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Low Benefits, Temporary Jobs -- Work Is Getting Worse ... But Hope for Labor Rights Is Emerging from a Surprising Place

A special Labor Day interview with domestic workers organizer Ai-Jen Poo, one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people of 2012.

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SJ: Can you talk a little bit about the Caring Across Generations campaign? I'm especially interested in the way that the campaign affects the relationship between the worker and the boss, because people who are being cared for often aren’t really  traditional bosses.

AJP: We talk about this idea that what we need to be building is a more caring economy. A big piece of that is about accounting for the work that goes into raising families and taking care of homes. The fact that society has never adequately accounted for or valued that work is something that every single household grapples with, regardless of class or status. So it’s something that we have to deal with structurally as a society.

Twenty years ago, Gloria Steinem wrote this article that I have been talking about a lot recently called “ Revaluing Economics.” In it, she talks about the two invisible resources upon which everything else is built in society and in the economy. Those two resources being the planet’s natural resources, the environment, and the work that women have done in the home to take care of families and children. Our vision for the economy of the future would actually protect them rather than make those resources invisible.

That’s something that every single household can participate in, and that every single household will benefit from. And what’s at stake if we don't do that is that every single household will actually suffer. If you go out there and you talk to any family, regardless of their race or class or ethnicity, they're grappling with somebody in their lives who’s growing older, because as a country we are aging, especially now that the boomer generation is starting to turn 65.

We're aging at a really rapid rate. So every family is struggling with how they're going to care for the aging relatives and loved ones in their family who need care. And it’s not an individual problem. It’s a problem of the way that our economy and our society is structured. And so what Caring Across Generations is trying to do is bring us all together to create the jobs that we need to make sure that everyone that we love that needs care can get it, and to really value that work and account for it in a way that the work force can actually take pride in what they do, be sustained in those jobs and support their families doing that work.

That will get us towards a more caring economy, and in a way that everyone wins. It’s in everyone’s interest to do that. And so whether you consider yourself a consumer of care or an employer or a worker, there’s a way in which all of our interests meet under this framework of a more caring economy.

SJ: I read a lot about the switch to a service sector economy in this country, and Walmart-style customer service jobs and how those are devalued. It feels in a way like the economy has been moving in this country toward the conditions domestic workers know well, and the people who do that work are the ones most suited to figure out how to fix this.

AJP: Yeah, it’s true. When I first started organizing domestic workers in the '90s, it was this scene of this marginal, kind of shadow work force. And you know, so our work was seen as marginal. And now, I’ve looked around and it just feels like more and more workers face the conditions that define domestic work.

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