 09, 1997|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One man heads for the rose bed with a hoe. Another starts emptying trash cans. A woman pushes a broom across the sidewalk. It is 7 a.m. and the crew that keeps this corner of Griffith Park neat and tidy is at work.

But they aren't city workers. They are among the poorest of the region, come to labor in the morning chill in exchange for their $212 monthly General Relief check from Los Angeles County.

This bargain of toil for welfare benefit is an old one in general assistance programs, stretching back nearly five decades locally and involving a small army that sweeps parks, files government forms and plucks litter from the beaches.

As workfare ranks threaten to explode beyond these traditional boundaries under the spark of federal welfare reform, labor unions and community organizations are snapping to attention.

Already in Los Angeles, a national low-income advocacy group is attempting to rouse General Relief workers, orchestrating small protests and circulating petitions.

Worried that expanding welfare-to-work programs may depress wages and cost public employees their jobs, big labor is laying the groundwork for national organizing drives and raising another set of questions in the welfare debate.

Will it not be irresistibly tempting, the unions suggest, for cash-strapped governments to use this "free labor" to perform menial tasks instead of full-time workers paid $9 an hour plus benefits?

Is this a subclass in the making, a group of people required to work but not accorded the rights of workers?

For those eagerly greeting the new welfare era, such concerns are premature and ill-founded. "I think it's a new excuse for advocates who would prefer the current system of entitlement," said Bakersfield Republican Assemblyman Roy Ashburn, the author of Gov. Pete Wilson's welfare reform bill.

"We expect the best, that new opportunities will come out of this, rather than the displacement of a finite number of jobs," he added.

For labor, the equation is a simple one.

"A worker is a worker is a worker," Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, declared last month during a Los Angeles conference at which he and other national labor leaders announced their intention to recruit workfare participants into unions and to demand they be granted wage and workplace protections.

"It is quite clear that those who represent public employees see this as a threat," said Peter Rider of the AFL-CIO's national organizing department. "It's essentially setting up a two-tier work force and borders on being a form of slavery--in the sense that they're told to do work and have no rights and are paid less."

In an era of slashed budgets and hiring freezes, others say workfare is not eliminating public jobs. Rather, welfare workers are performing tasks that government can no longer afford, and in the process, getting useful experience.

"We're providing services to the community that otherwise wouldn't have been provided or if they had been, would have forced a trade-off for other valuable services," said Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Assn., a statewide group in California.

"If there's work valuable to the community and society at large and you can have people do it in exchange for the receipt of aid, I think it makes sense to do that," he added. Turn workfare participants into full-fledged employees, Mecca reasons, and the cost becomes prohibitive, curtailing an arrangement worthwhile for both sides.

Moreover, the notion of a union for those on welfare strikes some as inherently absurd.

"To me it seems an effort in futility," observed Vera Davis, executive director of a Los Angeles social service agency that uses county General Relief workers. "How would it help them in any way when they're dependent on the county to give them the General Relief. . . . I believe in unions and strikes. But you gotta have a base. Can you tell me what the base is here?"

There are, in any event, legal questions of whether workfare participants can qualify for collective bargaining, not to mention major hurdles in organizing people who may be homeless or frequently move, may not possess either telephone or car, have erratic work histories and no spare money for union dues.

That is doubtless one reason why the idea of unionizing General Relief workers just now seems to be seriously surfacing locally, nearly half a century after the work requirement was imposed in the county.

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