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Ai-jen Poo and Sarita Gupta on Workers’ Rights

Bill Moyers talks with Ai-jen Poo and Sarita Gupta about activism dedicated to restoring workers’ rights — rights they say have been stripped away by corporations. Domestic workers in particular, says Poo, are a “huge and growing part of the 99 percent.” “There is a need for us to change the practices of corporations and … Continued

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Bill Moyers talks with Ai-jen Poo and Sarita Gupta about activism dedicated to restoring workers’ rights — rights they say have been stripped away by corporations. Domestic workers in particular, says Poo, are a “huge and growing part of the 99 percent.”

“There is a need for us to change the practices of corporations and the way in which money flows globally and the way in which decisions are made globally to make sure that worker protections are in place,” Gupta tells Moyers.

The two also talk about their involvement in The 99% Spring, which aims to train 100,000 Americans to teach the country about income inequality in homes, places of worship, campuses and the streets.

Poo, director and co-founder of the 10,000-member National Domestic Workers Alliance, led the fight for passage of The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York State, the first of its kind in America. She has been nominated by TIME magazine as one of “the most influential people in the world.” The final list is determined by online voting on, which ends April 6.

Gupta is executive director of Jobs with Justice, a labor organization in 46 cities and 26 states working to create a broad, global movement for economic and social justice. Poo and Gupta are also participating in an economic campaign for domestic and homecare workers of all ages called Caring Across Generations.


BILL MOYERS: If George Goehl’s daughter does grow up to become an organizer, she could have no finer role models than the two women with me now.

Ai-jen Poo is director and co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It includes more than 20 organizations in ten states and more than 10,000 members. She led the fight for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights here in New York State, the first of its kind in America. And now she’s fighting for a similar bill in California.

Since 2007, Sarita Gupta has been the executive director of Jobs with Justice. That’s a labor organization in over 45 communities and 25 states. They work to create a broad, global movement for economic and social justice. She led the Chicago chapter of Jobs with Justice for four years and served as its national field director for three.

The two women have joined forces not only for April’s 99% Spring Action but also to build an economic campaign for domestic and homecare workers of all ages. They call it Caring Across Generations.

BILL MOYERS: Sarita and Ai-jen, welcome to both of you.

SARITA GUPTA: Thank you.

AI-JEN POO: Thanks so much.

BILL MOYERS: How does the work you’re doing connect to what we heard George Goehl talk about in the 99% spring?

SARITA GUPTA: The work connects because we’re, for Jobs with Justice in particular, working on organizing and bargaining rights issues and looking at the real impacts of workers rights, we understand that there are corporations that are making decisions, intentional decisions, that in fact are stripping away the rights of workers.

How do we actually say to corporations, “Your practices can, in fact, be different, that allows for us to have the kind of economy that works for everybody”?

BILL MOYERS: So what do domestic workers have at stake in shareholder springtime?

AI-JEN POO: They’re a huge and growing part of the 99 percent. And domestic workers have children and grandchildren and their hopes for them, in terms of quality public education and access to higher education and health care and economic opportunity.

All of those things necessitate a different relationship between the one percent and the 99 percent. And we would say that we’re the 99 percent for the 100 percent. In that it’s in the best interest of corporations in the long term that the American public is able to survive and thrive with dignity and respect.

BILL MOYERS: Unions are among your main allies, are they not? And how do you explain the phenomenon that, unions are struggling in a time when obviously the need for solidarity is so powerful.

SARITA GUPTA: You know, it’s interesting, it’s all about what people— the perception that’s out there. And we should not underestimate the amount of money that corporations have put into anti-union media blitzes and discussions. I mean, the narrative around unions has a lot to do with the role of corporate backed media and the way that unions are portrayed.

BILL MOYERS: So what about people you work with? Are they members of organized unions?

AI-JEN POO: You know, what’s interesting is that domestic workers are actually excluded from the federal labor law that gives workers the right to organize and form unions.

BILL MOYERS: How did that happen?

AI-JEN POO: When the New Deal was being negotiated the only way that Southern members of Congress would agree to support the labor laws that were part of the New Deal package is if African American— well, at the time, farm workers and domestic workers were excluded from the right to organize from the National Labor Relations Act. And at the time, those workers were African American. So it was an attempt to be able to prevent African American workers from being able to build power and build a political voice through organizing.

And so those exclusions remain to this day in the books, and they shape the lives of over two and a half million women who work as domestic workers every day, who are excluded from labor laws, excluded from protections. And their work is still undervalued and not respected.

BILL MOYERS: So what are they up against, day by day?

AI-JEN POO: Well, you know, I can give you a story of a member of ours named Maria, who worked for a family in Queens. She worked six days a week—

BILL MOYERS: Here in New York City.

AI-JEN POO: Here in New York. She was live in. And she took care of a child with a disability and did all of the cooking, cleaning, ironing, washing for a family of six. So 16 hours a day, six days a week. And she lived— her sleeping quarters were in the basement, where there was an overflowing sewage system. So she literally had to put down cardboard to get to her bed at night.

And for all of that work, she earned less than $3 per hour. And so there are just incredible violations. And not every domestic worker is in that situation. But every worker is vulnerable. These exclusions have made it such that every single worker is vulnerable. And you never know what you’re going to get.

BILL MOYERS: What happened to Maria?

AI-JEN POO: Maria picked up a Spanish-language newspaper that had an article about another worker, who had been in an abusive situation and had sought help at an organization called Domestic Workers United, our New York affiliate here. And so she called and she came to the office. And the organization helped her pursue her unpaid wages. In addition, she became one of the spokespeople for the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign. Where hundreds and hundreds of workers took days off from work, like Maria, went up to Albany time and time again. We had one member, Angelica, who said, when the governor finally signed the legislation, she said, “Wow, I think I went to Albany more than 30 times to tell my story.”

BILL MOYERS: It took you six years to win that, didn’t it?

AI-JEN POO: It sure did. The purpose of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York is to establish labor protections, basic rights and protections for the over 200,000 women who do domestic work in New York.

BILL MOYERS: How many?

AI-JEN POO: Over 200,000. Every— we often ask people to imagine what New York would look like if one day all domestic workers didn’t go to work. And we think that there’s not a single professional sector, workforce that wouldn’t be touched in some way by it. It really is the invisible engine behind everything else in New York.

And what the Bill of Rights did was established basic rights and recognition so that members like Maria could go to work with their head held high, knowing that they have rights and they have protections.

BILL MOYERS: So the people you work with are either in organized labor or you’re trying to get them into organized labor, right?

SARITA GUPTA: That’s one segment of who we work with. We also work with community-based organizations. We worked with faith-based groups and student organizations all around this issue of workers’ rights and economic justice.

And for me, with Jobs with Justice, I’ve loved this nexus of labor and community. That actually, when we all come together, we can have big, bold vision. We can have big, bold demands. And we can, in fact, win those demands together.

BILL MOYERS: Give me an example.

SARITA GUPTA: Well, one, you know, recent example is the story of the workers at Hershey’s plant in Pennsylvania. When— you know, were—

BILL MOYERS: Big chocolate maker, right?

SARITA GUPTA: Big chocolate maker. Exactly. I love Hershey’s Kisses, right? And so does most of Americans. And what we saw happen is this is the story of a major corporation that Americans love that has chosen to take work, segments of their work that were one time permanent, full-time union jobs, and turn them into temporary jobs. And bring in, in fact, workers, guest workers to do these jobs, under deplorable conditions with very little pay.

And what was interesting about that campaign was the ability to bring together temporary workers, in this case, with permanent workers in that work site, with people in the neighboring communities to say, “It is not okay for a major corporation like this to treat workers this way.”

PROTESTOR: The effort to bring Hersey’s to justice has officially begun today!

BILL MOYERS: Did they strike?

SARITA GUPTA: They struck. They won a major victory. Which was basically having the recruiter and the program through which the work— the students came. ‘Cause these were actually students who had come from other countries who were believed to be on a cultural exchange program and then ended up working. Right?

BILL MOYERS: Right. I remember that now, right.

SARITA GUPTA: Yeah. And so the State Department found them guilty. And has been in proceedings with them to make sure they cannot do this ever again. And for us, the most important part of that story is really calling the question on companies like Hershey’s, an American company.

What does it mean for you, in order to make profits, that it’s okay to take what were once permanent full-time jobs in the community that allowed the community to be thriving and to actually turn them into temporary, in this case, in particular bring in guest workers to do this work?

BILL MOYERS: But you’re adversaries or critics or opponents would say, “Look, that’s not Hershey’s fault. That’s the way globalization has occurred with two billion workers over the last several years being introduced into competition with American workers. It’s the economic dynamics of our time.”

SARITA GUPTA: That’s right. It is about a global economic system that frankly we need to change. I think more and more the workers we work with understand fundamentally that workers in other countries aren’t the problem. And even workers of other nationalities in this country are not the problem.

That in fact, there is a need for us to change the practices of corporations and the way in which money flows globally and the way in which decisions are made globally to make sure that in fact worker protections are in place. And that workers aren’t, in fact, having to compete against each other for what we know and we call “the race to the bottom.”

BILL MOYERS: I’ve read some of the correspondence that is directed to you, some of the letters you get, some of the public complaints and comments. And they include the argument, quote, “People are paid according to their education level and skills. And these people are being paid for low education, if any, and low skills.”

The argument is that these domestic workers and others like them work for people who are struggling, as well, who can’t afford increased benefits, increased wages. And they say the two of you are not facing reality.

AI-JEN POO: The reality that I think we need to face as a nation is the fact that we cannot sustain if we don’t start protecting the resources that make everything else possible. Gloria Steinem, 20 years ago, wrote this article called “Revaluing Economics.” And she talked about the two invisible resources that everything else is built upon, our care work, or the work that it takes to raise families, and the earth, the planet’s natural resources.

And those two things have been unprotected, undervalued, and invisibilized as the resources that make everything else possible. And we need to fundamentally revalue those elements of our society. Including making care work more affordable for every American who needs it, making the actual hiring of childcare and long-term care, elder care workers more affordable for American families. And making sure that the workers who do that work are protected and can earn a living wage and support their own families.

BILL MOYERS: You both have been doing this a long time now, I know. And you’re not even 40 yet. How did you get started as organizers? Sarita?

SARITA GUPTA: Yeah, well, I, you know, I came to this work really watching my parents, I would say. My family immigrated here. I immigrated when I was a baby to Rochester, New York. My parents are of Indian descent. And I watched them, my mother and father, make huge sacrifices to have a better life here in the U.S. and to create tons of opportunity for my brother, sister, and I.

And in that process, they built community. We were one of very few Indian families in Rochester at that time. And they were a really important force in building what’s now a thriving Indian community center, associations, and whatnot. And I think that were early seeds for me and drew me to think about how communities can really come together, if workers can really come together, we can make a difference.

AI-JEN POO: I also come from a long line of strong women. My grandmother and my mother were both really influential on me. They’re both incredible, caring women who lived a life of service and who raised children. And did both caregiving work and their work in taking care of other people. And still do with a lot of dignity. And it just inspired me.

And I think I also noticed that a lot of the work that they did in the home was not recognized and adequately valued. And I don’t recall my mother ever sitting down as a child. She was always working in some way, one way or another. And I think it’s a difficult situation that American families are in. Where we’re in isolation, dealing with how we’re going to take care of our kids. And how are we going to take care of our parents? And I think that for future generations, it should be different.

BILL MOYERS: You have to be tough to be an organizer. You’ve got to be willing to wear brass knuckles and have sharp elbows, right?

AI-JEN POO: It’s true. It is true.

BILL MOYERS: Come on, confess.

SARITA GUPTA: You do. You do.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the secret?

AI-JEN POO: I will say that even with all the brass knuckles and the times when you have to be tough that we still find that the most powerful force for change in the world is still love.


AI-JEN POO: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t tell me that you won the Albany legislature, one of the swamps of American—

AI-JEN POO: We absolutely did.

BILL MOYERS: —politics over with love? Come on now.

AI-JEN POO: We absolutely did.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, come on, come on.

AI-JEN POO: Absolutely. One of our most effective actions was this children and families march for the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. And it was children of domestic workers together with the children that they take care of, holding signs. “Respect my mommy.” “Respect my nanny.” And the love and the connection between the children that they take care of and their own children and the employers who really appreciate the service of domestic workers in their home. All of that love and connection was an incredibly powerful force for change.

BILL MOYERS: Those signs and those people who took part in that march, they were very persuasive. They were very impressive. But you don’t get legislation passed in Albany, seriously, just by that. What else did you have to do? Did you have to threaten legislators with protests— withholding your support for them in an election? That sort of thing?

AI-JEN POO: It takes good old-fashioned organizing. It takes bringing people together around common goals, with a plan. When everyday people take action from a place of love and a place of dignity and courage, it’s incredibly powerful. So whether that looks like marches or whether that looks like going to the polls and voting. Or that looks like telling your story in legislative offices, year after year after year. It’s power. Because people are driving it. And they’re committed to it. And they, you know, that’s the formula, is really people coming together.

BILL MOYERS: It helps to have some publicity, too. I know that you were involved in some of these women being in Hollywood, at the time of the Oscars. Because “The Help,” which was about domestic workers in the South was nominated, for an Oscar. There was a lot of excitement about it. You had some women out there, didn’t you?

AI-JEN POO: We sure did. We had—

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about that.

AI-JEN POO: —them in from around the country, domestic workers from the South, from the Northeast, from all over the country, who came together to celebrate this moment of the public imagination, the hearts and minds of the American public being turned towards the story of domestic workers in the civil rights era.

BILL MOYERS: So you think that was the biggest value of “The Help.” I mean, it was criticized by some realistic Southern writers as being sort of a romantic version of domestic workers in the South, a too-sweet version.

AI-JEN POO: Absolutely. But for us, it was this moment of being able to raise up the stories of domestic workers today. The story of domestic workers is not a story of history, of the past. There’s, as I said, two and a half million workers doing this work every day in America. And it provided an opportunity or an opening in the public imagination for us to be able to tell that story and to be able to show the American public that there are actually things that people can do now to address some of the violations that were shown in the movie and more.

BILL MOYERS: Your two organizations have come together in this Caring Across Generations. What very specific goals do you have? What specific things would you like to see change.

SARITA GUPTA: So the way that we approach the campaign, we actually talk about it as the five fingers of the caring hand. So one of them is, in fact, creating jobs, creating two million jobs in the home care industry. Two is making sure these jobs are good quality jobs. That they have real standards.

The third is that there be training and a real career pathway in this industry. Home care, by the way, is the second-largest growth occupation, you know, between now and 2018, according to the most recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is huge. And so our ability to shape the quality of these jobs is enormous. It’s important to be doing. The fourth finger is really addressing the issues of how do we create a pathway to citizenship for the existing care workforce and then the fifth finger is really about affordability.

AI-JEN POO: So we’re talking about offering tax credits for people who are paying for care and are really struggling to afford it. We’re talking about family caregiver supports. And we’re talking about increasing funding for programs that offer long-term care and support services in the home.

Right now, there’s a bias in our laws towards institutionalized care. But there’s a lot of data that shows that it’s actually much more affordable, all told, to have people stay at home and receive care in their home. People, I think, want to live independently for as long as possible.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the main wall between you and achieving what you would like to achieve with these women?

SARITA GUPTA: At the end of the day, the number one obstacle we find is people ask, “Well, how will all this get paid for? How is this possible?” And frankly, for us, we’re very clear it’s about the choices that we’re making around our spending priorities.

But it is possible. I really believe it’s possible. But that feels like the number one obstacle that we as the American people and our policymakers need to get over. That the cost of care is possible. You know? We can actually afford this.

BILL MOYERS: You two have brought new faces and new techniques— new values to organizing. How do you see your work changing in the 21st Century? Sarita?

SARITA GUPTA: I think we’re understanding more and more that we need to collaborate with each other, immigrant rights, housing rights, environmental rights, labor rights. Like, we need to actually be approaching our work together, to find the kinds of long-term, systemic solutions that we need.

But within the workers’ rights movement, as well, I would say there’s been huge shifts happening. I mean, with the growth of the informal sector and economy of workers that are unprotected there is a need for us to actually understand new forms of organizing amongst workers who don’t fall under the protection of the National Labor Relations Act. And unions and the struggles they’re facing, and begin to imagine new ways to be organizing workers at the numbers that we need, at the scales that we need to really make change.

AI-JEN POO: The world of organizing is reflecting the changing demographics of this country where communities of color are growing. Women, I believe, are 51 percent of the population. So you’re seeing more and more leadership from women, from communities of color. And, you know, we’re looking forward to running a domestic worker for president. So I think, you know, increasingly you’re going to see that the world of organizing and the world of politics is going to be increasingly reflective of the changing demographics of this country in a very positive way.

BILL MOYERS: Ai-jen Poo and Sarita Gupta, thank you very much for joining me.

SARITA GUPTA: Thank you.

AI-JEN POO: Thank you so much.

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