Labor photojournalist David Bacon sends us this from Sacramento.
Veronica, a young domestic worker from Southern California, took her heart in her hands to speak to a barrage of television cameras and microphones, in a hearing room in the state Capitol building in Sacramento. She wasn't afraid, though, she said, because she felt the strength of unions behind her.
Standing in front of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, she declared:
Today I know we have the support of the largest union in the country. I believe we can pass our bill of rights. Yes we can! ¡Si se puede!
Veronica was paid $350 - $400 a week to clean 34 houses, at little more than $10 per house. And for that wage, she had to clean everything.
Trumka responded, telling the legislators and other domestic workers, who'd gathered with the press,
This bill does not create new rights, it extends the rights that almost all other workers have to domestic workers.
He told them that domestic workers should be thanked for the work they do.
You do the most important work of all when you take care of the people most precious to us with such dignity.
The AFL-CIO president recognized that when the country's basic labor law was written three-quarters of a century ago, the workers, mostly women, who clean homes and take care of children the sick and the elderly, were written out of it. Today, across the country, those workers are knocking on the door, demanding rights most workers take for granted.
Domestic workers often don't get a break to eat, even working many more than the eight-hour workday considered normal for most workers. Others cook for the families they work for, but can't use the same implements to cook for themselves. If they have to sleep in the homes of clients, they often have to get up during the night several times to perform basic services for them, like taking them to the bathroom, or giving them medicine. And the night is considered a rest period, for which they sometimes don't get paid.
Teresita Gao-Ay, a domestic worker from San Diego, said she'd been a caregiver since 1986, working from 7 a.m. to 9. p.m.
I had to do everything from cooking, cleaning whole house, laundry that had to be pressed and folded, including sheets, gardening and caring for the dog. And I had to do this for the whole family, not just for the client I was taking care of. But how can you say no? I was living in their house. Plus, they said they'd call the police if I didn't do as they asked. Then, when I was injured on the job, no one paid me for the days I had to take off to recover.
Last year, the state Assembly passed A.B. 889, authored by San Francisco Assembly member Tom Ammiano, that would give domestic workers some state-recognized rights in their efforts to curb abusive conditions. It would provide meal and rest breaks, overtime and reporting pay as enjoyed by other workers, and expand domestic workers' access to workers compensation. In addition, it would
guarantee eight hours of sleep for those who work around the clock, and allow them to use kitchen facilities.
The bill would affect the 200,000 people who work in California domestic service, who are almost entirely women, and immigrants or people of color. While domestic workers face the same excuses for substandard conditions faced by other women, namely that they're only working to supplement the income of men, most of them are either the sole source of income for their families, or are bringing home pay that their families can't live without.
Sascha Bittner, a disabled woman who employs a domestic worker to help take care of her, explains that the bill isn't directed against people like her. She belongs to Hand in Hand, a group of people who employ the workers and who support the proposed law.
I couldn't do anything without the crucial help of care givers," she said. "They are crucial to the Independent Living Movement. Like disabled people domestic workers need respect and dignity. They deserve to finally be guaranteed the same rights as other workers.
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is modeled on one that was enacted in New York in 2010. It is supported by dozens of statewide worker and community advocates, including the California Labor Federation and many other unions, Filipino Advocates for Justice, the Filipino Workers Center, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, the Women's Collective of the San Francisco Day Labor Program, a number of churches and synagogues, and Hand in Hand, the Domestic Workers Employers Association. Its main opponent is the business association for agencies that provide domestic workers to clients.
At the end of the last session of the legislature, the bill was in the appropriations committee of the state Senate. Trumka came to Sacramento to lend the federation's support to the effort to pry the bill loose, get it passed through the Senate, and convince Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it.
"What you're doing here is important in Sacramento, and San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and across California," Trumka said.
And it's important far beyond this state. It's important to every worker who has put in days that are too long to earn paychecks that are too small. It's important to every worker who has suffered disrespect, to every worker who asks only for the basics of a decent life - fair wages, safe working conditions, the security to give hope to their children.
Trumka then called for recognition of domestic workers' rights. "It's not right that domestic workers should be excluded from over time pay laws," he told the crowd in front of the capitol.
It's time for that to end. It's not right that domestic workers are excluded from collective bargaining laws. It's time for that to end. Domestic workers' rights are civil rights. Domestic workers' rights are human rights.