After a six year fight, New York is now the first state to grant domestic workers the right to overtime pay, one day off per week, disability benefits, and unemployment insurance.
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, signed into law by Gov. David Paterson earlier this month, is significant. It’s breached through nearly a century of institutional neglect and standardized some basic human rights. But it does have one debatable feature: It doesn’t allow collective bargaining among domestic workers, the bulk of whom in New York are women of color. In fact, the New York State’s Department of Labor will be conducting a study with the explicit purpose of proving “once and for all, that collective bargaining would not be useful to domestic workers.”
Organizers pushing to get the bill passed let this happen, sacrificing the collective bargaining option for the new protections. They felt collective bargaining wasn’t critical right now because there isn’t a counterpart on the side of employers with whom domestic workers could bargain as a group. According to Domestic Workers United, the lack of that employer counterpart proved advantageous these last six years since there wasn’t organized opposition to the bill. But if domestic workers don’t have a union holding lawmakers and employers accountable, what assurance is there that this bill will be effective or even enforced?
Immigrant workers may suffer the most without the right to collective bargaining. According to a survey by the Domestic Workers United, “an overwhelming majority of domestic workers are immigrants and 76 percent are not citizens.” Given the language barriers and fear of deportation, these workers won’t contact the Department of Labor. Collective bargaining would fill in the breach.
However, according to union organizer Stephen Lerner in the New Labor Forum, it might be time for the labor movement to go “beyond collective bargaining as we know it.”
Lerner writes: “The lesson of recent years is that none of these [union] models alone—-or in combination—- work because they are all, in some way, trying to repair and recreate the now-dead social compact-based labor relations system of the last century.”
He suggests organizers “narrow the scope” of their demands and it’s true that the work of Domestic Workers United, CAAV and Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles have proved that domestic workers can organize without the legal right to collective bargaining.
In an industry like domestic work, where workers negotiate their terms based on distinct levels of dependency and in an isolated work space, standardizing human rights might set a precedent for new labor relations and new forms of organizing.
Organizers nationwide are beginning to push for bills similar to New York’s. It’s not clear how much of a precedent New York is going to set. The California law that’s going to be proposed still demands collective bargaining rights for domestic workers.