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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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AJP: I think the reason why the framework of “99 percent” resonated so broadly is because people do actually understand that the current economy is not benefiting the vast majority of people, and that we have common interests and common experiences across very, very different corners of the country.

I think that the power and the momentum behind that notion of the 99 percent is just a tiny indication of how much of a basis for unity there is in the country. And that’s why I think there’s a unique opportunity in this moment. Even as things become really polarized politically, people are understanding that there’s a real need for broad cross sections of the country to come together.

SJ: Most of the really exciting organizing I’ve seen in the last couple of years has really focused on letting workers tell their stories.

AJP: That is a lot of what we do. I mean, there’s no more powerful tool in our tool belt than the stories of the incredible courage and dedication with which domestic workers do their work and advocate for their rights. I mean, they go to work and provide such tremendous love and care for the families they work for, and then they care for and love their own families. And then they assert their dignity, despite the fact that our labor laws have excluded them, and employers may try to take advantage of that.

Just the courage to go to work every day and assert your dignity and the value and the worth of your work in the face of several generations of its devaluation is just incredibly inspiring, to see and to bear witness to. It’s built this movement, frankly.

SJ: Do you have a favorite story of somebody you’ve worked with?

AJP: There’s so many stories. So many stories. I mean, a recent one is Pat Francois, who is a domestic worker, a nanny here in New York. She intervened when her employer was being verbally abusive to his daughter. And then he physically assaulted her.

She was never paid overtime. So she stood up for her rights and for six years, you know, asserted her justice and finally won her case recently. And then in between, she became an advocate for the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York. She must have gone to Albany, gosh, dozens of times to tell her story and meet with legislators and really challenge them, you know, to right this wrong of how domestic workers have been excluded.

It was her and hundreds of domestic workers like her who sacrificed days of pay to go to Albany. It’s a three-hour drive. It’s a long way in the winter. It was a lot of sacrifice over many years that actually brought this victory into being. It was women like Pat who experienced things that you can't imagine, and yet pushed it through.

SJ: You're involved in the Women for Paid Sick Days Coalition, which I think is a good example of women's organizing for labor issues, pressuring women politicians specifically, saying you don't just get to expect women's votes without supporting all women. Can you talk a little bit about how that coalition came together?

AJP: I mean, that’s a perfect example of the kind of expanding labor protections we need for the 21st century. Given that more and more women are in the work force than ever before, we actually need workplace flexibility laws. We need to provide an expanding safety net for families. And given the fact that we have more and more contingent and contract workers and freelance workers, we have to figure out how to expand labor standards and protections in a way that applies to all workers, as opposed to going workplace by workplace, because the traditional workplaces just no longer exist anymore.

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