The following is an article I wrote on domestic worker organizing for Labor Notes, based on my interviews over the Summer with organizers in this emerging social movement. An edited version of this piece will appear in next months Labor Notes...
Domestic Worker Organizing: New Front in the emerging “Non-Traditional” Labor Movement by Jerry Mead-Lucero
For over two years, Marian, a Colombian immigrant and a housekeeper in Roslyn, New York, worked 18 hours a day, six days a week for about two dollars an hour. The family that employed her fired her without notice, kicking her out of the home and leaving her with nowhere to turn for support. After enduring months of verbal and physical abuse by her employer, “Vivian”, an Indian immigrant and nanny in Manhattan, refused the orders of her boss. Her boss’s response was to strike her with a sandal and kick her out the house without her pay or her passport. “Judy” a Malaysian immigrant and housekeeper on one occasion found herself locked in the basement of the home where she worked, by the son of her employer. In desperation to escape from her confinement she injured herself, and had to be taken to the hospital with the assistance of the household’s nanny. When Judy’s frustrated employer came to the hospital to retrieve her housekeeper, she stated…”I should have left you for dead, no one knows you are here anyway.” Judy realized at that moment that her employer was right…”If something more terrible happened to me, who would know? Who would help?”
These stories of exploitation and abuse may sound extreme, but according to research conducted by Domestic Workers United (DWU) in New York, and similar organizations around the country, these experiences are all to common among the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in the United States who live and work largely in the shadows, far from the public eye. A study conducted by DWU entitled “Home is Where the Work Is” found that 41% of domestics in New York earn low wages, with a quarter of them earning below the minimum wage. Another study found that 79% of Latina domestic workers in Los Angeles earn below minimum wage. Two-thirds of these workers are not paid overtime and the vast majority have no health benefits. Worst of all, 33% of all domestics and 48% of live-ins report experiencing some form of verbal, physical or sexual abuse in their workplace. Perhaps no other workforce is more isolated and hidden than domestics, whose workplaces are for many also their homes. This isolation is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of domestic workers are immigrants, either undocumented or residing in the U.S. via special domestic labor visas that make them especially vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. Much like agricultural labor, domestic work is closely tied to the legacy of slavery and a history of racial exclusion dating back to New Deal and the early days of American labor law. The result being that domestics have been denied the most basic legal protections, including the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively and the right to an 8 hour work day. Indeed, domestics continually struggle just to be recognized as employees, in a patriarchal culture in which women’s labor is de-valued and the employers argue, that their housekeepers, maids, nannies, and elder care givers are not workers, but are instead “members of the family.”
Despite such formidable obstacles, across the nation in the past decade, increasing numbers of domestic workers have begun to organize themselves and challenge their status as a hidden and easy to exploit workforce. Domestic worker organizations are an important emerging form of “non-traditional” labor organization, similar in many ways to other more high profile forms of creative, non-traditional organizing such as worker’s centers and regional or local worker’s associations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Much like their day labor and agricultural labor counterparts, domestics, until recently, have been largely ignored by the mainstream labor movement. Such neglect is both a cause and the effect of domestic’s exclusion from all or part of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA). As a result, domestic worker organizing has arisen, not out of the union movement but from the efforts of community and immigrant rights group, and has developed unique methods and approaches to labor organizing.
CASA de Maryland offers a prime example of domestic worker organizing emerging from within the immigrant rights community. CASA formed in the 1980’s to defend the rights of the growing number or Central American migrants in the D.C. area who were forced by war and political persecution to flee their countries of origin. According to CASA staff member Alexis de Simone, about 6 years ago, in an effort to build a women’s empowerment program within CASA, members -- a large number of whom are domestic workers -- began to share with one another their experiences of exploitation in their workplaces. “Among themselves when they would come to sign-up for employment, or sign up for classes, they would start talking, and they’d see that they had a lot of the same problems. A lot of the people were denied wages, were denied overtime, almost nobody had health insurance, and a lot of the women who were live-ins, or used to work as live-ins, reported cases of employers stealing their passports, not being allowed to leave…From realizing they had so many common problems it seemed to make sense that we form a women’s committee around domestic work.” In a similar fashion, organizations like Mujeres Unidas Y Activas in San Francisco, Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles, and DWU in New York, have arisen from within community organizations and immigrant advocacy groups and have only very recently come to the attention of the traditional labor movement.
Denied collective bargaining rights by law, domestic workers have been forced to pursue creative strategies to win concessions from their employers and changes in their working conditions; much like their counter-parts in the CIW, who have utilized their status as a workers association or community organization to pursue campaigns against Taco Bell and McDonald’s that would have been declared illegal secondary boycotts under the Taft-Hartely Act if the CIW was legally recognized as a labor union. In the case of domestic workers, the most often employed tactics have been direct actions of domestics and their community allies such as rallies outside the homes and workplaces of employers, and legislative strategies such as the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights, which is working its way through the New York state legislature. This proposed legislation would dramatically alter the status of Domestic Workers at the state level, including such improvements as a the right to a living wage, the right to overtime pay, family and medical leave provisions, paid vacations, health care coverage, termination notice and mandated severance pay. Perhaps most importantly, the bill would alter language in current state law that legally excludes domestics from being defined as employees, opening up access for domestics to a whole range of labor protections already afforded other working people. Founded in 2000, DWU has already succeeded in establishing New York City Local Law 33, which requires employment agencies to obtain signed codes of conduct from prospective employers and the organization claims to have won over $300,000 in back wages for domestics in New York. Ai-Jen Poo of DWU feels confident that the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights will be passed by the state legislature soon. A year ago it was approved by the New York State Assembly’s Labor Committee and just this past June it was passed on for a vote of the full state Senate by the Senate’s Labor Committee. Poo attributes the bill’s success so far to the strong support of persons of color caucuses in both levels of the state legislature, even in the republican dominated senate. Similar bill of rights type legislation is being pursued by CASA de Maryland at the county level.
The first United States Social Forum (USSF) held in Atlanta in late June, provided the space for domestic worker organizations from around the country to meet for the first time. As if to highlight their efforts to break the silence that surrounds domestic labor, perhaps no other group of workers at the USSF was more visible and vocal. Whether it be through frequent renditions of the Domestic Worker’s Calypso (a song written by a number of New York domestics which seemed to become an anthem of sorts for domestics at the USSF) or their boisterous and enthusiastic participation in sessions at the Forum, domestic workers were proud to make their presence known. As de Simone from CASA puts it…”I think a lot of these women are tired of having been shut up for so long, of always hearing well you’re just a domestic worker…you need to be quiet…this is my house, please do as I tell you, and so this is their chance to take charge…the chance to give visibility…because it is such invisible work…Its work that a lot of people never even recognize as work, so to say were here, were workers and we are demanding the same rights that everyone else has.” Through a series of both public and private workshops, plenary sessions and meetings at the USSF, domestics from the east coast, west coast and even a few places in between, compared notes and discussed common challenges. The result was the announcement at the Worker’s Rights Plenary on the last evening of the USSF, of the formation of a national alliance of domestic worker groups. The use of the space created by the forum, by domestics and farm worker groups to develop and advance national organizing strategies was one of the more promising successes to come out of the USSF. According to Ai-Jen Poo, the new national organization of domestics remains in its formative stages at this point. She expects more details on organization and strategy to be released around labor day weekend. However, one clear outcome of the discussions has been a national effort of domestic worker groups to support the efforts of DWU to win passage of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York. In an interview I conducted with her at the USSF, de Simone stated that CASA is also interested in pursuing some sort of national retirement program for domestics.
Despite such success and excitement in the domestic worker community, organizers are very aware of the substantial obstacles that stand in the way of efforts to organize domestics; the isolation of workers from one another and their lack of geographic centrality being the most obvious. Organizations like DWU seek out domestics in such places as city parks, mass transit stations, and outside the private schools attended by children of the households in which domestic workers labor. As Poo explained to me in a recent phone interview, the challenge of organizing is compounded by the commitment of DWU to utilize a member driven rather than staff driven organizing model in which domestics themselves are responsible for most of the outreach efforts. This can be quite difficult for women who frequently work much longer than the typical 40 hour work week. My experience in meeting with domestics at the USSF has lead me to conclude that one area in which domestics need little improvement is in their level of consciousness about their place within the wider world of labor and global economics. As Joycelyn Campbell, a nanny, an immigrant from Barbados, and a member of DWU put it in at one of the public workshops at the USSF…“Our workplace conditions are tied both to the nation’s history of slavery and our nation’s current role in the global economy. Pushing people to migrate away from their home countries and pulling people into service work here. Neo-liberal globalization has put into place policies that are destroying peoples livelihoods in their home countries and pushing people to migrate to places like New York…As New York continues to develop as a global capital, it must also lead the way in innovative protection and rights for those who work and enable that development.” Perhaps the most powerful words uttered by a member of the labor movement at the USSF came from Ai-Jen Poo at the Worker’s Rights Plenary when she argued…”We hope to build our labor movement, to a place where, when we call for a strike as domestic workers it will be for domestic workers rights and for global justice, legalization for undocumented workers, and an end to the war in Iraq. Or maybe, maybe it will be a strike of all informal sector workers or better yet a strike of all workers, union and non-union, the entire working-class.” It is this energy, inclusiveness and forward thinking that is typical of most non-traditional organizing. Driven by changes in the global economy that have lead to an increase in the number of low wage workers taking jobs in sectors of the economy historically ignored by most unions, these new forms of labor organization are breathing much needed new life into what has been a largely moribund labor movement in the United States while also challenging traditional organized labor to return to its own roots as a social movement.
The Domestic Workers United study, “Home is Where the Work Is”, can be found on their website…