Domestic Worker Report Hits Home

Every once in a while, when my four-year-old’s expressive chaos has gone too far, I hire people to clean my apartment.  It’s amazing—a rebirth.  Granted, my dog gets anxious and has diarrhea for the following thirty-six hours.  But that’s a small price to pay. 

The actual price tag is somewhat larger.  That’s because I use Apple Eco-Cleaning, a cooperatively-owned, environmentally friendly cleaning business.  Founded by people from NYC’s Worker’s Justice Project, the idea is to create a sustainable model of domestic work.

ImageIt’s a great organization, but paying a living wage is expensive.  That’s why most people don’t do it.  Last week, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance released what many are heralding as the first systematic survey of the domestic work industry in the United States.  The report is a powerful indictment of the industry, and of our collective failure to regulate it:  domestic workers have been excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act since its passage in 1935. 

Among domestic workers, intimacy and exploitation seem to go hand in hand, as live-in workers are treated even more poorly than their live-out counterparts.  For example, two-thirds of live-in domestic workers reported being paid below state minimum wages (among all domestic workers the rate was 23%).  A quarter of live-in workers reported having job responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep the week prior to the interview. 

What is to be done?  A big start would be increasing regulation of the industry, as the report suggests.  But another important part here is cultural.  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her introduction to the report, much domestic work is intensely personal in nature, and many domestic workers come to care about the families for whom they work.  Cruelly, these emotional attachments are used to reinforce workers’ subordination:  “What is being exploited in these instances is not just the domestic worker’s labor and skills, but her sense of interpersonal responsibility, her capacity for love.” 

An important part of a domestic workers’ movement, then, is collectively reconfiguring these emotional attachments in ways that help workers have more control over their work and more agency in their lives.  The report itself, to which numerous domestic workers contributed, is a significant step in this direction.  Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, thinks we are on the cusp of bigger change:

We have an opportunity to reverse this history of discrimination, with policy changes — at the state and federal levels — that establish basic rights and standards and ensure that these workers can live with dignity and safety. Over the past decade, domestic workers in California and New York have organized to pass Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in their state legislatures. Workers in Massachusetts and Illinois are now developing their own bills of rights, but it’s time for more states to take up the task.


In a nation based on the values of liberty and justice for all, the people who are raising our children should not have trouble feeding or caring for their own children, and the people who provide care for our elders should receive support for their own retirement. We should honor, respect and value the precious labor that they provide: the labor of love that serves as the foundation of our economy.


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Myles Was Here, and May Still Be

My new office at Columbia sits on the seventh floor of the northern wing of the Union Theological Seminary (UTS).  Like many divinity schools, UTS has been facing declining enrollments in recent years, and so leases this side of the quandrangle to Columbia.  I look out over spires and a well-manicured cloister that serves as a set for the television series Gossip Girl when the characters visit Yale.  But other than the occasional film crew it’s very quiet here.  More than one colleague refers to the place as “The Morgue.”

I was surprised, then, to realize that one of my heroes spent the early years of The Great Depression in these halls.  Myles Horton, the co-founder of and life force behind Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Center for Research and Education) arrived at UTS in 1929.  It was here that Horton studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, here where Horton found a community of public scholars and financial backers who would become so important to Highlander.   Highlander, a social movement “halfway house” in the words of Aldon Morris, would become one of the first racially integrated spaces in Tennessee; in the eighty years since its founding it has been a training school, retreat center, and respite for generations of social movement leaders in the south and beyond.

UTS today seems a world away from Highlander.  But the north wing of the seminary here may be coming back to life.  In October, Columbia’s new INCITE (Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics) moved into the building.  And thanks to the leadership of Denise Milstein, the sociology department’s revamped M.A. program will work to bridge the worlds of theory and practice through relationships with local community organizations.

You should come visit.  But bring your tennis shoes.  Here in New York, where no one owns a car, we have no choice but to make the road by walking.


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Act of Faith

July 1, 2012:  Metamorphosis.  I had gone to bed a graduate student and rose as an assistant professor.  This transformation was underappreciated by my friends and family.  And granted, it was incomplete.  Thanks to a research fellowship, I did not actually see the inside of a classroom until last week, when I joined a sociology class at Columbia for a discussion of my book, With God On Our Side:  The Struggle for Workers’ Rights in a Catholic Hospital.

There, five undergraduates—a small, friendly firing squad—asked me to explain myself.  Why had I chosen to be a sociologist?  How had I gotten interested in health care?  And why (in the world) did I focus on labor unions?  I had relatively coherent answers to the first two, but the last seemed more loaded.  I asked for clarification.  The student seemed a little embarrassed, as if he were trying to avoid offending me:  “Well, it seems like unions are irrelevant,” he stammered.  “So why focus on them?”

Students have a way of cutting to the core.  Why do I care about unions?  Why should anyone?  Union membership has been in the decline for the last half-century.  Rates of national union membership hover around 12%, and private sector unionization has dropped below 7%.  Labor law is gutted, and fiscal conservatives, like vultures, pick at its remains, working to eviscerate the last strongholds of union membership in the public sector.  Even in Obama’s most populist moments he treats “labor” like a four letter word.

I don’t remember exactly what I told the student; it wasn’t Oscar-worthy.  Here is what I should have said:

If we care about economic justice, then we must care about unions.  Workers in unions earn between ten and twenty percent more than their non-union counterparts, and are almost thirty percent more likely to have health benefits.  According to recent research by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld, declines in union membership help to explain a goodly share of rising economic inequality.

If we care about workplace dignity, then we must care about unions.  Absent union membership, employees have little in the way of workplace protections.  The First Amendment does not apply to them, and they can be fired without due process.  Without unions, workers have no guarantee of having real voice over the conditions of their employment.  We may live in a democracy, but without unions we work in dictatorships of varying degrees of benevolence.

But there is another, broader reason we must care about unions.  The future of the labor movement is in industries like health care and education, in hospitals and in nursing homes, in schools and in colleges.  These are the workers who are teaching our kids, who are taking care of our parents and our friends.  They are teaching us to read; checking us for bedsores; helping us overcome our fear and uncertainty.  Their interests—staffing ratios that allow them to nurse in the ways they know how; class sizes that let them allow them time with individual students—are our interests.  As workers fight together to protect their dignity, they are protecting our dignity as well.

Unions do not always do this perfectly.  But there is no other institution in the United States that does so any better.  And so for the sake of economic justice, workplace dignity, as well as for the sake of a more just and dignified society, I have faith in unions.

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