What is the Future of Work for Women? Three Key Insights from the United State of Women Summit

When the #MeToo movement erupted in the fall of 2017, the dynamics of workplaces and the treatment of female workers across the United States began to be deeply scrutinized. After all, over one-third of all women have reportedly experienced sexual harassment or abuse at work—and yet, serious solutions to address workplace misconduct have yet to really come forth. At the same time, the so-called gig economy continues to expand through the workforce, with reports finding that anywhere from 20 percent to 34 percent of workers are contractors and freelancers, with most working without benefits and without defined legal protections.

What needs to be done when greater protections against abuse are needed for workers but the work seems to be shifting into positions with even fewer safeguards? In a discussion moderated by The Workers Lab CEO Carmen Rojas at the at the 2018 United State of Women Summit (USOW) on May 5, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in California Laphonza Butler, Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations, and Aquilina Soriano of Pilipino Workers Center and the National Domestic Workers Alliance tried to answer that very question—sharing their plans, strategies and thoughts on what needs to happen for workplaces to finally be more inclusive and work for everyone.

photo by Maura Turcotte

“One of the things that we realized is that when we first started organizing, the conditions of domestic work—long hours, low wages, no job security, no access to a safety net or benefits, really unpredictable hours—those conditions were seen as marginal or kind of on the edges of the economy, and today when we look around, more and more of our workforce deals with those same conditions,” Poo shared with the panel. “If we’re not careful about the future of work, we can look forward to a continuing decline in our working conditions.”

And, as Poo reiterated, protections are even more necessary because the gig economy and domestic work are only expanding in size. “Two of the top five fastest growing jobs in the U.S. economy are personal care jobs—home care workers, personal care attendants. Just here in California, the Department of Labor suggests that California is going to need 200,000 more caregivers in the next eight years,” Poo pointed out. “The fastest growing demographic in the state of California actually are those Californians who are over 85. And so, think about the future of work and the future of women—the work that women have historically done—this is an important occupation for us to be thoughtful about as Californians and as people living in the United States of America, and frankly, around the world.”

Here are just three solutions the group of powerhouse feminist leaders put forward last weekend—and a glimpse into their vision for the future of women at work.

#1: Change Begins with Amplifying the Stories of the Most Vulnerable Workers

While much of the #MeToo movement has been focused on the revelations emerging from Hollywood and politicians, Poo wants attention to be given to domestic workers and caregivers as well, whose positions remain vulnerable simply because of the nature of their work in private residences. “Their workforce is almost defined by invisibility … There is no water cooler, there are no co-workers, there is definitely no HR,” Poo noted. “I don’t think many people know just how many work places aren’t covered by anti-discrimination laws and protections. Our laws that protect people from harassment require that there be at least 15 employees in a workplace … It effectively excludes the entire domestic workforce with one word. There are massive holes in our protections.”

As the Caring Across Generations leader further explained, when safeguards are finally extended to the most vulnerable in the workforce, then all other workers stand to benefit as well. “If we can make [work] safe for domestic workers, we can certainly try to make [it] safe for every other worker and every other person,” she added. “When our workplaces work for family caregivers, for moms, for women with disabilities, they will work for everyone. And so, if we’re leading on solutions [at National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations], if we’re leading on organizing, if we’re leading on advocacy, then we’ll bring safer and more dignified workplaces for everyone.”

What can be done to protect domestic workers? Eight states—New York, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Connecticut, Illinois, Nevada and Massachusetts—have passed domestic workers’ bill of rights. And the version in California, which went into effect in 2014, has already helped caregivers that Soriano works with at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Pilipino Workers Center. “We’ve seen our members who never before got minimum wage, now making above minimum wage and overtime,” Soriano told the crowd. “We’ve seen shifts in the industries. We have been able to get over $700,000 in back wages for caregivers [before the bill of rights] … In the next couple of years, that will be millions.”

#2: Unions Need to Use Their Power in New Ways

All three panelists, each a part of a labor group, strongly advocated for the power and change that unions and organizations can bring to workers, especially for women of color. A unionized black woman earns around 32 percent more than her non-union counterpart, according to Butler, and for Latina women, unionized workers earn 47 percent more in wages. That being said, the USOW panelists also believe that for progress to be made, labor groups can’t operate with a limited focus. As Butler explained, the women in her organization, SEIU Local 2015, demand that unions recognize the intersectionality of issues that members face.

“[The women] have said that they want to be a part of a union that stands for criminal justice reform and isn’t afraid to say black lives matter. They have said that they want to be a part of a union that stands with immigrants, recognizing that no matter what country you come from, what language you speak or what zip code you live in, that your life is valuable and your job deserves dignity,” she told the USOW panel. “I believe the labor union of the 21st century is going to be one that recognizes members as whole people and becomes an advocate for their whole lives. And I think that’s the future of the labor movement, particularly the local union that I represent.”

Beyond unions extending their scope of issues, however, Soriano believes unions need to try new methods of organizing to reach all workers. “A part of the problem [with organizing domestic workers] is the isolation,” Soriano said. “What we have had to do is think outside the box because there is no one place that we can go to actually meet a bunch of caregivers and organize them—so what we have been doing is … [we] address those issues that are more comprehensive than just the workplace. So, like immigration—there’s so many immigrant women and men who are doing this work, and we are providing immigration assistance. We are doing free tax preparation … And then we’re using technology also. For a lot of caregivers, a cell phone, a smartphone is their connection to the world, right? So, we’re actually using that to be able create smaller circles and connect them to what’s going on so that they have a chance to participate, even though they can’t always be there personally. They can know what’s going on, they can participate in conference calls, in group chats, they can do collective actions together, call-ins, even though they are not actually all physically together.”

#3: Women Need to be Leaders and at the Table to Bargain

Perhaps the biggest call to action from the panel—in order for the future of work to work for women, they need to lead it. And according to Soriano, when workers find themselves empowered, progress actually occurs. “The caregivers are not only standing up for themselves, but they are actually becoming leaders of the whole community. [Them] being able to speak out and help others, being able to go to Sacramento—and we see changes in the industry,” she explained. “This is not something that just has to cycle over and over again, we can actually make changes.”

Butler and Poo also all pushed the importance of the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. “We are [bringing] forward to the [2018] candidates proactive ideas to solve some of the problems that we are going to face with work. One of the ideas we have is called universal family care, the idea that in the future we should have one fund that we all contribute to, that we all benefit from, that helps us with child care, elder care and paid family leave. Basically, everything that we need to take care of our families as we work,” Poo explained. “You may have heard guys in the Silicon Valley talking about universal basic income and other ideas about the future of work, but we think women—we need to hear from women, and women of color in particular. What are our ideas? And how can we make every single candidate engage those ideas?”

Butler echoed Poo’s sentiments, adding that leadership can take many forms, and doesn’t strictly mean being an elected government politician. “When I first came to the labor movement about 20 years ago, the then-president of SEIU referred to the leadership of the labor movement as male, stale and pale. And he was all three of those things,” Butler said. “I think that what we need to make sure that we do, not just as the labor movement, but as community organizations, throughout every level of our advocacy work is to make sure that we’re thinking about that next generation of leaders … The most important opportunity that we have right now in front of us is the 2018 election. If we want to fundamentally, collectively bargain, we got to go out as women and set the table for who it is we will be bargaining with. In the 1964 election, one in 20 voters were women of color. In 2012, that number was one in six. In 2018, there are conditions, based on the volume of women and women of color that have voted in places like Alabama and Virginia that we have the opportunity to move from one in six to one in five. We can determine who we want to bargain with as women—and women of color in particular.”

Maura Turcotte is an editorial intern at Ms.

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