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Organizing Domestic Workers

Domestic workers are people who are employed (and sometimes live) in private homes and work primarily as cleaners, nannies, and eldercare workers. Dan Nickerson’s proposed initiative for ending classism1 has raised questions about people such as domestic workers who are not employed in large workplaces. People want to know how we fit into the image that he describes of the inherent power and connection of the working class.

Domestic workers are mostly women, many are of the global majority, and many in the United States are immigrants. The situation for women in the working class is often invisible. I hope my story can shed some light on this sector of the working class, give some information, and encourage allies.

I was born and raised in the United States. I am a raised white Romani--Ashkenazi Jewish2 female. I began my life as a domestic worker at nine years old, working in people’s homes, cleaning and taking care of people younger than myself. Sometimes I worked for money, because my family was really poor. Other times I worked to earn a place to live. Because laws in the United States protect against child labor, the domestic sector was an obvious choice because it is extremely unregulated and the pay is usually “off the books” (paid in cash with no information reported to the government).

I have continued to work as a domestic worker throughout most of my life (I am thirty-six years old). For many years I felt extremely ashamed about it. Domestic labor—including the skill and detail it takes to perform the job well—is often not valued or recognized. I had internalized the message “If I were really smart, I would be doing something more significant with my life.” Messages like that had come at me from all parts of my life, including in RC by well-meaning and (still) dear Co-Counselors of mine. We are all doing our best to think despite what we have been mistakenly taught. None of us are immune to class hurts.

Despite feeling bad about being a domestic worker, I could tell3 that I longed to feel something good about it. The first time I ever felt the power and connection of the working class was at an RC working-class workshop. It was hopeful. Growing up poor, with no connection to unions or the labor movement, I’d had no idea that people could take pride in working-class work. Dan4 was a huge inspiration to me regarding this. His leadership of the working class has changed the course of my life.

I honestly thought that working-class liberation in RC was going to be about how to get a successful middle-class job. Being told that my paid work in the domestic sphere was good, necessary, valuable, and important for the functioning of humanity was life changing for me. But still I couldn’t wrap my mind around how the contradiction5 of being valued for my contributions to society could translate to my personal life. Domestic work seemed to be the opposite of what wide world working-class liberation movements were about (my mind would instantly think of men and hammers or people in factories). I worked alone and was paid directly by my boss and so therefore could not collectively bargain. I cooked, changed diapers, and played in the dirt. None of that felt significant enough to include in a movement or to build a movement around.

I began RC when I was sixteen. As a young person and a young adult, I often asked people in RC about what I “should” do for work. I was told, “Do what you love,” which largely left me feeling very alone. The sentiment was right on,6 but I couldn’t figure out how to use it as a client. When I thought about continuing to do domestic labor, I felt I had to agree to being treated badly—that mistreatment was inherent in the industry and I just had to accept that. I would have Co-Counseling sessions on considering staying in the working class, and my mind would be pulled to thinking about my life wasting away in some “dead-end” job (a job that supposedly had no significant impact on the world) and being completely unhappy and devoid of zest. I was clearly looking for a lifetime’s worth of sessions about being targeted with classism as a female.

I decided to take the RC working-class commitment7 and see if that could shift things. I can’t recommend this enough. For six months I took the commitment during four hour-long sessions a week. I discharged hard about how I felt like people (myself included) who were engaged in the direct production of goods and services were “losers” (were of no use to humanity). I cried and cried, raged, and cried some more. I also got to notice how much my heart sang when I claimed pride and strength in being in the working class, how I smiled when I thought of how much we’ve accomplished as working-class people all over the world.

I had many re-evaluations while taking this commitment. The most important one was that I was finally able to notice that I have always loved domestic labor. It’s work that is essential to the functioning of society. I was finally able to distinguish between loving the work and hating the oppression. That distinction was key. I could then put my mind on how to maximize the conditions that made domestic work favorable as well as decide to take on8 the oppression aimed at me as a domestic worker and as a working-class female. Then the fun really began.

STANDING UP FOR MYSELF

The hardest thing about my sector is the isolation. I had struggled for years with feeling like my industry couldn’t be part of the big working-class liberation movements. Conversations about organizing seemed to always be about “real” working-class work—male-dominated labor, like carpentry and welding. I was in an “unskilled” profession full of women who supposedly couldn’t get better jobs. And because of how we were paid individually by private employers, there was no direct road to collective bargaining and unionization. As a sector, we had been left alone and were invisible. In the United States, domestic workers, along with farm workers, are specifically excluded from federal labor laws and do not have access to many basic protections other workers enjoy. These federal exclusions were put in place by white owning-class men who did not want their homes and fields regulated.

I decided that I would not let the oppression squeeze me out of an industry that I loved. If I stayed, I had to fight for a bigger mind, to take up more space as a domestic worker and a female, and to change the industry for the better.

My first step was to figure out how to stand up for myself at work and fight for a living wage. Thinking about that made me laugh out loud—a lot! Whenever I’d tried to negotiate in the past—well, there had been no negotiating in the past! I had lacked courage. I had felt too bad. My bosses, though good people, had had their own struggles and had wanted me to spend time with their children or clean their house simply out of love. This was based largely on their hurts from having been raised upper-middle or owning class, but it would confuse me every time it ran9 in my direction.

I wanted my employers to validate my worth and pay me a living wage without my having to fight for it. I had to give that up. I had to face that I was smarter than my employers about what my working conditions should be and what wage I should earn. I got to be angry in sessions, but outside of sessions I had to decide to be counselor. I had to commit to my mind at the risk of feeling uncomfortable. I had to commit to not backing down (giving up) even while being told things like, “If you really loved our children, you wouldn’t ask for so much,” and “You’re part of the family; why do we have to write anything down?”

I am proud to say that after twenty years of domestic work, I finally negotiated a written contract. Thank you to myself, Dan, and RC! This was a huge deal, as many disputes and instances of mistreatment can be easily resolved or avoided with a simple one-page contract. My life has gotten remarkably better in the six years since then. I can hold my employers accountable for many “simple” workplace things, like when I’m going to be paid and at what hourly rate, how much I’ll be compensated if my boss is late, and so on. After a while I was able to negotiate for paid vacation and sick time as well as overtime pay and a contribution to my health insurance. I wanted to be an example to other domestic workers. I wanted to have faced and discharged on the places where we tend to go quiet so that I could offer some attention and resource. I wanted my mind back where I had agreed to be small.

BUILDING A TEAM OF COWORKERS

My next step was to build a team of coworkers—nanny friends! I had lots of sessions in which I discharged on early hopelessness via the working-class commitment. I was then able to think about finding and meeting other nannies (whom I had never really been able to see before). I made myself go out to libraries and parks where I introduced myself to other nannies. I got their phone numbers and set up times to get together along with our charges (the young people we worked with). Eventually, with lots of sweating and laughing, I organized a night out for nannies in which a few of us met after work and had dinner at an affordable restaurant. I ran the meal like a support group and made sure that everyone got a chance to speak, without being interrupted, about what was good and what was hard about being a nanny. People loved it and wanted more.

So for over three years I organized and led a weekly nanny dinner group. It became a regular place where nannies knew they could go and be heard about hard things at work (negotiating contracts and pay raises, standing up and advocating for themselves, standing up for the young people they worked with). By getting together regularly we were building a community, a base that cut through the isolation of our work. Women who had never figured out how to have coworkers were getting together regularly with other nannies.

The dinners did not always have the same people, but everyone was invited every week and the invite list kept getting bigger. For some women, it took over a year of receiving weekly invites before they got the courage they needed to seek us out.

Eventually I began to rotate organizing and leading the dinners between myself and women who were ready for the next stage in leadership. I had to give big sessions to most of the nanny dinner leaders about being visibly in charge. Most of us nannies and other female domestic workers have huge battles with feeling small. We are master multi-taskers, potty training while at the same time making dinner and folding the laundry, but we have huge confusions about our significance. Assuming a title, even a “small” one like Nanny Dinner Leader, brought up huge feelings for people. I gave the sessions, got people laughing and sweating, until they accepted the job and title.

After three years, I had built a solid base of about a hundred and fifty nannies in my city who knew one another and saw one another regularly. This community base was enough of a contradiction for me to start thinking about how to push myself and my industry toward more visibility and better overall working conditions.

NANNY-LED TRAININGS

Education and implementing labor protections were next on my list. In the United States, nanny trainings are rare and almost always led by non-domestic-worker white people. They are rarely about organizing across racial lines as workers and females and almost always about how to better please our employers. I built relationships with the necessary people, and the next time a nanny-training opportunity came, I advocated for myself and a racially diverse group of nannies to be the organizers and presenters. A nanny-led training was another step in pushing forward my own re-emergence as well as my industry as a whole. Over a hundred nannies attended.

We have since organized and led trainings on many topics, with simultaneous translation into three languages. I recently led an introduction to RC at a training, and over fifty women attended. (So embarrassing to tell you all!)

STATEWIDE ORGANIZATION

Because nannies and other domestic workers are excluded from U.S. federal labor laws, it is up to each state10 to decide how to regulate us. The state I live in lacked some basic workplace protections for us, and I wanted to change that. It was a great challenge to my feelings of smallness and insignificance. I created a statewide organization for nannies so that we could actively organize for legislation. I would have never done this in such a visible way had it not been for a nanny friend of mine who was white and raised owning class and didn’t struggle with taking up space. Her human and patterned confidence around titles and organizations was particularly helpful in contradicting my internalized working-class feelings of smallness.

I then helped create a statewide coalition of domestic workers that included my organization as well as other domestic-worker groups. We became members of a national domestic workers’ alliance, which in turn is part of a network of international domestic workers’ groups. Domestic workers are organizing globally, likely in your country. It’s a really exciting time.

ACCOMPLISHMENT AND INVISIBILITY

Organizing within my sector has not been without major challenges. In the United States, it is largely a Gentile industry and I am a Jew. Being up in front and organizing has gotten tricky at times, and I have been heavily attacked. With discharge and the tools of RC, I have been able to keep thinking and adapting, taking on11 new roles that make better sense for my re-emergence and the re-emergence of my Gentile sisters. About a year and a half ago, I shifted into a much less visible role. I now spend my time supporting Gentile leaders to be front and center, though I still do lots of organizing in the background. I’m not sure if this is ultimately the best course of action, but it’s the best I can figure out for now. I will continue to discharge about it.

Recently my state was the fourth state in the United States to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights! It is the most progressive one so far. It’s a pretty12 big accomplishment! It has protections such as maternity leave (unpaid but still a huge deal). I still can’t get my mind around the role I had in making it happen. I feel like I am “just a nanny.” It’s tricky to be a worker-organizer when the organizers who organize for paid work are the people who visibly get the credit when successes happen. I need to do more sessions to continue to notice my significance in the face of the constant messages of invisibility.

Overall, I am able to share more of my humanity with the planet because I have engaged in this struggle for liberation. It’s been a great and exhilarating challenge to make my own decisions instead of leaving it up to the oppression13 to decide for me. It’s been great to stand firm as a proud female and feminist and understand that there is no inherent contradiction between those things and fighting for my significance as a domestic worker. And it’s been fabulous having lifelong relationships with young people whom I have helped to raise.

TAKING OUR RIGHTFUL ROLE

A few parting words: At best nannies and nanny/house cleaners are part of a parenting team and are like a third parent. This is the situation I have right now, after twenty years of discharge and over twenty-seven years of domestic work. But in the past I was more often the only person raising the young people I worked with, and this is the current situation for many of my domestic-worker sisters. We generally do all of the parenting and do it invisibly. This causes deep hurts to the middle- and owning-class young people we love and care for, as society does not recognize our real role in their lives. We are not simply workers for these young people. Many times we are the only reason they decide to stay alive. Fighting for ourselves as domestic workers and gaining allies help us take our rightful role in society as visible co-parents to these young people.

Anonymous
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders of women


1 See “A New Initiative on Ending Classism,” by Dan Nickerson, the International Liberation Reference Person for Working-Class People, on page 8 of the July 2014 Present Time.
2 Ashkenazi Jews are Jews of Central and Eastern European descent, who generally identify as white.
3 “Tell” means notice, see.
4 Dan Nickerson
5 Contradiction to distress
6 “Right on” means exactly correct.
7 The RC working-class commitment: “I solemnly promise that, from this moment on, I will take pride in the intelligence, strength, endurance, and goodness of working-class people everywhere.
8 “Take on” means confront and do something about.
9 “Ran” means was acted out.
10 “Up to each state” means each state’s responsibility.
11 “Taking on” means adopting.
12 “Pretty” means quite.
13 “Leaving it up to the oppression” means allowing the oppression.


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00