Ai-jen Poo organizes labor with love
She battles for those on the economy's bottom rung – nannies and housekeepers.
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Poo first experienced the power of organizing as a student activist. In the spring of 1996, while majoring in women’s studies at Columbia University, she was one of more than 100 students who occupied the rotunda of the university’s Low Library. They demanded that the university hire more faculty members in the field of ethnic studies and broaden its curriculum to acknowledge the diversity of the student body.Skip to next paragraph
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The students stayed overnight in the library despite threats from the administration, and the next morning 22 of them were arrested. Subsequently, the activists staged a five-day takeover of one of the college’s main administrative buildings, highlighting their demands by teaching their own courses in the occupied space.
The pressure led to gains including the creation of the university’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Poo says, “Working with a really diverse group of students around our shared goals gave me a sense of how powerful campaigns can be if they’re strategic – how it is possible to really make change.”
Doing work that makes all other work possible
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.
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.