Unionization of Workfare Force Opens Up a New Labor Frontier

Article excerpt

Some wear blue coveralls. Others wear white.

That's the most obvious way to tell unionized municipal workers (in blue) from the welfare recipients (in white) who work side by side scrubbing city buses. But a look at their paychecks reveals another big difference.

San Francisco municipal employees make $14 to $27 an hour, plus benefits. Welfare recipients hired by the city under the federal workfare law make $5.75 cleaning buses, folding hospital laundry and picking up garbage. That is minimum wage in California, or $1 above the federal minimum wage that most states must generally pay to workfare participants. Now activists around the country are trying to unionize workfare participants and help them win pay equal to that received by regular mu nicipal employees. "It's indentured servitude when you have people working the same jobs for less," said Ilana Berger, a spokeswoman for the General Assistance Rights Union, which is leading the movement in San Francisco. Workfare employees are often struggling to make ends meet, living on the street, with family members or in subsidized housing, and feeding themselves with the help of food stamps. "It's tough to make it," said Donald Dickerson, a new member of the San Francisco union that washes city buses two days a week for his $345 monthly welfare check. Workfare wages are determined county by county and overseen state to state. …