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Workers On Welfare Demand Union Wages

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 municipal 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 who 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. If workfare participants won an increase in benefits, San Francisco, both a city and county, would be responsible for coming up with the extra money.

Mayor Willie Brown, an avid union supporter in a city with a long history of support for the labor movement, called the idea of union-scale wages for welfare recipients “silly.”

Workfare shouldn’t be considered the same as full-time employment, said Brown spokesman P.J. Johnston. Instead, he said, workfare is a stepping stone to a regular job.

It isn’t clear legally whether municipal governments would even have to recognize and bargain with a workfare union.

However, at least one labor law expert said municipal governments could be forced to deal with the issue of whether workfare workers are entitled to equal pay.

“This is a new frontier that remains to be explored,” said Joseph Grodin, a professor at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and a former California Supreme Court justice. “There are some unsettled questions because the (workfare workers’) status is a bit mixed.”

The General Assistance Rights Union has gotten more than 1,000 welfare workers to sign union cards, often with the help of welfare recipients who are able to put in their workfare time with the union.

“I like what I’m doing,” said a grinning Garth Ferguson, a welfare recipient and union organizer. “I’m getting paid by the city to kick its butt.”

In Baltimore, organizers said about 400 people have signed cards in a drive backed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME said the union could eventually include as many as 4 million welfare recipients nationwide.

Earl Adkins, a supervisor at a San Francisco bus yard, said a lot of the workfare hires are better workers than some regular employees.

Still, Adkins, a unionized city employee, has little sympathy when it comes to equal pay. “If they don’t like it, they can quit,” he said. “They’re not slaves. They need some incentive to go out and hustle a job.”