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Lessons from NY Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Victory

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Ai-jen: Thank you everyone for getting on the call today. It’s an honor for the domestic workers’ movement to share with you about the ins and outs of this six year-long journey to win the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York, to discuss the implications of this victory for our movement and to talk about some of the enormous challenges and opportunities that are ahead of us in this moment.  It’s really important that we have these kinds of conversations as a movement to share lessons and to figure out how we connect our struggles more to strengthen all of our work. So thank you for the opportunity.

Most of you know that domestic workers are a large workforce that has largely been invisible. In fact, in this country, there are 2.5 million domestic workers doing the work that we call “the work that makes all other work possible.” Throughout the history of this country, domestic workers have been excluded from key labor laws and protections even though they help to grow the economy. Over the course of history, we have seen that as economic inequality grows, so does the domestic work workforce.  So this industry is going to continue to grow throughout the course of the economic crisis.

Domestic workers have always been organizing throughout the history of this country.  Our most recent round of organizing started about 15 years ago as a part of the workers center movement and the community-based immigrant rights movement. Over the course of the last fifteen years, you’ve started to see more and more domestic workers coming together, standing up for their rights, breaking out of the isolation of their workplaces, speaking out against abuse and injustice. Over the course of the last 15 years, most of the work of organizing domestic workers has been very slow and incremental. Worker by worker, meeting by meeting, training by training, case by case, this movement has been building.  What we’re seeing now is a real growth spurt in the organizing. When I first started organizing domestic workers in 1998, there were only four groups that were organizing domestic workers.  Today, there are 33 organizations in 17 cities and 11 states that are organizing domestic workers.  And they’re doing it together in concert and in coordination, strategically building through the National Domestic Workers Alliance. This campaign to win the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York is, in many ways, a flagship campaign for our movement.  It’s a reflection of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown, and it’s a reflection of the potential of what’s to come.

In terms of what we actually won through the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (which will go into effect on November 30, 2010), we won a minimum of one day a rest per week for domestic workers.  This is particularly vital for live-in domestic workers and other domestic workers who work around the clock seven days a week.  We also won overtime pay at the regular rate of pay.  In the past, overtime was counted as time-and-a-half of the minimum wage for more than 40 hours a week for live-out domestic workers and 44 hour for live-in workers.  Now, overtime is counted at time-and-a-half of your regular rate of pay, and this will make a huge economic difference for workers. In addition, we won three days paid leave a year for domestic workers.  Of course, workers will be negotiating for much more than that, but at least employers now absolutely have to provide a minimum of three paid days off per year.  In addition, we won protection in anti-discrimination and harassment laws for domestic workers.  So for the first time, domestic workers will be protected from discrimination and harassment from their employers.  And finally, we won a study on the feasibility of collective bargaining for domestic workers. We are currently in the process of working with the Commissioner of Labor to understand the feasibility of collective bargaining for domestic workers and what it would mean for domestic workers in New York State to have the right to organize. So for the first time, we are developing a way forward toward realizing the right bargain collectively for domestic workers.  So it is all very significant.

Up until the Bill of Rights passed in New York, domestic workers had been excluded from most of the core components of labor rights. The Bill of Rights sets the precedent for labor rights through a state-by-state process, but also points towards what’s possible in terms of national labor law reform. At the same time as the domestic workers’ movement has been growing in the United States, the international domestic workers movement has been growing and has had some important parallel victories.  One of the very important victories is that the International Labor Organization (ILO), the arm of the United Nations that sets labor standards internationally, decided two years ago that it was going to enact the very first international law to recognize and protect the rights of the domestic workforce. So over the past two years, almost simultaneous to the process of winning this victory in New York, all of the governments that are part of the United Nations, and all of the labor federations that are in those countries have been in conversation with employers internationally about the rights of domestic workers.

So we’ re in a historic moment where we’ve made major gains in the recognition of this workforce as a real workforce that deserves recognition, that deserves protection, that deserves labor standards and that has a very important place in the labor movement.  The NY Domestic Worker Bill of Rights campaign has been the flagship fight through which we’ve been able to make a breakthrough here in the United States. This victory has some significant scale; it will affect the lives of over 200,000 women, and it sets the stage for other victories like it around the country.  This is particularly important given the current challenges to passing new federal policy through Congress. The nine domestic worker organizations in California are working together to pass legislation to provide labor rights to domestic workers California.  In January, they will introduce the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights into their state legislature. So we’re seeing real momentum during this window of opportunity, a real growth in organizing.  Domestic workers around the world are breaking out of their isolation and taking their rightful place in the labor movement. So that’s a little bit of context to introduce the story of the victory of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.  Now I want to introduce some of the leaders of this campaign.  We are joined today by Deloris Wright, Joycelyn Gill-Campbell and Priscilla Gonzalez from Domestic Workers United.  Deloris will be speaking first, and she is going to talk about the role of domestic workers in the campaign and how worker leadership propelled this campaign forward.

Deloris: Good afternoon.  My name is Deloris Wright.  I have been a nanny for 22 years. And I am a member of Domestic Workers United.  DWU is a very very strong movement, and I am very happy to be part of this movement as a domestic worker. It is very important what we did with this Bill of Rights campaign, and it is very important that workers like myself were able to participate in passing this piece of legislation. The way that we participated was very important: to educate the legislators, to highlight the work that we were doing and how important it was for us to have this bill.  When we went to Albany to meet with legislators, we shared our stories. It was very important to be there as a domestic worker to really put it on the table, to let them know what is going on in the domestic work industry.  Our participation was one of the highlights of the campaign because no one else can tell our stories like we do. We are workers, and we were right there, telling our stories: what we go through on a daily basis, how we’ve been treated, how we’ve been beat down, how we’ve been fired without explanation of why we were being fired, how we were exploited, how we work long hours without overtime pay and how – if you ask for overtime pay – you might lose your job.  So it was very important to be workers there in Albany.

Working on the campaign was very informative. We learned how to do lobby days; we learned how to conduct our campaign meetings, how to speak to the media – it helped me, as a domestic worker, to be on the campaign committee.  The campaign also helped us to learn how we do our thing: how we make decisions, how we get together to go out to do our outreach to other workers. Many workers hadn’t heard about the campaign.  So it was very important for us to learn how to go out there and talk with other domestic workers, how to listen to their stories so we could bring them back and put them on the table. That way, when we went back to the legislators in Albany, we had a clearer picture of the industry and then they could also see the issue from another angle.  So we could say, “This is what I’m talking about, and this is what we’ve been going through as domestic workers.”  I’m very happy to have worked on this legislation. And I want to continue with this work because it is very important what we did with this Bill of Rights. I’m happy right now, and I’m looking forward to continuing to work on this bill.  We still have a lot of work to do. And we have a lot of people to reach out to. We still have workers who are really scared of coming out, even though the bill has passed, they don’t want to come out freely.  So I am so happy that, because I’m not working, I have the capacity to go out and reach out to other workers.  And I’m happy to be working with the Department of Labor to implement this bill that we just got passed.

Ai-jen: Thanks, Deloris, now we’re going to hear from Joycelyn Gill-Campbell, who is an organizer at DWU and a former domestic worker herself. She is going to talk a bit about the power that we had to build and how we went about building that power. In addition to what Deloris described about building the power and engagement of domestic workers, a really broad coalition of groups had to be brought together in order to really build the power that we need to win in the legislature. So Joyce is going to give you a sense of the coalition that we built and the actions that we did together to demonstrate the power that we built.

Joyce: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you all are doing fine.  Deloris spoke about the campaign for the Bill of Rights. Over the past seven years, we’ve been fighting to have the Bill of Rights passed in New York.  I wanted to start by letting you know that it wasn’t an easy fight.  It started out with us having to educate the legislators and the broader public about the industry.  We knew that we could not do this alone.  Having no political power, we had to build our strength.  We had to strategize and build relationships and to organize actions to demonstrate our power.

DWU and the New York Domestic Workers Justice Coalition organized several major actions every year in New York City in key areas like the Upper East Side in Manhattan. We came up with messages like “Where Wall Street lives and domestic workers labor.” We marched through the streets. We held press conferences. We held a 24-hour vigil outside of City Hall. We held a 12-hour vigil outside of the Governor’s office. We even held a Children’s March where we adults took a back seat, and the children of domestic workers and the children they care for took over. They led a march calling for respect and recognition for domestic workers.  They carried signs that said “Respect my mommy” and “Respect my nanny.” This was powerful because the children told their stories.  They wrote their own stories and we just let them speak what they wrote. It had a great impact on the spectators who had gathered to watch.

We strategized further about how to build power in other arenas. We reached out to the churches, and we had a month dedicated to the domestic workers called “Domestic Workers in the Pulpit.”  We built a strong relationship with the Poverty Initiative at the Union Theological Seminary, and that is what helped make “Domestic Workers in the Pulpit” possible. This is where the domestic workers got into the pulpit and spoke to the congregations around the state. We told them about the industry, the exploitations and the abuses that were happening in the industry. People sitting in the congregations were able to identify themselves with these issues that the domestic workers were facing. Some of them themselves were domestic workers who had never heard about DWU.  So they came forward and helped to build our strength by spreading the word to different churches that we were unable to get into.

We realized that we had to keep building our power bigger and bigger.  There were times when we would go to Albany, and they would ask us how many people did we bring to Albany.  And it was great to be able say that we had 250 people, five busloads of people!  But then they asked us who were our celebrities!  You can imagine what that was like, we were there with 250 people, asking for dignity and rights and respect. And they are asking for celebrities. We had no power to reach out to celebrities like that, but leading activists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Gloria Steinem joined us.

We went into schools and colleges to educate the youth about the industry and about the slave trade. If you look carefully into the textbooks and study the history of this country, you would realize that the struggles of the poor man and the history of slavery are not documented within these books. After some of those trainings, we brought more than 100 students to Albany to speak with the legislators. These students had sisters and mothers and aunts working in this industry, so they were able to enlighten the legislators about the issues that were going on here.

This campaign and the strategies that we used didn’t only motivate the students and the clergy. It also motivated many labor leaders who began to identify themselves with this industry. For instance, John Sweeney, who was the then-president of the AFL-CIO, traveled with us to Albany. It was then that people realized that his mother had been a domestic worker for forty years, so he had a lot to add to this campaign.  So then our campaign was built with unions: SEIU 1199, 32BJ, UFCW local 1500, AFSCME.  A whole coalition of unions worked with us. Jobs with Justice played a big role in making that possible.  They also called Jobs with Justice coalitions in other cities in New York State, like Buffalo, and helped us to build our campaign statewide.

Saket Soni and members from the New Orleans Workers Center joined us. They were on their way wa

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