Tough road to domestic workers' union, report says
The Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights prompted the report, which shows that including domestic workers under the State Employment Relations Act “is a critical first step in the organizing process.”
By Daniel Massey
The Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights that Gov. David Paterson signed earlier this year assured nannies and housekeepers of three paid days off per year after 12 months on the job and included them under basic discrimination laws. It didn't, however, give them the right to join a union.
But the law did compel the state Department of Labor to study the feasibility of domestic workers bargaining collectively. And in a new report, the DOL lays out potential paths for domestic workers to unionize, though it acknowledges the process won't be straightforward because of the industry's special circumstances.
The report—required under the Bill of Rights—shows that including domestic workers under the State Employment Relations Act “is a critical first step in the organizing process.”
The state's 200,000 domestic workers and their advocates had hoped the Bill of Rights would bring domestic workers under state laws governing collective bargaining, but it did not go that far. And benefits usually obtained at the negotiating table—like paid sick days, paid holidays, notice of termination, and severance pay—were not included in the final version of the bill.
“This is an industry where people lack a lot of rights or they are not aware of their rights,” said Colleen Gardner, the state's labor commissioner. “Domestic workers are isolated from one another and it's difficult for them to advocate on their own. We want to encourage the process, to begin to help shape the way they go as far as improving standards in the industry,”
Even if state labor law were changed to include domestic workers as employees, it's still not clear how they would organize, the report notes. Because domestic work is highly decentralized, with employees working at different worksites, for different employers, it's not apparent how bargaining units would be determined or with whom those units would bargain.
The report also mentioned other potential ways for domestic workers to improve conditions, including hiring halls, legislation requiring written contracts of employment for domestic workers, and ways to expand health insurance.
“The DOL's findings echo what we know can now be possible in the domestic work industry,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, director of Domestic Workers United, an advocacy group that fought for the Bill of Rights. “Granting domestic workers the right to collectively bargain is a critical next step in our efforts to ensure stability and workplace standards and to end abuse and exploitation in this industry.”
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