In Move That Stunned Advocates, Jerry Brown Vetoes Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights


Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has often compared social justice campaigns to great love stories because “you can change policy, but you also change relationships and people in the process.” It follows that heartbreak is inevitable to some of these great love stories.

Poo and her fellow organizers at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) had their hearts broken, or at least a bit scarred, most recently this past Sunday when California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the state’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, AB 889, which passed the California legislature several weeks ago. For years the NDWA has been working on passing this law to require protections for California’s 200,000 primarily foreign-born domestic workers who labor as nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides. The law would have required overtime pay, adequate sleeping conditions for live-in workers, and meal and rest breaks. A similar law was vetoed by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.

Had Gov. Brown not vetoed AB 889, California would have been the second state in the country to pass such legislation. (New York was the first, having passed its domestic workers bill of rights in 2010.)

“While we knew the veto was a possibility, we were stunned,” NDWA said in a statement to its allies and friends soon after the veto was announced.

In his veto message, available here, Gov. Brown suggests that the legislature and/or activists investigate the costs that domestic worker protections could place on disabled or elderly people and their families before a bill is signed. NDWA anticipated partnering with the Governor’s office in ironing out these issues after the bill was signed and sent to the Department of Industrial Relations to promulgate regulations.

“We were surprised he raised those questions, given that it was clear we would work through those questions during the regulatory process,” Poo said.

Brown’s decision is indeed surprising given his progressive leanings on most issues—though immigrant advocates have pointed out other Brown policies that are tough on the state’s immigrant populations.

Regardless, this outcome will not deter the tenacious organizers at NDWA who are both motivated by love and armed with a multifaceted strategy. State laws are only part of their overall plan, and they are neither the beginning or the end of advocacy for domestic workers’ rights.

Aside from their state legislative strategy, advocates have focused on mobilizing the many stakeholders who are affected by the rights of domestic workers, as a means of building awareness and changing hiring practices. NDWA has already brought about change by influencing employers. Jill Shenker, NDWA’s field director, explained to MSNBC’s Lean Forward blog that she and her colleagues have long been partnering with families who employ domestic workers to ensure that the law would be workable for all involved.

Further along in their post-Brown-veto statement, NDWA pointed out that the movement for the California law has been a vehicle for building awareness and changing perceptions about domestic workers.

Our new statewide web of relationships between domestic workers and their families, employers, faith communities, unions, and celebrities is unstoppable; it’s built around the dignity of domestic work. Thousands of Californians are touched by the work of domestic workers; thousands more are now inspired by their advocacy and leadership. This movement will only continue to grow.

In addition, the activist work in California has helped inspire campaigns to launch throughout the country. As as Andrea Mercado, campaign director for AB 889 told me last month, Massachusetts, Washington, Hawaii, and Illinois are all poised to launch domestic workers’ rights campaigns.

And, there is greater attention to domestic workers rights at the federal level. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is a friend to the movement; most recently NDWA met with Solis about revising federal labor regulations pertaining to home health care aides.

While Poo and her colleagues push forward with their many strategies, codifying domestic workers rights in a state as large as California will continue to be a critical part of their agenda. When media cheer leading and Hollywood attention for the movement eventually ebbs, having a law in place will ensure that domestic workers have a legal basis for raising complaints and a stronger position when negotiating with employers over the long term. California, being the home of so many domestic workers, will continue to be a target of the movement.

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