Just in time for Independence Day, New York State lawmakers last week finalized the nation's first law protecting the rights of domestic workers, bringing dignity and peace of mind to an estimated 200,000 nannies, housekeepers and other home-based workers, and culminating a long campaign by a coalition of labor, gender and racial justice activists. Laboring behind closed doors, domestic workers represent a growing swath of the nation's workforce that is largely invisible--immigrants and women of color, whose obedience is often taken for granted in a profession that exploits hands and heart. The new law will grant the labor that supports New York families basic benefits, like unemployment insurance, overtime pay, protection from employment discrimination and paid days off after a set term of service.
The bill isn't a total victory, since stronger provisions that appeared in a Senate version, such as paid sick leave, were dropped in the final negotiations. That's a battle for another day, involving workers across the state in every sector who risk either workplace health or their income when they fall ill.
The battle now moves onto national horizons, including the California and Colorado state houses. The groups behind the campaign, Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, partnered with other activists at the U.S. Social Forum to launch a national movement to win full and equal federal labor protections for domestic workers and farm workers. Those two classes of labor have historically been deliberately excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act--and just so happen to have been filled by poor people of color for generations.
It may be a few more Independence Days until these self-proclaimed "excluded workers" get a piece of that pursuit of happiness, but the course of human events for immigrant labor struggles is finally turning a corner.
Here's more on the history of the legislation published last month in In These Times.