What’s Next for the Domestic Workers Movement?

What’s Next for the Domestic Workers Movement?

What’s Next for the Domestic Workers Movement?

Five years after passing a breakthrough bill of rights, activists are building power and sharpening their legislative strategy.


In the summer of 2010, New York became the first state in the nation to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The breakthrough legislation established strong minimum standards for domestic workers, culminating nearly seven years of organizing by a broad coalition anchored by the perseverance, skill, and creativity of the domestic worker organizations at its center. Since then California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Oregon have followed with similar legislation, and campaigns are underway in Connecticut and Illinois. These state initiatives represent historic progress in the long-running campaign to bring basic recognition and dignity to this critical workforce. Five years after that first victory movement leaders at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), an organization we co-founded in 2007, have paused to reflect on what the legislative strategy has achieved and where we must go from here.

A Legacy of Exclusion

Every generation of domestic worker organizing and activism since the 1930s has brought attention to the racially motivated exclusion of this workforce from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and the impact of those exclusions on their lives. In the 1970s, domestic workers organized successfully to gain protections for most of the workforce under the FLSA, winning the right to minimum wage and overtime (with the significant exclusion of babysitters and workers employed to “provide companionship” to the disabled and elderly). The NLRA bar to the right to bargain collectively remains in force to this day.

The intrinsic power imbalance between employer and employee is heightened in the context of a private home, compounding the absence of legal protections. Domestic workers typically work without a contract. They are routinely given tasks beyond their job description (when there is one). They work long hours without meal or rest breaks, are entitled to no paid holidays or vacation days, are subject to arbitrary termination without severance pay and theft of wages due, and experience high rates of injury on the job without access to workers’ compensation or adequate healthcare. The workforce of nannies, housecleaners, and elder caregivers is also especially vulnerable on account of race, ethnicity, gender, and immigration status and limited English-language proficiency.

The domestic work industry urgently needs to raise and clarify the baseline requirements of the employer-employee relationship, both to empower workers and to hold employers accountable to the legal and ethical responsibilities of their role.

The Legislative Terrain

Movement leaders determined early on that improving the laws governing the conditions of employment was a fundamental precondition to transforming domestic workers’ capacity to negotiate and demand fairness.

From the beginning, as domestic workers came together to discuss what they were experiencing in their workplaces, we were aware of the limitations inherent in advocating for legislative change. Given the current dynamics in Congress, the prospect of moving federal legislation seemed vanishingly remote. Most state legislative processes are not conducive to democratic decision-making or worker participation, either. Committee hearings and votes are often scheduled with less than three days’ notice, and decisions on amendments need to be made in maddeningly short timeframes.

Home base to political actors with conflicting political interests and divergent obligations to constituents, corporate interests, and donors, the legislative terrain is, by its nature, one of compromise. We prepared our members for negotiation and held lengthy discussions on our priorities and bottom lines. Many elected officials, and some domestic workers, doubted we would be able to make any lasting changes. But we were on a mission to bring domestic workers into the public conversation, and to win dignity and respect.

When we decided to campaign for passage of a New York State Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, we were new to the game. Speaking multiple languages and representing a wide range of experiences, domestic workers convened in a Manhattan union hall in late 2003 to craft solutions to the many problematic practices and outright abuses they encountered at work. Legal experts transformed their solutions into draft legislation, and the campaign began in earnest.

Next, domestic workers and those inspired to join us brought our case to Albany. We met with legislators, who were often employers of domestic workers themselves and sometimes the sons and daughters of domestic workers as well. Women bravely told their stories of abuse to elected officials, reporters, and one another, and shared their dreams and vision for dignity. In the course of more than six years of visiting legislators, educating committee chairs, and breaking through stalemates, we made painful compromises. We initially sought a living wage of $14 per hour, healthcare, paid sick days, paid national holidays, severance pay, and two weeks of paid vacation. But by the time the bill reached the Senate floor, a host of provisions had been removed. Each time one was about to be excised, domestic workers engaged in difficult conversations about whether we were giving up too much, whether the compromises constituted a betrayal of principle, and whether a bill stripped of key provisions was or wasn’t better than no bill at all. We didn’t always all agree, but the campaign always moved forward. In August 2010, Governor David Paterson signed into law a bill that included overtime pay for live-in workers, one day of rest out of every seven, three paid rest days per year, and protection from sexual and racial harassment. For the first time since the 1970s, domestic workers had won new legal rights.

Three years later, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, the result of a successful multi-year campaign by the California Domestic Workers Coalition. Overcoming two governors’ vetoes, the campaign finally won the right to overtime for nannies and caregivers who are classified as personal attendants. With enforcement, this measure will put money into the pockets of workers who are routinely under-compensated for the long hours they put in. While the victory did not include other provisions we had been fighting for, everyone involved was proud of what was achieved in the state with the largest number of immigrant workers and the largest number of domestic workers.

Despite the significant compromises that were made to advance the bills in both New York and California, we continue to believe the campaigns were worth the effort. At the most concrete level, they set a national precedent by winning new rights and protections for domestic workers, generating new legal frameworks for improving working conditions.

The New York campaign pioneered a model of domestic worker organizing that has been borrowed, tailored to different circumstances, and implemented in other states. Domestic workers in Massachusetts built a coalition that just one year ago won the most expansive set of rights and protections thus far enacted with the passage of a law that requires written contracts, notice of termination, and maternity leave. Domestic worker policy and exclusions vary from state to state: each state has its own alignment of political actors, and each coalition has its own strengths and challenges. The measures achieved in one state might not be replicable in another. But labor rights for domestic workers are expanding in each state.

Beyond winning new labor protections, the campaigns remain central to the NDWA’s strategy because they help sharpen the political skills and the strategic capacity of domestic workers, their organizations, and the domestic worker movement as a whole. The campaigns accelerated the political development of dynamic leaders and drew new workers into the movement.

Legislative campaigns that are designed to centralize and elevate the leadership of workers are learning laboratories, offering up indispensable lessons that cannot be learned while removed from the places in which power operates. In organizing to pass domestic worker legislation, workers and organizers learn how to do effective outreach; cultivate allies and champions; quiet the objections of opponents; give voice to their own stories, weaving their unique experiences into a broad, composite portrait of workers in the industry; maximize their collective voice in the legislative process; and expand their power by building strong alliances with labor unions, faith-based institutions, civic organizations, and other movements.

Our legislative victories demonstrate that there is room for workers to maneuver and make progress in a political environment in which organized labor has struggled to make gains. The weakening of unions, the undermining of collective bargaining, and the dramatic decline in strike activity—core realities that all worker advocates face—have led to significant experimentation on the part of unions, worker centers, and other worker advocates. In this context, bill of rights campaigns demonstrate that women of color are powerful leaders, and workers thought to be “unorganizable” may only be lacking the leadership and framework needed to unleash their potential.

Securing the Floor

While new state legislation changes the legal framework for all workers and employers, it does not impact all workers either equally or automatically. Some employers are fair, but few jobs last forever. When domestic workers leave or lose their jobs, the new laws provide a better baseline from which to bargain with potential employers.

Furthermore, although some workers regularly secure better conditions than the standards set by the bill of rights, many do not. Every NDWA affiliate encounters many workers whose employers fail to live up to even minimal fair labor practices, along with some who endure stunningly egregious forms of abuse. The policies enacted through bill of rights campaigns, while far from ideal, create or reinforce a floor for the industry. They provide a platform from which to negotiate for those working in subpar conditions and help raise the baseline in the ongoing effort to expand rights and protections.

Challenges of Enforcement

Bill of rights policies do not automatically improve workers’ lives. Workers can’t negotiate for standards they don’t know about, and employers can’t conform to laws they don’t know exist. Once a bill has passed, the first imperative is to educate the public about its provisions. The second imperative is enforcement. Laws are made real by identifying, exposing, and sanctioning employers who violate them. This is a real challenge. Every day, new parents hire nannies without knowledge of the legislation, and every day new caregivers enter the workforce without the support they need to negotiate on their own behalf. Effective enforcement requires resources and the capacity to assess a rapidly shifting landscape.

Enforcement presents many challenges. At the top of the list are the woefully insufficient funds provided by public agencies and workers’ fear of retaliation for complaining about violations—a fear that is especially strong and well-founded for undocumented workers. In response to these challenges, domestic worker organizations in New York, California, and Massachusetts, and supportive employers working through an organization called Hand in Hand, are developing a grassroots enforcement agenda that builds organized worker density and trains leaders to educate colleagues about their rights and show them how to negotiate for contracts and better working conditions. Hand in Hand also educates employers about their obligations and about the “Fair Care Pledge,” which includes living wages, paid time off, and a clear work agreement. The most productive ways to advance this work are not firmly established, but we are experimenting and innovating.

Even as we work to ensure that these hard-won rights are widely understood and vigorously enforced, we continue to move our legislative campaigns forward. In Illinois, the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights Act is moving through the legislature. In Connecticut, a similar bill has passed the legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

NDWA now has local affiliates in 36 cities and 16 states. In states in which bills have not yet been introduced, we are assessing multiple factors to determine whether a legislative campaign is a viable way to build power for the long term. And we are assessing ways to address the enforcement challenges in the context of the substance of the legislation itself.

Domestic and family care jobs represent a large and growing share of the workforce in this country. Seventy-one percent of women with children are in the labor force. Millions of family caregivers are struggling to afford and manage care for their children and elders. By 2050, an estimated 27 million older Americans and people with disabilities will require long-term care or support to meet their basic needs. In other words, these jobs are the future, meeting a growing need for working families.

There is no blueprint for domestic worker organizing. We learn through trial and error. We share hard-won lessons across the alliance between organizations, between cities, and with domestic workers organizing in other countries. We adopt successful models of organizing and adapt them to different conditions. We do our best to stay grounded in both the optimism born of witnessing the power of domestic workers in motion and the realism imposed by the challenge of navigating an undeniably complex and often hostile political terrain.

Five years after the first breakthrough policy victory of the domestic workers movement, we have expanded our strategies, improved upon existing ones, and learned some important lessons. We still hold the same core values and principles that led us to the New York State legislature. This work deserves respect. Domestic workers must have a powerful voice and play an important role in shaping their future. Organizing and movement-building are at the heart of our ability to build power, and we have a responsibility to win.

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