Free Labor: Workfare and the Contested Language of Neoliberalism

Free Labor: Workfare and the Contested Language of Neoliberalism

Free Labor: Workfare and the Contested Language of Neoliberalism

Free Labor: Workfare and the Contested Language of Neoliberalism

Synopsis

One of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's proudest accomplishments is his expansion of the Work Experience Program, which uses welfare recipients to do routine work once done by unionized city workers. The fact that WEP workers are denied the legal status of employees and make far less money and enjoy fewer rights than do city workers has sparked fierce opposition. For antipoverty activists, legal advocates, unions, and other critics of the program this double standard begs a troubling question: are workfare participants workers or welfare recipients?

At times the fight over workfare unfolded as an argument over who had the authority to define these terms, and in Free Labor, John Krinsky focuses on changes in the language and organization of the political coalitions on either side of the debate. Krinsky's broadly interdisciplinary analysis draws from interviews, official documents, and media reports to pursue new directions in the study of the cultural and cognitive aspects of political activism. Free Labor will instigate a lively dialogue among students of culture, labor and social movements, welfare policy, and urban political economy.

Excerpt

In early 1996, I was working with the Community Service Society of New York, a venerable nonprofit organization, conducting a study of low-income cooperative housing models. My study took me to the Fifth Avenue Committee, a neighborhood-based tenant organizing and community development group in Brooklyn, where the executive director, Brad Lander, mentioned a new project the group was starting. the group was beginning to organize welfare recipients forced to “work off” their benefits in the city's newly expanded “workfare” program. the challenge, Brad told me, was that since workfare workers were doing work previously done by municipal workers but were not defined as municipal employees, it was not clear whether they should be organized as welfare recipients, with activism directed at welfare offices, or as workers, with unionlike structures agitating for reform at the workplace.

This challenge stuck with me. I had previously worked as an organizer in Chester, Pennsylvania, with a homeless advocacy group. in the homeless movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found that the identity of “the homeless” was a terribly slippery thing. “The homeless” were frequently subject to spells of homelessness, becoming by turns homeless and low-income tenants. Since the homeless movement was rooted in a different set of institutions than the tenants' movement and since the respective statuses of homeless people and tenants were separated by a gulf of stigma, it was as difficult as it was necessary for the homeless movement to form coalitions across these divides if it was to succeed in making the case that homelessness was a structural feature of housing poverty in the United States rather than the result of the moral shortcomings of the very poor. a ready analogy between this problem and the one faced by antiworkfare organizers formed in my head.

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