Ai-jen Poo organizes labor with love
She battles for those on the economy's bottom rung – nannies and housekeepers.
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After graduation, Poo took up organizing that highlighted the experience of women in the low-wage workforce. At the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, she participated in outreach efforts that targeted women workers who were among the most underpaid and vulnerable to exploitation in New York City.Skip to next paragraph
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Domestic employees emerged as a key group. Along with farmworkers, domestic employees were explicitly excluded from New Deal labor rights protections. They at once provide essential support for their employers’ families – “doing the work that makes all other work possible,” as Poo has put it – while also raising their own children and often sending money to family members abroad. “Our campaigns are about recognizing that everybody's lives are valuable, about saying that we should have a society and an economy where everyone's human dignity is recognized."
Traditionally, domestic workers have been considered impossible to organize.
“We call it ‘the Wild West,’” Poo says. Nannies and housekeepers have no centralized employer and no employee breakroom where they might commiserate with others. Workers must negotiate their employment relationships individually, with no clear standards or public oversight.
Absent any effective labor protections, domestic employees calling in sick or taking time to deal with a family emergency risk losing their jobs. Even though they are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, some caregivers are expected to be on-call around the clock. Those who are undocumented immigrants fear that speaking up could jeopardize their ability to stay in the country.
By the late 2000s, DWU was pushing for legislation in New York state that would recognize the rights of these caregivers for the first time. Poo traveled repeatedly to the state capitol alongside DWU members to lobby lawmakers. She says, “I remember asking Angelica Hernandez [a DWU leader] how many times she’s been to Albany. She said 27 times, to tell her story.”
Hernandez and others at times spoke of finding families who treated them with dignity, and of their affection for the children and elders they cared for. But they also described abuses, such as working 12 to 15 hours per day and being paid only $135 per week.
“In 2007, I began working for a family in Manhattan, cleaning their apartment; I would later also begin to take care of their child,” Hernandez said. “I had to clean, do laundry, iron, take clothes to the dry cleaner, go food shopping, and prepare food for the entire family. I used to work constantly, day and night, taking care of the child and then cleaning while he slept.”
Mona Ledesma, a Filipina immigrant who had worked for eight years as a nanny and housekeeper in the United States, testified about having to resign a full-time job to avoid the sexual advances of a male employer, and about being accused by another employer of stealing a $2 can of Niagara starch for ironing clothes. She told the State Assembly, “I am not a thief. I am not an object for sexual pleasure. I am a human being.”
No unlikely allies
Such testimonials, combined with six years of determined effort on the part of DWU and its allies, paid off in September 2010, when New York state passed the nation’s first Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The legislation gave groundbreaking legal recognition to domestic workers, guaranteeing at least three paid days off per year, at least one day off per week, and overtime pay for workweeks of more than 40 hours.
“It’s been transformative for me to participate in a movement where you actually see a historic breakthrough,” Poo says. “When we first got to Albany we were told, ‘Good luck with that. This legislature will never pass it.’ And we just thought, ‘Why on Earth would people be against such a basic measure that’s about equality and opportunity?’”
Feris, who works with employers of domestic workers, points to Poo’s focus on coalition-building as an important factor in the bill’s success. “One way in which Ai-jen’s leadership has been so critical is that she doesn’t see any group of people as unlikely allies,” she says.