Interview of Ai-jen Poo
Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance
New York, New York
Interviewed by Steve Dubb, Research Director, The Democracy Collaborative
Ai-jen Poo has been organizing immigrant women workers since 1996. In 2000 she co-founded Domestic Workers United, the New York organization that spearheaded the successful passage of the state’s historic Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. In 2007, DWU helped organize the first national domestic workers convening, where the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) was formed. Ai-jen has served as Director of NDWA since 2009 and works on elevating women of color and domestic workers rights issues at a national level.
Could you talk about your background? How did you become involved in organizing domestic workers?
Very early on I was interested in women’s issues probably because I am very much influenced by my mother and my grandmother. Starting in high school I was involved in the women’s forum and issues that affect low-income women. In New York City, while I was in college, I started to volunteer for the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. We were just starting a project to organize Asian immigrant women who were working in low-wage service jobs. At the time, a lot of the garment factories were starting to close down in New York City and the women who worked in those jobs started to move into service work, particularly care work—home care if they had their immigration documents; domestic work, restaurant women and beauty parlor work if they were undocumented.
So we saw a huge increase of Asian women working in poverty wage service jobs. These are highly vulnerable jobs where women were working 12-hour days and still earning below poverty wages. So we decided to reach out to women and explore different possibilities for organizing. It was always the domestic workers who wanted to come together and break out of the isolation of their work, support each other and ultimately wanted to organize. The project started organizing with Filipina domestic workers. From there, we began to organize domestic workers of all nationalities. It started out as an Asian worker organizing project, but quickly grew to be a citywide, multi-racial organizing project.
Could you talk about your work at Domestic Workers United? How was it formed and how did it develop over time?
In the early years, it was members of the Women Workers Project, primarily Filipina domestic workers, who came together with other domestic workers. Some of them had worked in Hong Kong where the domestic workers’ movement had been organizing for years and years. They have an incredible organization and they have achieved strong legal standards for domestic workers. Many of the Filipina workers were accustomed to such standards and a set contract and established paid days off and such. When they came here, they were taken aback by the lack of protections and standards. And the lack of respect and recognition that this work was real work. They immediately asked the question: the rest of the workforce isn’t organized either. We need to organize together. So they began to organize Latina and Caribbean workers. That was the origins of Domestic Workers United.
Those domestic workers who had experienced a different level of worker standards, protection and power basically knew they had to work industry-wide to establish the same power here. So Domestic Workers United was launched in 2000 to bring Caribbean, Latina and Asian workers together to establish basic protections and build recognition that this domestic work is real work and that this workforce really is a part of the real economy and should be valued as such.
What would have been some achievements of Domestic Workers United to date and what are the continuing challenges?
We decided to use legislative strategies to lift up the visibility of the workforce and test whether legislative campaigns would help us organize both workers and supporters. We started with a campaign in the City Council that would compel the agencies that place domestic workers to notify workers of their rights and employers of their legal obligations. Roughly 15% of the workforce is placed by an agency. These agencies are licensed by the City Department of Consumer Affairs. That bill was introduced in 2001 and came into effect in 2003. Hundreds of domestic workers went to City Hall to tell their stories, and that resulted in the passage of legislation, known as the Nanny bill. Its political champion was Gale A. Brewer, who is now the Manhattan Borough president.
After we passed the city bill, we were ready for the next step. We knew it wasn’t sufficient to have workers know their rights because legally domestic workers are excluded from many basic rights and protections. So we set out to change labor law, and in order to do so, we had to go statewide. We actually held a convention in November 2003 called the Having Your Say convention where we gathered over 200 domestic workers from all over the city. We had simultaneous interpretation in six different languages. They participated in small group discussions about what would it mean to have respect at work. It was an all-day convention.
We came out of that convention with a long list of priorities—health care, living wage of $14 an hour, notice of termination—a lot of things that you might find in a good union contract. We then worked with the New York University (NYU) Immigrant Rights Law Clinic, who helped us turn these priorities into actual draft language for state legislation that we introduced in 2004. That was the beginning of the campaign for a New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the state campaign to win rights and respect for domestic workers in New York, which, after it passed in 2010, became the flagship for us nationally.
Could you briefly outline what a Domestic Bill of Rights bill looks like?
They range from state to state but it could entail everything from overtime and paid days off, to protection from discrimination harassment, a day of rest per week, written contracts are in some of the bills—in short, basic workplace protections and standards.
As you mentioned, in New York State, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights passed in 2010. What has worked and what are some of the continuing challenges?
The visibility of the workforce was dramatically increased. There is much greater awareness among both workers and employers of basic rights. The Department of Labor gets calls from employers quite often. We’ve heard from companies like Breedlove and Associates, which helps employers comply with tax laws, that after the law passed, New York went from ninth to second among states when it came to employer compliance with tax laws, second after California. There is a strong correlation between compliance with tax laws and labor laws.
We believe that a real cultural change has occurred, which occurred not only because of the passage of legislation but because of everything that made the legislation possible, like the media work, outreach and alliance building, all of the work that went into the seven-year organizing campaign. That, in conjunction with the partnership with state Department of Labor, elected officials who championed the bill and the media visibility it got once the governor signed it, really catalyzed a change in culture. It is much more recognized that this is a real job, one that plays an important role in our economy, supporting other working professionals. The idea that domestic work is the work that makes all other work possible is something that broke through in the public imagination in New York.
When the first domestic workers bill was passed in City Hall, City Council members–one after the other, particularly members of color as they announced their votes, talked about their mothers and grandmothers who did this work. Their vote for this bill was paying tribute to the unrecognized work the members of their families did. For them, it was about lifting up that untold history, righting an historic wrong, and supporting a 21st-century workforce that was growing because of the growing needs. And we saw a very similar dynamic at the state level. There were many state legislators of color–of all nationalities–including many Irish immigrants and others whose personal stories are tied to this workforce.
What led to the transition from working at the local level to the national level? What do you see as the relationship between national and local advocacy?
Organizing among domestic workers in New York was growing. But parallel to New York, there were workers coming together in church basements, community centers and workers centers in California; Washington, D.C.; and Seattle, among other places. Most of that organizing was very slow and incremental, step-by-step, worker-by-worker. In the early 2000s it was still a challenge to gather eight women in a room together. But slowly through real, on-the-ground outreach at bus stops, train stations, and word-of-mouth, we started to reach more workers, and then reach out across the cities. Having a very visible campaign in New York helped catalyze that process, as it provided a visible example that this work was possible.
You personally went from working on the New York City effort to working nationally. What led you to make that switch?
I was part of a cohort of 50 domestic workers and organizers from six cities in 2007 to gather in Atlanta to share lessons and strategies. Just the idea that we could lean on each other and learn from each other was a huge incentive to come together. When we did, it was so clear and palpable how powerful it would be to have a national vehicle and voice, both for mutual support, but also to raise respect and recognition of this work across cities and states. We started to imagine bigger and bigger, even globally. At that time, I was still working for the NY organization. A year or so after the founding of the national alliance in 2007, we were able to raise the resources to staff the national alliance. A year into that, we decided to hire a national director and I was hired.
When did the National Domestic Workers Alliance begin to hire staff?
We hired our first staff person in 2008. I came on in 2009. Jill Shenker, our current Field Director, was the first person hired by NDWA.
How has the organization evolved? What are the NDWA main program areas?
It went from a mutual support and capacity building network where we primarily focused on strengthening the impact of our affiliates locally to starting to think about national campaigns and state-by-state coordinated strategies, and now building our own chapters. In the first few years, we focused on supporting our affiliates in their state campaigns, which we still do. New York, California, and Hawai’i have all passed domestic workers state legislation. Then in 2010, we built the capacity to launch national campaigns of our own. We launched a campaign around Immigration: “We Belong Together.” In 2011, we worked with Jobs with Justice to launch “Caring Across Generations.”
Could you elaborate on what the Caring Across Generations campaign is about?
It came about because in 2009 there was increased demand for training among our members, specifically for elder care. Even for people hired as nannies, they increasingly were being compelled to take on responsibility for home-based care for the aging and for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. It was such a pattern that we decided to take a step back and figure out what was going on. And what we learned is that domestic workers are on the front lines of a tremendous shift in our generational demographics. The Baby Boom generation is reaching retirement age and people are living longer than ever … we are going to have the largest older population we have ever had and we have no infrastructure to support that. The “Sandwich” generation—the millions of Americans who are struggling to manage care for both their children and their aging parents and grandparents—are under tremendous pressure. There is very little support. If you are very poor, you might qualify for Medicaid. If you are very rich, you might be able to afford long-term care insurance. But even those supports are precarious in this current economic environment and most are caught in the middle without any support at all.
Between the struggles of families, and the vulnerability of this workforce there has to be a win-win scenario, where we could lift everyone up. We as a country should be prioritizing the caring for each other across generations. Bringing families, workers, seniors and people with disabilities together to create a more caring economy seemed like a powerful proposition in light of this age wave. That’s why we launched Caring Across Generations in 2011. It is a multi-generational movement of millions to embrace multi-generational relationships and care giving.
What impact has the Caring Across Generations movement had to date?
We worked with a broad coalition of groups to move a regulatory change at the Department of Labor that brought 1.8 million home care workers who were previously excluded, under minimum wage and overtime protections. This change will come into effect in 2015. In Ohio, where there is a rapid rate of aging in the state, we were able to move $169 million in Medicaid funding to support home and community based care.
The Affordable Care Act creates a new legal requirement for nonprofit hospitals to conduct community health needs assessments every three years, forcing them to think about health beyond the hospital walls. Also, now, if patients are readmitted within 30 days of discharge, in many cases hospitals must eat the expense of repeat care. All of this makes quality home health care more valuable to hospitals. To date, what impact, if any, have you seen the Affordable Care Act have on your work?
The ACA expands access to health insurance low-wage workers under the expansion of Medicaid, in states where that expansion has been adopted. Many domestic workers and home care providers will have access to health insurance as a result. Many states, like Georgia have yet to adopt it, so this potential has not been fully realized.
Ultimately, however, we believe strongly that home care workers and domestic workers can play a critical role in preventative health care, and transforming the health care delivery system to create new efficiencies. With the appropriate support and training, care workers can help manage chronic illnesses, prevent unnecessary emergency room visits and much, much more to both support a better quality of life for the families and individuals they support, and save our health care system money.
Recently your organization had a joint conference with a community-organizing network known as National People’s Action. What led you to build this alliance?
We believe very strong a new economy is coming into being, and that the people whose experiences are the most invisible in this current economy must have a voice in shaping the future. That means small family farmers in the heartland, it means undocumented workers in urban areas, families that are facing deportation, and people coming out of incarceration. It means reaching all of those people and human potential that we want to be truly included in the new economy. We think it is possible. This is a country that has done incredible things, solved profound problems— built the transcontinental railroad, built the highways, brought the internet into all of our homes. This country has invested in that infrastructure. We believe it is important to involve as many people as we can in designing the 21st-century infrastructure that we need to invest in—it’s both access to quality care, policies like paid family leave to support working families to do the work that they do, in addition to innovation, technology, and energy. It is not an either-or; it’s a both-and and we have historically been able to do those things.
Innovation and technology are essential to progress. The question is the values and priorities driving that innovation—if there are robots that are being built, they should enable domestic workers to improve the quality and increase the impact of the work they are doing. They should improve the quality of life for the workforce and the quality of care for the consumer, rather than replacing the workforce.
As you know, Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) in the Bronx is the nation’s largest worker cooperative, with more than 2,000 employees. Have you thought about worker cooperatives as a path to reforming the field? If so, what steps do you see as necessary to move this forward?
I think that worker cooperatives and social benefit corporations and other innovative models for both employment and opportunity should all be explored, especially a project like CHCA, an incredibly important endeavor. I know if you talk to folks at Cooperative Home Care Associates, they are not sure how replicable their model is. It took them more than 10 years to build. There was a very specific set of conditions that allowed for their model to succeed. Wherever it is possible, it is definitely worth pursuing.
I think of it in terms of different forms of power to create social change. There is political power, organizing and voter engagement are part of it. There is also narrative power – the ability to tell the story of why things are the way they are and shape the public narrative. There is also market power and modeling power. It allows us to shape what is possible and open people’s imagination to a new way of being that we want to move forward.
What cooperatives offer is both modeling power and economic power, offering us a model for a different type of employment and economic relationship. I believe it is most effective when it is alongside a strategy of building political and narrative power, but it is also powerful in and of itself. We are exploring enterprise models, and we have a lot of affiliates that are worker-owned cooperatives.
For example, in Boston, Vida Verde is a Brazilian women’s green cleaning cooperative; they make their green cleaning products themselves. The National Alliance is working on developing a social enterprise model that can create high-road jobs for domestic workers, promote higher standards, and generate revenue to support our organizing. We’re launching several pilots this year to that end.
What do you see as the role of policy in breaking down some of the barriers to cooperatives in the care sector?
We are trying to figure that out. Once we figure out the viable business models, then we can figure out the structural reforms that would make that model more successful. Policies that support social benefit corporations at the state and federal level are helpful. We should incentivize high-road development. We give millions of dollars to corporations in tax breaks that are questionable. Why wouldn’t we incentivize the high-road employers? In some ways, it is about leveling the playing field. We should transform our economy into one where it pays to be a good employer rather than an economy where good employers lose out.
Caring Across Generations is our movement to change care industry into a model industry for an economy where workers and consumers work in partnership to shape the future of the industry—rooted in values of connection, care, support, and practical needs of families and workers. Obviously, the economy is a vast place. We see our contribution as helping build this vision. If we can figure it out in care, we hope it will be a model for retail, restaurants, and other sectors. It is a movement. We are working at the state, federal, and municipal levels. Through the Caring Across Generations movement, we are working on policy; we’re engaged in advocacy, community and worker organizing, narrative and culture change strategies to expand access to quality care for individuals and families, while creating and transforming care jobs into jobs you can really take pride in. At the same time, NDWA is working on strengthening labor standards and building alternatives to support dignity and opportunity for the domestic workforce.
Over the past decade, NDWA and the domestic workers movement has had tremendous growth. How has it managed that growth?
A mentor of mine said that you are going to have problems no matter no what. There are two kinds of problems—problems of growth and problems of decay. You generally want the problems of growth. They are great challenges to have—sustainability and how do we get to real scale and the kind of impact where every domestic worker in the nation knows that there is a movement they can connect to. There is a lot of work to do to organize, build, finance and sustain the movement. Most of these questions are not unique to us, so we work closely with other organizations to both learn and share as we experiment and build.
Could you elaborate on what you have learned?
We have to continue to do what we do best—support our members. Leaning into your strengths is key. Whatever you already do well, that has to continue. But clearly what we know how to do isn’t sufficient, so I do believe that you also have to break off a certain amount of resources to experiment, take risks, and consistent with the notion of a “lean startup model,” be willing to fail, fail often, fail cheaply and learn.
Evaluation, reflection, and sharing out the reflections across the movement—9 times out of 10 there are local versions of the challenges we run into in national work, and the other way around. Working and learning across all those levels is key.
Are there specific areas where the domestic workers movement needs to focus their efforts to improve capacity and accomplish their goals?
We’re working on a new generation of state level policy campaigns. We are calling it “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights 2.0.” We have now won a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in three states—New York, Hawaii, and California. And we thought to ourselves, OK: so what can we be doing differently to take this work to the next level, rather than just doing what we know how to do? So we are pulling together our best policy expert partners and organizers to help us conceptualize some more experimental state level policy to expand our ability to build power long-term for the movement. Hopefully some of those bills will be introduced in 2015 and 2016.
If you had to highlight a few key accomplishments of NDWA’s work to date that you are most proud of, what would they be?
One is that we have this beautiful movement with 42 local organizations of domestic workers who are organizing and bringing women together locally to bring dignity and respect to this work, while envisioning a different future for our entire economy and democracy. We are growing movements. Our members are a huge source of inspiration and power.
We are also proud of having launched Caring Across Generations with our sister organization Jobs with Justice, bringing together interests that have historically been pitted against each other, to create a movement and set of solutions from the point were our interests come together. I think we’re modeling the kind of 21st-century American democracy effort that will strengthen opportunity for everyone.
And we are proud of having won protections for domestic workers, by domestic workers in many of the states where they are most concentrated.
For more information on the National Domestic Workers Alliance, please see: www.domesticworkers.org.