“Long constituting a vast secret economy in New York,” as described by the New York Times, domestic workers won a striking victory in righting a wrong in labor laws that has hung, like an albatross, around the necks of hundreds of thousands of workers. Signing into law the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, New York Governor David Paterson has set in motion a complete rethinking of the status and conditions of nearly invisible, yet indispensible, workforce.
The gist of the legislation is more than impressive. It establishes an eight hour legal work day; over time at time and a half after 40 hours for live-out domestic workers and 44 hours for live-in domestic workers; one day of rest in each calendar week; overtime pay on that day of rest if the worker chooses to work; after one year of employment three paid days off; workplace protection against discrimination, sexual harassment, and other forms of harassment; workers compensation; and the completion of a study by November 2010 of the feasibility of establishing organizing for collective bargaining.
Yet the story of this victory is not contained in the magnanimity of Governor Paterson and other leaders of the great State of New York. It is found in the efforts of the domestic workers themselves, and the decade long effort to build an organization that represents them. Domestic Workers United emerged out of this effort as the lead—but not exclusive—champion of the struggle of domestic workers in New York, helping to construct a larger coalition of other domestic worker-oriented organizations and initiatives such as: NY Domestic Workers Justice Coalition, Damayan Migrant Workers Association, Adhikaar, Unity Housecleaners, Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, CAAAV-Organizing Asian Communities, Andolan-Organizing South Asian Workers, and the Hospitality Center of Staten Island. DWU also played a central role in going national with efforts that helped lead to the creation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
It is estimated that there are well over two million domestic workers in the USA, yet they are largely ignored, at least at the level of legislation. When the National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935 domestic workers were explicitly excluded from the provisions of the law. Although there were various rationales offered at the time, during the 1930s this workforce was significantly African American and opponents of workers’ rights and racial justice were simply not going to let Black women constitute a mighty, organized force.
Over the years the workforce has transformed to the point of being barely recognizable by those who once constituted it. According to research conducted by the Domestic Workers United, in New York State 98% of domestic workers are foreign born (Interestingly, 59% are the primary income earners of their families.). In effect, this remains a workforce of color, however, it is now more varied in actual colors.
Because of its invisibility and because of the link between the job itself and the history of restricting the scope of work to which women are permitted to enter, the conditions of the workers has been too often ignored. Occasionally there are news stories about the de facto enslavement of one or several domestic workers by a particular employer, but such stories are treated as aberrations rather than extreme examples of what has been an often lawless work environment. Sexual harassment, mandatory overtime, the assumption of expenses by the workers themselves and many other exploitative behaviors have been part of the everyday experience of thousands of such workers.
This struggle is noteworthy on many levels, not the least of which being the building of a new relationship with organized labor. After the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, “excluded workers,” including but not limited to domestic workers, were largely abandoned by the formal union movement. While there has been a history of efforts to organize such workers into unions or union-like structures, with the exception of struggles such as the one led by the California-based United Farm Workers union, these have largely been off of the radar screen of most of the union movement. In some cases, such snubbing was the result of racism and sexism, while in other cases it was simply a sort of legalese narrowness, i.e., the law excludes these workers so they are out of luck.
The campaign in New York started to turn some of this around. Domestic Workers United, along with its national umbrella, are part of a newly emerging movement of organizations and centers that have emerged outside of the framework of organized labor but are seeking a new and respectful partnership with the unions. DWU and its allies in New York sought out labor union support. The New York City Central Labor Council embraced their efforts, but so too did both the Service Employees International Union Local 32B/32J (the mega building service local stretching from Massachusetts to Washington, DC) and the New York City-based Transport Workers Union, Local 100. The national AFL-CIO, representing more than ten million workers, also joined forces. Then AFL-CIO President John Sweeney offered his personal stamp of support for the efforts aimed at securing a domestic workers bill of rights.
The efforts by DWU and its allies in many respects paralleled those of their sister and brother excluded workers from the United Farm Workers who, decades ago, turned a struggle for workers’ rights into a social battle for the expansion of democracy and racial justice. Reading comments by New York political leaders in endorsing the proposed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights it is clear that they recognized that this struggle has been articulated as a moral battle rather than one that is only about statutes. This is, in other words, one of those special “which side are you on?” moments. Such a moment can only happen when there is a combination of the articulation of a demand in a manner that extends beyond the bounds of sectorial interests along with the creation of a popular coalition that embraces the demand as one of basic justice and human rights.
Concerns have been raised in some arenas that this victory has not gone far enough and there is certainly some truth to that. There are decades of repair work that need to be done to make amends for the mistreatment and marginalization experienced by this workforce. At a minimum a system of collective bargaining needs to be put into place whereby the state or cities take responsibility for ensuring that resources are made available to raise the living standard of these workers. To expect total or near total victory at this stage, however, would be entirely unrealistic. Much like newly organized workers in the 1930s, the first victories institutionalized their existence and granted them the raw elements of economic justice. It took years of organization-building and struggle to advance based upon those early victories.
The signing into law of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a victory that should be celebrated by all those engaged in the struggles for economic and social justice, irrespective of whether they are in labor unions, worker centers, independent worker organizations, or, for that matter, whether they are supporters of workers standing on the outside of the movement. This is truly the first light of a new day.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and an editorial board member of BlackCommentator.com. He is also the co-author of “Solidarity Divided.” He can be reached at [email protected].