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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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That’s opened up the possibility to actually work in real partnership with employers and people who count on care. At the end of the day, that’s inclusive of every last American. It’s impossible to imagine winning meaningful change in people’s lives without building a very, very broad base of support and a broad based movement for change.

We're thrilled that the California legislature is standing with us on the right side of history. We're awaiting the governor's signature, but feel very encouraged by the 21-13 vote. One signature away from basic rights for domestic workers in the state with the largest concentration of domestic workers in the country.

SJ: We're at this moment in history where the workforce has changed. And I think that whomever figures out how to really organize contingent workers and freelance workers and home care workers, that’s going to be the next big change and the next big move for worker power. So I'm coming to you hoping you have all the answers and you’d figure all of this out for us.

AJP: Well, there is really, really great organizing happening in pockets around the country. The National Guestworkers Alliance has done really wonderful organizing. And they're really both figuring out how to organize the contract workers and guest workers who are among the most vulnerable workers in society. And they're figuring out how to aggregate a worker voice across a supply chain.

SJ: I spoke to them for a story that I did on Walmart.

AJP: The seafood workers in Louisiana? They're amazing. And the National Day Laborer Organizing Network has been a tremendous voice for day laborers around the country. They were the first national worker’s center network. The Freelancers Union has built a powerhouse of an institution providing healthcare for thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. So there are these different models that have emerged that are increasingly connected and in conversation with each other.

I think all of us are committed to building the labor movement for the 21st century that will help transform and bring dignity to work in this country. There is great work that’s happening out there. I know that there’s a lot of great work that’s happening in the context of union organizing as well. I mean, I think some of those most inspiring campaigns have been low-wage workers organizing in the union context, like janitors and home care workers.

SJ: Those are the jobs you can't outsource. The Hyatt workers make that point in the context of their work, cleaning up after people in hotels, that you can't hire someone overseas to do this work. You have to be here.

AJP: Exactly.

SJ: I’ve spoken to Sara Horowitz of Freelancers Union about this problem--our system is set up for a world where you go get a job and you stay at your job for 40 years, and they give you a pension and they pay for your healthcare. And that just doesn’t exist anymore.

AJP: Right. Our whole legal framework around social programs and around labor rights and protections were rooted in a very different economy, before globalization, in a manufacturing based economy.

SJ: And a mostly male workforce.

AJP: Right. And so now, it’s a fundamentally different environment and we need new frameworks for collective bargaining, new labor laws and new social programs that continue to meet the needs of people, but in a very different 21st-century context.

SJ: Do you think it’s hard for say, white-collar freelance workers, like freelance graphic designers to see themselves in solidarity with domestic workers, with guestworkers? Or do you think people are starting to get that it’s all the same?

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