On September 26, 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights giving an estimated 250,000 domestic workers throughout the state—mostly immigrant women of color who clean and care for California’s homes and children—the right to receive overtime pay starting in 2014. After two vetoes, dozens of mobilizations to Sacramento, and countless press conferences and legislative visits, the diverse coalition of workers, employers, and interfaith, labor and community groups—who had developed their leadership through a multiyear campaign—as well as the children and families of workers that had endured, strengthened, and grown tremendously through a seven-year struggle, could finally claim victory.
The win may be considered inevitable, given the growing visibility of the importance of domestic work nationally and the simple yet poignant truth that every single one of us has needed, currently needs, or will need care at some point in our lives. Nevertheless, the victory is historic as it is owed in large part to the domestic workers’ tremendous leadership, vision, and perseverance. This end to an arduous seven-year fight to be granted basic labor protections, which included convincing elected officials, the labor movement, and even our own families just how precious and fundamental the work that makes all other work possible is, deserves to be celebrated. In fact, domestic workers and allies highlighted the importance of this victory by celebrating the one-year anniversary on September 26, 2014, proving they know how to party just as hard as they fight. “It’s so beautiful to have such a party after fighting for so long, after so much struggle,” said Luz Sampedro, domestic worker leader and member of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “To get to our first anniversary, to see our leaders and allies shine, to be able to hug each other and congratulate each other personally—it’s that human connection that makes us strong.”
Last year, the Coalition dedicated itself to building a base and deepening domestic worker leadership through organizing. This year, the Coalition’s steering committee made up of seven domestic worker member-based grassroots organizations—three from Los Angeles and four from the Bay Area and Sonoma—began planning the work of implementation and education. As Claudia Reyes, lead organizer at Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), explained: “This law that we worked so hard to pass means nothing if we do not understand it. It is our responsibility to learn its ins-and-outs and educate ourselves and our community so that we can be sure our struggle and victory is truly realized.”
The Coalition developed “Know Your Rights” materials in partnership with the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic, finalized an outreach strategy for the year, including coordinated statewide efforts, and launched the Dignity in the Home campaign aimed at organizing 10 percent of the state’s domestic worker sector by 2017 when the law sunsets (expires). The Coalition currently has its eye on future campaigns to make overtime pay permanent and push for even stronger protections for California’s domestic workers. To this end, it conducted several trainings in both Los Angeles and San Francisco for domestic worker leaders to get educated on the complex and often (intentionally) confusing legal code which includes different wage and hour protections depending on the type of domestic work performed (caring for property, e.g. cleaning and gardening, vs. caring for humans as a personal attendant) and whether the worker is a live-in (residing with the employer) or a live-out.
Organizing from a Legacy of Racism and Slavery
Central to every training is an analysis that roots domestic workers within the legacy of racism and slavery in the United States, which continues to cast its shadow through the current devaluation and invisibility of this gendered, racialized, and often status-based workforce. Last spring, a strong team of 30 domestic worker leaders completed a “Know Your Rights Training-for-Trainers” where they learned the intricacies of the legal protections and gained a nuanced understanding of the historical and political underpinnings that keep domestic workers divided and unorganized, with minimal protections. This was followed by another training in early summer on how to conduct outreach. Then on International Domestic Worker Day (June 16, 2014) the Coalition launched its first three-week organizing blitz in the Bay Area. Organizations, such as the Women’s Collective (San Francisco), Mujeres Unidas y Activas (San Francisco and Oakland), Filipino Advocates for Justice (Alameda County), and ALMAS-Graton Day Labor Center (Sonoma County), participated in intensive outreach to domestic workers on the job and at bus stops. The trained worker-leaders targeted childcare providers at playgrounds in the neighborhoods of their employers, educating them about the new law guaranteeing their right to overtime and spreading the word about organizing efforts to build a movement for Dignity in the Home.
“I was nervous at first,” said Martha Herrera, one of the worker-leaders, of her experience, “mainly worried that the women wouldn’t trust us enough to confide in us. But after getting out there and doing the outreach, it filled my heart and truly motivated me to see the looks on their faces after we let them know about the Bill and their rights!” The pilot program helped Bay Area groups learn key lessons about planning and strategy, which informed their second statewide organizing drive launched on the first anniversary of the signing of the Bill.
In the planning process during the first half of the year leading up to the pilot, it became clear that not all of the Steering Committee groups had been doing systematic outreach and follow-up with domestic workers consistently while fighting for statewide legislation. During the campaign for the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, Steering Committee groups developed member leadership by training spokespeople to interview with the media and potential allies, draft and share strong testimonies at press conferences and in legislative visits, and build relationships with unions, community groups, and interfaith congregations. While those skills were invaluable and essential to the victory, they were different from the skills needed to expand the base and reach 10 percent of the workers.
For collective bargaining, consistent outreach to domestic workers was necessary and had to be added to the organizational scope of work. Within the specific challenge of building systematic outreach into the work plans and assessing the skills needed to both conduct the outreach and bring in new workers in a post-campaign time, a host of other unique challenges presented themselves. At the most basic level, the Coalition had to map out the areas where the workers were most likely to be in order to do outreach because there is no shop floor where all domestic workers gather daily.
It got help from students at Stanford University who used GIS mapping systems and Census data to project likely hotspots—i.e. areas where high income households (marked red) overlapped with children under five years old (marked yellow). Within these hotspots (marked orange), the Coalition set out to identify the parks and libraries where the nannies and the children they cared for would gather. Over the summer, Bay Area groups prioritized these hotspots for outreach with varying degrees of success. But even before the maps were created, a few specific playgrounds proved to be goldmines in terms of outreach because dozens of nannies who knew each other would meet there frequently.
Ultimately, the Coalition realized that their members’ street knowledge and networking on the playgrounds was far more accurate and productive than the computer-generated maps. While seemingly minute, this was a key lesson for Steering Committee groups, which have limited resources and strive to invest the time of their domestic worker leaders, many of whom have tight schedules between work and families, wisely. “One of the main challenges for me, doing the outreach, was just being able to make time for it,” admitted Emily, a domestic worker and Coalition member. “I loved being able to support other women by telling them about their rights, and hear them thank me from their hearts. But in order to do the outreach, I really had to plan my schedule, preparing meals in advance for my son and me, rescheduling my housecleaning gigs, and just managing my own schedule.” Member leader and outreach coordinator Martha Herrera worked at her cleaning job from six to nine in the morning and came straight to the MUA office afterwards to meet other members and do outreach during the drive. “The truth is, I wasn’t tired when I got off work and came to MUA, even though I’d been up since 5am,” she admits. “I was actually excited when I would get off work a little early, to rush over and meet the others, so we could go out together and talk to workers.”
Another challenge the Coalition currently faces is how to engage new contacts during a time when there is no Bill of Rights or legislation to promote. While letting new contacts know about their new rights to overtime is an excellent start, the Coalition’s goal is to organize these contacts into the movement. Hooking in domestic workers hungry for change on the job was relatively straightforward when there was an active fight in which to plug new contacts. Now, without a mobilization to Sacramento to meet with legislators, or a march to draw attention to a needed legislation, the Coalition is assessing potential trainings and services it can offer to foster long-term engagement in the domestic worker movement.
Organizing 25,000 workers will be no small feat for the seven Steering Committee organizations, most of which are worker centers representing low-wage immigrant workers who typically cannot access formal labor unions. During this period of assessment and outreach, the Coalition is not only investing in organizing to scale in order to build real political power within a broad base for 2017, it is also considering the importance of developing and deepening worker leadership so that the work is sustainable. In addition, the Coalition sees a need to deepen existing member leadership to ensure long-term commitment and dedication to the movement. The goal is to develop domestic worker leadership that can expand the work as paid organizers with long term vision.
Unimaginable in the past, it is now made more possible by the recent recognition of the importance of domestic worker organizing from the MacArthur Foundation. With its ambitious goal of organizing 10 percent or 25,000 domestic workers across the state over the next couple of years, the California Domestic Workers Coalition has its work cut out for itself. Hard as that may be, this groundbreaking work will help to build power and position the domestic worker movement to launch another legislative campaign in 2016. The Coalition recognizes that the base-building work in California is just a part of a growing national strategy of organizing to scale and is anchored by the National Domestic Worker Alliance. As domestic workers continue outreaching, meeting, and connecting more workers and allies to this infectious, humanizing, and growing movement, they are truly transforming our relationships to one another and our political landscape. “Fighting against the grain for the improbable can be so isolating,” mused Sampedro following the first year anniversary celebration. “But remembering that we are each the voice of countless invisible workers while hugging and congratulating each other on our collective anniversary—that is when you really get to see how the small work that each one of us does makes a huge change.”
Dalia Rubiano Yedidia organized with domestic workers at the Latino Union of Chicago. She is currently a bilingual case manager at Catholic Charities and Bill of Rights NoCal field organizer for MUA.