Labor Movement Changing the Way it Works

With the slow decline of traditional national unions that have been leaders in the labor movement for decades, a new breed of organization has taken up the vanguard. A group called Domestic Workers United (DWU), originally formed in Brooklyn in 2000, is organizing workers typically disenfranchised from unions like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Rather than shrinking, they are growing at a noteworthy rate.

Helen Panagiotopoulos started working with DWU in 2010. She has almost 20 years of experience as a nanny, and much of her family in Greece worked in the domestic care industry. In the past two years, she says the number of members almost doubled from around 4,000 to over 7,000.

In contrast, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 11.8 percent of the workforce was a member of a union in 2011, as compared to 11.9 percent in 2010, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics said was a figure that remained “essentially unchanged.” In comparison to 1983, the first year the Bureau of labor statistics started compiling similar data, when approximately 20.1 percent of the workforce was union, making the drop slow but significant.

DWU isn’t technically a union. It doesn’t operate under the National Labor Relations Act, and it doesn’t represent the members in collective negotiations. It is more of a support organization that costs workers only five dollars a month to be a member.

“It’s an organization that advocates for rights, and it’s an activist organization, but we’re also trying to give our members what they need to compete in this industry,” said Panagiotopoulos, Communications Coordinator of DWU.

Rather than just collectively represent the workers that are members of DWU, Panagiotopoulos says that the organization has several purposes. It offers a safe place to air grievances about working conditions and employers, a place to seek the comfort and advice of a community, and classes to augment the skill sets of its members through training and workshops.

One of the major victories won by DWU and several other organizations was the passing of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (DWBR) by the New York Legislature in 2010, a contributing factor to the growth boom of domestic workers organizations.

“It established very, very basic benefits for these workers who make all of their [employers’] work possible,” said Rachel McCullough, a communityorganizer for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), as well as a volunteer for DWU. “Domestic workers, along with farm workers, have been systematically excluded from labor law going back to The New Deal in the 1930s. So what this bill, the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, represented a rejection, a reversal of that very perverse legacy of racist and sexist exclusion.”

JFREJ is a community group whose goal, according to their website, is “to address the increase in racial and ethnic tension and economic disparity within our city.” One of the ways they do so is by organizing employers of domestic workers to establish best practices and so that they understand the implications of the DWBR. They have worked closely with DWU for about 10 years and the DWBR is one of the results of that collaboration. This model, employers and workers cooperating to better the work environment, stands in stark contrast to the more confrontational approach to labor relations often adopted by traditional labor organizations.

The DWBR ensures that workers receive the minimum wage, overtime pay, at least three days of paid vacation per year, and it requires the employers to create written terms of employment. Because of the bill, a group that faced uncertain and unregulated working conditions was given a legal tool to leverage change.

“What the bill of rights did for us is provide a floor for an industry that previously had no floor,” said Panagiotopoulos. “So now what we’re trying to do is raise standards even higher.”

To do just that DWU offers a monthly legal clinic to help employees who have not been paid or have been unduly fired. So far they helped recover over $700,000 dollars of unpaid wages.

DWU started as a group of Filipina and South Asian nannies advocating for individual members of the group who were underpaid or abused by their employers. From their roots in Brooklyn, DWU joined with a national network of organizations also concerned with the rights of nannies, cleaners, and elder-care workers.

In 2007 this collection of organizations created the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which boasts a membership of over 10,000 workers. Though founded only five years ago,  the NWDA has affiliate groups in 19 cities across 11 states, and last year in California they helped promote the passage of the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. However, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed that bill earlier this month.

One of the major difficulties in expanding the ranks of the organization is that most of the workers are the only employee in their work environment and are isolated from other workers. To circumvent this problem, DWU hosts play-dates where nannies can bring the children they care for, and distributes pamphlets and literature about their organization at playgrounds and other places where nannies take children.

Even with 7,000 members of the local chapter, DWU is not finished growing.

“That’s a huge membership, but when you think that there’s 200,000 domestic workers in New York City, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Panagiotopoulos.