FDL Book Salon Welcomes Sheila Bapat, Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers, and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights
My generation associates the regulation of domestic workers with Zoe Baird and “nannygate.” In 1993, newly elected President Bill Clinton submitted Baird’s name to the Senate as his choice for Attorney General. She would have been the first woman to hold the position. Instead, the nomination was withdrawn because she and her then-husband, Yale Law Professor Paul Gewirtz, had managed their high profile careers and family life by hiring an undocumented couple to help them and had not paid their social security taxes. I vividly remember attending a Law and Society session on the topic not long afterwards. Although virtually all of the audience would have been classified as left politically, the discussion triggered deep fault lines among the participants. Those who hired domestic workers felt under assault by those promoting the rights of domestic workers. Those seeking recognition of the vulnerability of immigrant workers clashed with those who saw the new arrivals undercutting the wages of American workers. The speakers on the panel did not agree on their characterization of the facts: were Baird’s workers exploited by her failure to pay their social security taxes or benefited by the anonymity that allowed them to evade income taxes and potential detection by immigration authorities? They certainly did not agree on policy objectives. The three-pronged objectives the panel advanced – affordable child care, better treatment for domestic workers, and fairness for immigrants – were at odds with each other absent substantial subsidization likely to disproportionately benefit elite women like Baird. The panel ended at a not always polite or dispassionate impasse.
Are we any farther along today? Sheila Bapat’s book, Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights (2014), suggests that the answer may be yes and no. The heart of Bapat’s book describes the struggle to extend greater rights to domestic workers, including expanded minimum wage protection, overtime pay, minimum rest and meal breaks, and adequate living conditions for live-in workers. A Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights passed the legislature in New York state, and was signed into law by Democratic Governor David Paterson. Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and (more surprisingly) Jerry Brown have vetoed similar legislation in California, though Brown signed a more limited bill in 2013. Organizing efforts have also had some success in Massachusetts, Hawaii, Oregon, Illinois, and Georgia. The most effective parts of the book describe the creation of the coalitions supporting these efforts, as immigrant women exercise considerable agency in making their working conditions visible, associating the issues with the well-being of communities of color, and creating broader-based political coalitions that offer hope of reform. Bapat makes the point that the issue is a global one and that it is associated with the disparities that have grown with greater inequality, the complexities of gender, and racial subordination.
At the same time, however, the general position of workers has become worse. The neo-liberal coalition, which gained dominance in the United States under Reagan, combines the libertarian rich, the white South, and Biblical literalist evangelical base to oppose government regulation of much of anything, much less marginalized workers who are predominately female, foreign and non-white. Bapat’s book was published before the most recent Supreme Court decision addressing the collective bargaining rights of home health care workers, but the Supreme Court in Harris v. Quinn, in a nakedly partisan 5-4 decision, further limited such rights in June of this year. The question that Bapat addresses therefore is less the rights of domestic workers standing on their own (although these issues raise complex, multi-faceted questions in themselves), but rather the potential for using the issue to revitalize progressive coalitions. Bapat’s account, as it focuses on New York, California and other primarily blue states, describes the organizing potential of the issue. It largely misses the different role of domestic workers in flyover states, where the wealth of employers is more limited, the workers are more likely to be white, and the potential for combining the issue with a broader progressive agenda is more limited.
- Bapat’s book, which is often inspiring and sometimes frustrating, gives a glimpse into what a new progressive order should look like. It does not answer the question, however, of whether these issue still split the left as much as they did in 1993. What has changed in the intervening twenty years?
- In places like New York and California is there a potential for a coalition that includes progressive employers who would like more guidance in their obligations to employees? Or are new regulations likely to be either ignored or sources of backlash?
- Is the racially identified nature of domestic employments on the coasts a critical part of coalition building? What does this mean for the places in the country where domestic workers are more likely to be white and/or native born?
- New York and California, the leaders in the book, are also the states they have lead in the creation of greater inequality, especially if that inequality is defined in terms of either the dominance of the one-tenth of one percent or the 90th to 50th percentile income differential. How does this affect the lessons of the book?
- The one percent can afford to be more generous and may need to be more careful in their compliance with the law. Those who need domestic services at the 50th percentile of the income ladder may become more likely to use agencies or child care moms if the price of domestic workers or the complexity of the paperwork increases. Would that be a good thing?
- How do immigration politics affect this issue?
- Is this issue a part of the creation of a new coalition to support labor rights more generally?
- Is this still a no-win tripartite issue for progressives, who would still like to see more affordable child and home health care, greater rights and benefits for domestic workers, and increased fairness for vulnerable immigrants?
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]