Now Reading: White Feminist Apologists

Today on the road to dissertation-ville I returned to Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero in search of some theoretical musings on sex work. The collection includes a 1999 essay that Federici wrote entitled Reproduction and Feminist Struggle int he New Division of Labor. In it she argues that it is useless for feminists (Marxist feminists I assume since she is one) to criticize women for hiring domestic workers. Because housework is slavery. And there is no alternative. I was told by renowned scholar of domestic labor, Mary Romero, that this kind of thing happens all the time but its the first time I have seen it in print.

Here’s the thing: where are the rights for domestic workers in your collection of thirty years of scholarship on women and housework? Her commentary renders them invisible. It renders the history of my own family invisible. Domestic workers are without rights. Which means you employ them under the worst conditions, feminist or not. If you can’t treat the women you hire as wage workers, and treat them as such, then how can you advocate for working women? This kind of entitlement continues to frustrate me.

What’s Next?

Admittedly I am still reeling from the success of our conference Maid in the USA. During the next couple of weeks we will be posting more follow up from the conference, including a set of FAQs that was compiled by one of the CMGC policy options undergraduate students and a digest of the notes that were taken at each round table regarding potential next steps for organizing in New Jersey.

Because domestic labor is a major interest of mine, in part because of its significance to my family history and the centrality of its history to my scholarship, I am going to be maintaining the blog as a space for my own thoughts as I continue the intellectual journey that is qualifying exams and dissertation writing and musings on the contemporary state of domestic worker activism as it builds momentum across the country.

In the mean time check out this video by John Meyer, an undergraduate student in Arts, Culture, and Media, who took some footage of the conference and created something really cool.

Please subscribe to the blog via google reader or your RSS feed and feel free to email me with ideas for the blog and share your thoughts in the comments section.

Meet Our Panelists: Barbara Young

Barbara Young, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has been a domestic worker for the past seventeen years. Young has done a lot of work around organizing a global labor movement, and was very active in labor organizing in her native Barbados.

Just last month, Young was a featured panelist on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC as a part of a segment on the film The Help. Click here to see the full segment. NDWA created a #bethehelp campaign urging the film’s fans to help domestic workers in their own communities.

I found the segment to be a really interesting demonstration of class difference as a factor as it relates to responses to the film. While Young expressed a fondness for certain aspects of The Help, the other panelists, which included a comedian/political commentator and a historian, were passionately against everything that the film represents. It made the dichotomy between scholars and activists really apparent to me. I have reflected on what was a really uncomfortable dynamic to watch and wondered what lesson, as an academic, I could learn from it.

As the conference approaches I hope that we can strike a balance between sharing our knowledge and experience and listening to what others certainly have to offer.


The Domestic Worker Bill of Rights

The passage of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York State in 2009 is, perhaps, the biggest milestone in the movement for fair labor standards for household workers ever. It is the result of the remarkable efforts of Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Three of our panelists worked on the campaign and I look forward to learning about what it took to make that happen.

In the mean time here is the skinny on this piece of legislation:

The bill mandates an eight hour work day and guarantees time and a half for overtime. It requires a day of rest and suggests that this coincide with the workers religious observances. After one year of employment, workers earn three paid days off. For full time employees, the bill requires employers to provide unemployment benefits and paid time off. The bill also addresses discrimination based on race, gender, and disability as well as sexual harassment.

Of course this all sounds wonderful on paper and enforcing these basic rights is another thing entirely. At the very least having some sort of recourse, however small, to be able to advocate for oneself in an abusive work environment is certainly a step forward.

A similar bill is being presented in California. To find out more about this campaign and to sign the online petition click here.


Meet Our Panelists!

Christine Yvette Lewis, of Domestic Workers United, has been doing domestic labor for over fifteen years. Last year she gave a memorable interview on The Colbert Report. Check it out! You won’t be sorry.

Christine Lewis on Colbert

The work that Domestic Workers United does is certainly a movement and I hope that the conference can capitalize on its momentum. And yes, fair labor standards is about power and human rights. Hello, somebody! I can’t wait to find out what she has in store for us.

If you want to see Christine Lewis in the flesh don’t forget to register for the conference here:

Good Reads

There is nothing intrinsically demeaning about domestic labor. The work is oppressive, or not, because of structural relationships of race, class, gender, and citizenship that are pervasive and predate the employer/employee exchange.

-Mary Romero, Maid in the USA

Mary Romero really is a trailblazer as it relates to scholarship on domestic labor. Romero began interviewing Chicana domestic workers in the Southwest in the early eighties. As a historian, I find her intellectual frameworks refreshing and useful for my own work on black women’s labor fifty years before Romero began doing this research.Maid in the USA is such a great combination of historical scholarship, ethnography, and a variety of theoretical frameworks. I highly recommend taking a look at the tenth anniversary edition. The introduction gives such great insight into the development of the discourse on domestic labor over time. Can’t wait to see what she has in store for the conference.

Don’t miss it! Register here:


Maid in the USA: A Conference on Domestic Labor and Organizing

It seems like everyone is talking about domestic workers lately, thanks, in part, to the 2011 film The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestselling novel. Everyone’s weighing in: scholars, critics, bloggers, actors, and every tv talking head from Oprah to Katie Couric.

If the current discourse is any indication, domestic work is a part of our mythological American past. And yet, at this very moment, there are at least 1.8 million domestic workers employed in American homes. Ninety-three percent of whom are women of color.

That’s over a million women with no right to organize (that’s right, its illegal), and no federally mandated minimum wage, overtime pay, or maximum hours. Employers of household workers are not required to provide a safe and healthy working environment.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Civil Rights Act, right? Arguably the most important piece of legislation of the second half of the twentieth century. It prohibits employment discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, or national origin. Well, it only applies to employers with 15 or more employees. In other words, it doesn’t apply to domestic workers.

So, how did we get here and where do we go?

Twenty years ago this year Mary Romero’s tackled this very question in her groundbreaking study of Chicana domestic workers in the Southwest, Maid in the USA. To commemorate Romero’s work and work of advocates and organizers around the country the Center for Migration and the Global City at Rutgers University Newark is gearing up for what proves to be a really exciting conference on the opportunities and challenges facing household workers in the United States today.

As a part of this dialogue between scholars, advocates, and organizers, we wanted to start the conversation here. Check back for regular updates about conference planning, where to register, profiles of some of our collaborators and people working on the ground to advocate for domestic workers’ rights, and more facts and figures that highlight the urgency of this significant issue.