From the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, the MTA took part in a welfare-related work experience program that required a certain number of welfare recipients to work as station cleaners underground. The authority used the WEP program to promote station cleanliness without the costs associated with unionized labor, and while Roger Toussaint’s TWU had long objected, Willie James, the one-team president of Local 100, had ushered in the program back in 1996.
Now, amidst employee cuts and complaints of dirtier stations, the MTA is going to bring back the program. “This is a program that has a proven track record of doing three things: providing low-cost cleaning help for the subway; providing job training to people who need it, and leading directly to full-time employment for many of the people who participate in the program,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said to the Daily News last week.
Even as over the years, WEP workers moved into union positions with full-time wages and benefits, New Yorkers seem mixed on this program. I can’t fathom why anyone would complain about the potential for cleaner trains or stations, but Pete Donohue sums up the thinking in his column today.
News that welfare recipients will be given mops and brooms to earn their benefits by cleaning the subways elicited strong reactions last week. Some readers viewed it as a further erosion of unions because the MTA would be getting free labor instead of having to pay a decent wage with benefits.
Others thought it a novel idea that could give welfare recipients useful work experience and riders a more palatable environment. Still others – prejudging all welfare recipients as lazy layabouts who would finally have to do something for their handouts – considered it a measure of justice.
Basically, those reactions run the gamut, but if the WEP workers bring even a modicum of cleanliness or order to a system overwhelmed by trash, I can’t see too many people complaining for much longer.