June 23rd marked the closing of the 2008 Legislative Session, and with it, it concludes our fourth year of our fight to win a New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would amend state labor law to provide much needed labor protections for the more than 200,000 women working as nannies, housekeepers and elderly caregivers.
At the beginning of the year, we had high hopes for our bill and were focused on moving it forward. Our first visit to Albany set the theme for the rest of the session, where the advice was: You need to bring more people to show the support this bill has. You need to demonstrate this very visually to the legislators here in Albany.
We took that advice and ran with it. Setting off to mobilize hundreds of Bill of Rights supporters, we organized two Days of Action in Albany. We reached out to our closest allies. We sought the support of new groups and individuals - in universities, church congregations, and in community presentations. Prep trainings were offered to everyone participating. And with the help of our NYU law students, we were able to schedule over 100 meetings with legislators over the course of the two days. With the motto, ‘It’s about time we have our time,’ we mobilized more than 550 supporters on April 15th and May 20th, more than doubling our numbers in previous years combined. We agitated, we educated and pushed for the passage of our Bill. And, the Domestic Slide was born!
During the session we also encountered several challenges. Some of the provisions of the Bill of Rights are commonly found in collective bargaining agreements, and legislators feel that passing a law including these provisions would equal giving domestic workers ‘special treatment’. The second key issue is one of strategy -- some legislators think that the bill should be broken up and fought for incrementally, in smaller pieces.
Our response was to make the case that this industry is unique, and therefore the traditional means of establishing labor standards and protections through collective bargaining simply doesn’t work. It has been 73 years since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRB), which essentially formed the basis of worker protections in this country. Domestic workers were excluded from these protections. This historical exclusion along with numerous others has permitted the discrimination of domestic workers and it must be reversed. Yet the solution cannot solely involve the inclusion of domestic workers in the NLRB, because in fact, this industry is uniquely structured to prevent collective bargaining as we know it. There is no one employer for workers to negotiate with. There are over 200,000 workers, and there are the same amount of employers. And the workplaces are dispersed behind unknown doors throughout the metropolitan area. Any worker who tries, under such conditions, to negotiate for a paid holiday that her employer is not willing to provide, risks losing her job. There is no collective, and no bargaining power. In an industry where workers have little to no leverage in negotiating with their employers, an approach of ‘a little at a time’ will continue to subject domestic workers to unfair and unjust working conditions. The labor of domestic workers has gone unrecognized for too long. It’s been long enough.
Still, we haven’t been unwilling to negotiate and compromise with legislators. In this session alone we made three key changes to our bill to respond to legislators’ concerns without doing away with the spirit of the bill, including the removal of the Family and Medical Leave provisions, changing the applicability of the Bill to the Metropolitan Area, and including the Healthy New York program in our health care provision for the bill.
As this legislative session closes, the Bill [A628B] is still awaiting a vote in the Labor Committee. Assemblywoman Susan John, Chair of the Labor Committee has proposed alternative legislation, which would provide both farm workers and domestic workers with overtime pay and one day of rest per week. We support this effort, and we maintain that the Bill of Rights and its core components are the ultimate solution. Assemblywoman John has made a commitment to continue working with us to move the Bill forward.
With the challenges and the lessons have also come many accomplishments. Here are some developments we’re particularly excited about:
• Strong Support from More People
This session we were successful in bringing more domestic workers and more supporters into the fight. In particular, faith communities, young people and students all played more visible roles. Labor has continued to be a key ally. We were joined this year by top labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whose own mother was a domestic worker for 40 years, and Roger Toussaint, President of TWU Local 100. A busload of UFCW Local 1500 members joined May 20, UAW members primed the hallways for us on April 15 and SEIU Local 32BJ continued in their support for our work. And on top of all the new support, we continue to be able to count on allies who have stood with us throughout: Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jobs with Justice, Immigrant Justice Solidarity Project and all the members of the New York Domestic Workers Justice Coalition – including CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, Damayan Migrant Workers Association, Andolan Organizing South Asian Workers, Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees and Unity Housecleaners of Long Island. Together we demonstrated tremendous power in our demands for justice.
• Legislative sponsorship
Early this session, we received a great honor – we were presented with an award by the Black and Latino Legislators Association during Caucus weekend in mid-February. This was the beginning of a groundswell of support from legislators, following 2 high visibility days of action, led by members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, and followed by members of the Labor Committee and throughout the legislature. We closed the legislative session with 60 co-sponsors in the Assembly. And, Senator Maltese signed on as our Senate sponsor.
• Active Solidarity with Farm Workers
On March 4, domestic workers and farm workers joined together with the Labor-Religion Coalition for their annual 40-hour fast, this year highlighting immigrant worker rights. From that day forward, domestic workers and farm workers worked together closely, supporting one another’s efforts to win respect and reverse the legacy of injustice that has been our fate since the 1930’s. On May 20, the two groups of workers rallied jointly, bringing together workers and supporters from around the state in a call to action. These efforts have resulted in the passage of a measure to provide overtime pay and a day of rest to both farm workers and domestic workers in the Labor Committee. The power of this solidarity will continue to build as we prepare for the next legislative session.
• Visibility in the Media
At the end of this session, an editorial in the Sunday New York Times appeared in support of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The following day, a long story appeared in the Metro Section of the NY Times, detailing the stories of domestic workers around the country who participated in the first National Domestic Workers Congress, including a photo of a march where participants of the Congress and over 300 supporters marched from City Hall together for the Bill of Rights.
The end of the legislative session does not mean our work for the year has ended. Now is the time for the groundwork to take place, the education, the basebuilding, the leadership development, the reflection, assessment and strategy development. We hope that you will take the time and breathing room to think about new communities and constituencies to mobilize in this historic movement for justice in our state. Collect postcards and letters of endorsement and support for the Bill of Rights, schedule discussions and presentations about domestic work in a school, church or community near you. Write an op ed in your local newspaper about what the Bill of Rights means to you. Schedule an in district meeting with your legislator about the Bill of Rights. Prepare to join DWU in the summer and fall for actions in support of workers who have been abused by their employers. And get ready for the fight next session, when we bring our moral message for justice and respect, and our collective power to bear in a sustained campaign of action, education and more action until we see a victory! Are you with us? We know you are!
There are too many people to thank for all that we have accomplished this year, but we would like to acknowledge a few – Richard Winsten, Jacqueline Williams, and Julie Ruttan of Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein, Ed Ott, NYC Central Labor Council, Susan Borenstein of the AFL-CIO, Jeannine Johnson and Assemblyman Keith Wright, Jobs with Justice, Brooklyn Congregations United, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, NYU Immigrant Rights Law Clinic, Center for Constitutional Rights, Urban Justice Center, Third World Newsreel, all those who participated in the Albany Days of Action, the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign, and many more. . .
- Founded in 2000, Domestic Workers United [DWU] is an organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers in New York, organizing for power, respect, fair labor standards and to help build a movement to end exploitation and oppression for all. DWU is a proud founding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. DWU and its partners brought their power to bear in 2010 when the nation's first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was passed in New York.