Domestic workers win basic labor rights

NEW YORK-After a six-year struggle, domestic workers here won a huge victory over decades of a racist and sexist second class status when state lawmakers finally passed a law on July 1, ensuring that this state’s maids, nannies, butlers and other homecare workers are afforded the same rights and protections as the vast majority of other workers.

Governor David Paterson, calling the legislation “historic,” said that it would “enshrine in law the basic rights of a class of workers that has historically and wrongfully been excluded from such protections: the domestic workers who care for our children, clean our homes, and provide the elderly with companionship.”

According to Priscilla Gonzalez, director of Domestic Workers United, “The struggle isn’t over, but this is still a victory because domestic workers are recognized for the first time and we have a strong foundation to build upon and that will allow us to build more.”

Until now, domestic workers have been excluded from all labor standards established by the 1935 National Labor Relations Law, enacted in 1935. That law specifically excluded agricultural and domestic workers, the vast majority of whom were female African Americans. The racist southern Dixiecrat establishment fought to keep these workers in an unprotected subordinate status, in the words of Gonzalez, “so that these populations wouldn’t be able to exert any political power.”

Today the dynamic of racism, sexism and especial oppression is still relevant, though the demographics have changed: in New York, more than 95 percent of domestic workers are “women of color,” mainly immigrants from less industrially-developed countries.

With the passage of the new law, more than 200,000 workers won the rights to overtime pay, disability benefits, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. Additionally, the state’s labor law has been amended to ensure that the workers receive at least one day off per week and, after a year of employment, a small amount of paid leave.

The new rights mark the culmination of six years of struggle by DWU, which leads the fight, and allied labor unions, religious groups and community organizations.

However, the changes in the law, which will be enacted after Paterson signs the legislation, which was introduced by Assembly Member Keith Wright, and State Senator Diane Savino, are welcome, but, in the eyes of the workers and their advocates, do not go far enough.

DWU and its allies are fighting for a domestic workers bill of rights, which includes all of the rights won, but others, such as the right to paid sick time, vacation days and other benefits that could normally be negotiated through collective bargaining. However, DWU pointed out the impracticality of such an atomized workforce being able carry out any collective bargaining.

“We were fighting for sick days because a domestic worker on her own would never be able to negotiate that without putting her job on the line which is what happens all the time,” Gonzales said. “Somebody tries to get a day off to go get a mammogram and they’re fired. The alternative is working through illness, basically. [Collective bargaining] is not practical, because there’s no collective.”

As a compromise, the legislature agreed to ask the Department of Labor to do a study on the feasibility of collective bargaining. DWU plans to continue to push for the rest of the bill of rights.

State Democrats have been far more receptive to the needs of these workers than the Republicans. For example, in the state Senate, all of the Democrats, but only three members of the Republican caucus out of 30, voted for the bill. When several right-wing Democrats helped the Republicans stage a brief 2009 coup d’etat in the Senate, the bill was scuttled for months.

“Now with this bill setting precedent in the country,” Gonzalez said, “it boosts efforts in other states like California and Colorado, where people are fighting for similar legislation. And it also begins to open up the conversation around expansion of labor protection for other sectors of workers that have been excluded, like agriculture.”

Photo: National Domestic Workers Alliance