Organizers Come Together To ‘Move from Checkers to Chess’

by  Sarah Jaffe

 

Members of National People’s Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance hold an action  in General Electric’s Washington, D.C. headquarters calling for the company to pay its taxes. (Sarah Jaffe)

Members of National People’s Action and the National Domestic Workers Alliance hold an action in General Electric’s Washington, D.C. headquarters calling for the company to pay its taxes. (Sarah Jaffe)

(May 1) With its glittering chandeliers in the lobby and $200-per-night room rate, the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington, D.C. seems like an incongruous place for a convention of working-class people talking about taking power back from the 1 percent.

As Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), points out when she takes the stage to address a crowd full of organizers from around the country, the people making decisions about the economy don’t look like the ones in this room.

“But,” she declares over raucous cheers, “They should.”

About 1000 activists have congregated for the joint convention between NDWA and the community-organizing network National People’s Action (NPA). NPA has been holding such gatherings, in which members from its affiliate groups around the nation come together to share stories, strategize, and raise a little hell in the streets of D.C., for 41 years. This year, it’s joined with NDWA in an attempt to build something bigger that can work for long-term success—what NPA director George Goehl calls in an interview “moving from checkers to chess.”

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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