Protecting Workers Outside of the NLRA: Interview and Comments by Barbara Young

Barbara Young at the Advancing Worker Rights Conference
August 21, 2016
Alexandra Wagner

Comments by Barbara Young on Friday, April 17, 2015 at the Advancing Worker Rights Conference, New York, NY

We organize on our own.  Women who work in other people’s homes are excluded from the coverage of the NLRA and those homes are not considered workplaces. These women are vulnerable and subject to abuse because there are no set protections for them.

We are fighting back against this.  We won a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York State in 2010 and are pushing Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights proposals in states around the country and have been successful in California, Hawaii and Massachusetts.  We are enabling these women to break free from their slave-like conditions.

Here in the U.S. in 2015, there should be no place for workers to be excluded. Yet the workers we represent are not only excluded but sixty to seventy percent of them are also undocumented. Yet, we can do things mainstream unions cannot do such as go to an employer’s residence and shame them into correcting wrongs. We have also been very successful in creating 45 groups of workers centers in 14 states that organize domestic workers and their communities.    

Interview with Barbara Young on Friday, April 17, 2015 at the Advancing Worker Rights Conference, New York, NY

What are some of the current conditions and struggled faced by domestic workers in today’s labor climate?

Domestic workers are some of the most precarious workers in today’s workforce. There is no protection for women who work in the homes of other people, as these are not legally recognized as workplaces. Presently, 23% of domestic workers earn less than their states minimum wage, and 67% of live-in domestic workers make less than minimum wage. 82% of these workers do not receive sick days, and 34% reported health problems. Overall, of the entire population of domestic workers in the United States, 46% are foreign born immigrants.

Presently, domestic workers are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the rights of employees. How have domestic workers responded to their exclusion from the NLRA?

Domestic workers recognized that the NLRA was not an option for them in terms of securing and protecting their rights. As a result, they turned to different strategies. Many turned to worker centers, which represent 60-70% of domestic workers, many of who are undocumented.

What can worker centers do that unions cannot? Has the NDWA been successful in its efforts to advance the rights of domestic workers?

Unlike unions, worker centers can engage in activities such as going to employers’ homes. This is one tactic used to shame employers for unjust actions, such as not properly compensating their employees. Overall,  the NDWA’s efforts have been hugely successful. To put it into perspective, the NLRB won 14 cases for workers. On the other hand, the NDWA has won hundreds of cases, and unlike the NLRB, we have never lost a case. Out of these hundreds of cases that we have tackled, only two went to court. In the first case, the employer’s lawyer decided to settle prior to beginning the proceedings. The second case actually went through, and the workers won. Other than these two cases, none have gone to court. We have a 100% success rate.

Is expanding the NLRA to cover more people a viable option that could be taken to increase the protection of domestic workers’ rights? 

Due to the current nature of the NLRA and its exclusion of domestic workers, amending it is not an easy solution. It would have to be dismantled and reassembled in order to function under these circumstances. A more viable solution would be a new law altogether, rather than trying to improve on the existing one. Specifically, the NLRA would be difficult to amend and apply to domestic workers due to the nature of their work. Many times, there are only one or two domestic workers who are employed in a household. Under the NLRA, these households cannot be considered “workplaces” if they employ under 15 employees. Considering these circumstances (the unlikelihood that there are 15 domestic workers in the same place of employment), expanding the NLRA to cover domestic workers does not seem like the most feasible solution.

What actions are the NDWA taking to advance worker rights?

Presently, the NDWA is building infrastructure for workers through training workshops and partnerships with other worker centers. In 2007, when we were just getting started with these efforts, we worked with 13 other worker centers, which helped domestic workers through efforts such as training workshops to build better leaders. Now, in 2015, we work with 45 worker centers in 14 states that organize domestic workers. We are working to build a movement to advance worker rights.