A Low-Carbon Economy Will Be Built By Nannies, Caregivers and House Cleaners

Mindy Isser October 22, 2019

(Photo courtesy of Othello Banaci / NDWA)

Rein­vig­o­rat­ed move­ments are chart­ing new ter­rain to build work­er pow­er and reverse the dra­mat­ic cli­mate cri­sis fac­ing soci­ety. Uncom­pro­mis­ing mass mobi­liza­tions are on the rise, as more work­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in strikes in the U.S. in 2018 than any of the pre­vi­ous 31 years, and his­toric demon­stra­tions, like cli­mate strikes, have tak­en off to demand action around cli­mate change. Migrant work­ers, many of whom are cli­mate refugees work­ing in the care indus­try are wag­ing a tremen­dous strug­gle against the Trump administration’s relent­less, racist attacks, like the new pub­lic charge” rule, which stops immi­grants who receive pub­lic ben­e­fits from obtain­ing a green card or per­ma­nent res­i­den­cy. The Green New Deal offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring these fights togeth­er around a broad pro­gram that tack­les not only cli­mate change, but also advances a vision of what a soci­ety that pri­or­i­tizes peo­ple — not prof­it — could look like. But this future can only be won if the labor and cli­mate move­ments find more ways to act togeth­er, and if they strate­gize more seri­ous­ly about how to ensure low-car­bon work is also good work. 

The low­est car­bon jobs are the ones that don’t extract any­thing from the land, don’t cre­ate any new waste and have a very lim­it­ed impact on the envi­ron­ment — an idea put for­ward by writ­ers and activists Nao­mi Klein and Astra Tay­lor, along with strik­ing West Vir­ginia teacher Emi­ly Com­er. These jobs include teach­ing, nur­tur­ing and car­ing— invalu­able jobs like clean­ing homes and car­ing for chil­dren, seniors and those liv­ing with dis­abil­i­ties. Care work is gen­er­al­ly ignored or looked down upon because it doesn’t cre­ate com­modi­ties that can be bought and sold, and because it is typ­i­cal­ly done by women. The shift towards low-car­bon work should nec­es­sar­i­ly include a dra­mat­ic expan­sion of care work. But in order to make that pos­si­ble, the stan­dards and con­di­tions of that work must be urgent­ly raised. 

Care work is not only immense­ly impor­tant for indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies who depend on it, but for the econ­o­my at large. The Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (my employ­er) describes it as the work that makes all oth­er work pos­si­ble.” By tak­ing care of young chil­dren, nan­nies and child care work­ers allow par­ents to pro­duce at their jobs. And by car­ing for seniors, home care work­ers, Cer­ti­fied Nurs­ing Assis­tants and oth­er care­givers keep those in the sand­wich gen­er­a­tion,” car­ing for both chil­dren and par­ents, in the work­force. If there were no more care­givers — or if there were a nation­wide care­giv­ing work stop­page — our econ­o­my would crum­ble almost instantly.

The his­to­ry of domes­tic work and care work, how­ev­er, is stained by our country’s lega­cy of racism and sex­ism. In 1935, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA) was passed, giv­ing work­ers the legal right to orga­nize, and recourse if they were intim­i­dat­ed or fired for doing so. But not all work­ers were afford­ed these rights — domes­tic work­ers and farm work­ers were pur­pose­ful­ly exclud­ed as part of a com­pro­mise in order to pass the NLRA. Democ­rats in the South feared that allow­ing farm and domes­tic work­ers to union­ize would give black work­ers — who were the vast major­i­ty of farm work­ers and domes­tic work­ers — too much eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal power. 

We’ve seen how this lega­cy affects care work today: low pay, no ben­e­fits, and it’s often ille­gal to union­ize. In addi­tion to their lack of labor pro­tec­tions, these work­ers’ social stand­ing makes them even more sus­cep­ti­ble to abuse at work, includ­ing wage theft and sex­u­al harass­ment or assault. The vast major­i­ty of domes­tic and care work­ers in this coun­try are women of col­or, many of whom are migrants.

By under­stand­ing this con­nec­tion, we can build deep­er sol­i­dar­i­ty between care work­ers orga­niz­ing for pow­er on the job and the cli­mate move­ment more broad­ly. The exclu­sion of domes­tic work­ers from the NLRA, and the ensu­ing degra­da­tion of their work­ing con­di­tions and lack of rights at work, was a com­pro­mise root­ed in eco­nom­ic injus­tice and polit­i­cal exclu­sion — two his­tor­i­cal wrong­do­ings that the Green New Deal seeks to undo.

While pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and oth­er politi­cians are laud­ing these jobs as the key to a just tran­si­tion away from fos­sil fuels and into a Green New Deal, we can’t expect to mean­ing­ful­ly tran­si­tion to low-car­bon work with­out first focus­ing on how to improve that work. That effort must be a cen­tral part of the transition’s strat­e­gy. Every work­er deserves a union job with high wages and ben­e­fits — includ­ing domes­tic and care workers.

In the midst of the Great Depres­sion and mas­sive unem­ploy­ment in the 1930s, the New Deal cre­at­ed near­ly 10 mil­lion union jobs. We face a chal­lenge of even larg­er pro­por­tions today: how to rad­i­cal­ly recon­fig­ure our econ­o­my away from indus­tries that poi­son the envi­ron­ment, and how to cre­ate mil­lions of new, green union jobs.

The Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion put for­ward by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Sen­a­tor Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) promis­es to do just that, stat­ing that it will estab­lish high-qual­i­ty union jobs” that pro­vide a fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing wage, ade­quate fam­i­ly and med­ical leave, paid vaca­tions, and retire­ment secu­ri­ty.” While mil­lions of peo­ple will be put to work repair­ing the dam­age inflict­ed by cli­mate change and set­ting the foun­da­tion of a new econ­o­my that will help us weath­er the crises we couldn’t stop, mil­lions of work­ers will be left to find oth­er low-car­bon work. 

When we tran­si­tion work­ers away from well-pay­ing oil and gas jobs, we don’t just want their tac­it accep­tance, we want their sup­port, par­tic­i­pa­tion, and excite­ment: It’s the only way we’ll build the polit­i­cal will to actu­al­ly pass the Green New Deal, and trans­form our econ­o­my at the speed and scale nec­es­sary to halt future dam­age. To do this, we need a real plan to make low-car­bon jobs good jobs. 

The Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights, which has already passed in 9 states and one city, was intro­duced into Con­gress by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Prami­la Jaya­pal (D‑Wash.) and Sen­a­tor Kamala Har­ris (D‑Calif.) ear­li­er this year. The leg­is­la­tion will essen­tial­ly amend the NLRA to include domes­tic work­ers, while also giv­ing them some new rights too, like the right to over­time pay, safe and healthy work­ing con­di­tions, and writ­ten agree­ments with their employ­ers. Pass­ing the Bill of Rights is a first step in ensur­ing that all domes­tic work­ers are treat­ed with respect and dignity.

In Cal­i­for­nia, child care work­ers just won a 16-year bat­tle for the right to union­ize. Now, 12 states allow child care work­ers to nego­ti­ate over wages and ben­e­fits. A hand­ful of states have rec­og­nized unions for home care work­er paid through Cen­ters for Medicare and Med­ic­aid, although the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is now try­ing to make it ille­gal for unions to deduct dues from work­ers’ paychecks.

To make child care and home care jobs not just low-car­bon jobs, but good jobs, every sin­gle work­er in this coun­try needs the right to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. With­out being able to stand togeth­er to bar­gain for wages, ben­e­fits and rights at work, work­ers are forced to nego­ti­ate indi­vid­u­al­ly — just them against the boss. For work­ers who are oppressed due to their race, gen­der or migra­tion sta­tus, this unequal real­i­ty is com­pound­ed by the ways employ­ers use these social sys­tems to fur­ther erode con­di­tions, and to under­mine work­ers’ abil­i­ties to advo­cate for them­selves. Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing builds pow­er for work­ers to push back both against boss­es who want to exploit them for their labor, and cor­po­ra­tions that want to max­i­mize prof­it through envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion. Build­ing a union and engag­ing in shared strug­gle is also our best method to build sol­i­dar­i­ty across oppres­sion and fight our com­mon ene­my — the ultra-rich who make deci­sions about both our work­ing con­di­tions on the job and our liv­ing con­di­tions on our planet.

Although tra­di­tion­al col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is pos­si­ble for cer­tain child care and home care work­ers — because their employ­er is the state — it’s more com­pli­cat­ed for domes­tic work­ers who tend to have mul­ti­ple gigs. Because nan­nies, pri­vate-pay home care work­ers and house clean­ers are often iso­lat­ed in indi­vid­ual homes, we need the gov­ern­ment to inter­vene to set a wage floor for the indus­try, and to ensure ben­e­fits and rights for all workers.

The Albany Park Work­ers’ Cen­ter in Chica­go exper­i­ment­ed with a liv­ing-wage hir­ing hall for day labor­ers and domes­tic work­ers by allow­ing those work­ers to con­nect with employ­ers use writ­ten con­tracts, and find jobs that pay a liv­ing wage. Work­ers were able to access a dai­ly job dis­tri­b­u­tion list, and secure jobs through a coor­di­na­tor. In 2015 and 2016, work­ers report­ed an aver­age wage of $32 per hour, which was three times Chicago’s min­i­mum wage at the time. Exper­i­ments like this must be expand­ed upon at a scale that sets a wage floor for all domes­tic workers.

One of the biggest chal­lenges with domes­tic work­er rights is enforce­ment, because these work­ers are so iso­lat­ed. But that’s why we need a labor move­ment and a cli­mate move­ment that’s ded­i­cat­ed to pri­or­i­tiz­ing care work — both for work­ers’ rights and for the future of our earth. A pow­er­ful move­ment of work­ing-class peo­ple is the only way we will be able to force the gov­ern­ment to both make the eco­nom­ic tran­si­tions we need to save our plan­et, and to improve con­di­tions for care work­ers. As the need for care and the need to trans­form our econ­o­my for the sake of our envi­ron­ment both con­tin­ue to grow astro­nom­i­cal­ly, our move­ments need a plan to put care work­ers first. And because care work inter­sects with so many oth­er social strug­gles — sex­ism, racism, migra­tion, cli­mate jus­tice — focus­ing on it expands the base in in sup­port of a move­ment of work­ers to trans­form both the econ­o­my and climate. 

A tran­si­tion away from extrac­tive and destruc­tive work will nec­es­sar­i­ly mean a growth of the care indus­try. Orga­niz­ing and rais­ing stan­dards for care work­ers needs to be a cen­tral focus of a strat­e­gy to bring labor and cli­mate togeth­er — to envi­sion a low car­bon econ­o­my that works for all of us.

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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