How Young Feminists of Color are Transforming the Labor Movement

 

Illinois members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (photo courtesy of NDWA)

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“The personal is political” is a second-wave feminist phrase. It articulates the concept that the material realities of our lives form our political consciousnesses and our priorities. Today, young feminist women of color are fighting to transform the economic status of women—and they are succeeding. Their work has taken the concept that the personal is political to a deeper level. Driven by an intersectional feminist lens—meaning a lens that encompasses race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and age, all the realities that make up a person’s social position—young feminist women of color are building the future of the U.S. labor movement. They are imagining—and implementing—successful alternative organizing strategies for low-wage sectors that are transforming the labor movement as a whole.

A key example of this is found in the domestic workers’ movement, a movement of nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers working together to codify basic labor protections for their historically unregulated sector. The National Domestic Workers Alliance is comprised of approximately 53 workers center affiliates throughout the country, including the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, Mujeres Unidas y Activas in California, and the Brazilian Worker Center in Massachusetts.

Critically, many of these organizations were founded and are led by women of color. Many of these leaders have been domestic workers themselves or are the children of domestic workers. Priscilla Gonzalez led the New York–based Domestic Workers United for many years before becoming leader of police reform organization Communities United for Police Reform. Her activism contributed to local and state policy victories for domestic workers in New York.

Gonzalez’s personal story influences her activism. Her Ecuadorian mother worked as a nanny and housekeeper for a wealthy family on the Upper East Side of New York and experienced poor treatment by her employers. Despite working long hours, Gonzalez’s mother was not paid overtime. She was expected to pay out of pocket for the children’s snacks and toys, and she'd have to fight to be reimbursed for these expenses.

“Fighting for social justice felt like a natural path to take in my life in terms of what I wanted to spend my time doing. I wanted to make things right for [my mother] and countless women like her,” Gonzalez told me in 2013 as I wrote my 2014 book, Part of the Family?: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights. “Domestic work is the backbone of our society. Through the domestic workers' movement we were blazing a trail where there had been none.”

Activists like Gonzalez throughout the United States have worked to achieve key policy victories: Six states have enacted legislation to include domestic workers within basic labor protections such as overtime. New York led the way in 2010. Hawaii and California followed in 2013. Connecticut enacted legislation in 2015. Legislation has also passed in Illinois, and efforts are continuing in Oregon as well. 

Policy has transformed at the federal level, too. In 2013, as a result of advocacy by NDWA members, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued changes to longstanding federal restrictions on overtime pay for domestic workers.

The impact of this current feminist activism is even clearer given the historic exclusion of women of color in labor movements. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which codified the minimum wage, and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protected collective bargaining activity, were both enacted in the 1930s, and both excluded domestic workers. These exclusions are a legacy of slavery: Southern legislators refused to support these 1930s New Deal laws unless they did not include domestic workers, who in the South, were predominantly black.

Traditional labor union leadership is still not adequately representing women of color. A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies notes that “[I]n 2014 black women accounted for 12.2 percent of union membership compared to 10.1 percent for white women, 8.9 percent for Latinas, and 11.8 percent for Asian women. However, in no union are the leadership demographics for black women representative of the union’s membership demographics.”

 

Activists calling for domestic workers rights in Illinois (photo courtesy of NDWA)

In a climate of persistent exclusion, new strategies led by young women of color with an intersectional feminist lens are critical. Alicia Garza is the special projects director of NDWA. Garza is also a founder and leader of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Clearly, her focus as an activist is not myopic; it is manifold and layered and reflective of the many realities women of color face. Garza pointed out to me in an interview in February that domestic worker organizers do not just focus on improving labor protections -- rather, they ensure that their activism addresses many facets of workers’ actual lived experiences. This means that activists are often organizing around the other interrelated issues that affect their lives, like trafficking, sexual violence, domestic violence, immigration, and incarceration.

“Our organizing model looks at the conditions that women of color, immigrant women, black women, poor women, are facing in the economy. We look at how women experience democracy generally,” Garza says. “When you have a model that centers these lived experiences, it creates room for more people to come into the movement and be active.”

As an example of this transformative, intersectional labor organizing philosophy, NDWA has launched We Belong Together, an initiative that opposes deportation and fights for a path to citizenship for domestic workers. Approximately 46% of domestic workers are immigrants. NDWA has also launched an initiative called We Dream In Black, which seeks to “strengthen...and amplify [Black women’s] historical and current contributions to the broader domestic worker movement.”

Domestic work, and the way in which it still confines women to a traditional, economically disempowered position in our world, makes the activism of NDWA particularly critical for smashing patriarchal constructs. But in our economy that is increasingly rife with low wages, feminist activism is necessary across sectors, and the domestic workers’ movement is just one of many workers’ rights movement where feminist women of color are leading transformative change. Women of color are organizing day laborers, taxi drivers, retail workers, and restaurant workers. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), led by Saru Jayaraman, has helped achieve key policy victories, including paid sick leave for restaurant workers. Restaurant work is often plagued with wage theft and lack of predictability. As ROC United has noted, more than 5 million restaurant workers are women, 2 million are mothers, and 1 million are single mothers with children under the age of 18.

“I have always been a feminist,” Jayaraman told Bitch, “which to me simply means that I believe in equity for women and women of color as a matter of human right[s]. But the more we have worked on this issue of the sub–minimum wages earned by women in the nation's largest sector, the more I believe that, fundamentally, we are fighting for gender and racial justice—and thus human rights—and not only to end poverty or achieve economic justice.”

“Fundamentally,” Jayaraman says, “this understanding of intersectionality, I believe, is what must guide both gender and racial justice work and labor and economic justice work as well. Otherwise we will all fail.”

Indeed, women dominate most low-wage sectors. Accomplishing transformative change across sectors requires leadership of feminist women of color. Activists like Gonzalez, Garza, and Jayaraman are demonstrating the true meaning of “The personal is political.” Their visions, leadership, and intersectional focuses are, slowly, transforming the labor movement in the United States.

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by Sheila Bapat
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Sheila Bapat is an attorney and writer focusing on gender and economic justice. Her first book, Part of the Family: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers Rights was released by Ig Publishing in 2014.

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