On May 12, in a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) held a spirited briefing for its Members and their staffs — “Voices from the Front Lines of the Economic Crisis: A Bold Agenda for Change”.
CPC Co-Chair Raúl Grijalva and Congressman John Conyers, as well as about 30 congressional staffers and other allies, heard testimony from members of the Inter-Alliance Dialogue — an emerging coalition of networks representing domestic workers, janitors, day laborers, housing activists, worker rights advocates, and others hit hardest during these times. The event was co-sponsored by the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank in Washington, DC.
Witnesses painted a vivid picture of the current struggles too many workers and communities face, and described their vision for addressing short-term needs as well as long-term systemic change.
Joycelyn Gill-Campbell of the National Domestic Workers Alliance discussed the domestic worker workforce “of over 2 million, mostly women of color who come to this country because the economic policies around the world force us abroad to [find] work to support our families. Globalization has hurt us.” She said before the crisis, a survey showed that of 200,000 domestic workers in New York, 18 percent lived below the poverty line, and only 13 percent earned a living wage. One in five reported “sometimes or often not having enough to eat….One-third of all domestic workers and one-half of live-in domestic workers experience verbal or physical abuse.”
With the economic collapse these conditions have only grown worse.
“The fear of losing their jobs is silencing [domestic] workers who are facing abuse and exploitation,” Gill-Campbell said. “They are so afraid of losing their jobs that they are accepting worse and worse conditions. This is driving down conditions for everyone.”
Her colleague, Antonia Pena, of Casa de Maryland agreed. “It is difficult to honestly say that if you leave your abusive employer you will be able to find something else,” she said. “Employers know this and are using it to their advantage. They are cutting our hours, cutting our already low wages, and if we say something they say ‘Go ahead and leave, there’s lot of people who are waiting in line for this job’…. Domestic workers take care of our families here and in our home countries… If we lose our job, it will mean no food, no rent, not just for us, but for our families.”
But Pena sees this crisis as an opportunity for reform. “This crisis gives [legislators] the opportunity to help restructure the economy for the better – to make it more fair,” she said.
Gill-Campbell described a campaign in New York State that is trying to do just that with a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. It would ensure domestic workers receive notice, severance pay, an annual wage increase, paid vacation, sickness benefits, personal days, and protection from discrimination. She said the legislation might “serves as a model for the type of innovative policy we can develop to protect the most vulnerable and support sustainability for all of the workers in this country.”
Wanda Solomon of Mothers on the Move and Right to the City described her community in the South Bronx — “one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation with 42 percent of our residents living below the poverty line.” The economic collapse “has only deepened a crisis that we have always faced.” Her community — like other low-income communities and communities of color — also is disproportionately burdened with hazardous waste and pollution and consequent ailments like childhood asthma.
Solomon said that the stimulus package and federal investment in a green economy gives rise to the hope that it will be used for economic development. “However, low-income people of color are not being consulted about where they think this money should be spent,” she said. Her coalition wants to see resources used “to address the unjust distribution of pollution and the associated health concerns within our neighborhoods.”
“We believe in a growing green economy that is based on equity and will create meaningful jobs and healthier and safer communities….” Solomon said. “We look forward to sitting at the decision-making table.”
Tammy Bang Luu of Grassroots Global Justice also articulated some key challenges faced by lower-income communities across the nation — primarily the need for affordable, reliable public transit.
“Public transit systems throughout the country are falling apart at the seams with dwindling operating funds, resulting in cuts in service and fare increases,” she said, and creating huge barriers to opportunities for employment, housing, and education. She said public transit investment is also needed in response to the climate crisis. She noted that the Highway Bill expiring in September invests 80 percent in roads and 20 percent in public transportation. To support healthier communities and new opportunities “this formula must be turned on its head — 80% for public transportation, 20% for highway maintenance,” she said.
Luu also spoke of “reversing the trend” of exploitation of tribal lands through federal investment in Native owned and operated renewable energy facilities, particularly in wind and solar energy.
Jacinta Gonzalez of the National Day Labor Organizing Network spoke of the exploitation of day laborers which — as with domestic workers — has only grown more extreme with the economic crisis.
“For most of the day laborer and low-wage immigrant population in the US, their undocumented status is like a huge sign that says no labor laws need apply,” Gonzalez said. “As the economy falls into a true crisis and unemployment rises, workers, desperate for any job that will allow them to provide for their families, find that more and more contractors only hire them in order to steal their labor.”
Gonzales described three cases in New Orleans where companies with multimillion-dollar state and federal contracts to build affordable housing “robbed the workers of thousands of dollars in clear violation of federal worker protection laws…. Simply put, as jobs decline, wage theft is on the rise and no one but the most vulnerable workers themselves is doing anything to stop it.”
She said laws against wage theft need to be strengthened and enforced, and that currently local authorities and the Department of Labor both fail to respond. Also, until comprehensive immigration reform is enacted, undocumented workers will continue to be exploited through the threat of deportation.
“The current political economy takes for granted thousands of day laborers that as a disenfranchised population are excluded from labor law,” Gonzales said.
All of the speakers from the Inter-Alliance Dialogue spoke of their experiences not only to illustrate their constituents’ immediate needs, but also to point to a broader agenda. To that end, the Alliance is currently working on a Recovery Package for Democracy. This agenda will address structural racism in education, housing, transportation, and employment; workplace democracy, including organizing and collective bargaining rights; urban communities’ participation in state and local decision-making; and a green, global economy that respects and invests in historically exploited communities.
After the hearing, the coalition met at the White House with Jared Bernstein, Economic Policy Adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden.
“It was a great meeting,” said Sarita Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice. “We were able to meet Jared Bernstein and introduce him to all of our networks, which is important given that we have not always had access to the White House. Mr. Bernstein gave us a good overview of the Vice President’s Middle Class Task Force. We explored where our interests overlap and he gave us valuable feedback on ways in whichwe could keep communication going between us…. We look forwardto reconnecting with him and others on the Task Force when we’ve completed our comprehensive proposal.”
Also look for subcommittee hearings to bring some of this vital testimony to Congress as new policy proposals are considered. The fresh thinking of the Inter-Alliance Dialogue will offer great alternatives to the status quo ways of the Summers/Geithner regime. Hopefully, a Democratic Congress and Chief Community Organizer/President are ready to listen.