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Domestic Workers: “Organizing with Love”

Great organizing campaigns are like great love affairs. You begin to see life through a different lens. You change in unexpected ways. You lose sleep, but you also feel boundless energy. You develop new relationships and new interests. Your skin becomes more open to the world around you. Life feels different, and it’s almost like you’ve been reborn. And, most importantly, you begin to feel things that you previously couldn’t have even imagined are possible. Like great love affairs, great campaigns provide us with an opportunity for transformation. They connect us to our deeper purpose and to the commonalities we share, even in the face of tremendous differences. They highlight our interdependence and they help us to see the potential that our relationships have to create real change in our lives and in the world around us.”—Ai-jen Poo, Domestic Workers United. From Organizing with Love: Lessons from the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which took effect in November 2010, is a massive and unprecedented win for the new labor movement—and it is a model for the way organizers and lawmakers alike must begin to think about workers’ rights in the 21st century economy.

The New York law guarantees nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides weekly time off and subjects employers to state law for minimum-wage violations and sexual harassment. These are all basic rights that traditional, full-time employees have long enjoyed, but that a broad swath of workers who are not protected by labor laws have never seen. In August, the California State Assembly passed a resolution recognizing similar labor standards for domestic workers, rights that lawmakers will likely codify as state law next year. Organizers in other states are working to generate more such victories.

The amazing New York win, spearheaded by Domestic Workers United (DWU) and the New York Domestic Workers Justice Coalition, has received its fair share of congratulations. But this is more than a moving story of downtrodden women confronting the system. Over the longterm, DWU’s approach to labor rights should shape the larger, national project of designing a new economy that doesn’t slowly kill off its workers.

DWU is not a union, but rather what’s called a “workers’ center.” These small and scrappy but rapidly maturing collectives have formed the last line of defense for primarily workers of color who are excluded, either deliberately or by default, from U.S. labor protections. DWU’s ability to raise public consciousness about such exclusions, its innovative organizing of thousands of dispersed workers who have thousands of disparate employers, and the issues it will confront in implementing the new law raise critical questions for all economic justice activists.

Gov. Paterson’s press secretary drew a bold analogy on signing day, calling the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights the governor’s own version of the Emancipation Proclamation. That boast sounds exaggerated, but the current work life of domestic workers is in fact deeply rooted in post-Civil War racial politics. Expanding Domestic Workers Rights from New York to California



©2009 Beatriz Herrera Expanding Domestic Workers Rights from New York to California

The California Domestic Worker Coalition is hoping to replicate the success of New York’s Domestic Worker Bill with a bill of its own in 2011. The Coalition, made up of Bay Area groups, such as Mujeres Unidas Y Activas, POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), La Colectiva de Mujeres of La Raza Centro Legal, Filipino Advocates for Justice, as well as the Grayton Day Labor Program, and Southern California groups like the Pilipino Worker Center, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), and Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), is working on a bill that would expand worker protections to domestic workers and improve working conditions for low-income women of color who clean homes and take care of children and the elderly.

In 2009, the Coalition brought over 100 domestic workers together to create a list of demands for protections already available to other workers, such as overtime pay, Cal/OSHA safety standards, and worker’s compensation. And some that are unique to domestic workers, such as the right to at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep and the right to cook one’s own food. “My employer would give me food that was five days old. She told me I had to eat it because she didn’t want to waste it,” said Anali Padilla of POWER, highlighting the fact that the fight for domestic worker rights is often a struggle for basic respect and human dignity.

In 2010, the Coalition created and lobbied for a Domestic Worker Resolution, a non-binding document requiring legislators in Sacramento to vote on whether they agreed that the domestic work industry was exploitative and that legislative changes to the industry were necessary. Thanks to the support of Assembly members Tom Ammiano and Manuel Perez, the resolution passed on August 23 with a 21-13 vote. To celebrate this victory, the Coalition organized a press conference on the very day that the New York Domestic Worker Bill of Rights was signed into law.  On both coasts, domestic workers rallied, cried, and cheered to celebrate their growing movement.  After all, a victory for domestic workers is a victory for workers, women, immigrants, and people of color everywhere!

Meg Whitman made headlines by exploiting domestic workers in her very own home. However newly elected Governor Jerry Brown has the opportunity to fight the exploitation of this vulnerable workerforce. In this political moment, and with leadership from hundreds of domestic workers across the state, the California Domestic Worker Coalition is hoping the climate is right for its very own Domestic Worker Bill to become law in 2011.  There are many needed allies in this struggle. Will you join us?

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Beatriz Herrera is an organizer for the Women Worker’s Project at POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights). 

The Roosevelt administration passed many enduring economic reforms in the 1930’s, including the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. The latter made it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Domestic and farmworkers, however, were explicitly excluded from both laws, a deal that allowed Roosevelt to gather the votes of Southern White congress members, among others. At the time, 95 percent of domestic workers were Black women in the South. Most agricultural workers were Black, Filipino, or Mexican.

While Roosevelt’s labor protections have expanded over time (farmworkers were included in 1966), the combination of formal exclusion and practical non-enforcement still leaves millions of workers on their own. Most Americans likely don’t know the broad swath of workers who aren’t protected by labor laws. They include, for instance, workers who are considered independent contractors (such as taxi drivers and home daycare providers) and people working for tips (restaurant servers and runners haven’t seen their federal minimum wage rise in 20 years). Workers who receive public benefits through workfare programs, immigrant workers (day laborers, guest workers) and workers in right-to-work states are all excluded from varying sets of rights, either deliberately or by the lack of enforcement. Formerly incarcerated workers, unlike any others in the labor market, are subject to background checks when they apply for jobs, regardless of the severity of their conviction or the amount of time that has lapsed.
Moreover, these workers have long been abandoned by unions that lack either the interest or the capacity to organize them. But for some years, workers’ centers like Domestic Workers United and their sister organizations have been stepping into that void—and often winning substantial changes. The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, (  has improved labor conditions in some of the city’s biggest restaurant chains, replicating many elements of union contracts, even though they are not a union.

DWU started organizing 10 years ago. Having won the landmark New York law, they will now focus on making sure it is enforceable, by changing regulations, such as those that govern how workers file complaints, so that their employers can’t retaliate. DWU will also advise the state Department of Labor on educating workers and employers about the new law, and will do its own outreach through workers and through an alliance with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

While workers’ centers like DWU can play a critical role in fixing the labor economy, they have been hamstrung by the fact that they cannot collectively bargain and cannot collect union dues from an organized workplace. “The traditional collective bargaining framework poses a challenge because of how the industry is set up,” says DWU organizer Priscillia Gonzalez. “There’s no central work site, and no common employer. Also, there is this dynamic that because the work takes place in someone’s home, the people who are hiring don’t see themselves as employers.”

It’s also becoming a more broadly relevant question every day. As our economy continues shifting toward service and information industries, more and more formerly middle-class and White workers have seen their jobs similarly “contingentized” as domestic workers and day laborers. As employers load up on temporary, subcontracted, and part-time workers rather than full-time employees, they avoid paying into Social Security and providing unemployment insurance, health coverage, and workers’ compensation. They can even avoid providing vacation or sick days.

“Labor laws aren’t sufficient anymore to protect the rights of workers, whether in the minimum standards or the rules of the NLRA,” said Ai-jen Poo, a co-founder of DWU who is now directing the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “There were flaws and holes because so many people were excluded. But even for those workers [labor laws] were meant to protect, they’re failing because the economy has changed so much.”
People of color and women certainly remain over-represented in this category. Those employed by temp agencies, for example, are more likely than traditional workers to be Black or Latino. But the job sectors that have been heavily contingentized in the past 20 years range from professors, editors, and writers to tugboat operators and museum guards.

The question of how to adjust to these economic arrangements has to concern traditional labor unions as well as workers’ centers. A number of unions helped DWU win in New York. The doorman’s union was particularly active, in large part because doormen in luxury apartment buildings have plenty of opportunities to witness first hand the abuse of domestic workers. Nonetheless, unions have an outdated organizing model, even when they are progressive on racial and gender matters. They go into a large workplace with a single employer, organize it, win an election, and bargain for a new contract. As such workplaces disintegrate, however, unions have been slow to adjust and quick to lose members. Unlike workers in other countries, for instance, when American workers lose their jobs, they also lose their union memberships.

Nor is there any real trans-nationalism in American unions even though the U.S. workforce is increasingly foreign-born with strong global ties, including dependent family members. By contrast, DWU and the national alliance have worked with the International Labor Organization to produce a convention on the rights of the domestic worker and build, for the first time, global standards governing the industry.
“The experience of domestic workers challenges the framework we’re used to for labor law,” said Poo. “Maybe instead of talking about minimum wage, we need a floor wage. Or instead of inclusion in existing labor law, we need new laws.” If we’re going to develop a vision for protecting workers in the 21st century, it is far more likely to emerge from the people on the margins of the American labor movement than from those at its traditional center. The New York victory is a welcome, hopeful start.

Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine, where this article was originally published.


Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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