Involving union welfare office workers in welfare organizing

The Organization of the NorthEast (ONE) has over 70 members: religious congregations, social service agencies, ethnic associations and businesses from three diverse lakefront Chicago neighborhoods – Rogers Park, Uptown and Edgewater.

Local Accountability
Welfare reform hit ONE communities hard. By 1999, our ethnic association members identified many eligible clients who were denied state nutritional benefits by the local offices of the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS). ONE could help get benefits reinstated in specific cases, but we needed a more systemic strategy to help those not connected with ONE or too ashamed to protest. We met with our ethnic association members, the state’s immigrant and refugee coalition and IDHS to develop a way to ensure that all eligible immigrants and refugees received benefits. The first proposal was a new employee manual, co-authored by the state and community.

At the same time, ONE reached out to the local IDHS workers, represented by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Without a full picture of the problem, we could not craft a full solution, and the workers held an important piece to that puzzle. Also, we wanted to have them on our side as we built power. We had no previous connections with the union, so we started by simply calling the president of the local.

It wasn’t an automatic fit. ONE Strategy Team Co-Chair Gail Smith recalls, “Our first meeting was held in a pizza parlor outside the community. The union members were suspicious. No community members had reached out to them in this fashion before.” They were afraid we might be a social service agency in favor of privatizing their jobs. However, the workers readily admitted that welfare reform, consolidation of several state agencies and the rapid creation of new programs were making their work very difficult. Policies were changing daily. They showed us three grocery bags of “policy memos” they had been issued in the previous two months – with no workday time allotted for reading them. They did not see how working with ONE could help, but they nonetheless continued to meet with us for several months.

After talking with the unions, it was clear to us that a new employee manual was not enough. We proposed “local office accountability councils” consisting of two community representatives, two IDHS clients, two client advocates, four union members and the two top managers of the local IDHS office. The community, client and client advocate representatives would be selected by the ONE Work, Welfare and Immigration Strategy Team from nominations solicited through a community-wide mailing. The Councils would oversee office operations and ensure that clients got fair treatment.

IDHS state level managers were incredulous. So were the union members. We might have been able to convince IDHS at this point, but without union support and participation the councils would have crafted unworkable, half-baked solutions. We needed to establish a higher level of trust with the union members before pushing the councils.

Building Trust
A joint project fit the bill. The Worker Rights Board, a creation of the Interfaith Committee of Workers Rights and Jobs with Justice, agreed to sponsor a public hearing to investigate how welfare reform affected workers and community members. ONE and AFSCME Local 2858 planned every aspect of the forum together. An equal number of workers and clients testified. The workers and the clients rehearsed their testimony together to ensure that neither group blamed the other for its problems; all testimony cited legislative issues and management policies as the culprits.

Over 150 people came to the forum. Workers showed the crowd the shopping bags of memos. Clients told of receiving letters on May 5th telling them if they did not re-certify for benefits by May 1st, they would be cut from the rolls. Workers told of pressure from Springfield to cut the number of people receiving benefits by any means necessary.

After such a successful collaboration, the union agreed to participate in the accountability councils. Pressure from a friend inside the bureaucracy and a few state legislators, plus a stormy meeting with ONE members, finally persuaded IDHS to agree on a trial basis in the three offices that serve the largest immigrant populations. They thought the union would never participate. They were wrong.

Councils in Action
The Uptown Local Office Accountability Council has been meeting since September 1999 and the Northern Office Council since May 2000. So far, the results are encouraging. The Councils have grappled with adequate translation, private intake interview space, multilanguage signage, adequate work and file space for workers and new, more accessible offices. They have won resources for interpretation and multilanguage signs and brochures. Other issues, like the need to increase state benefit levels or not cut medical and nutritional benefits to those sanctioned from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) can’t be handled at the local offices; these go to ONE for advocacy or organizing.

Local office management likes the council system because it engages the workers in creative problem solving. The workers like it because, in the words of Local 2858 President Steve Edwards, “It scares management into communicating with us.” Clients and client advocates report better treatment by workers and management when they go to IDHS. Some funders have begun recommending the councils to other organizations dealing with bureaucratic structures.

It Can’t Be Rushed
The success of the accountability councils rests on two things: power organizing that put ONE in a position to pressure IDHS and patient relationship building with the unions. Without both elements, the councils would never have come to be.

 

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