After hesitating almost 2½ years, NYCT management and the James Gang are finally bringing WEP ("Work Experience Program" or Workfare) to the transit system. Officially starting April 19, management will be herding the first WEP workers onto the property to do the dirty, thankless tasks of station cleaning -- for the equivalent in rent grants, food stamps, etc., of one-third or less the hourly pay of current TWU cleaners. This is a big step in the worsening exploitation and humiliation of welfare recipients, who have always been among the most oppressed members of the working class.
The politicians claim that Workfare will help welfare recipients gain skills and prepare for future employment. The truth is that it aims at scaring many people off welfare entirely, and exploiting those who remain under conditions of near-slavery.
Welfare was never a solution to the problems of unemployment and poverty. But it was an important concession that saved many from starvation and homelessness. Now the bosses’ and their politicians want to grind welfare recipients further down as part of their plan to lower all our wages and working conditions.
The James Gang crows that agreeing to WEP prevented layoffs and "saved jobs." This is nonsense. WEP is not only an attack against welfare recipients, it is an attack on union workers. WEP workers will be placed in union jobs, but forced to work for pay below the minimum wage, and barred from joining the union. In fact the contract negotiated by the James Gang even prevents WEP worker gangs from "co-mingling" with union workers.
Moreover, if management can deploy thousands of effectively unpaid workers, they wield a big club against the union. Any time union workers demand improvements or even try to keep what we already have, management will say, "You want good wages and benefits, do you? Well, we have thousands of workers here who get nothing, and we can bring on more any time to do your jobs." With WEP workers on the property, management will enter the upcoming contract negotiations with a huge advantage over the union.
The James Gangs’ acceptance of WEP is an alliance with the bosses to allow super-exploitation of some workers. Union members are supposed to be glad that we haven’t got it so bad. This is a betrayal of working class solidarity against the bosses.
In fact the James Gang sets us up to act like bosses over WEP workers. The current contract creates the new title of "Lead Cleaner," open to current TA Cleaners. Lead Cleaners are to take attendance and give job assignments to WEP workers. The contract states and the James Gang insists with perfectly straight faces that Lead Cleaners are not supervisors. But Lead Cleaners will in fact have significant influence over WEP workers keeping or losing their benefits.
Let's face it, transit workers are like anyone else: very few of us are saints, and the temptation to abuse authority here will be almost overwhelming. The James Gang's pious exhortations to avoid conflict with WEP workers are not worth the rat manure that the latter will be forced to shovel. WEP workers will come on the property knowing that the TWU, a large and powerful organization, has thrown them to the wolves, pledging never to organize them or give them any protection against management's oppression. WEP workers will blame the union for their situation, and they'll be right!
It's no accident that the attack on welfare recipients has taken place at the same time as Mayor Rudy Giuliani's racist law and order campaign that culminated in the shooting of Amadou Diallo. Giuliani, like the other capitalist party politicians, Democratic and Republican, knows that along with attacks on social services and intensified exploitation they must strengthen the police to intimidate the workers and prevent a fightback. And just as their economic attacks are racist and directed hardest against workers of color, so are their police attacks.
Now thousands are hitting the streets to protest Giuliani’s racist policies of police brutality. But not only did Willie James, the first Black president of TWU Local 100, support Giuliani’s WEP program, he backed "41-Shot Rudy" in the last mayoral election. Shame on Willie James!
Our current "extended" contract has allowed for WEP since November, 1996, but NYCT management waited till recently to implement it. One reason for the delay is their fear of a possible membership mobilization against it. Had the union mobilized the ranks and helped organize WEP workers to oppose implementation, we could have prevented it till contract expiration. But the James Gang worked to deliver WEP workers to the NYCT slave-drivers; and the more militant-talking opposition bureaucrats of New Directions mostly sat on their hands. ND called some shows of opposition very late in the day.
But it is not to late to begin a struggle against WEP. We can begin with the demonstration that has been called by ND for April 19 (see box). If enough workers attend that demonstration, we can spread the protests. This could not only build a fight against WEP, but could also begin to mobilize militant workers for the upcoming contract struggle.
Any effort to oppose the bosses’ attacks confronts the bureaucracy which runs the unions. The James Gang has already shown their willingness to work with the bosses and sabotage attempts at militant struggle. In this they are no exception to the rest of the trade union bureaucracy (although they are a particularly horrible example.).
The reason the union bureaucrats keep selling out is that they support the capitalist system. As economic decline drives the bosses to cut costs and intensify exploitation, the union tops see no choice but to try to work with the capitalists in doing this. So when the bosses and their politicians launch attacks on welfare or on our wages and conditions, the union bureaucrats try to compromise with them on what the system can “afford.” The union tops seek to limit mass struggle that would threaten the system and their privileged position in it.
So rank-and file workers face the task of building a new leadership for the unions. Revolutionary socialists like myself work with all militants to advance struggles to defend and improve wages and working conditions. But the need for effective union leadership will only be met when workers organize around a program to challenge the whole capitalist system.
The world economy now has advanced enough technology and machinery to produce an abundance of everything we need. Poverty and want are unnecessary consequences of the economy’s domination by a small class of exploiters. The crises and wars of capitalism will only end when the working class in all countries overthrows their capitalist rulers and builds a new society of freedom -- socialism.
Class-conscious workers must build a revolutionary party to lead today’s struggles most effectively and to show the working class the need for socialism. Just as with misleaders like Willie James in the unions, we have to challenge and replace the Democratic Party reformist politicians in the broader struggles.
The League for the Revolutionary Party is committed to this. We struggle alongside our fellow workers and train ourselves in revolutionary theory and practice to prepare for these great tasks. We publish many leaflets such as this one, as well as a magazine, Proletarian Revolution, to spread these ideas. We encourage any interested workers to contact us to discuss these ideas.