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.

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