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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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Photo Credit: Working Families Party

 

Over the last 30 years, Americans have seen the very nature of work change. Working people used to expect to have a stable job with health benefits and a retirement plan, a job they'd keep for most of their lives. Now, though, workers bounce from job to job, employers have slowly clawed back most of the benefits they used to enjoy, manufacturing mostly happens overseas, and more and more jobs are low-wage service positions, without benefits and with high turnover – jobs in which the worker has little protection from an abusive boss.

A lot of Americans are coming face to face this Labor Day with the kinds of conditions domestic workers have always faced. Domestic workers -- usually women, often women of color, many of them immigrants -- have always had to deal with volatile conditions, unstable pay and almost no legal protections. Yet even in recent years, as the rest of organized labor has declined, domestic workers have managed to win some key victories, overcoming barriers to organizing and winning a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York state—and one signature away from getting one in California as well. 

Ai-Jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was chosen one of Time's 100 most influential people of 2012 for her work organizing domestic workers around the country. She sat down with AlterNet to discuss the changing 21st-century workplace, the campaign for paid sick days for workers, the ways women are leading some of the most exciting labor organizing out there, and NDWA's Caring Across Generations campaign to create good jobs while making our economy a more caring place.

Sarah Jaffe: How do you define "domestic workers" and the work they do?

Ai-Jen Poo: We call domestic work the work that makes all other work possible. It’s the work that goes into caring for homes and families across generations, and it’s traditionally been done by women. As a paid form of work, it’s often by done by immigrant women or women of color. Society has devalued that work over time, and we think that that has a lot to do with who’s done the work. The categories of workers are nannies, housekeepers, babysitters, cooks, cleaners, caregivers for the elderly. It’s really anybody who either takes care of or supports somebody else in their lives through work that’s done in the home.

SJ: You make the point that this work is devalued because of who does it. Immigrant women wind up responsible for other people's families, which creates what Arlie Russell Hochschild called a "care drain." Can you speak to that a little bit?

AJP: The work that goes into caring for families and homes is necessary work. There’s no way around it. So it has to get done, and historically, it was women within a particular household who were responsible for that work. As the world of work has shifted and more and more women have entered the public workforce, that work still has to get done, and it’s still done predominantly by women. But now, a larger and larger share of that work is done by paid workers who are doing it for both their own families and homes and for the homes of the employers they work for.

And on top of that, women have to figure out how to survive and assert their rights and dignity. And sometimes, they get involved in organizations, which means that they're actually doing like three jobs.

It’s a lot to have to take care of your own family and home and somebody else’s family and home to have none of that work adequately accounted for or valued in society.

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.

I think that that is an opportunity to reinvent labor laws and protections, reinvent organizations and reinvent the economy in a way that actually accounts for all of these dynamics that domestic workers have been facing for generations, maybe centuries, and really try to reshape a 21st-century economy that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

SJ: One of the things that I come back to over and over again is that this is really gendered work. I wonder again if we need better ways to talk about gendered work.

AJP: Well, all work is gendered. And the economy that we have assigns different levels of value based off of that. And we have this opportunity at this moment when women workers are such a driving force in the economy to really transform how we value work and how we structure the economy. And that is exactly what domestic workers are doing in Sacramento today. They're mobilizing from all over the state to try to establish basic protections for domestic workers in California.

And that’s exactly what caregivers and consumers of care and women’s organizations, immigrant rights groups and unions, all the groups that are at the table with Caring Across Generations are trying to do through this campaign, to value what matters most. To have our economy restructured, based off of a different calculation of the bottom line, in a way that actually recognizes everyone’s humanity, because it’s the right thing to do, it’s the best and most sustainable vision for the future.

SJ: Since you brought up the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in California, which just passed the state assembly, can you talk about these laws and what they accomplished? Are there lessons from the Bill of Rights model for more traditional labor organizations that are having trouble with their old forms of organizing?

AJP: I don't know if it’s a blessing or what it is, but basically, the exclusion of domestic workers from the labor law made it such that there was nothing for us to work with. And so we set out on another pathway to establish basic minimum standards for domestic workers, almost to build a ground floor upon which we could then continue to build a real economic opportunity for the work force.

What the campaign in New York allowed us to do was open up a public conversation about the work that goes into caring for families and homes. It was unavoidable that it was going to be a conversation about race and immigration and gender and the future of work. It allowed us to have this conversation in a way contextualized by a concrete change that could be made that would both improve lives and open up the possibility for more change. So we were able to organize thousands of workers in New York over the course of the campaign to pass the Bill of Rights, and we were able to educate dozens of lawmakers and inspire domestic workers and lawmakers around the country to get involved and to take action.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance was formed in 2007. 2010 is when the New York Bill of Rights was signed into law. After that, our membership doubled around the country, and state campaigns started emerging around the country. And we, in that process, by winning, we sent a message to workers that through coming together you can make history. And we can really change lives, we can open up and transform what is perceived as what’s possible.

We're continuing to do that in other states. And each state is a little bit different because the conditions are different, but what we're trying to do is create more awareness and space in the public imagination to understand the lives and experiences of domestic workers and recognize the humanity of this work force as true and real as their own humanity, and to see the ways in which we're all domestic workers. And to see the ways in which we all count on domestic work and care in one way or another.

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?

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.

So Paid Sick Days is a great example of how you can, in one measure, actually protect and create stability for huge numbers of workers, particularly those that are the most vulnerable in their workplaces. It’s a simple, very straightforward, tried and true, proven policy measure that can be implemented that will have a huge impact. It’s a perfect example of what I'm talking about when I talk about a more caring economy and actual labor laws that reflect this economy.

SJ: The people that are actually working on it here in New York -- it’s a very broad coalition from Gloria Steinem to Cynthia Nixon. And putting sort of very specific pressure on one very specific politician in a way that seems pretty effective, hopefully.

AJP: We started in 2003 when we came together at our first domestic worker convention in New York. There were over 200 domestic workers, speaking in seven different languages, who came together to share their stories and talk about what having respect on the job looks like for them. It’s from that convention that we actually drafted legislation that eventually became the Bill of Rights. And a key issue that all the workers talked about was sick days. How they have to choose between their health and their job. Or their family’s health, their children’s health. It’s just not a real choice.

It was a huge issue that just kept coming up, and it was in our legislative goals throughout the campaign. This coalition emerged a few years into that. We joined and have been a part of it ever since.

It’s actually no surprise that women led it, and I think that more and more, you’ll see these front line labor campaigns led by women. Because when women are responsible for a lion’s share of the work that’s happening in the world, they're going to actually be the most prescient to trying to understand what can really support that work, stabilizing it in a more healthy and sustainable environment. So to me, it makes sense that it’s a bunch of courageous women who are at the helm, and it makes total sense for our membership to be involved in supporting it.

SJ: Let’s end on a positive note. Is there one change on a national level that you can think of that would really help a lot of workers right now?

AJP: There’s the Caring Across Generations policy vision, which is to create 2 million new jobs in home-based care, improve the quality of those jobs, create a pathway to citizenship for the immigrant care work force and improve access to care for everyone who needs it.

Even in the context of all of the budget and austerity debates, home and community based care is much more cost effective than institutionalized care. There’s no way that all of our parents and grandparents are going to be in nursing homes. That’s the way the system is currently set up. We can actually save the system a bunch of money and improve the quality of people’s lives as they age, and make this work real dignified work that then helps to close the wealth gap in this country.

That’s the type of policy that is actually very bold and ambitious that we need in this moment. This is not a moment for tinkering solutions. Or even just defending the status quo. This is a moment for bold, ambitious vision that people can actually believe in and dig in and assert their right to. That’s the kind of thing we're trying to offer. And hopefully, more and more people will support it over time.

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.

 
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