Ai-jen Poo. (Flickr/Institute for Policy Studies)
The past decade has seen a surge of organizing by domestic workers in the United States. These workers, who care for children, senior citizens and disabled people in their homes, are explicitly excluded from many of the basic protections of federal labor law, including union organizing rights. Their job is characterized by low wages, long hours and meager benefits, and it’s among the fastest growing in the US economy. Last Friday, The Nation sat down with Ai-jen Poo, a founder of New York’s Domestic Workers United, who now directs the National Domestic Workers Alliance. We discussed some disappointments dealt by Democratic politicians, the challenges of sustaining non-union labor groups and how to confront the coming care crisis. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
The Nation: What’s happening to work in the United States? Does labor have the tools to grapple with it?
Ai-jen Poo: Our tools are not sufficient. What is happening is that work is becoming more unstable, insecure, dangerous and vulnerable. When I first started organizing domestic workers, people kind of perceived it as this very exotic shadow workforce at the margins of the economy. But when you look around these days, the conditions that define domestic work are not so different from the conditions that define every American worker’s realities. As more and more people become temporary, part-time or contracted, nobody knows who their real boss is, no one has collective bargaining, no one even knows what bargaining is and no one works in a workplace where bargaining is actually feasible. We’re essentially all becoming domestic workers.
The work that we and others are doing to try to create power and voice in that context has some of the seeds of what we need in the future, but I don’t think we’ve quite gotten to a model where we have adequate tools when we really come up against power. When we really go up against [restaurant giant] Darden or Walmart, what we have is simply insufficient. I think it will take a combination of these models getting to sufficient sophistication and scale, and a very broad-based movement of people who are invested in the future of work, and can connect to it on a deeply personal and emotional level and want to take action.
To me, there are three core questions. First is narrative. The second is policy. And then the third is around organizational models, because as awesome as I think our affiliates [local labor groups for domestic workers without union recognition] are, we not self-sustaining, self-financing organizations. We count on foundation money and donors. And so how we actually get to scale and build self-financing workers’ organizations in the twenty-first century is a huge unanswered question.