A win for the caring economy in Massachusetts

    It's not all bad news for working women this week, as Massachusetts passes a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
    A California Domestic Workers Rally in Sacramento in April 2011. (Flickr / Maria Guillen)
    A California Domestic Workers Rally in Sacramento in April 2011. (Flickr / Maria Guillen)

    With its decisions on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court dealt two blows to working women in the United States on Monday. As sobering as this news may be, there’s still some cause for hope in this week’s headlines.

    Yesterday, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick signed into law the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, officially making the Bay State the fourth in the nation to pass such legislation.

    In Harris v. Quinn, troublingly, the Supreme Court ruled that Medicaid-funded home care workers cannot be counted as “full-fledged public employees” and therefore are not obligated to pay dues to public sector unions. As damaging as this decision is to unions, it carries implications equally as serious for the 2.5 million home care workers in the United States and the seniors, families and people with disabilities for whom they provide vital services.

    In contrast, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights — the result of a multi-year effort by the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, or NDWA — institutes basic labor protections for all of the state’s domestic workers, a category that includes in-home caregivers as well as nannies and house cleaners.

    Essentially, this asserts these workers’ status as full-fledged employees deserving of the same legal safeguards as most all other people doing waged work. These include crucial amenities like clear hour assignments, paid vacation and sick days, and freedom from sexual harrasment and trafficking. The law ensures that not only will domestic workers have fairer wages and working conditions, but also that they can continue to provide quality care services to millions across the state.

    Both NDWA’s victory and the Court’s decisions this week highlight the necessity of organizing along the intersections of class, race and gender. Where women — who account for 95 percent of domestic workers — are put at a particular disadvantage by Monday’s rulings, those damages are further exacerbated for the 65 percent who are immigrants and people of color. Unsurprisingly, it is women of color who have driven the fights for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Massachusetts and other states.

    Care work, of course, hasn’t been considered full-fledged work for some time. The Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s and 1980s raised just this concern, declaring boldly that women should be remunerated for the everyday labor of housework, child-rearing and even sex. Whether recognized or not, care work has been deeply embedded into our economy since the onset of capitalism. Yet, even Marx — for all his oversight of women’s work — called attention to “reproductive labor” as the crucial flipside of men’s labor in the factory.

    Groups like the NDWA are at the forefront of this organizing, confronting mistreatment at the local, state and national level while strengthening a caring economy by building relationships among care workers and their clients, and creating employee-owned domestic workers’ cooperatives.

    This type of multi-tiered organizing provides a hopeful model not only for care workers, but for millions looking to fight for fair wages and conditions in industries that are traditionally more difficult to organize — especially as regressive judicial and legislative action becomes more common. If NDWA’s victory in Massachusetts yesterday proves anything, it’s that Harris v. Quinn, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and cases like them are challenges that workers are poised to take on and win.

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