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New York protest: 'Welfare slavery has got to go'

By Vanessa Lewis
New York

Over 100 WEP workers, members of community organizations and the labor movement came out in full force for a lunchtime rally and news conference here Feb. 2 to protest New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's appointment of Jason Turner to head the Human Resources Administration.

Turner's last position was heading the W2-"Wisconsin Works" workfare program. Now he is in charge of the "Work Experience Program"-workfare in New York.

The protest was organized by Workfairness, an organization of over 5,000 WEP workers, people on welfare and supporters.

Speakers included AFSCME Local 420 Vice President Sarah Kennedy, Teachers Local 3882 President Trudy Rudnick, New York City National Organization for Women President Gaylen Sherwin, Tom Anderson of the Organization of Staff Analysts, Miguel Maldonado of the Immigrant Workers Association, Ruben Quiroz of Accion Latina and Marie Jay of Workfairness.

Jay read a solidarity statement from the Wisconsin Job is a Right Campaign.

Besides the speakers, endorsers of the Workfairness action included Communication Workers Local 1081 President David Weiner, Communication Workers Local 1182 President Robert Cassar, U.S. Rep. Major Owens, Michael Hood of AFSCME Local 1505, City Councilmember Tom Duane, the New York chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and UNITE Local 169 Secretary-Treasurer Ernesto Joffre.

Workfairness co-founder and Co-chair Vondora Jordan said: "In Wisconsin, Turner has headed up the cruelest and most hostile program against poor and working people.

"Fifty-eight percent of people on welfare have lost their benefits. Single mothers are being forced to work 35 hours a week and leave their children with unlicensed daycare.

"If they don't follow the strict W2 requirements their children can be taken away from them and put up for adoption.

"These women are forced to work for so called non-profits like the Ford Foundation and Aurora Health Care for no money and no guarantee of a job. If they say you are 'job ready' you get kicked off welfare and into the street-with or without a job.

"As a single mother on public assistance," Jordan continued, "I will not put myself or my children at risk. If this is what Turner has in mind for us here, we say go back to Wisconsin.

"We need real jobs, respect and dignity, not the expansion and privatization of WEP!"

City Hall protest April 3

A recent study by the University of Wisconsin revealed that of the families thrown off welfare under Jason Turner's direction since 1996, only one out of six was bringing in more than poverty-level wages after three months. In 1997 that figure shrank to one out of 12.

Most of the jobs people were forced to take were temporary or part-time.

"Today we are calling on Mr. Turner to meet with us," said Workfairness co-counder and Co-chair William Mason.

"It's necessary because we must have guarantees that we will not continue to be exploited under the cover of saying people are moving from welfare to work.

"First, we demand a moratorium on dumping people off welfare. Second, we demand an end to the expansion of slave-labor workfare and privatization.

"Third, we demand real, permanent-jobs with living wages, union protection, healthier and real child care, and jobs that do not undermine unions and their efforts to organize workers."

Demonstrators also demanded that the city's reported $1.1 billion budget surplus be used for jobs. The surplus is a direct result of dumping welfare recipients off the rolls and using unpaid labor via WEP-a massive slave-labor program-to perform city jobs. In this way, the city has saved $78 million a month over the last year.

Giuliani was quoted in the Jan. 27 Newsday as saying that New York state's budget surplus, in excess of $2 billion, is also due in large part to dropping welfare recipients.

In August 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the law repealing the 60-year-old welfare program that guaranteed subsistence benefits to impoverished unemployed workers, mostly women with children. Since then, workfare programs have spread nationwide, and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their benefits.

"Workfare is just one of the issues targeting poor people that also affects all workers," said Larry Holmes, co-founder of Workfairness.

"City Hall wants to do away with open admissions and remedial programs at the City University system, do away with bilingual education, and in general find ways of closing the doors of higher education to the poor, immigrants and people on welfare.

"Today Workfairness is making a call to all people hurt by the government's policies, to our friends and allies in the labor movement, to students at the City University, in the high schools, to rally at City Hall on Friday, April 3.

"We choose that day," Holmes explained, "because it marks the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Let us remember that he died 30 years ago in Memphis while supporting poor sanitation workers fighting for the right to a union, for the right to be treated like human beings and not dirt, not slaves.

"These are hard times for the poor. But we won't go back! We must not be pushed back! And we want to dedicate this year to fulfilling that promise," concluded Holmes.

Holmes said people who want to support the struggle against workfare and for real jobs with union rights can get information on how to endorse or volunteer for the April 3 activity, and how to send donations to Workfairness, by calling (212) 633-6646.

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