Left out by traditional unions, women-led domestic workers are winning fights for minimum wage and overtime across the country.
YES! Illustration by Pablo Iglesias.
By Sheila Bapat
Jun 20, 2016
Myrla Baldonado left the Philippines and settled in the suburbs of Chicago in 2006. She found work caring for the elderly and ill, whom she fed, bathed, clothed, and gave medication. Working in the privacy of her patients’ homes, Baldonado sometimes experienced verbal abuse from their families. Her occasional 90-hour workweeks meant starting at dawn and arriving home late at night. Baldonado’s employer, an elder care agency, also misdeclared her as an independent contractor, forcing her to pay additional taxes.
This was her new life. And she earned only $5 an hour.
This story is common for domestic workers in the United States. About 90 percent are women, and the majority are women of color or immigrants. Traditional unions have historically excluded these groups, as have laws that protect collective bargaining rights, so these women found another way. Over the last decade, domestic workers have been building a powerful, inclusive movement—the domestic workers’ movement—through organizing outside of traditional unions. These nannies and caregivers have appealed directly to the public and policymakers and have successfully lobbied for local, state, and federal legislation to improve their working conditions.
This movement found Baldonado after she’d done five years of domestic work. She started advocating with the Latino Union of Chicago, a nonprofit, nonunion advocacy organization (also known as a “worker center”). Worker centers are often founded and led by women of color who are low-wage workers or children of low-wage workers. Unlike unions, worker centers are often funded through private philanthropic foundations, food or business cooperatives connected to the centers, and membership benefits like dental insurance for which worker-members can pay. Worker centers do not seek collective bargaining agreements with employers. Instead, they engage in a range of activities to empower workers, including know-your-rights trainings.
Worker centers and their members have produced significant policy change: Six states have passed legislation to include domestic workers within basic labor protections. New York led the way in 2010; Hawai‘i and California followed in 2013; Massachusetts in 2014; and Oregon and Connecticut enacted legislation in 2015. In 2013, this movement of domestic workers succeeded in changing federal rules to make overtime pay available to home care workers who had previously been exempt from federal overtime regulations. This change was particularly dramatic, given that these workers had been deliberately excluded from federal labor laws since they were enacted in the 1930s.
In 2014, the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, a multiracial organizing project of the Latino Union to train Asian, African-American, and Latino home-care workers about their workplace rights, helped convince the city of Chicago to include approximately 20,000 domestic workers in the city’s minimum wage ordinance. The ordinance will take effect in 2019 and is poised to increase domestic workers’ earnings in the city by 40 percent.
Baldonado launched this coalition specifically for domestic workers, who have been ignored by traditional labor unions, even though their membership and resources have been declining. Now, these workers are the ones demonstrating the future of labor organizing.
The domestic workers’ movement is intentionally investing in the empowerment of women of color, a departure from the historical U.S. labor movement.
Major New Deal legislation, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set a minimum wage, and the National Labor Relations Act, which protected collective bargaining activity, excluded domestic workers—a legacy of slavery. Southern legislators agreed to support these 1930s laws only if they excluded domestic workers, most of whom, in the South, were Black.
Today, though women of color make up a significant portion of union membership overall, few have ascended to leadership positions. In its 2015 report “Still I Rise,” the Institute for Policy Studies notes, “[I]n 2014 Black women accounted for 12.2 percent of union membership compared to 10.1 percent for White women, 8.9 percent for Latinas, and 11.8 percent for Asian women. However, in no union are the leadership demographics for Black women representative of the union’s membership demographics.”
This devaluation of women of color in the labor movement stands in stark contrast to the domestic workers’ movement. Worker centers focus significantly on race, gender, class, and the intersections of the three at a level that labor unions have not. “Unlike unions, worker centers are explicit about race and the need to focus on gender dynamics,” says Janice Fine, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.
“I think that was a huge contribution of worker centers. Because so much of domestic work is shrouded in social reproduction dynamics and private family dynamics, domestic workers have largely been invisible to unions.”
Alicia Garza encapsulates that intersectionality: She co-founded Black Lives Matter and directs special projects for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), the umbrella group for 53 worker center affiliates including Baldonado’s Latino Union of Chicago.
“Our organizing model looks at the conditions that women of color, immigrant women, Black women, poor women, are facing in the economy,” says Garza. “So domestic workers are often organizing around the other interrelated issues that affect their lives, like trafficking, sexual violence, domestic violence, immigration, incarceration—all things that our communities are profoundly impacted by.”
This is key to why domestic workers are seeing success, says Garza.
NDWA’s initiative “We Dream in Black” aims to “strengthen and amplify [Black women’s] historical and current contributions to the broader domestic workers’ movement.” “We Belong Together,” another initiative, opposes deportation and fights for a path to citizenship for domestic workers (46 percent of domestic workers are immigrants). Immigrant domestic workers like Baldonado often face concerns about deportation, detention, or family separation.
She emigrated to the United States so that she could earn enough money to care for her four adopted children. Back in the Philippines, Baldonado worked as a human-rights activist and nonprofit leader, but funding was running short, and her ancestral home was deteriorating. Fleeing seemed to be her only option.
“When you have a model that centers these lived experiences, it creates room for more people to come into the movement and be active,” Garza says.
Relationships with traditional unions do play a role in this cross-community, intersectional work, too. For example, Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a worker center in Oakland, California, recently became an affiliate of the Alameda Labor Council. That affiliation allows MUA to more closely collaborate with union locals in Alameda County and San Francisco to build support for worker centers, as well as for immigrant rights campaigns.
California unions supported MUA and other domestic worker centers when they advocated for the California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2012 and 2013, which granted overtime protections to domestic workers who work longer than nine hours a day or 45 hours per week. The legislation passed in 2013. “Though this bill was not a priority legislation for any unions or the labor federation, a number of them expressed solidarity by engaging in lobbying, submitting letters of support, and giving ‘Me Toos’ at committee hearings,” says Katie Joaquin, MUA campaign director.
The battle isn’t yet over: The movement must ensure employers actually follow these new laws, Garza says. Their success is even more critical today, given that the United States continues to be a hostile place for anyone—not just domestic workers—working in low-wage, under-the-radar, or historically unorganized sectors. Some waiters and waitresses continue to receive a federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 per hour. Workers in other unorganized or low-wage sectors, like nail salon workers, still experience wage theft, which includes overtaxing, deducting expenses, garnishing tips, or flat out denying pay. These workers are less likely to have access to health care or flexibility when they are sick or caring for loved ones.
The domestic workers’ movement is showing what is possible and how local, state, and federal policies can be strengthened for all workers through direct action. Domestic workers are thinking broadly, organizing across communities and issues, and empowering women of color to lead. As a result, they are weaving together a common, interconnected narrative. Even as traditional unions are losing membership and power, the domestic workers’ movement is helping to lay a new, stronger foundation for future worker organizing.
Organizing has been, she says, transformative for Baldonado. She learned multicultural skills and crossed many cultural boundaries. Because of the leadership trainings of the Latino Union and NDWA, she learned about trauma healing and transformative justice.
Now, Baldonado is in Los Angeles, where she has joined the staff of the Pilipino Workers Center, another NDWA affiliate, in developing know-your-rights trainings and outreach for L.A.-based Filipina domestic workers. Baldonado feels like she has finally come home. She speaks her native language, Tagalog, eats Filipino food, and regularly visits her L.A.-based mother, nephew, and nieces.
It is her work, however, that remains Baldonado’s passion and focus.
“We need this movement,” she says. “It is a woman-led, worker-led movement that can elevate women, immigrants, and all people of color.”