Author: Ai-jen Poo

Ai-jen Poo has been organizing immigrant women workers in New York since 1996. In 2000, she helped start Domestic Workers United and in April 2010, she became Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She can be reached at aijen@domesticworkers.org.

ON THE CONTRARY

In this article, views of Jay Youngdahl are expressed followed by a response from Ai-jenPoo and Palak Shah

Greed-Washing the On-Demand Economy: The NDWA’s “Good Work Code”

By Jay Youngdahl

Readers of New Labor Forum are familiar with the depleted state of America’s unions, workers’ depressed living standards, as well as of the emergence of responsive ideas, strategies, and struggles.  The current ferment will surely to lead to successes, but in the process a number of counterproductive strategies are emerging.[i]

Though led by smart, empathetic activists, one of the oddest and most problematic of the new efforts is the Good Work Code (GWC or the Code) for the on-demand or “gig” economy, formulated by the National Domestic Workers Association (NDWA).[ii]  While the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in particular, are engaged in unionizing strategies in the tech sector, and enterprising wage and hour lawyers are confronting the sector’s wage theft, the NDWA, working with a number of corporate partners such as the Uber-like delivery company DoorDash, has created an aspirational code for tech-sector employers.

An analysis of the GWC is a lesson in the problematic nature of a number of trends in the Philanthropic Labor Movement (PLM).  Unfortunately, within the non-profits in the foundation-funded PLM, worker agency, power, and democracy, the bedrocks of a strong movement, are often hard to find.[iii]

The Code was unveiled last fall with a splashy website and media campaign, after the well-respected NDWA canvassed “on-demand” employers.[iv]  Signatory companies committed to endorse general “values” for their work forces Safety, Stability and Flexibility, Transparency, Shared Prosperity, A Living Wage, Inclusion and Input, Support and Connection, Growth and Development––and to make public a few sentences about what “progress” they will make in relation to two of the eight values.[v]  Nothing more was required. In exchange, they received a kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” to trumpet on promotional materials, backed by the progressive reputation of the NDWA.

Codes which inure to the benefit of workers are sometimes developed for areas in which worker power is lacking and protection at work sorely needed.   But like codes for organic food or product safety, many are simply corporate greedwashing.2)  As the trajectory of the Fair Labor Association has shown in the garment supply chain, “many companies adopt codes to assist with their reputational risks over questionable labor practices,” says Ben Hensler, Deputy Director of the Workers Rights Consortium.[vi]

Good codes exist, but to work, Hensler continues, they “need several attributes including legal enforceability, independent and transparent monitoring of compliance, and meaningful involvement of worker representatives.” One successful code is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety (the Accord) in Bangladesh negotiated between international trade unions at such companies as Fruit of the Loom and Benetton.  Coming on the heels of the Rana Plaza building collapse in which, scandalously, more than one thousand people were killed, the Accord is a legally binding agreement covering over two million workers. To ensure a safe working environment the Accord includes inspection programs, public disclosure of reports, a democratically elected factory-based health and safety committee, and a right to refuse unsafe work.  Fruitful codes are present in the U.S. as well.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, through a strategy of farmworker organizing, consumer education, and boycotts, has forced a number of retail companies, including Walmart, to sign onto its Fair Food Code of Conduct, which contains labor protections.  And, the NDWA’s original caregiver’s Bill of Rights is a solid type of code, whose use has advanced efforts to protect in-home labor.

It is easy to see why tech companies would like the Good Work Code.  NDWA’s anointing of DoorDash as a company that provides good work gives the company a powerful weapon when questioned about the compensation of its drivers.[vii]  And, for a troubled public company like Care.com, the reputational boost from its NDWA seal of approval is valuable.[viii]   But why would the NDWA, a very well-respected organization, leverage its prestige with this mealy-mouthed GWC, even as an experiment?[ix]

First, the sparkly potential of the “on-demand” economy glimmers for many schooled in social entrepreneurship, and is seducing too many labor advocates.[x] The Good Work Code is based on the Silicon Valley utopian vision featured in TED talks with breathless paeans to “innovation” and “disruption.”  In this Garden of Eden, it is claimed, wonderful “new opportunities” exist for workers featuring “flexibility” and “freedom.”[xi]

Further, the GWC is a manifestation of the Good Capitalism movement.  Here, the “rich can save the world,” and “capitalism itself can be philanthropic, working for the good of mankind  . . . by [innovating] to benefit everyone, sooner or later.”[xii]  In what the writer Anand Giridharadas has called the “Aspen Consensus,” generosity becomes a substitute for justice. Companies are exhorted to “Do More Good,” but never, “Do Less Harm.”[xiii]  And, in Good Capitalism, “the business approach is the only thing that can change the world.”[xiv]

Worker power is Lilliputian in Good Capitalism, and worker “betterment” is mediated by well-meaning politicians, foundation program officers, and PLM leaders.  Ideas of confrontational unions, with their worker solidarity and messy democracy, is shunned. Describing the GWC, Ai-jen Poo of the NDWA told Forbes, “Our goal is to create a new story—a new narrative– that’s not about abusive employers and downtrodden workers, but rather that brings companies front and center into the conversation about the future of good work.”[xv]  Given the realities of life for Silicon Valley workers, this brings to mind Barbara Ehrenreich’s writing on the perils of positivity as “an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy;” lower-rung “gig” workers are simply “modern” day laborers.”[xvi]  Even one of the signatories of the GWC admitted that in the “new economy” “the basics remain much of the same … a time clock used to be something that was mounted on the wall of a factory; now it’s a mobile app.” [xvii]

For those who would say that criticizing the Code is just “old labor” negativity, consider Poo’s statement to Forbes that, “We see a moment of opportunity right now because the gig/online economy is relatively new and its values and principles regarding work are still forming.”[xviii]  There is much to chew on here, but it is farcical to claim that the “values and principles of these Silicon Valley creations are still forming.” Silicon Valley has a well-formed negative ethical code– raw profit-seeking individualism.  Their leaders are constantly in the news for some kind of unethical actions whether in their personal lives– cheating a sex slave or closing public access to beaches for their private use– or in their business–cheating workers out of their wages.[xix] As to the “evolving ethics” for employees, advocates and discharged workers know that many business models are based on “exploiting workers and disregarding employment laws.”[xx]  The bigger on-demand companies such as Uber and Instacart have recently cut pay to their drivers. And, an “occupational segregation” exists in the Silicon Valley as full-time jobs are replaced with low-wage subcontracting work staffed by predominantly black and Latino workers.[xxi]  A recent report found that the average blue-collar subcontracted worker has an annual income of $19,900.  A living wage for a single mother with one child in this area, for example, is at least twice this amount.[xxii]

New ideas for worker justice and power are needed and certainly a thousand flowers should bloom, but the Good Work Code is a bad strategy even though advanced by good people.

 

Notes

[i] For a light “taxonomy” of these “new labor” formations and commentary of their promises and perils, see, Jay Youngdahl, “Is a Progressive Phoenix Rising?  The New Labor Movement is Approaching,” Social Policy Winter, 2016. http://www.socialpolicy.org/component/content/article/4-latest-issue/779-is-a-progressive-phoenix-rising-the-new-labor-movement-is-approaching

[ii] The NDWA is led by Ai-jen Poo, who is on the Board of the New Labor Forum.

[iii] Recent events have shown that success may come in areas of personal identity and work culture from PLM activities, such as shown coworker.org petitions demanding the right of retail workers to dye their hair blue, red, or pink.  Challenges to income inequality do not fare as well.

[iv] http://www.goodworkcode.org/press/

[v] Palak Shah, the leader of the GWC, said that each signatory commits to “focusing on at least two of the eight as priorities over the next year. The idea is to kick off a conversation– it doesn’t mean these companies will get to all eight right away, but it means they aspire to do so, and they are taking public steps to do so. And it means they won’t have to do so alone, but rather in a community of practice grappling with the same questions.” Michael Zakaras, “Can the Online Economy Become a Labor Leader,” Forbes, November 13, 2015 http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2015/11/23/can-the-online-economy-become-a-labor-leader/2/#67260bac4a87

[vi] The Fair Labor Association has been called a “fig leaf” to cover supply chain labor abuse. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/technology/critics-question-record-of-fair-labor-association-apples-monitor.html

[vii] Lyft recently was forced to admit in court that it has taken $126 million in compensation from drivers through its classification of them as independent contractors. http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_29677142/lyft-settlement-faces-scrutiny

[viii] The case of Care.com and NDWA is especially interesting.  Given Care.com’s business space and the mission of the NDWA, their closeness is understandable.  Like the UAW and GM or the APWU and the USPS, unions often stand by their employers.  Unfortunately though, unlike GM and the USPS, Care.com staff is not unionized.

[ix] I want to thank Ai-jen Poo and Palak Shah for speaking to me as part of my writing in this area.  I salute their openness.  Shah, to her credit, told me that the GWC is an “experiment,” to “shift the conversation to workers.”

[x] A close look at the public relations push behind the “Portable Benefits” movement and efforts to replace worker “employee status” with a form of “independent contractor status” highlights this attraction to Silicon Valley language and thought.  See, https://medium.com/the-wtf-economy/common-ground-for-independent-workers-83f3fbcf548f#.ossv8im0x and Jay Youngdahl and Darwin Bond-Graham, “When Labor Groups and Silicon Valley Capitalists Join Forces to “Disrupt” Protections for Employees,” Working In These Times blog, December 4, 2015 http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/18643/when_labor_groups_and_silicon_valley_capitalists_join_forces_to_disrupt_pro

[xi] As to flexibility, when asked, “Legal arguments aside, why is DoorDash opposed to having its drivers classified as employees?” the company responded that: “Our goal at DoorDash is to provide meaningful, flexible work for people across the country. When we speak with Dashers we regularly hear that one of the most important benefits of their work is flexibility and we want to ensure we continue to provide them with that option. We are proud to have created opportunities for a growing community of tens of thousands of Dashers that offer them flexibility, freedom and a meaningful source of income.”  In fact, this flexibility and new opportunities remind one of the famous quote of Anatole France in “The Red Lily.”  “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

[xii]  See, http://philanthrocapitalism.net/ Recently, the former head of BP, the company responsible for the largest environmental disaster in the U.S., wrote on how companies can “tackle big social problems,” lauding Walmart’s success in this area. http://bit.ly/1Y2BDO9

[xiii] While a fellow at the Aspen Global Leadership Network, Anand Giridharadas gave a speech which included these remarks. https://medium.com/@AnandWrites/the-thriving-world-the-wilting-world-and-you-209ffc24ab90#.3pquhumbl

[xiv]Unfortunately, the NDWA is not the only organization that has been seduced by this “business case.”  In “old labor”, for example, many labor Capital Strategies activists use the term “human capital” to describe workers, even their own members. And the labor program at Harvard, partially financed by unions, is starting a “human governance” research program http://www.hrmaturity.com/human-governance-a-groundbreaking-research-program/ “Human Governance as a management paradigm that emerges when an organization recognizes and seeks to fulfill a commitment to the never-ending pursuit of societal value through realizing the full potential value of its entire human capital.”

[xv]  At a recent White House forum Poo told President Obama that NDWA found that many on-demand employers “just wanted to do the right thing and it wasn’t clear what that was.”  Poo followed that there were “no standards, no guidelines” for employers.  The President responded that he was a fan of collective bargaining.

[xvi] Barbara Ehrenreich, “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America,” Picador Press, 2010.

[xvii] See, Cole Stangler, “Meet the Gig Economy Companies That See Investing In Workers As a Smart Business Strategy,”  March 17, 2016  International Business Times http://www.ibtimes.com/meet-gig-economy-companies-see-investing-workers-smart-business-strategy-2336721

[xviii] See, Greg Bensinger, “Grocery-Delivery Startup Instacart Cuts Pay for Couriers,” March 11, 2016 Wall Street Journal http://www.wsj.com/article_email/grocery-delivery-startup-instacartcuts-pay-for-couriers-1457715105-lMyQjAxMTI2MjE0MTIxNzE3Wj

[xix] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-16/how-an-affair-between-a-valley-vc-and-exotic-dancer-turned-toxic; http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/24/business/tech-mogul-asks-for-30-million-to-reopen-martins-beach.html?_r=0;

[xx] http://www.administrativeconsultantsassoc.com/blog/2015/08/12/what-zirtual-and-any-virtual-staffing-agency-workers-need-to-know/; recently a lawyer for Wage Theft Coalition echoed the former Zirtual employee: “In Silicon Valley, exploitation is part of the business model.”  Jennifer Wadsworth, “Recent Cases Highlight Silicon Valley’s Wage Theft ‘Epidemic,’” March 9, 2016 SanJoseInside http://www.sanjoseinside.com/2016/03/09/recent-cases-highlight-silicon-valleys-wage-theft-epidemic/

[xxi] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/30/silicon-valley-subcontracting-income-inequality-worse-report?CMP=share_btn_tw

[xxii] http://livingwage.mit.edu/

 

 

RESPONSE: New Business Models Demand New Forms of Worker Organizing

Response by Ai-jenPoo and Palak Shah

We welcome the opportunity to discuss the merits of the Good Work Code (GWC) and engage with Jay Youngdahl’s critique. As we read it, Youngdahl poses three main objections to the GWC: (1) The values framework articulated is aspirational and unenforceable; (2) it “greedwashes” companies engaged in bad labor practices; and (3) it is based on the notion that “Good Capitalism” can be mobilized to solve the problem of worker exploitation. In the course of his critique, Youngdahl also targets what he calls the “Philanthropic Labor Movement,” that is, those of us with the temerity to organize workers outside the frame of traditional labor unions.

Digital technology and on-demand hiring platforms are rapidly transforming how workers engage with various sectors of the labor market and their terms and conditions of work. Domestic work is among the many occupations impacted by new technology. Increasingly, workers and employers are matched online for child care and eldercare jobs through companies like Care.com, and the on-demand economy has penetrated the housecleaning market through companies like Handy and TaskRabbit.

NDWA turned its attention to Silicon Valley not because, as Youngdahl implies, we were bedazzled by the bright, shiny objects dangled by tech companies, but because, the fact is, these models are transforming labor markets. Increasing numbers of domestic workers, and other low-wage workers, access work through these companies. This phenomenon is in its infancy and our expectation is that it will grow. We believe these workers deserve the best wages and conditions of labor. We assume that Youngdahl agrees with us, at least on this point.

The labor movement is still in the early stages of determining how best to meet the multiple challenges posed by companies that aggregate and deploy workers through digital platforms. Mechanisms for exploiting labor are proliferating and changing far more rapidly than our capacity to organize workers and represent their interests. Tech companies are building new business models, often creating ever more precarious conditions of life and labor, lowering wage floors and job quality. However, with the exception of the ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft, most gig-economy companies are in early stages. It is in this environment, that the labor movement is called upon to develop interventions on many fronts, fearlessly exploring traditional and nontraditional means of articulating, defending, and expanding workers’ rights.

It is in this context that NDWA initiated the Good Work Code. We quickly saw the structural similarities between domestic workers and so-called ‘gig’ workers. Both groups face inconsistent hours, working without contracts, lack of benefits, little to no labor law protections, and no clear path to unionization. At the same time, those who follow the gig economy know that it has been tech companies, not unions or labor advocates, driving the national conversation. By releasing a simple values framework, we have successfully inserted the demands and voices of workers into a narrative dominated by tech companies, with the intention of creating space for a conversation about what better employment practices could look like in the digital economy. That conversation is not meant to obscure problematic or patently illegal practices. It does not take the place of workers organizing, through unions or other forms, to improve conditions. And it does nothing to resolve critical issues like worker classification–it was not meant to. It does, however, broaden worker-driven demands without unscrupulously cutting deals. Our framework consists of eight simple values that we think are foundational to good work in the online economy: Safety, Stability and Flexibility, Transparency, Shared Prosperity, A Livable Wage, Inclusion and Input, Support and Connection, and Growth and Development.[1] The values were developed based on in-person interviews with workers in the tech economy about their experiences working on platforms— though the overarching values and principles are fairly commonsense. To participate, companies identify their current practices related to two of the values and their commitments going forward.[2] The GWC is not a seal of approval.[3] Its purpose is to function as a framework and an initial roadmap for companies to assess and improve working conditions for their employees. The GWC, or any derivative of it, can also begin to serve as a demand framework for all of us in the labor movement as we seek to better understand how work is changing specifically in the online economy.

So far 12 companies have chosen to affiliate themselves with the Good Work Code–launched in October 2015– and publicly endorse the eight values. Our own experience in the domestic worker movement has shown us that organizing strategies complemented with norms and culture change strategies can yield great results.

Over the last six months, we have seen the national conversation about work in the online economy advance from an exclusive focus on employment classification to what workers need and employer obligations to meet those needs. We believe we contributed to this important shift, and that the ground has been softened for a diverse range of interventions that will improve online work and increase worker power in the future.

How will this improve the lives of workers? The simple answer is that we don’t know yet. The vision of the GWC is to articulate aspirational values that extend beyond the rights and protections provided to workers by law, even when those workers are classified correctly as employees rather than independent contractors. But of course these are values, not yet measurable standards or specific rights enforceable by contract, though we support the emergence of concrete standards and enforceable contracts. Not being represented by unions, these workers currently have no contracts. NDWA and the GWC do not stand in the way of union efforts to organize these workers or any other efforts to realize gains for workers. And we understand that the ultimate arbiters of how these companies are doing are neither the GWC nor NDWA, but the workers themselves. However, what Youngdahl interprets as “greed-washing” we offer as one tactic or intervention, in a rapidly changing environment, which we believe has the potential to improve the work lives of tens of thousands of workers. Organizers and advocates would do well to keep their eyes on both long-term goals and on the full range of ways to improve working conditions in the current context.

Youngdahl suggests that we suffer the illusion that “Good Capitalism” will somehow reform itself and begin to operate in the interests of workers and all humankind. To the contrary, we understand that digital technology has, in most cases, exacerbated already stunning levels of inequality in our economy. But our own experience has taught us that an orientation toward collective bargaining or nothing at all is counter-productive and limiting. In the absence of an aggregated workforce, domestic workers have experimented for decades with multiple tactics and strategies to win better wages and decent work. Further, we believe– as we assume most workers do— that some companies are better to work for than others. They pay better wages, they don’t sweat their workers, they provide avenues for advancement, they encourage and incorporate worker input. Perhaps their owners adhere to a set of moral and ethical values that ultimately lean contrary to the demands of capital, and they actively engage that contradiction. Whatever the case, short of a comprehensively unionized workforce or universal worker control of production and service provision, we orient toward making consistent progress on impacting the framework of dialogue and meeting new challenges with new tactics.

We would remind Youngdahl of something he surely knows: Unions have had the opportunity to organize domestic workers since the dawn of the U.S. labor movement. They have chosen not to. Worker organizers outside traditional union structures, with the welcome support of foundations, have pioneered ways to organize neglected sectors of the working class to exercise their power and win better conditions of labor. Youngdahl’s cut at what he calls the “Philanthropic Labor Movement” seems to imply that it would have been better to leave these workers unorganized, or to continue to wait until traditional unions determined that organizing domestic workers was a worthwhile endeavor. We disagree.

As for the notion that those who fight for the rights of workers within the context of non-profit organizations squelch worker agency, power and democracy, we invite Youngdahl to meet the worker leaders and members affiliated with NDWA and dozens of other worker centers. Their power, voice, initiative, creativity, strategic thinking and commitment are the foundation for multiple victories that have expanded the rights and lifted the dignity of previously unrepresented workers.

We understand ourselves to be part of one labor movement, unified in its interest in winning the best deal for workers. We depend on our friends and long-term allies in traditional unions to stand with us in our joint effort to build a powerful and inclusive labor movement. We expect that there may be tactical disagreements among us along the way, but reject Youngdahl’s troubling assertion that we are deluded and that our methods are dangerous.

The reality is that none of us, including Youngdahl, know what it will take the rebuild the power of the labor movement in this country. What we do know is that the future of technology and the future of work are inextricably bound, and that the best work happens in the field. We contend that simply protecting and promoting a model of traditional trade unionism is not sufficient, nor is it working. We need many experiments, new forms of organizing and organization. And, we believe that changing the conversation–the cultural and narrative environment around work– is a key part of creating the context for the ultimate success of a new workers’ movement in this country. Capital is adaptive and sophisticated; at minimum, we must be as well.

 

Notes

[1] See: www.goodworkcode.org

[2] Each company and their public commitments are listed here: http://www.goodworkcode.org/companies/

[3] We are puzzled by Youngdahl’s consistent misrepresentation of the structure and nature of the Good Work Code as an initiative. We have consistently clarified that the Good Work Code is a commitment made by companies, not an endorsement by NDWA. Misrepresentation of these facts changes the nature of the initiative and we can only imagine is being employed to better suit Youngdahl’s argument.

 

A TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY ORGANIZING MODEL: Lessons from the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign

The August 31, 2010 landmark signing of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights by New York State Governor David Paterson recognizes New York’s domestic workforce and establishes basic labor standards. The first legislation of its kind in the country, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights provides: overtime pay of time-and-a-half of workers’ regular rate of pay (after forty hours for live-out workers and after forty-four hours for live-in workers); protection from discrimination and harassment; a minimum of one day of rest per week; and a minimum of three days of paid leave per year.

This decree affects more than two hundred thousand women, most of whom are immigrants of color who labor as nannies, housekeepers, and companions for the elderly. Prior to the movement that led up to the legislation’s passage, domestic workers were excluded from labor laws and largely invisible—the question asked was whether they should be covered by labor law at all. Today, there are two questions asked: how will the new benefits and protections be enforced, and how might they be extended to domestic workers nationwide?

The World of Work Inside the Home

Domestic workers—who care for our families and our homes—are among the most vulnerable workers in the United States. There are an estimated 2.5 million women who labor as domestic workers. In the New York metropolitan area alone, they leave their homes early in the morning, often in the dark, in order to arrive at their work sites before their employers depart for work. Some live in their employers’ homes, caring for these families throughout the day and night. The more hours these women spend working in their employers’ homes, the fewer hours they have to care for their own homes and families. Many domestic workers have had to leave their children behind in their home nations. While the entire economy rests on their work, their labor has long been taken for granted.

Because women’s work in the home has never been factored into national labor statistics, it is difficult to quantify the economic contributions of this workforce. We can estimate these workers’ contributions by imagining what would happen if they withheld their labor. If domestic workers went on strike, they could paralyze almost every industry in urban areas. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, small business owners, civil sector employees, and media executives would all be affected. The entire urban economy would quiver.

Domestic workers also make crucial contributions to the economies in their home nations. In a recent survey of domestic workers in New York, conducted by DataCenter and Domestic Workers United, researchers found that 98 percent of domestic workers are foreign-born and that 59 percent are the primary income earners for their families. These women migrate to the United States in search of work and—upon their arrival—find that domestic work is one of the only professions available to them. Remittances from domestic work are a central source of revenue for many nations in the Global South. In the early part of the twentieth century, most of the nation’s domestic workers and farm workers were African-American. When the New Deal’s labor legislation was being debated in the 1930s, Southern members of Congress—who feared the emergence of an African-American labor movement—blocked the inclusion of farm workers and domestic workers in federal labor laws.

Even if domestic workers were included in labor laws, the structure of the industry makes it difficult to organize workers or enforce basic labor standards. Their workplaces are unmarked private homes. The terms of employment and working conditions are negotiated house by house. With no clear standards or laws to ensure basic rights, workers have to negotiate the terms of their employment individually, day by day, in situations where they lack any real bargaining power. More often than not, workers risk losing their jobs by asking for basic rights and necessities like an afternoon off to see the doctor or receive a mammogram. Even for the rare employers who want to compensate domestic workers fairly, there is little information available.

The combination of these dynamics—the racialized exclusion of domestic workers from labor laws, the gendered devaluation of women’s work in the home, the decentralized structure of the industry, and the economic pressures facing immigrants from the global South—makes domestic workers extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In this context, organizing is both difficult and absolutely essential.

The History of Domestic Workers United

Domestic Workers United was born out of a joint organizing effort between two community-based organizations—CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and Andolan: Organizing South Asian Workers—in 1999. The two organizations had been organizing and fighting cases of injustice on behalf of workers in Asian communities for several years. However, Asian women were only a small percentage of the domestic workforce. The majority of domestic workers are Caribbean and Latina women, and no organizations were engaging them. With the intention of including all domestic workers, CAAAV and Andolan reached out to these unrepresented groups to survey them about their working conditions and gauge their interest in organizing.

Beverly Alleyne, a nanny from Barbados who worked for a young family on the Upper West Side, had waited a long time for an organization to form. “There is no place for us to go when our employers try to take advantage of us,” she said, “so most of us stay silent.” Beverly came to the first meeting of Caribbean workers that emerged from CAAAV and Andolan’s outreach efforts. The women at these early meetings decided to form themselves into a steering committee, and Domestic Workers United (DWU) was born in 2000.

DWU helped organize individual support campaigns for workers who had been mistreated by their employers, survived trafficking, or were owed wages. DWU organized demonstrations at employers’ homes and businesses, and worked with legal partner organizations—like the Urban Justice Center—to file lawsuits. Using a combination of legal pressure and direct action, DWU has helped to recover over $450,000 in workers’ stolen wages.

As the work evolved, it became clear that grassroots worker education and case-by-case fighting weren’t going to give workers the protection they needed. We would have to find a way to change the labor laws themselves. In 2003, DWU led a successful effort to pass a New York City law to compel domestic-worker employment agencies to educate workers and employers about basic labor rights and issue written statements regarding legally acceptable job conditions. After the passage of the citywide agency bill, we decided to raise our sights and try to change New York State labor laws. We developed our priorities, and then drafted and shepherded—with the help of New York University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic—the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights into formal legislation.

We took our first trip—in a fifteen passenger van full of domestic workers—to the state capitol building in Albany in January 2004. As we navigated the narrow streets on that cold winter morning, we had no idea what it would take to win protections for domestic workers. In meetings with legislators and their aides, domestic workers were asked questions like, “What are you talking about? Is this about domestic violence?” and “What if I can’t afford to pay $14 per hour?” We were even told things like, “Look, honey, the guy that pumps your gas doesn’t get these things by law, why should the babysitter get them?” We spent the next five years learning what it would take to build power and win in Albany.

When the campaign started, there was a Republican governor and a Republican-majority Senate. By the time our bill had made it through the various committees, we had a Democratic governor and a Democratic-majority Senate. But one reality remained constant: moral arguments were necessary, but not sufficient. We had to build: (1) our membership base of domestic workers; and (2) a broad-based coalition of support from a range of different allies—employers, students, communities of faith, and the labor movement.

We developed a core group of supporters who could lead independent organizing within their own networks. And the tide started to turn—by 2007, after three years of organizing and coalition building, you could hear a buzz around town about the Bill of Rights campaign. That was the year we also started to receive significant support from high-profile labor leaders like John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, whose mother had worked as a domestic worker for over forty years.

Over the course of the six-year Bill of Rights campaign, DWU members and supporters traveled to Albany more than forty times and mobilized more than one thousand people to meet with legislators. Our Albany mobilizations included rallies, press conferences, and exciting cultural performances such as the “Domestic Slide” (a domestic workers’ version of the Electric Slide). Each person who went to Albany with us returned as an advocate for domestic workers’ rights. High school students—who, at first, went to Albany because their teachers thought it would be good exposure to civic processes—talked about the domestic workers in their lives and came to realize how those relationships made the Bill of Rights campaign relevant to their lives.

As politicians began to take us more seriously, it became clear that the greatest challenges to our success lay in the particular conditions facing our industry. For example, some legislators argued that—in order to achieve days off and benefits—domestic workers must form a union and collectively bargain “like other workers.” A few legislators claimed they could not enact a law with the provisions in our bill because it would provide “special protections” for domestic workers that other workers did not receive by law. These arguments sidestepped the fact that domestic workers are explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act-mandated right to organize and collectively bargain. But even if they were included, the dynamics of their employment make it difficult (if not impossible) to engage in collective bargaining in the traditional sense. When individual care workers try to bargain with their employers, termination is the standard result—employers can simply hire another worker. In the context of such extreme inequality in bargaining power between domestic workers and their employers, workers cannot simply organize and bargain “like other workers.”

We learned to argue to the power brokers and lawmakers that domestic workers had no hope of achieving basic rights—like notice of termination or paid sick days—unless those rights were legislated. We identified precedents where laws were made to account for the highly specific nature of certain industries. But at the end of the day, all of our efforts to frame our case more effectively were missing the point. The problem was not just technical—domestic workers were dehumanized and invisible in popular consciousness, so it was hard for many to see the connections between the issues facing domestic workers and the issues facing all New Yorkers. This vision—of humanizing the workforce and making care work visible—became our campaign’s guiding light.

Lessons in Transformative Organizing

The Bill of Rights campaign offered an opportunity for people to learn that the historical assumption on which a great deal of organizing models are based—that we need to build our campaigns based on people’s material self-interests—is not the whole story. Domestic Workers United led a campaign that mobilized many different communities of people based on an expanded sense of self-interest that acknowledged our relationships and interdependencies.

During our campaigns, we learned that just about everyone is connected—in one way or another—to someone who works as a domestic worker. In many of our meetings with City Council members and state legislators, we heard stories about the experiences of their mothers who did domestic work. The personal connections that everyday people of all walks of life had to this workforce became one of the key mobilizing forces throughout the campaign.

Rather than framing our work as a narrow workers’ rights campaign that was focused strictly on the issues of domestic workers, we intentionally built the campaign around broader notions of structural inequality. We highlighted the roots of the problems facing domestic workers, including the devaluing of “women’s work” in the home, the legacy of slavery in the United States, and the lack of a social safety net in the United States and abroad. This broader framing allowed us to forge key alliances. Our message to “Respect the work that makes all other work possible” allowed us to build relationships with women’s organizations, mothers, and longtime advocates for gender justice and women’s equality. Our “Reverse a long history of discrimination and exclusion” message allowed us to build with farm workers, homeless people, guest workers, and the millions of others excluded by the legal system that’s currently in place. And “Standards benefit everyone” allowed us to build relationships with unions, employers, faith leaders, and thousands of others.

The Challenges Ahead

The campaign to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York has already provided an opening for the transformation of relationships within the domestic-work industry and a vision for new organizing strategies, particularly in an economy where contingent-service work in smaller workplaces is expanding. Coming out of this victory, New York domestic workers will seek inclusion in the New York State Labor Relations Act and DWU will pilot efforts to bargain collectively with employers. Despite the challenges, we will attempt to create an unprecedented model for collective bargaining in the domestic-work industry. And we will challenge the legislature to continue extending labor rights—such as paid leave and notice of termination—to this still-vulnerable workforce.

As a movement, we face enormous challenges ahead. After several decades of attacks on the rights of workers—particularly vis-à-vis the right to organize, high unemployment rates, and growing anti-immigrant sentiment—it is difficult to envision major progressive change for the working class. However, it is precisely in these moments that major advances can occur. Domestic workers—together with other excluded workers—are helping to envision a new, expanded framework for collective bargaining and labor rights for the twenty-first century.