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We Organize Domestic Workers. Here’s Why We Decided We Need a Union, Too.

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We are in a moment of great uncer­tain­ty. The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic and sub­se­quent unem­ploy­ment crises are mak­ing all work­ers take a sec­ond look at their employ­ment sit­u­a­tion. As mil­lions of work­ers lose their jobs, oth­ers are fight­ing for pro­tec­tion, safe­ty and rights at work?—?and some are even union­iz­ing. That includes us, the staff at the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA). We are orga­niz­ers, com­mu­ni­ca­tions spe­cial­ists, accoun­tants, fundrais­ers, lawyers, press strate­gists and more.

In March, long­time whis­pers about orga­niz­ing turned into sus­tained con­ver­sa­tions about how to form a union. As an orga­ni­za­tion that’s pri­mar­i­ly fund­ed by foun­da­tions, we didn’t know what would hap­pen if that fund­ing dried up in a reces­sion; we didn’t know if there would be lay­offs, and if there were, if there would be sev­er­ance pack­ages. NDWA pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive ben­e­fits pack­age?—?yet we rec­og­nize that if times get tough, or if foun­da­tion fund­ing ends, these ben­e­fits could cease to exist. We’ve seen the dev­as­ta­tion the pan­dem­ic is inflict­ing and how ben­e­fits like employ­er-pro­vid­ed health insur­ance can be lost overnight. With­out a union and the abil­i­ty to nego­ti­ate a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, work­ers are that much more vul­ner­a­ble?—?and eco­nom­ic upheaval puts them in a place of even greater pre­car­i­ous­ness. These are the sce­nar­ios that were play­ing out en masse as the pan­dem­ic spread, and they were the spark that set in motion the first orga­niz­ing dri­ve in the his­to­ry of our orga­ni­za­tion.

For many of us, our work­loads sky­rock­et­ed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. The scale of our work ramped up as the domes­tic work­ers we orga­nized were faced with mass job loss, unsafe con­di­tions at work, inad­e­quate pay to account for their risk, and the threat of catch­ing the dead­ly virus. We orga­nize and move­ment build in a sys­tem that already deval­ues work­ers and neces­si­tates work­er exploita­tion. Covid-19 cre­at­ed a height­ened need for our folks to orga­nize and be orga­nized, fight for our fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, and demand more. This meant the orga­niz­ing nev­er stopped. We were work­ing inces­sant­ly to con­nect with and sup­port domes­tic work­ers, who were dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ed by Covid-19 and its eco­nom­ic reper­cus­sions. Many of us were also deal­ing with our own Covid-19 relat­ed prob­lems and try­ing to bal­ance work, child­care and the care of our fam­i­lies.

As we moved our work to the dig­i­tal sphere, we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly became more con­nect­ed to oth­er staff in our orga­ni­za­tion. Work areas that were pre­vi­ous­ly sep­a­rat­ed due to focus or geog­ra­phy became more inte­grat­ed, and new con­nec­tions were forged. Our con­ver­sa­tions about want­i­ng to mod­el our organization’s vision of ?“dig­ni­ty, uni­ty, and pow­er” for its own staff grew loud­er and more seri­ous. What were once off­hand remarks about the dual­i­ty of our labor orga­ni­za­tion not hav­ing its own union or inter­nal work­er bar­gain­ing unit turned into action and com­mit­ment. Our con­ver­sa­tions spoke to how much we appre­ci­at­ed our orga­ni­za­tion, and yet how we rec­og­nized that NDWA wasn’t above per­pet­u­at­ing com­mon pit­falls that all work­ers can expe­ri­ence in their work­place.

Dur­ing our orga­niz­ing process we learned of chal­lenges like salary dis­par­i­ties?—?due to what we believe are arbi­trary and unclear process­es for deter­min­ing and rene­go­ti­at­ing our pay. We engage our domes­tic work­er mem­bers often in skills build­ing to nego­ti­ate their salaries and know that indi­vid­ual advo­ca­cy absent of large-scale stan­dards set­ting can only go so far. With­out clear guide­lines and met­rics for salaries, favoritism and per­son­al rela­tion­ships can all affect pay. This also means that peo­ple who don’t have the nec­es­sary tools to advo­cate for them­selves can lose out on rais­es and pro­mo­tions. Because these tools are social­ly and cul­tur­al­ly imbued, this has a greater detri­men­tal impact on Black women and women of col­or, who make up the major­i­ty of our staff. As an orga­ni­za­tion that’s tasked with orga­niz­ing and ele­vat­ing the voic­es of a work­force that’s dom­i­nat­ed by women of col­or, we need to put our mon­ey where our mouth is.

Bar­gain­ing direct­ly with our employ­er as a group will help us bet­ter under­stand our organization’s finan­cial sit­u­a­tion and allow us to raise the salary floor so pay is trans­par­ent and fair. Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments have been proven to help even the play­ing field for women work­ers and work­ers of col­or. Through our dis­cus­sions and con­ver­sa­tions, it became obvi­ous that we need­ed to unite togeth­er to form a union and exer­cise our col­lec­tive strength?—?which is why, after four months of orga­niz­ing, we approached our boss­es with near­ly 100% sup­port, demand­ing union recog­ni­tion.

We love where we work and what we do, and our union affords us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect, learn about each other’s work, and use our col­lec­tive voice for improve­ments at NDWA. Many of us worked remote­ly before the pan­dem­ic, and now it’s obvi­ous­ly unclear when or if some of us will go back to offices. We work on so many dif­fer­ent projects at NDWA?—?orga­niz­ing domes­tic work­ers to fight for respect and recog­ni­tion, win­ning poli­cies (includ­ing Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights in two cities and 9 states), ele­vat­ing domes­tic work­ers’ voic­es, cre­at­ing tech­nol­o­gy to sup­port domes­tic work­ers, and more?—?that it’s some­times hard to keep up. Because of this lack of cohe­sion, we suf­fer from high turnover. Even in the best work­places, with­out a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment, work­ers may feel afraid to speak up about things they want to change. We think our silence and inabil­i­ty to make real changes only hurts NDWA?—?and that’s why we orga­nized. Our union will help us cen­tral­ize our cam­paigns, improve com­mu­ni­ca­tion and retain work­ers. Our union will make NDWA stronger! A union will make your work­place stronger, too.

We want to have a voice at NDWA, and we want oth­er work­ers to have one too?—?whether they work at a non-prof­it, a union, or some­place else entire­ly. And in a soci­ety where work­ers are con­stant­ly under attack?—?espe­cial­ly women work­ers and Black work­ers and work­ers of col­or?—?we are proud to be part of a resur­gence of the labor move­ment. We fight hard for our mem­bers to have dig­ni­ty and respect, and we encour­age them to come togeth­er with oth­er work­ers to win the rights and recog­ni­tion that they deserve. We are fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of domes­tic work­er lead­ers like Dorothy Bold­en?—?and we encour­age you to do the same!

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes on August 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The NDWA Staff Union Organizing Committee


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