Monday, July 26, 2010

"Excluded" workers band together

Last week I listened to women from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its local affiliate Mujeres Unidas y Activas report about their trip to the US Social Forum. That gathering drew some 15000 grassroots activists to Detroit in June to exchange experiences, share tactics and strategies, and envision a better future for people at the margins of U.S. life.

The women reporting back obviously had developed a great camaraderie, much reinforced on their long cross country bus trip; they repeatedly broke out in chants and collapsed in peels of laughter.

But what they wanted to tell the crowd at the Sunrise Cafe in San Francisco was what they had learned. And what they had learned employed a category that was new to me, though instantly recognizable once I'd heard it articulated.

"We learned about all the excluded workers: the taxi drivers, the day laborers, housekeepers and nannies, the farmworkers, guest workers brought into the country on contract to labor at hog farms and slaughter houses, the dishwashers in the back of the restaurant...."

What all these people have in common, beside low wages and frequently immigrant status, is that they usually work in the informal economy and are seldom covered by even the weak wage and hours standards that protect most employed people. The historical reason for their omission from the laws is pretty simple: this is work usually done by people of color. When labor laws were won during the the 1930s New Deal, excluding Blacks was a condition of white support.

Now the organized labor movement, pushed by the workers themselves, says it is time to fix the labor laws to include everyone. John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, recently spoke up for a domestic workers' bill of rights reminding people that his own mother had been a domestic worker for 40 years.

And in New York State, such a bill of rights passed the State Senate last month.

Two different versions have been passed by the two houses of the 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 worker 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.

Yes Magazine

California workers pushed a similar measure through the legislature in 2006 but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the protections. These women will be back.

What was overwhelming in the women's report was the broader view of solidarity they had taken on. Sometimes what it takes to make progress is adopting new language that illuminates what we've been looking at all our lives. Excluded workers, used to highlight this whole class of people on whose labor our society depends but whom the more fortunate seldom consider, provides a frame that might reorganize the labor movement "from the bottom up."

All workers need to band together, but none more than those who have been historically excluded.

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