"Tell Dem Slavery Done": Domestic Workers United and Transnational Feminism
The cavernous church was packed. All the chairs were occupied and
people had begun to line up along the outer wall. The commotion of
children playing in the next room, in combination with the low murmur of
translators and the architecture of the old building, made it difficult
to hear the speaker with the microphone at the front of the room.
Despite the imperfect acoustics, the message came across loud and clear:
more than one hundred fifty poor women of color had gathered in Brooklyn
to discuss a domestic-workers' bill of rights that was being debated
before the New York State legislature.
This was the monthly membership meeting of Domestic Workers United
(DWU), a coalition of domestic-workers' rights groups in New York City.
The women here crossed racial, ethnic, and cultural lines, and they were
old and young, outspoken and reticent. Some held infant babies only a
few weeks old. Others brought their teenage children or were minding
their grandchildren. As with every meeting, this one started with a
round of greetings in which members stood up and introduced themselves.
This month, facilitators asked members to name their favorite holiday.
When Ai-jen Poo, the lead organizer of DWU, said that the third Saturday
of every month—when DWU meets—is her favorite holiday, she was met by an
enthusiastic round of applause and wild cheers.
Formed in the late 1990s, DWU is one of the organizations at the
forefront of a global movement to organize private household workers.
Led by women of color, it has modeled a coalition politics that has
brought together African American, South Asian, Filipina, Caribbean,
Indonesian, African, Central American, and Mexican women, among others.
Through their political work they have forged a transnational,
antiracist, feminist politics premised on their experiences as workers
of color in a globalized economy. They are acutely aware of the way in
which race, class, and gender operate simultaneously to structure their
work and their lives. Despite their cultural, linguistic, and ethnic
differences they are all experiencing something similar: exploitation as
domestic workers—one of the least protected categories of U.S. labor.
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