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Jun 23 / Elizabeth DiNovella

USSF Day 2: Organizing with Love

“Great organizing campaigns are like great love affairs. You begin to see life through a different lens. You change in unexpected ways. You lose sleep, but you also feel boundless energy. You develop new relationships and new interests. Your skin becomes more open to the world around you. Life feels different, and it’s almost like you’ve been reborn. And, most importantly, you begin to feel things that you previously couldn’t have even imagined are possible. Like great love affairs, great campaigns provide us with an opportunity for transformation. They connect us to our deeper purpose and to the commonalities we share, even in the face of tremendous differences. They highlight our interdependence and they help us to see the potential that our relationships have to create real change in our lives and in the world around us.”

by Ai-jen Poo, for Domestic Workers United
from “Organizing with Love: Lessons from the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign”

Rarely do you hear an activist comparing a great campaign to a great love affair. But that’s the exact metaphor Ai-jen Poo used to describe the fantastically successful campaign to give basic labor rights to domestic workers in New York City.

The Domestic Workers United gave a workshop about this campaign on the second day of the US Social Forum (USSF). In fact, it was back at the 2007 USSF in Atlanta where the Domestic Workers United, along with other organizations, came together and formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “The social forum is a special occasion for us,” says Poo.

I was at their event at the 2007 USSF and was so impressed by their tenacity and vision. So it’s amazing and inspiring to come back to the social forum three years later and hear about their victory in New York State.

“Today is an exciting day for domestic workers around the country,”says Poo. At any moment, New York Governor David Paterson will sign into law the first set of labor protections for domestic workers. This is no small victory.

For too long, domestic workers–nannies, house cleaners, companions for elderly–have been denied basic labor rights. Domestic workers have been explicitly excluded from U.S. labor protections. And it’s not by chance. When Congress debated legislation during the New Deal Era, Southern lawmakers sought to exempt domestic workers (and farm workers) from federal labor laws.

This discrimination, Poo points out, is rooted in racial and gender oppressions. So this new legislation means so much. “It’s about reparations,” she says. “It’s about justice.”

And it’s about recognizing that caring for people is real work that requires skills.

What’s in the new bill? Two different versions have been passed by the two houses of New York state government. The Senate version is more expansive and would grant guarantees such as paid holidays, sick days, overtime pay, and the right to collective bargaining. Right now, domestic workers are not even entitled to minimum wage.

What the average workers takes for granted, that’s what we’ve been denied, says Patricia Francois, who worked as a nanny in New York for twelve years before losing her job a year and a half ago.

New York is just the beginning. There are campaigns underway in fourteen cities. Claudia Reyes from Mujeres Unidas y Activas talked about the fight for labor rights in California. In 2006, AB 2536, which gave household workers the right to overtime, and fined employers who failed to pay their employees, passed both houses in California. But Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

Reyes says that what happens in New York will help domestic workers in California in 2011 and 2012. It’s historic legislation. And it proves that it’s possible.

Poo says that it’s important to not let the political climate curb your vision. If it’s inspirational, people will want to participate.

One thread of discussion that came up over and over again as domestic workers/organizers told their stories during today’s panel was the idea that labor protections seemed impossible for them. But the campaign changed all of that.

“The experience of the campaign to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York has already provided an opening for the transformation of the relations within the domestic work industry and a vision for how we can transform all of our relations throughout our nation and beyond,” writes Poo in a paper about the campaign. “Like a great love affair, it has helped us grow.”

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