How Domestic Workers Won Their Rights: Five Big Lessons

After decades of exclusion, home care workers are finally covered by federal minimum wage laws. Anyone who works for social change can learn from how they did it.

Photo by NDWA.

Domestic workers have had some breakthrough wins over the past two weeks. Up until then, these workers were excluded from protections such as a guaranteed minimum wage, paid breaks, and overtime pay. On September 17, the Obama administration announced new rules extending the Fair Labor Standards Act to include the 800,000 to 2 million home health workers—who help seniors and others with self-care tasks like taking medications, bathing, and shopping—under the federal government’s wage and hour protections.

Having campaigns at the local, state, and national levels gave the NDWA the flexibility to focus where victory was most likely.

Next, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights on September 26, allowing the full spectrum of domestic workers—including live-in nannies and housekeepers—to benefit from the same gains as the home health workers.

For the first time ever, these employees will be guaranteed the federal minimum wage and will earn overtime pay. And their victories have implications for a much larger portion of the workforce, including independent contractors, nontraditional employees, and those on temporary assignments. The domestic employees’ wins are helping to chart a path forward for the growing number of employees who work outside conventional office settings.

Much of the credit for these historic wins is due to the tenacious organizing of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group of workers in this field who advocate for their own rights. Led since 2010 by the dynamic young organizer Ai-Jen Poo, the NDWA has grown from a single chapter in New York City to a nationwide organization with campaigns for domestic workers’ rights in 19 cities and 11 states.

Here are five lessons that the wider progressive community can draw from the victories. Continue reading

Grin and Abhor It: The Truth Behind ‘Service with a Smile’

By Sarah Jaffe

A waitress juggling plates at Big Juds Burgers in Boise forgets to smile--in some restaurants, that could endanger her job.   (Kenneth Freeman/Flickr/Creative Commons)

A waitress juggling plates at Big Juds Burgers in Boise forgets to smile–in some restaurants, that could endanger her job. (Kenneth Freeman/Flickr/Creative Commons)

No, that waitress isn’t flirting with you.

Neither is the barista at your local Starbucks, nor the counter server at the Pret A Manger near your office, and you might be surprised to learn that the stripper at your local club doesn’t have a deep fondness for you, either.

Pretending to love one’s work, to be overjoyed by the ability to serve you coffee or pizza or dance for your tips, is an integral part of the job for service workers. “Service with a smile” is expected from anyone who deals with customers, and as Josh Eidelson and Timothy Noah pointed out last week at The Nation and The New Republic respectively, sometimes low-wage service employers require much more.

Eidelson reported on the recent move by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to push baristas to write “Come Together” on coffee cups in support of “bipartisan” deficit fear-mongering—to “draft its employees as a delivery system for austerity.” Schultz is a supporter of the “Fix the Debt” campaign started by ultra-rich ideologues that demands spending cuts (especially on social safety net programs) in supposed service of reducing the national debt.

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Report Finds Many Domestic Workers Receive Poverty-Level Wages and are Subject to High Levels of Abuse

New York, NY – Today, the National Domestic Workers Alliance released a groundbreaking new report, Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work, examining the state of domestic work in the US. More than 2,000 nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers were surveyed in 14 cities, drawing for the first time an empirically grounded picture of what it means to be a domestic worker in 21st century America.

“Domestic workers care for our children, they care for our parents, and they care for our homes. Yet, all too often, we fail to recognize their importance to our families and to the economy,” said Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “These women do the work that makes all other work possible, and they deserve the protections afforded by US law.”

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