Ai-jen Poo organizes labor with love
She battles for those on the economy's bottom rung – nannies and housekeepers.
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“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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.
One might expect that those who hire domestic employees – the constituency targeted by Feris’ organization – would oppose the organizing efforts of these workers. But DWU and its allies saw that many families valued the fact that domestic employees are caring for the most precious people in their lives. In 2009 they held a Children and Families March, made up of employers and children cared for by domestic workers, walking alongside DWU members and their own kids – all in support of the bill of rights.
Strength in connection
Poo’s organizing continues to be about making connections. Whether as parents looking for quality daycare for our kids, people with disabilities, or immigrants seeking a path to citizenship, we all have a stake in the care crisis in the United States. Poo believes that we should all be part of a movement to address this crisis.
On July 12, more than 700 grass-roots leaders – along with officials such as Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis – gathered in Washington, D.C., to launch the Caring Across Generations campaign. Domestic workers’ groups, women’s organizations, disability rights campaigners, elder advocates, immigration reformers, unions, and faith-based groups announced a unified drive to confront issues raised by the “age wave” in America, where every eight seconds someone turns 65.