Lessons from the "Unorganizable" Domestic Workers Organizing

Article excerpt

Wilma spent years working as a housekeeper and child care provider for a family in Manhattan. Her job started at 5:45 a.m., seven days a week. Wilma, who was born in the Philippines, often worked more than one-hundred hours a week, but she never received overtime pay.

The New York legislature recently passed a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, which, for the first time, grants some basic rights and protections to workers like Wilma. The legislation is long overdue and will meaningfully improve the working conditions for domestic workers in New York state. But the new law still does not adequately protect some of the country's most vulnerable workers and, as the first law of its kind in the United States, indicates the current dearth of domestic worker protections and the urgent need to enact and enforce similar legislation in other states.

Domestic workers have never really been considered "workers" by the U.S. government. Generations of women and men have spent their working lives in the homes of others, cleaning their houses, cooking their meals, and caring for their children and their elderly. The domestic workforce is remarkably stable, and it is not uncommon to meet nannies or elder caregivers with more than ten years of experience in the field.

Still, the federal government sees their work as casual and, from a legal standpoint, no different than a teenager mowing his or her neighbor's lawn for some extra cash. Domestic workers are excluded from almost every major labor law, including many that most working Americans take for granted. Unless a domestic worker lives in a state like New York with additional protections, he or she has no right to overtime pay, has no protection from basic antidiscrimination laws, and possesses no right to form a union. New York city homes are workplaces for thousands of full-time, professional caregivers and housekeepers. Nearly two-thirds of these domestic workers are the primary breadwinners in their families, but to Uncle Sam and most states, they aren't really "workers" at all.

These explicit exemptions from fundamental labor protections are the product of New Deal era laws that excluded agriculture and domestic workers, who were primarily African American and Latino, in order to appease segregationist Southern senators whose votes were viewed as necessary to get labor rights legislation passed. They are also reflective of the pervasive and sexist viewpoint that "women's work," particularly child and elderly care work, doesn't really count as "work." The legacy of this history is that countless domestic workers continue to be stranded with few resources as they navigate an industry that takes the isolation of its employees as given.

It's no surprise, then, that many labor unions have steered clear of trying to organize such an amorphous and dispersed group of workers. Before a union launches a single organizing campaign, it would have to change important, established labor laws. And then who would a worker like Wilma bargain with? Would she negotiate with her employer on her own, in her employer's home, where she does not have the benefit of coworker solidarity? Most employers of domestic workers don't even think of themselves as "employers," despite signing their names on a paycheck each week.

But even in this difficult climate, the domestic workers movement is growing from the grass roots. …