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How Domestic Workers Won Their Rights: Five Big Lessons

Here are important lessons that the wider progressive community can draw from the victories.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Kunal Mehta

 

Domestic workers have had some breakthrough wins over the past two weeks. Up until then, these workers were excluded from protections such as a guaranteed minimum wage, paid breaks, and overtime pay. On September 17, the Obama administration  announced new rules extending the Fair Labor Standards Act to include the 800,000 to 2 million home health workers—who help seniors and others with self-care tasks like taking medications, bathing, and shopping—under the federal government's wage and hour protections.

Next, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights on September 26, allowing the full spectrum of domestic workers—including live-in nannies and housekeepers—to benefit from the same gains as the home health workers.

For the first time ever, these employees will be guaranteed the federal minimum wage and will earn overtime pay. And their victories have implications for a much larger portion of the workforce, including independent contractors, nontraditional employees, and those on temporary assignments. The domestic employees' wins are helping to chart a path forward for the growing number of employees who work outside conventional office settings.

Much of the credit for these historic wins is due to the tenacious organizing of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group of workers in this field who advocate for their own rights. Led since 2010 by the dynamic young organizer Ai-Jen Poo, the NDWA has grown from a single chapter in New York City to a nationwide organization with campaigns for domestic workers' rights in 19 cities and 11 states.

Here are five lessons that the wider progressive community can draw from the victories.

1. Local struggles can have national impact.

Before the creation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the New York-based organization Domestic Workers United started by organizing locally. After winning passage of the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights in New York state, the group took their campaign on the road. The alliance won a second state-level victory in Hawaii, and then began organizing nationally with the message that those who care for elders and people with disabilities deserve respect. (It helped that this message was already reverberating across the globe after the International Labor Organization ratified its  Convention on Domestic Workers in 2011.)

Having campaigns at the local, state, and national levels gave the NDWA the flexibility to focus where victory was most likely. Massachusetts is likely to be their next state-level target, Poo  told Nation columnist and YES! Magazine Local Economies Reporting Fellow Laura Flanders.

2. Crunch your own numbers.

Rather than defensively responding to reports by business groups and state agencies, the NDWA created its own, from-the-ground-up  reports and analyses on the working conditions domestic employees face in America.

Developing the capacity to contribute to the research around domestic work allowed the alliance to set the terms of debate. Other groups can use the same technique to frame the public agenda--whether around city planning, state budget priorities, or federal reforms.

3. Put working people front and center.

The NDWA used Caring Across Generations to shine the spotlight on caregivers—who are often only seen publicly pushing a client in a wheelchair—and to show how much they do for their clients.

When Ai-Jen Poo appeared in cable news shows and magazine articles, she constantly pointed to the stories of domestic employees and thus kept the spotlight fixed on them. Putting  real people's stories forward as the basis for the campaign's argument created public sympathy and understanding.

4. Find allies beyond the usual ones.

Although groups that hire home care employees could be seen as "the enemy," the NDWA partnered enthusiastically with them. In New York and California, for instance, the alliance worked with  Hand in Hand, a national association of caregiver employers who were willing to take a stand on behalf of their employees' right to fair pay and labor conditions. Hand in Hand's website even offers a  toolkit for employers, with guidance on how to become a better employer.

 
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