July 2010, Week 4


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Thu, 22 Jul 2010 21:52:09 -0400
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The African World

Victory for an excluded and invisible workforce:
Domestic workers in New York win historic victory!

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.,
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board

July 22,2010, Black Commentator


"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 indispensable, 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

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

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. ________________

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher,
Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy
Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum
and co-author of, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized
Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice(University of
California Press), which examines the crisis of organized
labor in the USA


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