Ai-jen: Thank you everyone for getting on the call today. It’s an honor for the domestic workers’ movement to share with you about the ins and outs of this six year-long journey to win the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York, to discuss the implications of this victory for our movement and to talk about some of the enormous challenges and opportunities that are ahead of us in this moment. It’s really important that we have these kinds of conversations as a movement to share lessons and to figure out how we connect our struggles more to strengthen all of our work. So thank you for the opportunity.
Most of you know that domestic workers are a large workforce that has largely been invisible. In fact, in this country, there are 2.5 million domestic workers doing the work that we call “the work that makes all other work possible.” Throughout the history of this country, domestic workers have been excluded from key labor laws and protections even though they help to grow the economy. Over the course of history, we have seen that as economic inequality grows, so does the domestic work workforce. So this industry is going to continue to grow throughout the course of the economic crisis.
Domestic workers have always been organizing throughout the history of this country. Our most recent round of organizing started about 15 years ago as a part of the workers center movement and the community-based immigrant rights movement. Over the course of the last fifteen years, you’ve started to see more and more domestic workers coming together, standing up for their rights, breaking out of the isolation of their workplaces, speaking out against abuse and injustice. Over the course of the last 15 years, most of the work of organizing domestic workers has been very slow and incremental. Worker by worker, meeting by meeting, training by training, case by case, this movement has been building. What we’re seeing now is a real growth spurt in the organizing. When I first started organizing domestic workers in 1998, there were only four groups that were organizing domestic workers. Today, there are 33 organizations in 17 cities and 11 states that are organizing domestic workers. And they’re doing it together in concert and in coordination, strategically building through the National Domestic Workers Alliance. This campaign to win the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York is, in many ways, a flagship campaign for our movement. It’s a reflection of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown, and it’s a reflection of the potential of what’s to come.
In terms of what we actually won through the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (which will go into effect on November 30, 2010), we won a minimum of one day a rest per week for domestic workers. This is particularly vital for live-in domestic workers and other domestic workers who work around the clock seven days a week. We also won overtime pay at the regular rate of pay. In the past, overtime was counted as time-and-a-half of the minimum wage for more than 40 hours a week for live-out domestic workers and 44 hour for live-in workers. Now, overtime is counted at time-and-a-half of your regular rate of pay, and this will make a huge economic difference for workers. In addition, we won three days paid leave a year for domestic workers. Of course, workers will be negotiating for much more than that, but at least employers now absolutely have to provide a minimum of three paid days off per year. In addition, we won protection in anti-discrimination and harassment laws for domestic workers. So for the first time, domestic workers will be protected from discrimination and harassment from their employers. And finally, we won a study on the feasibility of collective bargaining for domestic workers. We are currently in the process of working with the Commissioner of Labor to understand the feasibility of collective bargaining for domestic workers and what it would mean for domestic workers in New York State to have the right to organize. So for the first time, we are developing a way forward toward realizing the right bargain collectively for domestic workers. So it is all very significant.
Up until the Bill of Rights passed in New York, domestic workers had been excluded from most of the core components of labor rights. The Bill of Rights sets the precedent for labor rights through a state-by-state process, but also points towards what’s possible in terms of national labor law reform. At the same time as the domestic workers’ movement has been growing in the United States, the international domestic workers movement has been growing and has had some important parallel victories. One of the very important victories is that the International Labor Organization (ILO), the arm of the United Nations that sets labor standards internationally, decided two years ago that it was going to enact the very first international law to recognize and protect the rights of the domestic workforce. So over the past two years, almost simultaneous to the process of winning this victory in New York, all of the governments that are part of the United Nations, and all of the labor federations that are in those countries have been in conversation with employers internationally about the rights of domestic workers.
So we’ re in a historic moment where we’ve made major gains in the recognition of this workforce as a real workforce that deserves recognition, that deserves protection, that deserves labor standards and that has a very important place in the labor movement. The NY Domestic Worker Bill of Rights campaign has been the flagship fight through which we’ve been able to make a breakthrough here in the United States. This victory has some significant scale; it will affect the lives of over 200,000 women, and it sets the stage for other victories like it around the country. This is particularly important given the current challenges to passing new federal policy through Congress. The nine domestic worker organizations in California are working together to pass legislation to provide labor rights to domestic workers California. In January, they will introduce the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights into their state legislature. So we’re seeing real momentum during this window of opportunity, a real growth in organizing. Domestic workers around the world are breaking out of their isolation and taking their rightful place in the labor movement. So that’s a little bit of context to introduce the story of the victory of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. Now I want to introduce some of the leaders of this campaign. We are joined today by Deloris Wright, Joycelyn Gill-Campbell and Priscilla Gonzalez from Domestic Workers United. Deloris will be speaking first, and she is going to talk about the role of domestic workers in the campaign and how worker leadership propelled this campaign forward.
Deloris: Good afternoon. My name is Deloris Wright. I have been a nanny for 22 years. And I am a member of Domestic Workers United. DWU is a very very strong movement, and I am very happy to be part of this movement as a domestic worker. It is very important what we did with this Bill of Rights campaign, and it is very important that workers like myself were able to participate in passing this piece of legislation. The way that we participated was very important: to educate the legislators, to highlight the work that we were doing and how important it was for us to have this bill. When we went to Albany to meet with legislators, we shared our stories. It was very important to be there as a domestic worker to really put it on the table, to let them know what is going on in the domestic work industry. Our participation was one of the highlights of the campaign because no one else can tell our stories like we do. We are workers, and we were right there, telling our stories: what we go through on a daily basis, how we’ve been treated, how we’ve been beat down, how we’ve been fired without explanation of why we were being fired, how we were exploited, how we work long hours without overtime pay and how – if you ask for overtime pay – you might lose your job. So it was very important to be workers there in Albany.
Working on the campaign was very informative. We learned how to do lobby days; we learned how to conduct our campaign meetings, how to speak to the media – it helped me, as a domestic worker, to be on the campaign committee. The campaign also helped us to learn how we do our thing: how we make decisions, how we get together to go out to do our outreach to other workers. Many workers hadn’t heard about the campaign. So it was very important for us to learn how to go out there and talk with other domestic workers, how to listen to their stories so we could bring them back and put them on the table. That way, when we went back to the legislators in Albany, we had a clearer picture of the industry and then they could also see the issue from another angle. So we could say, “This is what I’m talking about, and this is what we’ve been going through as domestic workers.” I’m very happy to have worked on this legislation. And I want to continue with this work because it is very important what we did with this Bill of Rights. I’m happy right now, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work on this bill. We still have a lot of work to do. And we have a lot of people to reach out to. We still have workers who are really scared of coming out, even though the bill has passed, they don’t want to come out freely. So I am so happy that, because I’m not working, I have the capacity to go out and reach out to other workers. And I’m happy to be working with the Department of Labor to implement this bill that we just got passed.
Ai-jen: Thanks, Deloris, now we’re going to hear from Joycelyn Gill-Campbell, who is an organizer at DWU and a former domestic worker herself. She is going to talk a bit about the power that we had to build and how we went about building that power. In addition to what Deloris described about building the power and engagement of domestic workers, a really broad coalition of groups had to be brought together in order to really build the power that we need to win in the legislature. So Joyce is going to give you a sense of the coalition that we built and the actions that we did together to demonstrate the power that we built.
Joyce: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you all are doing fine. Deloris spoke about the campaign for the Bill of Rights. Over the past seven years, we’ve been fighting to have the Bill of Rights passed in New York. I wanted to start by letting you know that it wasn’t an easy fight. It started out with us having to educate the legislators and the broader public about the industry. We knew that we could not do this alone. Having no political power, we had to build our strength. We had to strategize and build relationships and to organize actions to demonstrate our power.
DWU and the New York Domestic Workers Justice Coalition organized several major actions every year in New York City in key areas like the Upper East Side in Manhattan. We came up with messages like “Where Wall Street lives and domestic workers labor.” We marched through the streets. We held press conferences. We held a 24-hour vigil outside of City Hall. We held a 12-hour vigil outside of the Governor’s office. We even held a Children’s March where we adults took a back seat, and the children of domestic workers and the children they care for took over. They led a march calling for respect and recognition for domestic workers. They carried signs that said “Respect my mommy” and “Respect my nanny.” This was powerful because the children told their stories. They wrote their own stories and we just let them speak what they wrote. It had a great impact on the spectators who had gathered to watch.
We strategized further about how to build power in other arenas. We reached out to the churches, and we had a month dedicated to the domestic workers called “Domestic Workers in the Pulpit.” We built a strong relationship with the Poverty Initiative at the Union Theological Seminary, and that is what helped make “Domestic Workers in the Pulpit” possible. This is where the domestic workers got into the pulpit and spoke to the congregations around the state. We told them about the industry, the exploitations and the abuses that were happening in the industry. People sitting in the congregations were able to identify themselves with these issues that the domestic workers were facing. Some of them themselves were domestic workers who had never heard about DWU. So they came forward and helped to build our strength by spreading the word to different churches that we were unable to get into.
We realized that we had to keep building our power bigger and bigger. There were times when we would go to Albany, and they would ask us how many people did we bring to Albany. And it was great to be able say that we had 250 people, five busloads of people! But then they asked us who were our celebrities! You can imagine what that was like, we were there with 250 people, asking for dignity and rights and respect. And they are asking for celebrities. We had no power to reach out to celebrities like that, but leading activists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Gloria Steinem joined us.
We went into schools and colleges to educate the youth about the industry and about the slave trade. If you look carefully into the textbooks and study the history of this country, you would realize that the struggles of the poor man and the history of slavery are not documented within these books. After some of those trainings, we brought more than 100 students to Albany to speak with the legislators. These students had sisters and mothers and aunts working in this industry, so they were able to enlighten the legislators about the issues that were going on here.
This campaign and the strategies that we used didn’t only motivate the students and the clergy. It also motivated many labor leaders who began to identify themselves with this industry. For instance, John Sweeney, who was the then-president of the AFL-CIO, traveled with us to Albany. It was then that people realized that his mother had been a domestic worker for forty years, so he had a lot to add to this campaign. So then our campaign was built with unions: SEIU 1199, 32BJ, UFCW local 1500, AFSCME. A whole coalition of unions worked with us. Jobs with Justice played a big role in making that possible. They also called Jobs with Justice coalitions in other cities in New York State, like Buffalo, and helped us to build our campaign statewide.
Saket Soni and members from the New Orleans Workers Center joined us. They were on their way walking to Washington on their own long march for justice for a group of exploited guest workers from India, and they stopped over here in New York because they heard of our plight. I remember we held a rally about abuses against one of our members, and they became so vocal in fighting with us. They helped us, and we exchanged different strategies about how we can win what we are all fighting for, which is dignity and respect.
When we journeyed to Rochester to meet with Susan John [head of the New York State Assembly Labor committee], we openly said to her “We have done everything that you have asked us to do. What else can we do?” And she said, “You go back to your Assemblyman, and you stage the first hearing of domestic workers in New York. I will come down, and I will chair that meeting.” So we came back, and the next day we were in Assemblyman Keith Wright’s office [the original sponsor of DWU’s bill]. We set the date for that hearing right then. We had members who testified and historians like Premilla Nadasen who studied the history of domestic workers. We had employers, who were organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, who testified about wanting to do the right thing but – because there were no set guidelines – they didn’t know what to do. We know in ourselves that there are good employers, and we also know that there are some not-so-good employers. So we had to strategize all around – for the good ones, the not-so-good ones and those that wanted to do the right thing.
We had a lot of town hall meetings. One of the greatest town hall meetings that I recall was the one we had this year when Esther Cooper Jackson, a 92 year-old activist who has been addressing the issue of domestic workers ever since she wrote her college papers. As frail as she was, her words were powerful. Her voice echoed through the church, and it was the Riverside Church where Martin Luther King had delivered one of his speeches.
We built the coalition and spread our word by using the media. We had a lot of talk shows and interviews on WBAI 99.5. Wherever we could, we got out there and began to speak. We journeyed out of New York to different colleges and universities. We built support at Yale and UConn and we strategized with a lot of these people about how we could get this bill.
I remember at the beginning when we started fighting for this bill, people thought that we couldn’t do it. So it is great to have them call today and say, “How did you do it? I thought it wasn’t possible.” We always stressed that this was an issue of human rights, not an issue of politics. This bill called for respect and dignity for a workforce that has been deliberately excluded from the labor laws in this country. So now, after kicking down the doors of Albany and breaking through some of the windows, we have found victory in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. We know that the fight is not over. We are meeting now with the Department of Labor, and we will be continuing this fight with the strength of the coalition that we have built.
Ai-jen: Thanks, Joyce. That was a great rundown of all the incredible work that went into making this bill possible. When we look at it, It was seven long years of hard work, strategy, tactics, workers mobilizing, organizing with coalition partners, moving in sync together and building. When we look at the arc of those seven years, it really took the first two years to understand power in Albany and to understand the power that we needed to build in order to win. Then the following two years were spent actually building that power. Between organizing workers and building our coalition base, it really took a long time to solidify the power and the energy, the momentum and the buzz around this issue and this campaign. And in the final years, it was really about leveraging that power: exercising and demonstrating our power and taking action and really putting our power in motion.
Through the course of that work, DWU’s leadership was key, but all of the organizations that are in the New York Domestic Workers Coalition were crucial. Many of you have heard of DWU, but I don’t know if you have heard of many of the other organizations that are organizing domestic workers in the state of New York. They mobilized workers who led legislative visit teams, and they were a really vital part of this campaign. They included Damayan Migrant Workers Association, Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, Unity Housecleaners in Long Island, Cidado Global in Queens, Adhikaar in the Nepali community and the Beyond Care Childcare Cooperative. There were efforts on many many levels.
I am now going to introduce Priscilla Gonzalez, organizer and the director of DWU to reflect on the lessons and some of the key challenges coming out of the campaign as well as opportunities moving forward.
Priscilla: Thank you so much for being on this call and for allowing us this opportunity to reflect on our experience in this campaign. I wanted to start by adding a couple of other significant changes that the Bill of Rights has effected, not just for the domestic work industry but also in terms of opening up opportunities for workers in other sectors to fight for an expansion of rights. So in addition to what Ai-jen had mentioned, the fact that we were able to get paid leave legislated was really monumental because it is not something that is typically legislated or mandated by law. The Bill of Rights didn’t just set a precedent for domestic workers, but it also amended labor law in ways that can and will be significant for other workers to fight for an expansion of rights. So, like Ai-jen was saying, the paid leave and the minimum of three days of paid leave per year and the day of rest, these are things that aren’t typically found in the law for most other workers. These are benefits that are typically gained through contracts or collective negotiations and the fact that we got that mandated set a precedent for what responsibility the government has to ensure that people have the right to take a rest from work. We also triggered the inclusion of companions and caregivers for the sick, people with disabilities and elderly in minimum wage laws. Up until this time, companions have been excluded from minimum wage and overtime, and our Bill of Rights triggered their inclusion under the minimum wage act in New York, which is going to make a huge economic difference for people who are doing that labor. The other thing that the Bill of Rights did was to set a legal day’s work at eight hours, which is a right that most workers in this country received decades ago. This is significant because it lifts up domestic workers to be on an equal footing with most other workers in this country. And it leaves open the space for us to go back to try to use that to make a difference for live-in workers who have to work way more than eight hours per day.
Of course, even though we made these huge advances, we didn’t get everything that we wanted. Our original Bill of Rights included so many other core benefits like paid holidays, vacation, sick days, notice, severance pay and more. But, as Ai-jen mentioned, we did get the legislature to commission a study from the Department of Labor to determine if collective bargaining is viable in our industry. In other words, is it possible for domestic workers to engage in the same process as other workers do to obtain benefits and to set standards, or will it require legislation? I’m going to come back to this later but this also creates an opportunity for us to keep the movement going to set fair standards, not just minimum standards for all workers in our sector. And we can’t say enough that the Bill of Rights was a significant step forward for gaining recognition for an entire sector of workers that, up until this point, have been completely invisible. As Joyce and Deloris said, it has brought a whole workforce out of the shadows of their employers lives, out of the shadows of a long history of slavery and exclusion; this victory stands as justice for generations of racial and gender based discrimination.
As we’ve been talking about, this hard-won victory, that we finally won on August 31, 2010 when the governor signed the bill into law, came out of enormous sacrifice. Workers lost days of pay to march and hold vigils, to hold these actions, to tell their stories, to urge the legislators to pass this bill which really we argued and argued stood as the only answer to the specific challenges that domestic workers face on the job. And it was a true social justice movement effort with unions and faith leaders and students and community based organizations joining together to lift their voices alongside domestic workers. So this grassroots campaign that we built around this piece of legislation really gave us a context to build leadership among our base and to amplify the struggles of domestic workers in a way that we hadn’t been able to do before, to build meaningful relationships with allies who we never thought would be possible to build with and to build a whole movement dedicated to workers basic human rights.
Deloris spoke of how central workers’ stories were to the campaign. We should never underestimate the power that our stories have to move people. The Bill passed the Senate on July 1st, and that was basically when we knew that we were very close to the finish line. The Senate was the last hurdle, and the next step was to get both houses to agree on a single bill that the governor would sign into law. When the bill was being voted in, senator after senator stood up and made speeches about how blessed and honored they were that domestic workers had made it possible for them to do the right thing. And on the day of the bill signing, Governor Paterson said that, most of all, he was grateful to the domestic workers who dreamed, planned, organized and fought for many years until they were able to see injustice undone. So, for a moment, we got to witness this moment of genuine reflection among the legislators of “This is why I came into public service.” And it was the grassroots movement around this campaign that made that possible.
The campaign was also really meaningful in terms of keeping us in the media and keeping us in the public eye. It was a way for us to connect all of the legal cases that we had in support of individual workers to win justice against abusive employers. It was a way to connect those cases to the broader struggle for systemic change through this piece of legislation. So it gave us an opportunity to highlight the conditions and to draw attention to the legislation, to talk about the history of exclusion. In that way, we could actually start to change how people think about domestic work, how people think about women’s work, how people think about the work that immigrant workers do in this country and how critical it is to our economy.
All of that is not to say that this campaign wasn’t without its challenges. With any effort of this magnitude, there’s going to be ebbs and flows, both in the movement that’s pushing the campaign and within the broader political landscape. As Ai-jen mentioned, DWU is part of the New York Domestic Workers Justice Coalition that is made up of many domestic workers organizations throughout New York. Throughout the campaign, there were varying levels of capacity. And sometimes our sister organizations had more capacity, and sometimes they had less. DWU, as the coordinator and the lead on the campaign, had to move forward regardless because when you’re in the thick of it, you can’t afford to lose any momentum. So, at every step of the way, we needed to figure out how we moved forward but not so far ahead that we left people behind. So our Campaign Committee was a really crucial way for us to share information and to ensure that everyone was staying in the loop. It was a space that was led by our members and open to our allies so that all of us could collectively brainstorm and keep the momentum going. Not every decision could be made by everyone at every single moment of the campaign. So – at different moments – it was important to be able to have conversations about how decisions were going to get made and what were our expectations around that. There were some critical moments in the campaign when we had to take provisions out of the legislation. We originally started with provisions for a living wage, for health care and for an annual cost of living allowance. And we had to have conversations within the coalition about what it meant to take those things out. In order for us to keep advancing, we had to be able to share information about what the political moment called for. So those kinds of intense conversations were taking place, and they were challenging. So it was important that we held some basic principles at heart, like trust and solidarity, to hold the coalition together during those trying times. No one wanted to make the compromises or wanted to sacrifice anything in our bill. We wanted it to be intact, and we were all on the same page about that. But the political moment forced us to take some of these provisions out. So we had to keep clear and hold on to the trust that everyone was working in the best interests of the sector, and we had to keep close to the principle that we all needed to treat each other well in the process and to ground ourselves in solidarity. We had to know that the process was going to be imperfect, but that – ultimately – we are all on the same side, working towards the same vision.
In terms of the political terrain, there were things that were outside of our control. One of the things that happened as we were nearing the end of the campaign in 2009 was a coup in the Senate. Albany was essentially at a standstill for months. All these pieces of important legislation were put on hold, including the Bill of Rights. So what do you do when things that are outside of your control come in and throw you a curve ball? We innovated. When those shifts happen, it’s important to stay focused on the goal and keep mobilizing. We kept up our actions, and we kept doing legal cases. Eventually the terrain was going to shift, so we needed to keep the momentum of our movement going. We need to keep everyone inspired and make sure that we were still moving forward so that when the terrain shifted back, we would be ready to hit the ground running with new allies and a bigger base.
The struggle is far from over. Right now, the Bill of Rights set minimum standards and set a floor. We got domestic workers recognized as real workers for the first time in the history of this country. We got the government to pass legislation that was about addressing a historic injustice; we got them to recognize that somebody’s home can be somebody else’s workplace and, as such, those workers need protection. So now we need to turn our attention to making sure that this struggle wasn’t in vain: that the Bill of Rights has teeth, that it gets implemented effectively, that employers are compelled to comply, that workers begin to experience a difference in their working conditions. And because our mission is fundamentally changing the stats quo, we need to utilize the enactment of this new law and its enforcement to build more power. And we can only do that through continued organizing.
So now, we have to build capacity to reach the newly-protected 200,000 domestic workers through a mass “Know Your Rights” campaign, and we are planning to totally re-shift our organizing and how we’ve been going about it. It’s a new moment for our work. We are planning on setting up a program that trains neighborhood-based worker leaders to organize and to serve as resource people for other domestic workers. We are expanding our educational programs. We are establishing a clinic to coach workers through negotiation. We are formalizing a partnership with the Department of Labor to make sure that they are enforcing the law effectively, that they are processing and handling our cases the right way, that they are reaching out to employers and workers. We are supporting our sister organizations in California and other states to advance similar campaigns.
With our employer allies, we are promoting respect and recognition and fair labor standards, not just minimum standards through an intentional process of education and dialogue. We want to raise standards in the industry, neighborhood by neighborhood by educating workers and getting employers to go beyond the Bill of Rights. We are essentially laying down the foundation right now to set a collective standard in an industry that is decentralized, where workers are completely isolated. It’s a process that has to reflect the particularities of our sector. We are still using this moment to have broader conversations, not just for domestic workers but for all workers for whom the traditional ways of getting rights on the job just don’t work. We are sitting at the table, for example, with the AFL-CIO and to wrap our heads around collective bargaining and what it would look like for domestic workers.
We’ve never been here before, and it’s daunting. And we have the same capacity today as we did yesterday. So what we have to do is to build power to make sure that this process is going to work and will yield what we want. We want to be pushing the laws to apply to our reality. We know best the brutal day-to-day conditions. We know what should happen, what kinds of policy need to be developed. We need to strengthen collective bargaining and workers’ rights to reclaim the value of everybody’s human labor and to reclaim the human right to work with dignity and respect. We have built all of this momentum – locally, nationally and internationally – around this Bill of Rights campaign with the intention of bringing to light all the issues that concerned us. We’ve mobilized all these people not only around the domestic workers struggle but more generally around what it means to work with dignity and respect in this day and age. And we can’t lose that momentum right now. So we’re in this place where we have to keep going, keep building on the ground so that we have more power to win more things that can really make a difference in our lives and so that we can ultimately start to see the level of change that we want to see in our society.
Ai-jen: Thank you so much, Priscilla, and everyone at DWU for your hard work and for your reflections and your leadership. Now I want to invite Saket Soni from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice to offer some reflections.
Saket: I firstly want to congratulate everyone who was involved in this truly historic campaign, not only because it improves the lives and conditions of domestic workers but because it demonstrates real leadership for the entire sector of excluded workers and the entire sector of informal workers in the United States. I want to talk a little about this victory and what it means for other excluded workers and reflect a little about the significance of it. In June 2010, nine sectors of workers representing working class people came together at the US Social Forum and converged for an Excluded Worker Congress. That afternoon we gathered together across many sectors and industries to dream of a huge expansion of the human right to organize in the United States and to dream about the future of a vibrant labor movement that is able to win dignity for workers in the United States. The domestic workers victory in New York allows us to imagine all of that as a reality. Millions of workers in the United States are excluded from the right to organize and from collective bargaining, either by policy or by practice. And – as workers organize across sectors to come together to expand the right to organize, to win new rights and protections and to transform the labor movement – this victory shows us that all of these things can really be done. I want to talk about why the Bill of Rights victory in New York is not just a domestic workers’ victory, but is a victory for all excluded workers. Firstly, it’s important to note that all of the present exclusion from labor laws and human rights and dignity in the workplace have their roots in history. When the National Domestic Workers Alliance was founded in Atlanta, there was a workshop that many of us had attended called “Organizing In the Shadows of Slavery” which highlighted the way that domestic workers are excluded from present day labor law because of the history of slavery in this country. The New Deal legislation which mandates minimum labor standards (the Fair Labor Standards Act) got the votes from conservative Dixiecrats by excluding domestic workers and agricultural workers at the outset. These were workers who – at the time – were predominantly African American, and Southern Democrats wouldn’t allow the Fair Labor Standards Act to go forward unless those workers were excluded. In effect, what the New York victory did was to overturn almost 100 years of exclusion. It’s not just a policy victory in New York. It’s a demonstration that a hundred-year-long exclusion of workers from collective bargaining, the right to organize and from human dignity can be overturned. This is important because many of us refer to history in our work; many of us use it in our framing. Many of us use the historical fact of exclusion and the lineage of exclusion as a way to talk about our work, but the domestic workers have really shown that it is possible to build a campaign that really concretely overturns and reverses those hundred years of exclusion in this country. If it can happen for domestic workers that means it can happen in many other sectors. The second thing is that the political imagination of the domestic workers in their fight has made it possible for all of us to imagine vibrant grassroots fights with clear policy agendas that really change conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers in this country. For anyone who has been at any of the actions in the last few years leading up to this victory, we’ve all witnessed the incredible vibrancy of the fight, the incredible vibrancy and creativity of the campaign, and it’s a very instructive organizing model that the domestic workers were leading a policy fight that directly impacted domestic workers, but they were also leading a moral fight. They were leading many sectors of society, including employers, into a fight to really dignify life as a whole.
While the policy gains were gains for domestic workers, it was a moral victory for so many people – everyone from John Sweeney to allied employers and everyone in between. Each time they came forward, while they were fighting on behalf of domestic workers, you could really tell that they had made it their fight. So that’s a second real lesson.
I think the third real lesson is – to some extent – still to be learned, but it’s really incredible that domestic workers overcame the problem of collective bargaining, given that they have hundreds of thousands of individual employers, by thinking about collective bargaining with the state instead of trying to enforce standards one employer at a time. The idea was to win collective bargaining form the state, in effect, and win the ability to expand rights and protections through an agreement with the state.
The negotiations that are now going to happen with the Department of Labor to envision collective bargaining are going to be instructive not only for domestic workers but also for many other sectors: farmworkers, guest workers and many others. All of our sectors need to think about how collective bargaining will look. It won’t look like it looked in the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1950s. The global economy that we are in and the political climate force us to think about collective bargaining and human rights very differently. Where collective bargaining is concerned, we are all going to need imagination to think about how it can work for our sectors. The fact that domestic workers have already won it and are beginning to define it and envision it will allow many many other people to follow.
The last thing that I would say is that this has been a labor fight and a fight for domestic workers, but it has also been an extraordinary human rights fight. For all of us who believe in a human rights frame, the work that the domestic workers did to link the victory in New York to the bigger prospect of the ILO is very instructive. You know, we all believe that we are participating in an international human rights movement, but there are some campaigns among groups of workers that really bring to light a human rights framework. While the work that the domestic workers have led in New York really allows us to reimagine collective bargaining and human rights locally, the work that you all are doing with the ILO allows us to really think about many of our sectors and the role they could play in an international human rights movement. And by that I mean not just a movement to change policies and change the law, but a movement to expand the right to organize so that workers can access those changes in the law. What this fight has shown to us is that policy changes and human rights don’t really matter if workers don’t have the ability to access those rights. On all of those levels, I think that this campaign has been a remarkable leader in the excluded workers sector. In the months to come, as we learn more about how domestic workers are envisioning collective bargaining and as the work with the ILO unfolds, it’s going to be an incredible opportunity for many sectors to learn from the policy gains and the organizing model of the domestic workers. Now that there is an Excluded Workers Congress that brings together nine sectors of excluded workers, there is a vehicle for that learning and a vehicle to institutionalize the lessons learned. We can bring them back to all of our work and move forward together to win new rights and new forms of collective bargaining for many different sectors of workers.
Many appreciations to Randy Jackson from the Inter-Alliance Dialogue for giving us access to the recording of this important call.