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Domestic Workers’ Dream Unfulfilled

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Ai-Jen Poo. Credit: Dale Robbins.

In 1963, Representative John Lewis, then the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), spoke to the several hundred thousand Americans who had gathered before the Lincoln Memorial and who would soon hear Dr. King give his electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech. The youngest speaker that day, John Lewis challenged the proposed civil rights legislation, asking: “What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?”

Fifty years after the March on Washington, we are still lacking legal protections to ensure the basic respect and dignity of that maid, and her millions of sisters working in homes across America. Unbelievably, there are still women working for $35 per day for a 12-hour day, caring for the most precious elements of our lives – our families and homes. Women working full-time, doing the work that holds our families and homes together, that makes all other work possible, still live in poverty.

Among the ten demands of the 1963 March on Washington was the demand for “a broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.” Alongside farm work, domestic work had been explicitly excluded from the labor reforms of the 1930s, because Southern lawmakers had refused to support the legislation unless these two groups of workers, who were almost exclusively African American, were excluded.

In the 1970’s that particular demand was met when domestic workers were included in the Fair Labor Standards Act and won the right to earn the minimum wage. To this day, however, they remain excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right to collectively bargain, and from the Occupational Health and Safety Act, despite the grueling physical aspects of the work. Because homes generally employ one or few workers, they are not defined as “workplaces” and therefore are not covered by the parts of the Civil Rights Act that protect employees from harassment and discrimination. And live-in home care workers do not have even the minimal protections granted to other domestic workers.

In the summer of 2007, in a meeting room in Atlanta, Georgia, approximately 50 domestic workers and organizers from around the country gathered to share their hopes and dreams, and a desire to make good on John Lewis’s call to action. They formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which today works with domestic workers in more than 25 cities to improve the quality of their jobs and gain recognition for the true value of caregiving work. Domestic workers have successfully won legislation in two states and they are part of an effort to change Department of Labor regulations to bring 1.8 million caregivers and home care workers under minimum wage and overtime protections.

Like so many of our nation’s constituencies that have faced exclusion, there are both on the front lines of an unforgiving economy and of the change that we need to strengthen opportunity and democracy for every American. These efforts are helping to transform low-wage work in the United States, particularly women’s work, and they are just the beginning of what is necessary to address poverty and inequality. As we continue to commemorate 50 years of Civil Rights organizing, let’s remember the dreams of the many people who are transforming the experience of exclusion today, and let it inspire us to dream much bigger for the next generation.

Ai-Jen Poo is the director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, an alliance of domestic workers located in 11 states and 19 cities, which advocates for protection, recognition and respect for the 2.5 million domestic workers in the U.S. She is also the co-director of Caring Across Generations, a coalition of 200 advocacy groups that seeks to provide quality care and dignity for aging Americans, as well as their care-givers. She appeared on Moyers & Company in March 2012.

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