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Inside the Invisible World of Domestic Work: An Interview with Ai-jen Poo December 7, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor, Women.
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What we found is that the people, mostly women, who we count on to take care of the most precious elements of our lives — our homes and our families — do not earn enough to take care of their own families or themselves.

November 30, 2012
by Lauren Feeney

Ai-jen Poo

Domestic workers — the nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides who care for our young children and elderly parents — have traditionally been excluded from the most basic protections, like minimum wage. Their jobs are inherently insecure, ending abruptly when the child goes off to school or the patient passes on, yet few collect Social Security or are eligible for unemployment benefits. Working behind closed doors in private homes, they are vulnerable to abuse and unable to organize.

Enter Ai-jen Poo. The community organizer has been advocating for domestic workers’ rights for over a decade, and in 2010, led the campaign for the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which theoretically guarantees overtime pay, paid vacation, and basic human and civil rights protections for over 200,000 workers in the state of New York. Now she’s working to bring the same rights to domestic workers nationwide.

This week, Poo’s organization, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, together with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the DataCenter, released the first-ever national survey of domestic workers, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.  Poo sees it as a call-to-action for the nation to tackle the problems of this unregulated sphere, problems that in a Venn diagram would overlap with race, immigration, gender, and the modern, middle-class dual-income family.

Lauren Feeney: What are some of the most important findings in your report?

Ai-jen Poo: The fact that the report exists at all is important because for so long there hasn’t been any real data on domestic work, and that’s contributed to the invisibility of these workers and the Wild West nature of this industry. Now we have data from surveys of 2,086 domestic workers in 14 different cities from 71 different countries of origin.

What we found is that the people, mostly women, who we count on to take care of the most precious elements of our lives — our homes and our families — do not earn enough to take care of their own families or themselves. Twenty-three percent of domestic workers earn below minimum wage. That’s not counting live-in domestic workers. Among live-ins, sixty-one percent earn below minimum wage. And I think all of us know that even minimum wage is impossible to survive on.

Feeney: How is it that in 21st century America — after all the successes of the labor movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement — there is still this segment of the population that lacks even the most basic protections under the law? Why were these people left behind?

Poo: One reason is the legacy of racism in this country. In the 1930s, Southern members of Congress refused to support the labor laws within the New Deal if farm workers and domestic workers, who were largely African-American at the time, were included under those protections — protections like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

The people who have done this work have historically been poor, working poor women — immigrant women, African-American women, white poor and working class women — socially disadvantaged people. Then there’s the fact that this work has been seen as women’s work and has never really been valued or recognized as real work — it’s a battle to even get recognition as work and as workers versus just help or companionship.

All of those factors connected have meant that this work is done in the shadows. Now, with the need for this work just growing exponentially and becoming so much a part of the lifeblood of this country and the economy, we have an opportunity to really turn the tide on that.

Feeney: What makes domestic work so important to the economy?

Poo: The economist Jared Bernstein calls it a “critical input.” We call it the work that makes all other work possible. It’s this invisible layer of work — raising families and taking care of homes — that allows other people to go into their public lives and work, achieve, build.

Feeney: You call for a living wage, paid sick days, paid vacation and health insurance for domestic workers, and I don’t think anyone would argue that these women don’t deserve these basic protections. And of course, it’s easy to point a finger at wealthy executives and politicians who don’t treat their nannies well. But what about middle-class working women with limited options for child and elder care who really can’t afford any more than they’re already paying?

Poo: We need to take a holistic approach that’s not just about workers’ rights but about a whole set of policies that will make it more possible for all of us to take care of the people that we love. So we also promote tax credits and paid family leave policies and all kinds of workplace flexibility policies for working parents.

We’re living in a 21st century economy where the majority of paid workers are women, yet they’re still responsible for the vast majority of caregiving responsibilities. Our society, in the rules and structures that currently exist, has not accounted for that whole arena of work. And the manifestation of that is the low wages and invisibility and abuse of domestic workers. But really every single family is impacted by the fact that we haven’t adequately accounted for the work that goes into caring for families. Families need help, they need childcare, they need eldercare, and they don’t always have the resources to afford it. Why don’t we have universal childcare?  Why don’t we have workplace flexibility policies that account for the fact that people get sick and family members have to take care of them? It just seems very basic and it can absolutely be done. We really need to rethink the whole way we account for work and structure the economy in a way that works for everyone.

Feeney: In the meantime, what would you suggest concerned employers do to make sure that they’re treating their caregivers fairly, and what can domestic workers and their allies do to get involved in your campaign?

Poo: If you’re an employer, I would really encourage you to go to the Hand-in-Hand Domestic Employers Association website and sign up for their list. And for domestic workers, I would say join one of our affiliate organizations or the national alliance. We’re doing work in twenty-four cities in fourteen states and the District of Columbia, so we have affiliates all over the place, and if people want to form an organization in their town, we’ll support it. We’ve got big campaigns moving forward in California, Massachusetts and Illinois in 2013, so people can get involved in changing the policies and laws that will affect their lives in the future. That’s a call for employers too — we need employers to support our standards and guidelines, and their voices will be really important in that cause. Finally, there’s a measure that’s waiting in the wings at the Department of Labor that would bring 1.8 million home care workers under federal minimum wage and overtime protection, and we need people to write letters to their local Congress members and to the president himself saying that they want to see homecare workers included under basic protections. We’ve got to take care of our caregivers.

Why Workers Need the Employee Free Choice Act April 9, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
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by David Bacon

Unions are good for workers. Today, median weekly pay for union members is $886, compared to $691 for nonunion workers. Moving cargo on the Oakland waterfront pays three times what stocking shelves does at Wal-Mart because longshore workers have had a union contract since 1934.

In 1936, Congress recognized the value of unions and passed the National Labor Relations Act, setting up a legal system in which private sector, nonfarm workers could join unions and bargain. The preamble declares the law’s purpose: “encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and … protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing.”

Today, however, the law is virtually unable to fulfill its intended function. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, has proposed commonsense measures to restore its effectiveness in the Employee Free Choice Act. Employers are mounting a hysterical campaign against it, even calling it “bolshevism,” and claiming to be protectors of their workers’ rights. We need a reality check about what really happens when workers try to organize.

The Employee Free Choice Act would require employers to repay three times the back pay of a worker fired for organizing a union, with $20,000 fines for willful or repeated violations. It is illegal to fire a worker for union activity, but pro-union workers were fired in 30 percent of union-representation elections in 2007, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. There are no fines or penalties on employers for this – just reinstatement and back pay, and employers even get to deduct the unemployment benefits of the fired worker.

The National Labor Relations Act is the only federal law where violators receive no punishment. Workers, knowing they can be fired so easily, are understandably afraid to join unions.

The proposed legislation would therefore bring back the process for forming unions used in the years after the labor act was first passed (and which is used today in Canada). Workers would be able to sign union cards, and employers would have to recognize their union if a majority signed. Today, employers demand secret-ballot elections, and then wage an anti-union campaign that peaks on election day. For instance, according to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, at Blue Diamond in Sacramento, the company told workers two days before the election that many might lose their jobs if the union won because growers wouldn’t bring any more almonds to the plant.

Companies like Blue Diamond use outside union-busters, who have created a billion-dollar industry managing these anti-union campaigns. Campaign tactics include: In the weeks before these tainted elections, 51 percent of employers threaten to close if the union wins; and 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors. This conduct is effectively unpunishable, making a mockery of free elections. Signing cards is a safer, calmer process that workers control themselves, and workers keep the option of using either the cards or the election – their choice, not their employer’s.

Last, when workers form a union and a majority supports it, companies should negotiate a contract. That’s what the law says. The reality? Even when workers win elections, companies don’t negotiate in half the cases. After a year, they can legally walk away. When workers at the Rite-Aid warehouse in Lancaster (Los Angeles County) won an election, the most important agreement they could achieve after 18 bargaining sessions was the location of the union bulletin board.

With the Employee Free Choice Act, after 120 days of fruitless bargaining on a first-time contract, an arbitrator can resolve the issues still in dispute. Companies say they fear an outsider imposing unrealistic conditions. But with no mechanism to force agreement, companies know it’s lots cheaper to wait out the year than to raise wages and provide better benefits.

Many employers simply do not accept the law’s intention – encouraging workers to organize. They created the need for the act by undermining the process and rights established in 1936. By first undermining the law, and then resisting Miller’s common-sense remedies, they are pushing for a return to an era when organizing a union had no protection at all.

 © 2009 The San Francisco Chronicle

David Bacon is an East Bay writer who comments frequently on labor and immigration issues.
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