Social and Economic Rights

Domestic Workers: “Organizing with Love”

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.

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Transit Funding Fight Goes National

Following a decade-long campaign, Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) has won funding to rehabilitate a vital train line and run it on weekends again. But attempts to reverse cuts to bus services across the city’s south and west sides have failed, prompting activists to take their fight for increased funding to the national level.

“We saw that our local struggle to restore service to the Little Village community would not be successful if we did not push Congress to pitch in their fair share of funding and ensure that it is distributed equitably,” said Michael Pitula of LVEJO.

 The feeling was pervasive enough to prompt the Labor/Community Strategy Center of Los Angeles to convene “Transit Riders for Public Transportation” (TRPT) in 2009. The national coalition of transportation justice groups aims to change federal funding priorities and regain the “private right of action” to enforce the Department of Transportation’s civil rights regulations.

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AC Transit Riders Demand a Fair Shake

“They [the MTC and CTC] came up with $70 million for a little bitty trip to the airport—so they can come up with money for AC Transit!” yelled Karen Smulevitz of United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County into her bullhorn over the street sounds of downtown Oakland. “Do you need that airport tram?” “No!” yelled the crowd. “Do you need the buses fixed and running?” “Yes!” they responded, louder still.

The rally on November 9 involved a growing coalition of East Bay organizations—Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), Genesis, Public Advocates, Urban Habitat, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE)—working to meet the needs of folks who use public transit for basic survival. The newest member of this coalition is an emerging alliance of the East Bay’s bus riders organized by ACCE and assisted by groups already engaged in transportation work.

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Penn Loh: EJ and TJ

Now 2010

Penn Loh is a professor at Tufts University's Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. From 1996 to 2009, he served in various roles, including executive director (since 1999) at Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE), a Roxbury-based environmental justice group. He holds an M.S. from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.S. from MIT. Before joining ACE, he was research associate at the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California.

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Jesse Clarke: What was your involvement with environmental justice in the early ‘90s when you were at the University of California Berkeley?

Penn Loh: I went to UC Berkeley because I realized that much of the work of electrical engineers (I had an undergraduate degree in that field) at that time was really in the military industrial complex. It seemed like the profession, rather than making life better for people, was largely involved in projects supporting war research. So, I started down a different track.

At that time, I saw environment as a secondary concern to other social justice issues. But at U.C.Berkeley I met folks who had just attended the 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. I got involved with that student group and also took a class with Carl Anthony. Suddenly, light bulbs went off and I realized, “This is what I can do to contribute to something positive and which goes real deep with respect to my own social justice commitment!”

ARRA and The Economic Crisis: One Year Later. Has Stimulus Helped Communities in Crisis?

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Facing an escalating economic crisis, newly inaugurated President Obama signed the historic American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (commonly referred to as “the stimulus”) on February 17th 2009. The $787 billion stimulus bill was designed to create and preserve jobs, spur economic growth, and be administered with a particular focus on transparency and accountability. The stimulus bill made explicit reference to “assist those most impacted” by the recession. Has ARRA provided relief to our hardest?hit communities? Has ARRA worked to promote greater racial and socioeconomic equity in our nation? One year into the implementation of ARRA we find mixed results, and offer critical lessons learned from the ARRA experience. In addition, we provide specific recommendations for achieving the goals of the Recovery Act, generating jobs and broadening prosperity, and reducing our racial and economic divide.

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