Great organizing campaigns are like great love affairs. You begin to see life through a different lens. You change in unexpected ways. You lose sleep, but you also feel boundless energy. You develop new relationships and new interests. Your skin becomes more open to the world around you. Life feels different, and it’s almost like you’ve been reborn. And, most importantly, you begin to feel things that you previously couldn’t have even imagined are possible. Like great love affairs, great campaigns provide us with an opportunity for transformation. They connect us to our deeper purpose and to the commonalities we share, even in the face of tremendous differences. They highlight our interdependence and they help us to see the potential that our relationships have to create real change in our lives and in the world around us.”—Ai-jen Poo, Domestic Workers United. From Organizing with Love: Lessons from the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign.
The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which took effect in November 2010, is a massive and unprecedented win for the new labor movement—and it is a model for the way organizers and lawmakers alike must begin to think about workers’ rights in the 21st century economy.
The New York law guarantees nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides weekly time off and subjects employers to state law for minimum-wage violations and sexual harassment. These are all basic rights that traditional, full-time employees have long enjoyed, but that a broad swath of workers who are not protected by labor laws have never seen. In August, the California State Assembly passed a resolution recognizing similar labor standards for domestic workers, rights that lawmakers will likely codify as state law next year. Organizers in other states are working to generate more such victories.
"Gender constructions themselves are racialized. Our overarching notion of what is a good man and what is a good woman, are based on white people being good people and people of color being bad people."
Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine. A leading figure in the racial justice movement, Rinku has positioned ARC as the home for media and activism on racial justice. She has extensive practical experience on the ground, with expertise in race, feminism, immigration, and economic justice. Over the course of her career, Rinku has woven together journalism and organizing to further social change. She also has significant experience in philanthropy, as vice chair of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Advisory Committee member of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. Previously, she was the co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing.
When the Obama administration reiterated recently that it will make an immigration reform proposal this year, hopes rose among millions of immigrant families for the “change we can believe in.” That was followed by a new immigration position embraced by both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win unions, rejecting the expansion of guest worker programs, which some unions had supported.
The economic justice movement has historically focused on income equality. To the extent that attention was given to assets, the assumption was that once families’ incomes are not consumed with basic needs, asset accrual will follow. While some gains have been made in narrowing the earnings gap, today wealth inequality is higher in the United States than any other industrialized country: the wealthiest one percent own one-third of the nation’s wealth. As with all inequality, it is important to recognize the racial and gendered elements of the disparity. In the United States, families of color own just one-tenth of what white families own.
Lack of wealth is both a cause and an effect of low income and poverty, and the two are highly correlated, creating a cycle of economic instability. Without adequate income, poor people—who are disproportionately people of color and women—are unlikely to acquire assets, whether purchasing a home or saving. Similarly, lack of asset ownership limits income opportunities, such as seeking advanced education or starting a business.
Asset ownership and wealth are in many ways a more elemental measure of economic well-being than income. Income is a short-term measure and is certainly critical for meeting daily living expenses. In contrast, wealth—which is more likely to be affected by previous generations—allows families to weather financial hardships, such as economic downturns and unexpected periods of unemployment. More profoundly, wealth creates opportunity and allows families to move from poverty to long-term prosperity.
For over a decade I’ve been teaching my six-, seven-, and eight-year-old students to strike against me in the classroom. I drew the inspiration from “the Yummy Pizza company” labor unit1 and my own experience as a teacher and writer. Instead of producing pizzas, students at “Pepper Ink.” produce laminated bookmarks of the best poem they’ve written in a year-long study of the genre. This year, however, the experience took a different turn when one of our potential Pepper Ink. workers was forcibly removed from the school.
Students begin the year in my second grade two-way Spanish immersion class by comparing indigenous and first world points of view on the conquest of the Americas, go on to study Africa, women, and finally civil rights and labor heroes. They engage in internet and library research for their own books, questioning contradicting sources, and examining information critically. They sit in heterogeneous cooperative groups in which they rotate the job of teacher, who is to assist anyone needing help, if the group cannot. They can also file complaints in a box about one another’s abuse of power, including mine. From this process, my students develop a healthy sense of justice and participatory-style democracy. Students often refer to the Doug Minkler poster on our wall, which includes the slogan, “All of Us or None.”