A Day’s Work, A Day’s Pay makes a fierce claim for the dignity and rights of the welfare-poor-as-workers. This film chronicles the efforts of participants in New York City’s Work Experience Program (WEP)—public assistance recipients forced to work for their benefits at dead-end, below minimum wage placements—to organize for decent pay, benefits, worker protections, and, as one organizer put it, the right to stand up and say “I am somebody.”

A Day’s Work follows three organizers, each of whom achieves a vivid presence on the screen. One of them, Juan Nicolau, 41, explains that he wants to be like his father, a building superintendent, “a working man, a caring man.” To Nicolau this means, “I want to put my signature on the way I work, like an artist puts his signature on his work.” But this film does not foreground the intimate lives of its subjects. A Day’s Work is a layered film that moves from the personal outward, as the protagonists, Nicolau, Jackie Marte, and Juan Galan, build activist identities and coalitions among their constituents. These three affiliate with organizations devoted to workers’ rights (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and Community Voices Heard (CVH)), lobby for legislation in the interests of WEP workers, work the halls of city council, and lead worker demonstrations in the city. Their projects and the thrust of their efforts are like those of labor organizers everywhere. The fact that the worker-activists are public assistance recipients, people typically defined in this culture as lazy freeloaders, gives the film the status of a paradigm-shifting work. It thoroughly challenges prevailing definitions of both “welfare recipients” and “workers.”
At the same time, the film sharpens suspicions that a lot of politicians are every bit as craven as prevailing images of them suggest. We see city council members sleeping during workers’ testimony, then waking up to grandstand against legislation providing basic grievance rights for these workers. When Giuliani explains why he is vetoing the WEP-worker-sponsored Grievance Procedure and Transitional Jobs Bill in the winter of 2000, he piously lectures the activists who sit before him, people who worked for two years to bring this legislation before the city council: “One of the worst things government does for people is to give them false expectations. We have lots of people in New York City that are the victims of government giving people the sense that they live in an unreal world and then the realities of life crash down on them and they find themselves unhappy, depressed, and unsuccessful.” A WEP worker shouts out, “You don’t know anything about us.”

More than anything, A Day’s Work demonstrates how activism becomes a source of clarity, work experience and empowerment for the three organizers. Juan Galan points out that without activism and coalition, passersby see the workers as “chumps,” sweeping the street for their pitiful benefits. As unprotected individuals, WEP workers are also in serious danger: reports circulate about rapes and even death on the job. Most galling, WEP workers are counseled at job-search trainings not to tell prospective employers that they are in WEP, even though the program is supposed to function as the best route to real employment. Nicolau speaks for all worker-recipients when he asks, “ So what good is WEP if you can’t mention it?”

A Day’s Work, A Day’s Pay displays the special character of worker-recipient militancy through the words of an organizer: “They like to keep us in check with their big stick of sanctions. I think we’ve got to keep them in check with the grievance procedure.” When CVH refers Jackie Marte to a transitional, non-profit program that actually provides decent resources, dignity, collegiality, leadership training and a job she believes in, activism truly seems its own reward.

A Day’s Work concludes with properly mixed emotions and mixed personal and political outcomes. In the end, public policies have not become more humane; the poor have not prevailed. But the film is nevertheless a bracing testament to what activism can accomplish. Nicolau speaks from experience when he suggests that if only all the WEP workers showed up at city Hall, together, objecting to the wretched work conditions they all faced, then the chances for change would be great.

— Rickie Solinger, Independent Scholar
Labor History, vol. 43, no. 4, 2002