Bread and Roses Too

Celebrating 1199’s Voice for Culture

"If there's a hearing we are going to be there, with a lot of the workers," said Luis Lopez, director of organizing for Local 1102. "This is a company that treats its workers like animals. We will make sure the city hears our point of view."

On Film: The Welfare Work Experience

Moe Foner, Labor’s Cultural Champion
photo: Jim Tynan
Moe Foner, Labor’s Cultural Champion

The impact of the massive changes in the city's welfare rules implemented by Mayor Giuliani, changes that resulted in some 600,000 people being removed from the rolls, still remains obscure. The Giuliani administration told city legislators and welfare advocates that it was too difficult to track those no longer on public assistance. The administration's Work Experience Program was also largely shrouded from scrutiny. Giuliani insisted that criticism was motivated by narrow interests of unions fearful for their members' jobs.

But when WEP workers announced in 1997 that they wanted to form their own union to protect their interests, it caught the attention of documentary filmmakers Kathy Leichter and Jonathan Skurnik. With assistance from PBS, the pair spent three years filming city WEP workers.

"We spent the first year just filming the union organizing drive, and none of that even made it into the movie," said Skurnik, 37. The effort to unionize didn't succeed, but it led the moviemakers to focus on three individuals in the program, all of whom were trying to get some control over their lives as the city's bureaucracy shuffled them around.

"These were people who had never done anything political," said Skurnik. "They decided to fight and to affiliate with grassroots organizations. By the end they are fierce warriors. You can seen them in the film yelling at Mayor Giuliani at a City Hall hearing on WEP."

On December 4, about 450 people, many of them WEP veterans, piled into a screening room at the CUNY Graduate Center for a first look at the one-hour documentary, titled A Day's Work, a Day's Pay. The audience cheered at the first depiction of the harsh world into which welfare recipients were pitched by the changes. "It felt like an activist version of The Rocky Horror Show," said Skurnik. The film, which will air this spring on public television, has won early plaudits from those who have been workfare critics. Peter Edelman, the former federal official who quit the Clinton administration in protest of the welfare changes, called it a "remarkable film" about "mean social policy and the impressive efforts of grassroots organizations to fight back."

Research assistance by Ari Holtzblatt

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