The Invisible Workers

From our pink-collar jobs package, Women's Work:

Most labor organizers camp outside of factories and businesses, waiting to catch workers in between shifts. When Jocelyn Gill-Campbell recruits workers, she hits up parks, playgrounds, and libraries, looking for the 200,000 women who tend to New York's children and homes. Campbell is an organizer for Domestic Workers United, one of a handful of growing groups across the country attempting to bring fair labor standards to housekeepers and nannies--virtually unregulated professions. These organizations have taken up the battle to get the home to be considered a workplace and are trying to bring some dignity to what is truly women's oldest profession.

"You've heard about the American dream and when you come you have this dream for your own life," says Gill-Campbell, originally from Barbados, who was a nanny before becoming a full-time organizer for Domestic Workers United. "At the beginning you don't expect the bad; they tell you that you're like family. But for most people, it ends up turning out differently."

Unlike nursing, teaching, or almost all other jobs that have traditionally been held by women, domestic workers are still not legally considered employees in this country. They are not protected by overtime laws, safety and health regulations, or against discrimination. This is often coupled with an informal approach to the employer-employee relationship--usually due to the "she's part of the family" mentality--that results in irregular paychecks and inconsistent wages. Nonetheless, the industry, like all other service jobs in this country, has grown over the last 20 years, as more immigrant women became available to do the jobs that upper-class working mothers and U.S.-born working-class women could not or would not do.

About 10 years ago, the majority of home-care workers were in the same position. Home-care workers--predominantly women of color who tend to the elderly, sick, and disabled--were subject to long hours and one-on-one relationships with their dependent clients. The parameters of their employment were vague and rife with abuse. Then in the 1990s, a number of states restructured how public funds are distributed for this type of work, meaning that many home-care workers were paid with public funds. That meant that state governments were, technically, employers of all of the home-care workers paid with these funds. Once unions were able to identify a common employer with whom to bargain, they were able to organize in large numbers. When 74,000 employees in California voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 1999, it was the largest successful union drive since the Great Depression.

This new way of organizing was a breakthrough for individuals who work in the home. It helped convince the public that working in the domestic sphere is still, in fact, work. But unlike home-care workers, domestic workers cannot find justice through classic labor organizing. They are specifically excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which prevents them from forming unions or bargaining collectively. The understanding is that when Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law in 1935, pressure from Southern Democrats pushed him to exclude agricultural and domestic work, both professions with strong roots in slavery and still predominantly held by African Americans at the time.

Today only a tiny percentage of domestic workers make a living wage, and the vast majority go without health insurance, overtime, and sick days. Many also face sexual, physical, and verbal harassment, for which they currently have no legal recourse. This has not, however, stopped domestic workers from coming together and making their case. Over the past decade, organizations have popped up around the country to provide support and push for legislation to better the working conditions of the approximately 1.5 million nannies, maids, and housekeepers working in the United States.

In June 2007, 13 of these organizations, which are overwhelmingly run by women, formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and last summer they held their first conference in New York. They vowed to work together to change laws and educate the public about the field, and swapped tips on lobbying strategies and how to best take on abusive employers. Today the alliance has grown to nearly 20 members, as different community-based social-justice groups around the country have taken up the cause.

This is not the first time domestic workers have organized to better their profession. The first major attempt was in 1881, when African American washerwomen went on strike in Atlanta. Further efforts popped up during the Depression, including the Domestic Workers Union of New York, a group in Harlem that encouraged employees to demand fair payment and organized a hiring hall. In the late 1970s, the Household Technicians of America tried to bring the promises of feminism to poor, working women. But ultimately domestic workers' exclusion from labor laws made real change impossible. This is why the new wave of organizers, spawned mostly from immigrant community organizations, is looking for legal changes from the top.


Mujeres Unidas y Activas (Women United and Active, or MUA), a grass-roots organization for Latina immigrants in San Francisco with over 400 members, started a program for Domestic Workers in 1994 called Caring Hands. They offer practical workshops on domestic work, including job and finance training, as well as support groups to help workers deal with workplace abuse. In 2006 other domestic workers' groups in California joined them in pushing for the "Nanny Bill," a piece of legislation that would guarantee overtime pay for home child-care workers. Throughout the year, more than 550 domestic workers from around the state went to Sacramento to lobby on their own behalf. The bill was passed by the state Assembly and Senate but vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, through the process, the domestic workers "saw the real power and potential of a good grass-roots campaign," says Andrea Christina Mercado, community organizer and political-rights coordinator for MUA. These groups, which formed the California Household Workers Coalition in 2005 to fight for the "Nanny Bill," have now focused their efforts on introducing a new piece of legislation next year, in the hopes that it will land on the desk of a new governor.

Like the groups in California, CASA de Maryland, a 23-year-old community organization originally for Central American refugees in the D.C. area, gives domestic workers a chance to seek support, share stories, and strategize for change. Through the Committee for Women Seeking Justice, started seven years ago, about 100 women--along with a coalition of labor, religious, and community organizations--successfully pushed Montgomery County, Maryland, to pass the most comprehensive set of labor protections for domestic workers in the country. The law, which went into effect in January, requires all employers to offer contracts on wages and benefits to domestic employees working over 20 hours a week. It also grants live-in housekeepers their own bedroom with a lock and reasonable access to a bathroom and the kitchen. "The first step for action is to get domestic workers to be angry about the conditions they have to endure, second is to help them support one another, and third is to get them going on the legislative campaigns knowing that the work they do is important and necessary," says Alexis De Simone, a community organizer at CASA de Maryland.

The most ambitious organizing effort to date has been in New York City, where Domestic Workers United (DWU) has been fighting since 2004 for a bill of rights. Formed in 2000 as a coalition of independent domestic-worker organizations, DWU's first major effort was to get the New York City Council to pass a law requiring nanny agencies to provide a written contract. However, the victory was limited because most domestic workers in New York City do not work for an agency. So in November 2003 DWU held a "Have Your Say" convention during which 250 domestic workers came together and envisioned what it would take for them to feel like they had respect on the job. This brainstorming session gave birth to the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, which got its first sponsor with Assemblyman Keith Wright the following year and has since been promoted and defended by busloads of domestic workers who regularly travel to Albany to personally convince lawmakers of the need for the bill. "DWU doesn't have the resources of an [American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees] or SEIU, but they make up for it in the quality of their organizing," says Edward Ott, executive director of the New York City Labor Council. "These types of movements are built on sacrifice, and these women make up for what they don't have with a high level of commitment."

If passed, the bill of rights would ensure domestic workers in New York City have health insurance, paid sick and vacation days, overtime, incremental raises, severance pay, and protection from discrimination. The bill passed the state Senate and Assembly Labor Committee this past spring, and DWU hopes it will be in the governor's hands before long. "Without this legislation, domestic work will continue to be the ultimate invisible labor, one that nobody values," says DWU organizing coordinator Priscilla Gonzalez, who first got involved with the organization when trying to help her mother who was experiencing workplace abuse as a domestic worker. "It has historically been performed by women of color, and that continues to be the case to this day, with 95 percent of the employees women of color. This has made it so easy for the abuse and exploitation in the industry."

In addition to legislative work, DWU helps its members deal with some of the difficulties they encounter on the job. At monthly meetings, workers discuss their wages, subtle sexual harassment, the physical demands of simultaneously cleaning a house and watching children, and even their daily loneliness. For the more egregious abuses like physical violence, DWU holds rallies outside of employers' homes, making sure all the neighbors know about what happened. And when employers severely shortchange their employees, DWU works with the Urban Justice Center, a legal-advocacy organization in New York, to take employers to court; they have won over half a million dollars in back-pay for their members.

While the big fight for domestic-worker organizations resides in the halls of state capitals, these local actions are part of a more subtle struggle to convince the public, including employers and even workers themselves, to rethink the value of this work. "Domestic workers most fundamentally need to work in a society that sees their works as real," says Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California who has researched domestic workers. "That is the ideological battle, and until that is fought, the rest is secondary."

This ideological battle has been especially heated among feminists. Betty Friedan sparked second-wave feminism in 1963 with her portrayal of housework as oppressive and encouraged women to leave the home. This was understandably alluring to droves of stifled middle-class housewives, but it did little to extend respect to women who earn their wages doing housework. About a decade later, another feminist named Selma James took the opposite approach, asserting that housework is an integral part of the economy and deserves compensation. Operating on the premise that it is women's work that produces the working class, she founded the International Wages for Housework campaign, which pushed governments to provide money and benefits for this unwaged work.

The latest version of the housework debate has popped up at the center of what has come to be known as the Mommy Wars. The media-declared "trend" of upper-class and educated women "opting out" of their careers to be homemakers and caregivers has prompted both scathing criticism and labored defense from feminists who struggle to define the meaning of domesticity. This ambiguity over the value of housework tends to affect the lives of domestic workers, most of whom never had the option to "opt out," and many of whom find that one of their biggest hurdles is getting respect from their female bosses. Common terms like "my cleaning lady" or "the woman who watches my kids" underscore the complexity of this employer-employee relationship. "Not even the women see us as workers, here in the center of the world," says Antonia Peña, a domestic worker from Colombia who lobbied with CASA de Maryland. "But this is a job, not just in this city, or in this country, everywhere, all over the world. We may not have university training, but this is a job."