Honoring a Labor Activist of our Time
Ai-Jen Poo, transformer of labor standards for domestic workers
By DEBORAH A. MILES
During an era where anti-union groups are ramping up attacks on organized labor, a relatively new union has been formed to level the playing field for domestic workers.
It is through the compelling vision and leadership of Ai-Jen Poo, a young, educated Taiwanese-American woman, that Domestic Workers United (DWU) was formed. It is an organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers and elderly caregivers in New York that has organized for power, respect and fair labor standards.
From 2000 to 2009, Poo spent countless hours in New York City parks, buses and other gathering places for domestic workers creating opportunities for these largely isolated women to share their experiences. She guided mistreated workers to appropriate legal venues, and articulated the vital economic role of domestic workers to develop a framework of legal standards for the industry.
Poo led a hard-fought legislative campaign for seven years, and in 2010, New York state enacted the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Through her efforts and relentless activism, the bill entitles workers to overtime pay, one day of rest per week, protection from discrimination, and three days paid leave per year. The bill also drew support from an unusual coalition of domestic workers, their employers, and other unions forged by Poo’s ability to leverage common interests across diverse groups.
Other states have passed or are considering similar legislation. The estimated 1-2 million domestic workers in the nation are excluded from most federal and state labor laws, including collective bargaining, occupational safety, health protections, sick and vacation pay, and protection from discrimination and sexual harassment.
DWU helped to organize the first national meeting of domestic workers organizations at the U.S. Social Forum in 2007, which resulted in the formation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Poo has been director of the alliance since 2010, and helped launch Caring Across Generations, a national advocacy organization that is working to transform the long-term care system in the U.S.
The Caring Across Generations campaign unites many immigrant home-care workers with aging Americans and people with disabilities. Its goal is to build support for immigration, health care and labor policies that will create good jobs and provide quality care for the aged.
Poo has recognized how the American workforce is increasingly defined by intermittent, service-based and part-time work, and how the need for good caregivers will increase as baby boomers reach their golden years.
Poo’s strong social justice values were instilled at an early age. Her father is a neuroscientist and one-time political activist who immigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s. Her mother has a PhD in chemistry, and was an oncologist at two of the top cancer centers in the nation.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, she became an organizer for the Women’s Workers Project at the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence.
In 2014 Poo was the recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award. She also received the Leadership for a Changing World Award, the Ernest de Maio Award from the Labor Research Association, and the Woman of Vision Award from Ms. Foundation for Women.
She was recognized by Women Deliver, as one of the 100 women internationally who are “delivering” for other women. In 2009, she was named one of Crain’s “40 Under 40” awards. In 2012, she was named one of the Time 100 in Time magazine, as well as one of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake the World.”
In 2017, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from The New School, and she attended the 75th Golden Globe Awards as a guest of Meryl Streep.
Poo has a book published by The New Press titled, “The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.”