This year’s meeting of the nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, was hailed as historic for many reasons. There were more women and people of color participating than ever before, lots of first-of-a-kind resolutions on things like incarceration and immigration, and lots of welcoming of non-union workers like domestic workers to the big, old labor family. But what does being part of the family mean?
Domestic workers know a thing or two about familial relations. Described as “dears” and “saints” and “angels” by their employers, the “help” have worked for poverty wages in miserable conditions in Americans’ homes since the nation’s birth. In the widely eulogized New Deal era, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which labor unions praised, excluded people who worked in homes, in fields and in most kinds of retail and service work. It wasn’t called “special rights” for white men, but that’s what it amounted to. Even when FLSA was updated in the ’70s, domestic workers were still excluded. They’re not workers, the lawmakers said, they’re “companions”, members of the family.
It wasn’t until this month that change finally came to the FLSA law when the Obama administration announced it would finally extend minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic workers who have been cut out. It’s a change labor and community groups have pushed for. The question is what comes next.
In Los Angeles, Lourdes Balagot Pablo, a 61-year-old Filipina, told GRITtv about what it’s like to “companion” sick elderly clients in their homes as a live-in aide, twenty-four hours a day, in four-day shifts. If she gets two hours of uninterrupted sleep the whole time, she’s lucky, she said. It’s not what she was expecting when she was brought to the United States on a teaching visa. She taught math and physics at the university back home, but here she was forced to teach something entirely different, and when that didn’t work out, she found herself—like many so-called “guest workers”—jobless, paperless and thousands of dollars in debt to the immigration sharks who had arranged her H2B visa.
Her real family, let’s be clear, is in the Philippines, and after five years apart, she longs to see her 15 year old son on something closer than a Skype call. When they talked recently, he cried that he misses her, she told us.
The Obama administration’s new protection are an achievement. “Today, the Department of Labor took an important step towards stabilizing one of America’s fastest-growing workforces, and one made up predominantly of women, women of color and immigrants,” said Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-director of the Caring Across Generations campaign. “This change is a long-overdue show of respect for women in the workplace and for the important work of supporting seniors and people with disabilities.”
But the changes, which won’t take effect until January 2015, won’t make everything right for women like Balagot-Pablo. That’s why the National Domestic Workers Alliance and others are continuing to push for more protections through state legislation. (California looks likely to become the next state to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The state senate approved the bill on September 11. Both houses passed a 2012 version of the bill, only to be vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.)
Richard Trumka has fought for Domestic Workers rights legislation. He campaigned on the ground in California and both the AFL-CIO, and the SEIU worked with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice and the Family Values at Work Consortium in the Caring Across Generations campaign to pressure the administration to implement the FLSA change. Indeed, by all accounts, it was that concerted pressure, from labor, “alt-labor” community, women’s, immigrants, seniors and disability rights groups working together on a shared agenda that made change happen this time, after repeated attempts over eighty years. A pledge by candidate Obama and the personal commitment of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis helped too.
But two days after the administration’s announcement, Alliance members were back in DC rallying outside the Department of Labor for implementation of the new rules. The week before that, they’d been in the nation’s capital taking part in a mass arrest for immigration reform.
In terms of the agenda of the labor movement, will real inclusion for excluded workers follow this September’s pronouncements? What would real inclusion look like, not just on the celebration stage, but in the priority-setting meetings of the AFL-CIO? What would a labor movement look like that saw what organizer/author Jane McAlevey calls the “whole worker”, and acted on the interconnected issues that affect workers’ whole lives: at home, at work and (gasp) at leisure? WIth reduced funds in their coffers, big labor’s donation checks to grassroots group can’t be the beginning and end of their “support.” A warm welcome is very nice, but domestic workers are all too used to being called family. As South African domestic Myrlie Witbooi told the convention upon receipt of the George Meany/Lane Kirkland Award for Human Rights:
“I can assure you many of you sitting here are our employers. You have us at your homes, when you are here.
“If I’m part of your family you need to let me sit at your table while you get up and you wash the dishes.“
Big Labor is welcoming domestic workers like family. But are they getting up and washing the dishes?
You can hear an abbreviated version of this commentary on SoundCloud.