Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Nov/Dec 2010, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
I WANT TO START BY SAYING THANK YOU to GIFT for all the tremendous work you have done to bring us together and to support us in becoming more sustainable as a movement.
I work for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. We organize nannies, housekeepers, and companions for the elderly— women doing the work in the home that makes all other work possible—for respect, recognition and basic labor standards.
There are 2.5 million women, mostly immigrant women of color, working in other peoples’ homes every day across the country. It’s an enormous workforce, and it has been excluded from the most basic labor laws since slavery. When I started organizing domestic workers in 1998, there were only four organizations nationally; today there are at least 33 domestic workers organizations in 17 cities. This year, we’re celebrating a major victory in the state of New York where, for the first time, domestic workers have won recognition and basic rights.
When we started the campaign to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York, the Assembly staff said we were fringe radicals who would never get anywhere. I’m happy to say we proved them wrong! It took six years, but we passed a law that provides unprecedented protection for more than 200,000 working-class women of color. I’d like to share some of the lessons of those six years, because we think there’s wisdom there for both organizing and fundraising.
When we started our statewide campaign in 2003, we brought together domestic workers from across the city for a convention at SEIU Local 32BJ, the union that represents doormen in luxury apartment buildings. The doorman see what goes on in the buildings where they work—they know which apartments have domestic workers, which employers are abusive (because they are usually rude to the doormen too), and which domestic workers work the longest hours. Doormen often also provide the shoulder that domestic workers cry on when they are mistreated. We also found that many doormen have domestic workers in their families. After we decided to hold our convention at their union hall, we asked the doormen to help us reach the domestic workers in their buildings. Several of them said to me, “It’s about time you all started organizing. These women really need a union!”
Not only did the doormen help us turn out more than 200 women to the convention in 2003, they cheered us on for six years. They joined us in Albany and talked about the abuses they witness where they work. They paid for buses for others to attend hearings and actions. Their secretary-treasurer, Hector Figueroa, was one of our most outspoken union leader supporters. Last year alone, the doormen’s union contributed more than $12,000 to the campaign, and their staff and members as individuals contributed more than $1,000.
Lesson #2: Break out of narrow notions of self-interest— there is no such thing as an unlikely ally.
Another group that we reached out to early on were employers. We knew that in order to win, we had to show that it was also in the interest of employers to have standards. We thought it would be a challenge to bring employers into the campaign and that most employers would not join. But our friends at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice helped us reach those who would. Over the course of the six years, they built an Employers for Justice network of 150 families who organized in synagogues throughout New York City, journeyed to Albany, testified at hearings, and helped organize key actions to push the bill through. We even brought the children of domestic workers together with the children they care for in a children’s march for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. They carried signs that read both “Respect my mommy” and “Respect my nanny.”<