How Trailblazing Labor Organizer Dorothy Bolden Taught Me to Fight for My Fellow Domestic Workers

Jacquelyn Arnold

National Domestic Workers Day honors the legacy of labor and civil rights activist Dorothy Bolden. (Heather James Photography)

On Fri­day, Octo­ber 13, my home­town of Atlanta cel­e­brat­ed the city’s sec­ond annu­al Domes­tic Work­ers Day. I was part of the his­toric cel­e­bra­tion, stand­ing side by side with 100 nan­nies, house clean­ers and oth­er care work­ers to rec­og­nize the work that makes all oth­er work possible.

The cel­e­bra­tion hon­ored Dorothy Bold­en, a vision­ary labor and civ­il rights leader whose work in the 1960s inspired our own fight for bet­ter wages and work­ing con­di­tions. Yet even in 2017, almost 50 years after Dorothy Bold­en found­ed the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Union of Amer­i­ca, her vision for fair work and fair wages is far from complete.

I have been a child­care work­er for near­ly 20 years, and while the job has had its ups and downs, it’s a pro­fes­sion I’ve brought pas­sion to. I grew up as the only girl in a fam­i­ly of four boys, and from a young age I was drawn to care work. Once my broth­ers had kids of their own, I found myself tak­ing care of my nieces and nephews on the week­ends. I used to love watch­ing them mess­i­ly eat the spaghet­ti I’d cook for them. Their eyes would light up when I walked into the room: Ms. Jack­ie is here!” I knew from then on that I want­ed to work with children. 

For four years, I worked at a day­care, but when my son was born, I decid­ed to work with indi­vid­ual fam­i­lies so I could bring my son to work. Over the years, I’ve sup­port­ed many fam­i­lies, car­ing for kids as young as three months up to six years old. Even though I’ve had many good clients who have paid well, I’ve still found myself work­ing long hours. Some­times clients come home from work two hours late with­out let­ting me know. It’s felt as though they had for­got­ten that I have a fam­i­ly too. I’ve missed my son’s foot­ball and bas­ket­ball games, and have had to rely on my moth­er to take care of him when he’s sick. This has been the norm in my industry.

Fif­teen years into my career, I was approached by an orga­niz­er from the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance (NDWA) at a local park. The orga­niz­er shared infor­ma­tion with me and oth­er nan­nies about our rights at work, and asked if we were sat­is­fied with our pay and work­ing con­di­tions. What I heard shocked me. Almost all of the women were severe­ly over­worked and under­paid. Some were work­ing 50 hours per week and mak­ing $9 per hour with no over­time. Most did not have con­tracts in place to pro­tect them. Oth­ers reg­u­lar­ly expe­ri­enced racism or oth­er forms of abuse.

One woman who spoke at the park that day cried as she described her expe­ri­ences work­ing as a nan­ny. She explained that one week­end, one of the kids she was tak­ing care of got sick and threw up. But instead of clean­ing it up, the fam­i­ly wait­ed for the nan­ny to arrive ear­ly Mon­day morn­ing and made her to do it. Mean­while, she was get­ting paid for 40 hours per week, but was work­ing 50. Her days were iso­lat­ed. She wasn’t allowed to call her fam­i­ly or watch TV to take a break. The job had such a bad toll on her health that she couldn’t sleep know­ing she had to work the next day.

Sto­ries like these move me to action. They move me to orga­niz­ing, and to help real­ize the dreams of women like Dorothy Bold­en. I want to show oth­er domes­tic work­ers that this work can be good work, offer­ing paid sick days, time off, a liv­ing wage and respect on the job.

But orga­niz­ing isn’t just about work­ers know­ing their rights and how to nego­ti­ate with employ­ers. It’s also about com­ing togeth­er to break the cycle of iso­la­tion. Being around a group of oth­er pow­er­ful care work­ers helps peo­ple believe that change can happen.

This is the les­son taught to us by Dorothy Bold­en. She built an orga­ni­za­tion of 13,000 domes­tic work­ers across 10 cities. Her work helped increase wages in Atlanta while win­ning work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion and social secu­ri­ty rights for all domes­tic workers.

The work of the NDWA, just like Bolden’s, has also been about chang­ing cul­ture. Domes­tic work­ers aren’t just work­ers. We’re women of col­or, immi­grants, moth­ers, daugh­ters and lead­ers. We’re orga­niz­ing for health care, immi­gra­tion reform and fair pay for all work­ing peo­ple. Some employ­ers, espe­cial­ly in the South, still see us as the help.” Yet, as our country’s pop­u­la­tion ages and more fam­i­lies stay in the work­force, the demand for our work will only con­tin­ue to grow. Our work deserves dig­ni­ty, respect and recognition.

Domes­tic Work­ers Day is a step toward this recog­ni­tion. After three years of lob­by­ing by the Atlanta Chap­ter of the NDWA, in 2016 the city issued an offi­cial procla­ma­tion that Octo­ber 13 — the day of Dorothy Bolden’s birth­day and NDWA’s five-year anniver­sary — would com­mem­o­rate domes­tic work­ers. We are hon­ored that oth­er cities are begin­ning to rec­og­nize Bolden’s lega­cy: 2017 marks the first year that Raleigh-Durham, N.C. has hon­ored Bolden’s birth­day with their own Domes­tic Work­ers Day.

Our fight is far from over. In Geor­gia, domes­tic work­ers remain exclud­ed from the mea­ger min­i­mum wage of $7.25 per hour. At NDWA, we hear sto­ry after sto­ry of domes­tic and care work­ers who are under­paid, abused on the job, and fear being sep­a­rat­ed from their fam­i­lies because of the Trump administration’s anti-immi­grant agenda.

As a domes­tic work­er, I’m ded­i­cat­ed to this fight. Our dreams are big and bold, just like Bolden’s. We hon­or her by grow­ing our move­ment and liv­ing out her legacy.

Jacque­lyn Arnold is child­care provider and one of the longest stand­ing mem­bers of the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance, Atlanta Chapter.
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