For the past two years, the University of California Research Institute has hosted and supported working groups, residential research groups, global workshops, graduate seminars, and conferences all focused on a central theme: “The Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work.” As we enter the third and final year of this multicampus research initiative, the UCHRI is pleased to host the final HCCW working group, which is a hybrid working/residential research group. Convened by John Marx, Professor of English at UC Davis, “The Work of Humanities / The Humanities as Work” group met officially for the first time from October 14 to 18 for a weeklong intensive session. The group will meet in residence monthly throughout the Fall quarter while continuing to collaborate for the full year through a variety of digital platforms.
On September 15, 2013, four groups of scholars convened at UCHRI to launch an exciting new scholarly project, organized on a pioneering approach for interdisciplinary research, the “Humanities Studio.” The Luce-Funded Religions in Diaspora and Global Affairs Initiative (RIDAGA) initiative brings together a group of 22 UC faculty and graduate students, whose disciplinary backgrounds span religion, anthropology, feminist studies, history, politics, and law.
On Monday, our working group coordinated a live on-air webinar with Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in dialogue with Premilla Nadasen, a professor at Queens College, City University of New York. The group, “Working at Living: The Social Relations of Precarity” is part of the UCHI initiative on the “Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work.” We bring feminist, ethnic, and cultural studies perspectives to bear on both historical and contemporary forms of precarious work. Precarious work can be understood as work that is uncertain, short term, and provides little security or benefits – characteristics that have increasingly classified many forms of work, from the creative class to service workers. The strategies used by organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance offer new models for organizing and activism that implement worker-driven policy, coalitions between the givers and receivers of care, and a message of respect, dignity, and empowerment.
The webinar was organized in conjunction with an undergraduate course in Asian American Studies as UC Santa Barbara taught by Lalaie Ameeriar, a participant in the working group. Students from this course, “Gender and Labor in Transnational Asian/America” and working group participants submitted questions for the dialogue. Utilizing Goolge+ Hangouts On Air and YouTube, we were able to host a live webinar between the class and working group participants in Santa Barbara, and Ai-jen Poo and Premilla Nadasen in the New York City headquarters of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The webinar was open to public viewing for anyone with an internet connection and provides a useful resource that is easily accessible. See embedded video and link below to view the webinar.
Domestic workers – those that care, cook, and clean – have long been excluded from legal definitions of what counts as work and who counts as a worker. Denied the protections of federal labor law, the job is characterized by low wages, long hours, and no benefits. These forms of work are feminized, devalued, and underpaid, often because they are expected to be performed by women in the private sphere for free, as the labors of love and care. And indeed, domestic workers who perform what is traditionally understood as “women’s work” are overwhelmingly women, the majority of whom are women of color and immigrant women. As Eileen Boris, principle Investigator for the working group, writes in her co-written book with Jennifer Klein, Caring for America: Home Health Care Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State, “women’s labors – once considered outside the market or at the periphery of economic life – have now become the strategic sites for worker struggle and the direction and character of the American labor movement.” The National Domestic Workers Alliance is one such strategic site. A leading voice for millions of domestic workers in the United States, they have organized to pass Domestic Workers Bills of Rights in New York, Hawaii, and California (which was vetoed by Jerry Brown) while creating paths to better living conditions for both caregivers and those in their care.
Throughout the webinar we can see some of the important characteristics of this strategic site for worker organizing. Premilla Nadasen, a renowned scholar and community activist who works on women’s history and welfare policy, shared some of the questions generated by students and other participants. Ai-jen begins the webinar by speaking about the beginnings of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, her own history of being influenced by strong women in her family and community, her organizing work, and the process of passing the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. Ai-jen speaks to the importance of the process of organizing, which epitomizes the kind of organizational and activist strategy that organizations like NDWA employ. It is through the process of organizing and the centrality of domestic workers defining strategies and understandings of what labor protections and standards look like that epitomizes what she calls “doing public policy from a workers’ perspective.”
As Ai-jen states, “We have always known that the policy in and of itself was not the goal, the goal is to continue to strengthen the workforce, and continue to strengthen the voice of workers, and to move the public consciousness and change the culture such that we can continue to create more options, more respect, more recognition, for this work that makes all other work possible.”
This model of organizing is worker-driven and process centered, and in the case of the NDWA, the result has been a vibrant multi-racial coalition among low-wage women workers that is rare in the labor movement. In addition, Ai-jen notes that both the givers and receivers of care have a stake in its quality, and often the NDWA and other affiliate groups, like Caring Across Generations, which Ai-jen co-directs, focus on coalitions between caregivers and receivers. As the baby-boomer generations continues to reach retirement age, and longer lifespans and increased independence mean more people want to continue living in their own homes, we will see an increasing need for quality, affordable, and protected forms of care work. Coalitions between those that require care and those that provide it point to another organizing strategy that has seen success in other forms of contingent and precarious employment. One has only to look to the recent AFSCME 3299 Patient Care Workers Strike, May 21st-22nd for enactment of such a strategy: in addition to patient care workers walking picket lines, patients themselves testified as to the importance of safe staffing and worker organized collective bargaining.
The increasing need for care speaks to what Ai-jen and others have called the shift to a “care economy,” what Boris and Klein call a “carework economy” dominated by work that can not be outscourced though the worker might be an immigrant, that is, insourced. A care economy emphasizes the importance of caring not only for individuals and their communities, but also as a significant foundation for political and economic activity. In creating a worker-driven model for organizing and public policy, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations model the kind of care economy that they hope to continue the process of implementing across the country. This model for organizing has created a vibrant, multi-racial, and democratically organized alliance of domestic workers that promotes coalition, creativity, and the importance of care.