We Organize Domestic Workers. Here's Why We Decided We Need a Union, Too.

How our union will make our organization stronger.

The NDWA Staff Union Organizing Committee

NDWA Staff Union Organizing Committee

We are in a moment of great uncertainty. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent unemployment crises are making all workers take a second look at their employment situation. As millions of workers lose their jobs, others are fighting for protection, safety and rights at work — and some are even unionizing. That includes us, the staff at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). We are organizers, communications specialists, accountants, fundraisers, lawyers, press strategists and more.

In March, longtime whispers about organizing turned into sustained conversations about how to form a union. As an organization that’s primarily funded by foundations, we didn’t know what would happen if that funding dried up in a recession; we didn’t know if there would be layoffs, and if there were, if there would be severance packages. NDWA provides a comprehensive benefits package — yet we recognize that if times get tough, or if foundation funding ends, these benefits could cease to exist. We’ve seen the devastation the pandemic is inflicting and how benefits like employer-provided health insurance can be lost overnight. Without a union and the ability to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, workers are that much more vulnerable — and economic upheaval puts them in a place of even greater precariousness. These are the scenarios that were playing out en masse as the pandemic spread, and they were the spark that set in motion the first organizing drive in the history of our organization.

For many of us, our workloads skyrocketed during the pandemic. The scale of our work ramped up as the domestic workers we organized were faced with mass job loss, unsafe conditions at work, inadequate pay to account for their risk, and the threat of catching the deadly virus. We organize and movement build in a system that already devalues workers and necessitates worker exploitation. Covid-19 created a heightened need for our folks to organize and be organized, fight for our families and communities, and demand more. This meant the organizing never stopped. We were working incessantly to connect with and support domestic workers, who were disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 and its economic repercussions. Many of us were also dealing with our own Covid-19 related problems and trying to balance work, childcare and the care of our families.

As we moved our work to the digital sphere, we simultaneously became more connected to other staff in our organization. Work areas that were previously separated due to focus or geography became more integrated, and new connections were forged. Our conversations about wanting to model our organization’s vision of dignity, unity, and power” for its own staff grew louder and more serious. What were once offhand remarks about the duality of our labor organization not having its own union or internal worker bargaining unit turned into action and commitment. Our conversations spoke to how much we appreciated our organization, and yet how we recognized that NDWA wasn’t above perpetuating common pitfalls that all workers can experience in their workplace.

During our organizing process we learned of challenges like salary disparities — due to what we believe are arbitrary and unclear processes for determining and renegotiating our pay. We engage our domestic worker members often in skills building to negotiate their salaries and know that individual advocacy absent of large-scale standards setting can only go so far. Without clear guidelines and metrics for salaries, favoritism and personal relationships can all affect pay. This also means that people who don’t have the necessary tools to advocate for themselves can lose out on raises and promotions. Because these tools are socially and culturally imbued, this has a greater detrimental impact on Black women and women of color, who make up the majority of our staff. As an organization that’s tasked with organizing and elevating the voices of a workforce that’s dominated by women of color, we need to put our money where our mouth is.

Bargaining directly with our employer as a group will help us better understand our organization’s financial situation and allow us to raise the salary floor so pay is transparent and fair. Collective bargaining agreements have been proven to help even the playing field for women workers and workers of color. Through our discussions and conversations, it became obvious that we needed to unite together to form a union and exercise our collective strength — which is why, after four months of organizing, we approached our bosses with nearly 100% support, demanding union recognition.

We love where we work and what we do, and our union affords us the opportunity to connect, learn about each other’s work, and use our collective voice for improvements at NDWA. Many of us worked remotely before the pandemic, and now it’s obviously unclear when or if some of us will go back to offices. We work on so many different projects at NDWA — organizing domestic workers to fight for respect and recognition, winning policies (including Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in two cities and 9 states), elevating domestic workers’ voices, creating technology to support domestic workers, and more — that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Because of this lack of cohesion, we suffer from high turnover. Even in the best workplaces, without a collective bargaining agreement, workers may feel afraid to speak up about things they want to change. We think our silence and inability to make real changes only hurts NDWA — and that’s why we organized. Our union will help us centralize our campaigns, improve communication and retain workers. Our union will make NDWA stronger! A union will make your workplace stronger, too.

We want to have a voice at NDWA, and we want other workers to have one too — whether they work at a non-profit, a union, or someplace else entirely. And in a society where workers are constantly under attack — especially women workers and Black workers and workers of color — we are proud to be part of a resurgence of the labor movement. We fight hard for our members to have dignity and respect, and we encourage them to come together with other workers to win the rights and recognition that they deserve. We are following in the footsteps of domestic worker leaders like Dorothy Bolden — and we encourage you to do the same!

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Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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