New Orleans Our first steps in the direction of organizing lower wage workers into worker associations which might lead to what unions started 35 years ago when household workers who were also called domestics or maids were finally able to be paid the federal minimum wage. I moved from Little Rock to New Orleans and with the help of VISTA volunteers and others that we worked as organizers we hit bus stops on Canal Street at dawn and in almost lily white suburbs along Lake Pontchartrain, talking to household workers about making sure they got the minimum wage which many called the “top wage.” We marched in Lake Terrace with hundreds to demand enactment. We filed charges over peonage when we found a household worker for a well known bakery family paying less than 50 cents an hour. We marched on the DOL Wage and Hour office demanding enforcement and I’ll never forget then, after months of assuring the members and leaders that the Household Workers Organizing Committee was an association of workers, rather than a union, that when asked by the DOL who we were, listening to our spokeswoman, tell them loudly that we “were a union of domestics.” We forced the IRS to send out notices to all employers nationally who paid social security for household workers reminding them that they had to pay the minimum wage and made the IRS run advertisements on the radio and on buses and streetcars alerting people to the minimum wage. We ended up having the liberal Carter Administration and Sam Brown from ACTION and Margery Tabankin the head of VISTA absurdly jettison our 100 person VISTA contract partially because some were being used as “union” organizers for just those efforts to make sure domestics received minimum wage protection.
Mike Gallagher, an old friend and comrade, reminded me this summer in Montana that we (Mark Splain, Mike, Keith Kelleher, and me) had found the units of chore workers and home health aides that we organized in Boston and later in Chicago while looking for the equivalent of those same household workers in New Orleans then. Now 35 years later it is wonderful to smile briefly at the fact that these same misclassified, underappreciated but critical workers are finally going to also have the fuller protection under the FLSA of payment for overtime hours at time-and-a-half. No small reason has to do with the exceptional success of organizing from those very early roots to the point that SEIU now claims 600,000 of its 1.9 million members from that very job classification. With AFSCME and other unions, my guess is that at least 800,000 of the 2 million or so largely women are in unions achieving 40% organizational density contradicting the downward trend of union density over this same generation of organizing, and doing so remarkably with informal workers in nontraditional workplaces in the notoriously difficult to organize service industry. Even though 15 states already mandated overtime for such workers, the federal protection is a victory for all of them and is widely and appropriately credited to unions delivering for their members.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to be done. The increase doesn’t take hold until 2015 and some employers are already moaning about the change. Furthermore, estimates by the National Employment Law Project and our old friend Chris Owens estimate that 25% of the workers employed in this way are still paid under the minimum wage even after 35 years and even in states where union density and enforcement is more robust like California.
I’m not sure if the Obama Administration thinks like the Carter Administration that enforcement of minimum wages for low wage largely women workers is the same as union organizing, but Tom Perez, the new head of the DOL, seems like he’s not afraid to stir the pot, so maybe there is someone in the chair finally willing to listen to our calls for full enforcement for unprotected workers. Passing a law or putting forth a regulation really doesn’t count for much if there is no plan for implementation and enforcement.