The Power of Trabajadoras and the Subversion of Capital: Notes on a Domestic Workers’ Inquiry

Yolan­da Lopez, “The Nan­ny”

When Glo­ria, a long-time domes­tic work­er from El Sal­vador liv­ing in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, com­plained about the depres­sion and night sweats she had been expe­ri­enc­ing since quit­ting her job, it was for a pecu­liar rea­son.1 She had worked as a per­son­al care atten­dant for an elder­ly cou­ple in their pri­vate home for sev­er­al years, until the elder­ly wife became so sick she had to be tak­en to a nurs­ing home for inten­sive care, and Glo­ria was left only to care for the hus­band. She was con­tract­ed by one of their chil­dren, a daugh­ter. Glo­ria loved her job because she had grown to love her patients and on most days, she joy­ful­ly spent most of her wak­ing hours in this family’s home doing house­work and attend­ing to their needs. One day, she left her job and nev­er went back after her long­time client, the hus­band in the rela­tion­ship, tried to force him­self on her sex­u­al­ly in exchange for her week­ly pay. She shud­dered as she recount­ed the way he placed the enve­lope on his lap. She felt as though this man had changed from one day to the next. She jet­ted out of the house with­out pick­ing up the check she had right­ful­ly earned. Still, it was not the par­tic­u­lar instance of sex­u­al harass­ment that had shak­en her nerves, she con­fessed, but the loss of some­one who she cared for, which had left her feel­ing bereft and con­fused.

This sce­nario, where care and love are weaponized towards vio­lent and abu­sive ends, is not too dif­fer­ent from the expe­ri­ences of many oth­er domes­tic and house­hold work­ers, both paid and unpaid. Describ­ing the ways that black women were rel­e­gat­ed to “the most menial and under­paid” fields of work like domes­tic ser­vice, Com­mu­nist and black fem­i­nist Clau­dia Jones used the term “super-exploit­ed” to describe their depressed salaries, about half that of white women in the same trades.2 Sub­se­quent Marx­ist fem­i­nists have sharp­ened our analy­sis of the super-exploita­tion of women’s work, not­ing that beyond above-aver­age exploita­tion in the work­place, women work­ers often go uncom­pen­sat­ed for a host of activ­i­ties that are nat­u­ral­ized through a gen­dered sphere as women’s work or women’s instincts– as if the abil­i­ty to nur­ture, love and care for clients and fam­i­ly mem­bers is not an attribute of the worker’s skill-set but rather an attribute of her female biol­o­gy, and there­fore free of charge.3 Quite a bit of schol­ar­ly lit­er­a­ture has emerged in the last two decades about the con­di­tions of women in hyper-exploit­ed cir­cuits of transna­tion­al labor, with some even going as far as to call transna­tion­al care and sex work­ers mod­ern-day slaves.4 My find­ings, gath­ered through exten­sive inter­views in a par­tic­i­pant obser­va­tion study of a Lati­na immi­grant domes­tic work­ers cen­ter in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, sug­gest­ed that Lati­na immi­grant women do quite sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly find them­selves among the ranks of the low­est-waged and least pro­tect­ed work­ers in the U.S. In their roles as moth­ers, wives, and cit­i­zens, too, many face a unique vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, against a back­drop of invis­i­bil­i­ty and indig­ni­ty, how­ev­er, I also observed that the work­ers them­selves feel an immense sense of pride and dig­ni­ty in their work and their sto­ries. For exam­ple, through­out their lit­er­a­ture, domes­tic work­ers assert that “women work­ers make all oth­er work pos­si­ble” and, through observ­ing their orga­ni­za­tion, we can under­stand why this is true. 

Immi­grant women work­ers typ­i­cal­ly embark on the treach­er­ous jour­neys across bor­ders and endure exploita­tive con­di­tions of labor, even though they are the last in their fam­i­lies and extend­ed net­works to enjoy any of the ben­e­fits in edu­ca­tion­al and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties that such migra­tions are imag­ined to afford. Many of them see their suf­fer­ing as col­lat­er­al dam­age, a sac­ri­fice made for the greater good. Many women know­ing­ly bear dis­re­spect and abuse from employ­ers and part­ners to give their chil­dren the oppor­tu­ni­ty to one day achieve the so-called Amer­i­can Dream. The specter of this dream has served to under­pin a night­mar­ish real­i­ty.

But while these sto­ries paint a pic­ture of abused and vul­ner­a­ble women work­ers, women like Glo­ria would prob­a­bly push back against being labeled vic­tims. In fact, even when women like Glo­ria are vic­tim­ized, some will peti­tion for asy­lum through a U-Visa, a path to res­i­den­cy designed to pro­tect vic­tims of vio­lent crimes, cit­ing that their neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences might become the oppor­tu­ni­ty for them to help them and their chil­dren lead bet­ter lives. The women are also increas­ing­ly orga­nized in trade asso­ci­a­tions, fight­ing for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions; all those I speak to in these inter­views are mem­bers of a net­work of domes­tic work­ers’ cen­ters in Cal­i­for­nia. Lupe is one par­tic­u­lar­ly mil­i­tant mem­ber who hap­pens to also be an active mem­ber of a com­mu­nist par­ty. One day at the cen­ter, she pas­sion­ate­ly recount­ed her par­tic­i­pa­tion in a row­dy Oak­land high­way block­ade against police ter­ror­ism the pre­vi­ous night. While she was with the crowd on the high­way, she had received a call from her two young adult chil­dren who tried beck­on­ing her home by say­ing she was too old (and, pre­sum­ably, too vul­ner­a­ble) to be at the risky action. Rais­ing her voice to match the tone of her phone call, she told the oth­er mem­bers at the meet­ing that she said to them that not only was she not too old to be on the march, but Lupe scold­ed her chil­dren for being so young and not being at the demon­stra­tion. She told them they should be ashamed of them­selves for wit­ness­ing injus­tice and doing noth­ing about it. She asked the oth­er women who lis­tened, many of whom were moth­ers and had expressed judge­ment towards the mil­i­tant tac­tic, if they wouldn’t do the same if it was their chil­dren who had been mur­dered in cold blood by the police. While not all mem­bers are as mil­i­tant or politi­cized as her, all mem­bers par­tic­i­pate in some way or anoth­er to build­ing the pow­er of the grass­roots base, which they call la base. They do this through actions like net­work­ing with oth­er domes­tic work­ers such as nan­nies in the play­grounds around the city where they gath­er, coor­di­nat­ing work­shops for skills train­ings and polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion request­ed by mem­bers, march­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with com­mu­ni­ty cam­paigns, build­ing a nation­al cam­paign for domes­tic work­ers leg­is­la­tion and more. 

The Super-Exploitation of Domestic Work

In 1942, the Unit­ed States and Mex­i­can gov­ern­ments signed a series of laws and diplo­mat­ic agree­ments that ush­ered in the Mex­i­can Farm Labor agree­ment, bet­ter known as the Bracero Pro­gram. This agree­ment allowed mil­lions of Mex­i­can “braceros,” or man­u­al labor­ers, to cross the bor­der in order to work short-term con­tracts for Amer­i­can agribusi­ness. While the braceros were almost exclu­sive­ly male, by the 1970s domes­tic and house­hold work became prac­ti­cal­ly syn­ony­mous with immi­grant women, espe­cial­ly from Mex­i­co, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, and var­i­ous oth­er places in Latin Amer­i­ca. Out­side of Cal­i­for­nia and even in many parts of the state, domes­tic work­ers are immi­grant women of many back­grounds, espe­cial­ly the Pacif­ic Islands and the Caribbean. In her book Dis­pos­able Domes­tics, Grace Chen explains how the suc­cess of the Bracero Pro­gram led to the turn towards migrant labor in gen­er­al, and fem­i­nized migrant labor in par­tic­u­lar dur­ing the neolib­er­al peri­od after the 1970’s.5 Immi­grant labor­ers from Mex­i­co became a valu­able resource for U.S. cap­i­tal pre­cise­ly because it was cheap­er to sub­si­dize the cost of their social repro­duc­tion in a less expen­sive coun­try. Their wages would only need to par­tial­ly sub­si­dize what in the indus­tri­al era of cap­i­tal­ism was called the “fam­i­ly wage”: the wages paid to the male head of house­hold in a het­ero­sex­u­al fam­i­ly for the repro­duc­tion of the semi-pro­le­tar­i­an­ized wife and chil­dren, whose labor was often unwaged. Immi­grant work­ers would only work in the U.S. sea­son­al­ly dur­ing the Bracero Pro­gram, spend­ing part of the year in their home coun­tries, and thus cost less to main­tain. The cost of their school­ing and upbring­ing would also be sub­si­dized by the work­ers’ native coun­try, since most migrants arrive as young adults.

Chen goes on to write that as the pat­tern shift­ed from sea­son­al migra­tion towards more per­ma­nent set­tle­ment, neolib­er­al poli­cies reg­u­lat­ing the social repro­duc­tion of immi­grants began to shape domes­tic pol­i­cy. A nation­wide dis­dain towards Mex­i­can women in par­tic­u­lar and immi­grant women more gen­er­al­ly emerged. They were accused of hav­ing “anchor babies” or said to be drain­ing the wel­fare reserves, an atti­tude that was evi­dent in Reagan’s 1986 IRCA Immi­gra­tion Reform, which pre­vent­ed immi­grants from apply­ing for nat­u­ral­iza­tion if they were believed to become a “pub­lic charge.”6 In 1994, Prop 187 in Cal­i­for­nia tried to bar immi­grants from using pub­lic ser­vices.7 Sub­se­quent pol­i­cy pro­pos­als like HR4437 under the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion, which passed in the House but not the Sen­ate in 2005, and the Ari­zona bill SB1070, exe­cut­ed under the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion in 2010, Chen argues, served to exploit immi­grant women by cap­tur­ing “their low-paid or unwaged labors as work­er-machines with­out human needs or rights.”8

This trend is part of a much longer lega­cy in the Unit­ed States of using super-exploit­ed labor in the ser­vice of social repro­duc­tion: espe­cial­ly child and elder care and house­keep­ing but also coerced and unpaid sex work. In addi­tion to the unpaid work of house­wives, the work of social repro­duc­tion has his­tor­i­cal­ly depend­ed on the labor of inden­tured ser­vants, slaves, and poor­ly paid black and white women.9

On one occa­sion, one mem­ber brought in her woman friend, a woman who had arrived in the coun­try no more than 24 hours ear­li­er. Deter­mined to find a job imme­di­ate­ly as a domes­tic work­er, she insist­ed on using every inter­net search tool pos­si­ble to help her land a job, even though she had no doc­u­men­ta­tion. This proved dif­fi­cult con­sid­er­ing that most pub­lic posts at least out­ward­ly required a social secu­ri­ty num­ber which this woman did not yet pos­sess. When asked about her expe­ri­ence and qual­i­fi­ca­tions, she said she had some expe­ri­ence tak­ing care of fam­i­ly mem­bers, but main­ly she had been a school-teacher in Mex­i­co, where she had a uni­ver­si­ty degree. Like many migrants, she was overqual­i­fied when she reached the Amer­i­can job mar­ket.

In her 1987 book Bor­der­lands, Glo­ria Anzal­d­ua wrote about the sit­u­a­tion of the arche­typ­al “Mex­i­can” migrant woman:

[The Mex­i­can woman] can not call on coun­try or state health or eco­nom­ic resources because she doesn’t know Eng­lish and she fears depor­ta­tion. Amer­i­can employ­ers are quick to take advan­tage of her help­less­ness. She can’t go home. She’s sold her house, her fur­ni­ture, bor­rowed from friends in order to pay the coy­ote who charges her four or five thou­sand dol­lars to smug­gle her to Chica­go. She may work as a live-in maid for white, Chi­cano or Lati­no house­holds for as lit­tle as $15 a week. Or work in the gar­ment indus­try, do hotel work.10

At the domes­tic work­er cen­ter in the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area, women described a con­stant back and forth move­ment: across ter­ri­to­ry, between their home coun­try and the U.S.; and between work, (poor­ly) paid and unpaid. Some women migrat­ed to do unpaid house­work, car­ing for the home and for chil­dren after their hus­bands had found work north of the bor­der. Oth­ers came to do unpaid care work for rel­a­tives, or oth­ers in their broad kin net­works. Still oth­ers came specif­i­cal­ly to take over paid domes­tic work­er jobs for friends, or because they had heard of oppor­tu­ni­ties to do so. In Bor­der as Method, San­dro Mez­zadra and Brett Neil­son describe the flex­i­ble nature of care work today. In the case of immi­grant women domes­tic work­ers, a flex­i­ble con­cept of labor helps elu­ci­date how it defies sim­ple cat­e­go­riza­tions like man­u­al and emo­tion­al labor, for exam­ple. They write,

Phys­i­cal tasks such as cook­ing, clean­ing and iron­ing are increas­ing­ly com­bined with ser­vices ren­dered for ill, dis­abled, elder­ly, and young peo­ple. These ser­vices con­tin­ue to imply bod­i­ly exer­tion on the part of the work­er. But at stake here are also affects, emo­tions, and con­cerns that come to define the kind of com­pe­tence required for the work­er.11

In the care indus­try, a skilled work­er is one who can appear invis­i­ble even while they are con­stant­ly present and atten­tive. So, this mys­ti­fi­ca­tion of their labor takes place at the lev­el of the rela­tion­ship between employ­ee and employ­er, and at the lev­el of the nation­al imag­i­na­tion that penal­izes immi­gra­tion through xeno­pho­bic poli­cies at the same time that it relies on the ready pool of domes­tic labor.

To under­stand the cause of these cir­cum­stances, we can look at what schol­ars of migra­tion and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions have called “push and pull” the­o­ry, which is used to describe a host of fac­tors that push immi­grants from their home coun­tries and fac­tors that pull them to receiv­ing coun­tries. This the­o­ry sug­gests that struc­tur­al adjust­ment pro­grams dic­tat­ed by the Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund and World Bank cre­ate the con­di­tions that push work­ers out of their home coun­tries. Feel­ing the squeeze, many peo­ple opt to migrate to coun­tries where there is a “pull” fac­tor, such as read­i­ly avail­able jobs and cer­tain kinds of work visas. Press­ing up against the lim­its of push and pull the­o­ry, Grace Chen sug­gests a high­er degree of inten­tion­al­i­ty on the part of states, writ­ing that “immi­gra­tion doesn’t just hap­pen in response to a set of fac­tors but is care­ful­ly orches­trat­ed – that is, desired, planned, com­pelled, man­aged, accel­er­at­ed, slowed, and peri­od­i­cal­ly stopped.”12 Mez­zadra and Neil­son are also crit­i­cal of push and pull the­o­ry to the degree that it rei­fies nation­al bound­aries, argu­ing instead for a more robust analy­sis capa­ble of cap­tur­ing the ways in which bor­ders work not only across nation­al lines but encom­pass the com­plex “pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge and the har­ness­ing of labor.”13

Anoth­er fea­ture of the labor of immi­grant women is that immi­grant domes­tic work­ers are tasked with step­ping in to fill the gap cre­at­ed by what Nan­cy Fras­er calls the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­i­tal and care, or the unsus­tain­able, sys­tem­at­ic under­min­ing of social repro­duc­tion.14 As Fras­er points out, this trans­fer of care labor from priv­i­leged women to poor­er migrant women dis­places the gap in care rather than fill­ing it, because those women must then seek out oth­er women to take their place in their own fam­i­lies. Often, this means migrant women nev­er get to raise their own chil­dren, because they are rais­ing the chil­dren of oth­er more afflu­ent women.15 Arlie Hochschild recounts the sto­ry of 34-year old Vic­ki Diaz, who works as a house­keep­er in Bev­er­ly Hills, and is the moth­er of five chil­dren who she left behind in the Philip­pines. Diaz heart­break­ing­ly describes the ways she trans­fers the love she can­not give her chil­dren onto the 2 year old she cares for. Fraser’s robust def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis, one that encom­pass­es the inter­play between the cri­sis of social repro­duc­tion and eco­nom­ic, eco­log­i­cal, polit­i­cal crises, helps us frame the cur­rent moment: “on the one hand, social repro­duc­tion is a con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ty for sus­tained cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion; on the oth­er, capitalism’s ori­en­ta­tion to unlim­it­ed accu­mu­la­tion tends to desta­bi­lize the very process­es of social repro­duc­tion on which it relies.”16

Organizing Strategies

The super-exploita­tion of migrant work­ers – fem­i­nized immi­grant care work­ers in par­tic­u­lar – points toward ele­ments of a rad­i­cal polit­i­cal plat­form: open bor­ders for peo­ple, wages for the labor of social repro­duc­tion, labor pro­tec­tions that include the Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights, and pro­tec­tions for work­ers in the agri­cul­tur­al indus­try. But just as impor­tant­ly, the on-the-ground orga­niz­ing strate­gies of migrant work­ers also point towards new ways of build­ing pow­er in oppo­si­tion to neolib­er­al and nativist hege­mo­ny.

First, their orga­niz­ing has influ­enced and been influ­enced by new forms of col­lec­tiv­i­ty, in the work­place and what Patrick Cun­ing­hame has described as “the ter­rain of social repro­duc­tion,” or strug­gles beyond the point of pro­duc­tion.17 Since the work of social repro­duc­tion often takes the form of both for­mal waged work and infor­mal unwaged work,18 domes­tic work­ers are unique­ly sit­u­at­ed with one foot in each world. Thus, orga­nized net­works of domes­tic work­ers, when mobi­lized, are capa­ble of trig­ger­ing a chain of events both in the firm, as work­ers, and “in the com­mu­ni­ty,” as moth­ers, wives, etc.19 For exam­ple, when orga­niz­ers in the domes­tic work­er cen­ters want to do out­reach about the vic­to­ries of the Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights, they first tar­get already exist­ing net­works of waged and unwaged work­ers. One evening, a mem­ber of the orga­ni­za­tion invit­ed her rel­a­tives and neigh­bors to a know your rights work­shop in her liv­ing room, called a cafecito because they served cof­fee and tra­di­tion­al Mex­i­can pas­tries. Orga­niz­ers gave an edu­ca­tion­al work­shop about the labor rights of domes­tic work­ers, and role­played how one might go about ask­ing their employ­er to respect their labor rights. Those attend­ing includ­ed a woman who worked for the union­ized In Home Health Care pro­gram, anoth­er woman who was inter­est­ed in work­ing for IHHC, unpaid domes­tic work­ers, and an immi­grant man who had sus­tained an injury that had ren­dered him dis­abled and was inter­est­ed in know­ing more about the rights of domes­tic work­ers.

Domes­tic work­er cen­ters con­tin­ue the work of tra­di­tion­al domes­tic work­ers’ unions, as Esther Coop­er Jack­son described in the 1940s. They pro­vide edu­ca­tion and skills train­ing, pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment, and job place­ment; they stan­dard­ize the para­me­ters of domes­tic work; and they lob­by around wages, con­di­tions, and hours. Today’s strug­gle for the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Bill of Rights also finds strik­ing par­al­lels with the expe­ri­ence of domes­tic work­ers’ union­iza­tion some 70 years ago:

Today only one state, Wash­ing­ton, has a law which reg­u­lates hours of work in a house­hold employ­ment. This law was passed in 1937 and estab­lish­es a 60 hour work week for all employ­ees in pri­vate house­holds but per­mits longer work­ing hours in emer­gen­cies. The orig­i­nal draft of the bill includ­ed a six-day week, dou­ble pay for over­time, and pro­vi­sions of $50 fine for vio­la­tion. In order to get the bill through leg­is­la­ture, its pro­po­nents were forced to drop these pro­vi­sions. The results of the pas­sage of the bill have not been what its pro­po­nents had hoped for: employ­ers have been non-coop­er­a­tive in many instances and employ­ees are hes­i­tant to report vio­la­tions of the act for fear of los­ing their jobs.20

While women in these trades have suc­ceed­ed in win­ning more pro­tec­tions and short­er work­ing days, the enforce­ment of these pro­vi­sions remains a prob­lem. At the domes­tic work­er cen­ters in the Bay Area, orga­niz­ers have held gath­er­ings to edu­cate employ­ers of domes­tic work­ers – afflu­ent women who are in the posi­tion to hire nan­nies and house­keep­ers – about the rights of their employ­ees. In these meet­ings, atten­dees are asked ques­tions like “if you were sick, wouldn’t you want your employ­er to pay you sick leave?” These ques­tions are designed to pro­voke employ­ers to think about their nan­nies and house­keep­ers as work­ers, deserv­ing of labor pro­tec­tions. Orga­niz­ers report­ed that many of the women in these work­shops react with shock. They are not accus­tomed to think­ing about the work of social repro­duc­tion as “real” work, and the super-exploita­tion of Lati­na immi­grant women is nor­mal­ized, even in “pro­gres­sive” San Fran­cis­co.

This ten­sion speaks to the ways in which domes­tic work­ers’ cen­ters move between strug­gles at the point of pro­duc­tion and also on the ter­rain of social repro­duc­tion. Much of their work con­sists of mak­ing vis­i­ble the labor of social repro­duc­tion that cap­i­tal obscures. Esther Coop­er Jack­son regard­ed this as a kind of “stig­ma” about domes­tic work:

House­hold employ­ment gen­er­al­ly is viewed as unskilled work and per­sons so engaged are looked down upon social­ly. This belief holds despite the fact that house­hold tasks are var­ied and when they are done effi­cient­ly demand intel­li­gence and a con­sid­er­able vari­ety of skills… the domes­tic work­er may be giv­en a room off the laun­dry, or even in the garage; she has no secu­ri­ty of any kind, and is treat­ed in such a way by mem­bers of the fam­i­ly that a social stig­ma is attached to her.21

The labor of social repro­duc­tion, even when it is waged, often appears as unskilled and social­ly unnec­es­sary, even though this is not the case. Stigma­ti­za­tion often relies on stereo­types about a worker’s race, gen­der, and social sta­tus. Long-time domes­tic work­er Esper­an­za described how in Mex­i­co, when she had worked as a house­keep­er in the homes of afflu­ent employ­ers, she resent­ed being called a chacha, a stig­ma­tized word used to deride women work­ers of low­er class sta­tus. The Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent is the servile black “mam­my,” the stereo­type that under­gird­ed the real exploita­tion and abuse of black women nan­nies.22

The sec­tor of domes­tic work has faced unique bar­ri­ers to orga­ni­za­tions, which Coop­er Jack­son list­ed: “iso­la­tion, inde­pen­dence of each work­er, the lack of strong bar­gain­ing pow­er since each employ­er con­tends with each employ­ee, the over­crowd­ed labor mar­ket which makes com­pe­ti­tion keen, mobil­i­ty of the work­er asso­ci­at­ed with fre­quent changes in employ­ment, the lack of class feel­ing and uni­ty, and hence, the inabil­i­ty of work­ers to get togeth­er for meet­ings.”23 Yet despite its rep­u­ta­tion as an “unor­ga­ni­z­able” sec­tor, many exam­ples – in Lon­don, Scan­di­navia, Rus­sia and the U.S. – illus­trate that it is not only pos­si­ble to orga­nize domes­tic work but to ele­vate “the social stand­ing of domes­tic work­ers [such that it] is equal to oth­er work­ers” and free of stig­ma.24

The domes­tic work­er cen­ters thus incor­po­rate the know-your-rights train­ing cafecitos, pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment and skills train­ing activ­i­ties, and var­i­ous oth­er cul­tur­al pro­grams as part of a larg­er strat­e­gy of elim­i­nat­ing the stig­ma and ele­vat­ing the dig­ni­ty of domes­tic work.

Beyond this strug­gle of des­tigma­ti­za­tion, how­ev­er, the domes­tic work­er cen­ters also build up the pow­er of the class with­in the ter­rain of social repro­duc­tion. The Apoyo (Sup­port) groups of the domes­tic work­er cen­ters are respon­si­ble for the day-to-day oper­a­tions of the domes­tic work­er cen­ter, pro­vid­ing case man­age­ment by peer lead­ers, devel­op­ing work­shops and groups, and gen­er­al­ly build­ing up the social fab­ric of the com­mu­ni­ty of mujeres, Lati­na immi­grant women. Staff-mem­bers were stead­fast in their reminders to be kind to one anoth­er because “you nev­er know what a woman has been through.” Here again, tra­di­tion­al cus­toms like offer­ing cof­fee and botanas, or snacks, to guests were used as a way to cre­ate a sense of belong­ing for mem­bers, and this was explic­it­ly encour­aged. Dai­ly work­shops for mem­bers took place twice a day: once in the morn­ing for the stay-at-home women, and one in the evening for those that worked out­side of their homes dur­ing the day. Work­shop top­ics run the gamut from deal­ing with sex­u­al harass­ment in the work­place and parental accep­tance of queer chil­dren. Inter­spersed are sup­port groups where the sto­ries divulged are kept con­fi­den­tial. They liaise between emer­gency hous­ing facil­i­ties and women, with and with­out chil­dren, who often do not speak Eng­lish. And they escort women to court who would oth­er­wise be tak­en advan­tage of or be unable to rep­re­sent them­selves ade­quate­ly, not only because of lan­guage bar­ri­ers but also because of the inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty of legal jar­gon. Some women would be advised about what to stock in their refrig­er­a­tors if child pro­tec­tive ser­vices was com­ing to vis­it – offi­cials would be look­ing for Amer­i­can cere­al, milk, cheese, and bread, not fri­joles and tor­tillas.

A sig­nif­i­cant amount of ener­gy in these cen­ters also involves sup­port­ing women in manip­u­la­tive or vio­lent sit­u­a­tions with cur­rent and for­mer hus­bands, many of whom were manip­u­lat­ing or abu­sive. Many women whose hus­bands were the sole bread­win­ners report­ed expe­ri­enc­ing var­i­ous kinds of finan­cial manip­u­la­tion. Phys­i­cal and sex­u­al vio­lence, too, were ongo­ing. Many women faced insti­tu­tion­al as well as inter­per­son­al vio­lence when seek­ing divorces or in cus­tody bat­tles over chil­dren. In sev­er­al extreme instances, the domes­tic work­er cen­ter had to be put on alert to pro­tect mem­bers from stalk­ing by vio­lent for­mer lovers. 

The Marx­ist-fem­i­nist tra­di­tion has main­tained that the vio­lent behav­iors of men are not sim­ply chau­vin­ism or “oppres­sion,” but addi­tion­al­ly a key mech­a­nism through which cap­i­tal sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly main­tains the divi­sion of labor. Glo­ria Anzal­d­ua showed this con­nec­tion in her writ­ing about machis­mo in the Chi­cano com­mu­ni­ty:

Today’s macho has doubts about his abil­i­ty to feed and pro­tect his fam­i­ly. His “machis­mo” is an adap­ta­tion to oppres­sion and pover­ty and low self-esteem… The loss of a sense of dig­ni­ty and respect in the macho breeds a false machis­mo which leads him to put down women and even to bru­tal­ize them.25

On the oth­er hand, it has been shown that the bru­tal­iza­tion of women and their com­pul­so­ry labor breeds in many women work­ers the same kinds of psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal ill­ness­es described in the “macho” by Anzal­d­ua: depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and hyper­ten­sion to name a few. Cap­i­tal main­tains a fright­ened and sick work­force among the most hyper-exploitable work­ers.

The Coming Resistance

The strug­gles of domes­tic work­ers are not mere­ly a sec­toral strug­gle. As Sil­via Fed­eri­ci has writ­ten, cap­i­tal­ism not only requires “an immense quan­ti­ty of unpaid domes­tic activ­i­ty for the repro­duc­tion of the work­force,” but also engages in “the deval­u­a­tion of these repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties with the aim of reduc­ing the cost of the labor force” in gen­er­al.26 This analy­sis makes it pos­si­ble to see fem­i­nist move­ments against the gen­dered divi­sion of labor and for bod­i­ly auton­o­my as part of a broad­er strug­gle to under­mine capital’s capac­i­ty for exploita­tion. Women’s resis­tance is cen­tral to strug­gles both at work and in neigh­bor­hoods. As Patrick Cun­ing­hame recounts, this recog­ni­tion in 1970s Italy opened up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a broad range of strug­gles on the ter­rain of social repro­duc­tion, includ­ing auto-reduc­tion cam­paigns, rent strikes, stu­dent move­ments, and move­ments of the unem­ployed.27 The mantra of the domes­tic worker’s bill of rights, that “women work­ers make all oth­er work pos­si­ble” is a nod to those move­ments, ges­tur­ing to the sorts of paid and unpaid work of women that under­gird cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety and whose refusal has the poten­tial to shut down cap­i­tal­ism if the moment called for it. For some peo­ple like the orga­niz­ers of the upcom­ing women’s strike, it is appar­ent that moment to resist and refuse is now.

The women who refuse have much to learn from the polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­i­ties that have emerged out of the domes­tic work­ers’ move­ments and it will be cru­cial to con­nect these strug­gles against inter­per­son­al vio­lence, for an end to exploita­tion, against U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, and for a rad­i­cal reor­ga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety that will make the hopes and aspi­ra­tions of immi­grant women a real­i­ty. Orga­nized domes­tic work­ers have been active in recent years includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to par­tic­i­pat­ing in the 2006 Day With­out an Immi­grant strike, demon­stra­tions against Don­ald Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, local labor strug­gles, actions against police vio­lence, and bor­der strug­gles of var­i­ous kinds. Main­stream as well as left media have giv­en cre­dence to the efforts of insti­tu­tions like Catholic church­es and Lat­inx radio sta­tions in mobi­liz­ing large demon­stra­tions (and they cer­tain­ly have played a large role), but large­ly ignored the com­plex grass­roots net­works whose core is Lat­inx immi­grant women. With a pro­gram that priv­i­leges grass­roots women’s orga­ni­za­tion, the upcom­ing Women’s Strike is bring­ing these from the mar­gins to the lead­ing edge of the polit­i­cal resis­tance.

  1. Names have been changed to pro­tect the iden­ti­ties of inter­vie­wees. 

  2. Clau­dia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Prob­lems of Negro Women,” Words of Fire: An Anthol­o­gy of African-Amer­i­can Fem­i­nist Thought, (The New Press, 1995), 110. 

  3. End­notes, “The Log­ic of Gen­der,” End­notes no 3, (2013). 

  4. For exam­ple, see Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich and Arlie Hochschild, Glob­al Woman: Nan­nies, Maids and Sex Work­ers in the New Econ­o­my, (Holt Paper­backs, 2002). 

  5. Grace Chen, Dis­pos­able Domes­tics: Immi­grant Women Work­ers in the Glob­al Econ­o­my (Hay­mar­ket, 2016). 

  6. Ibid, xiii. 

  7. Ibid, xvi. 

  8. Ibid. Chen calls the Bracero pro­gram one of the most impor­tant exam­ples of “sys­tem­at­ic, gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned exploita­tion of migrant labor­ers” and reminds us that the 1991 North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment was designed to man­age the export of goods and peo­ple across the con­ti­nent. 

  9. Esther Coop­er Jack­son, “The Negro Woman Domes­tic Work­er in Rela­tion to Trade Union­ism,” View­point Mag­a­zine, (2015). 

  10. Glo­ria Anzal­d­ua, “The Home­land, Azt­lan,” Borderlands/La Fron­tera: The New Mes­ti­za, (Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 12-13. 

  11. Brett Neil­son and San­dro Mez­zadra, Bor­der as a Method, Or, The Mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of Labor. (Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013), 106. For a short­er primer on their work, see an inter­view con­duct­ed in the Work­ers’ Inquiry issue of View­point

  12. Chen, Dis­pos­able Domes­tics, 3. 

  13. Neil­son and Mez­zadra, Bor­der as a Method, 38. Their con­cept of bor­der as a method is part of a longer tra­di­tion of Marx­ist thought about the rela­tion­ship between dif­fer­ence and labor. For exam­ple, Maria Mies wrote that women were “the opti­mal force for cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion on the world scale” because “their work, whether in com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion or use val­ue, is obscured, does not appear as ‘free wage labour,’ is defined as an ‘income gen­er­at­ing activ­i­ty’ and hence can be bought at a much cheap­er price than male labour.” Like­wise, Immanuel Waller­stein has writ­ten that “as racism is meant to keep peo­ple inside the work sys­tem, so sex­ism does the same.” 

  14. Nan­cy Fras­er, “Con­tra­dic­tions of Cap­i­tal and Care,” New Left Review no. 100, July-August, (2016). 

  15. Arlie Hochschild, “The Nan­ny Chain,” The Amer­i­can Prospect, (2001). 

  16. Fras­er, “Con­tra­dic­tions of Cap­i­tal and Care.” 

  17. Patrick Cun­ing­hame, “Map­ping the Ter­rain of Strug­gle: Autonomous Move­ments in 1970’s Italy,” View­point Mag­a­zine, (2015). 

  18. See End­notes’ “Log­ic of Gen­der” on the Marx­ist dis­tinc­tion between “direct­ly mar­ket medi­at­ed” and “indi­rect­ly mar­ket medi­at­ed” work of social repro­duc­tion. 

  19. See Mari­arosa Dal­la Costa’s “The Pow­er of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­ni­ty.” 

  20. Coop­er Jack­son, “The Negro Woman Domes­tic Work­er in Rela­tion to Trade Union­ism (1940).” 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Unknown, “We Are Lit­er­al­ly Slaves: An Ear­ly Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Black Nan­ny Sets the Record Straight,” (Inde­pen­dent, 25 Jan 1912), 196–200. 

  23. Coop­er Jack­son, “The Negro Woman Domes­tic Work­er in Rela­tion to Trade Union­ism (1940)”. 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Anzal­d­ua, Bor­der­lands, 38. 

  26. Cun­ing­hame, “Map­ping the Ter­rain of Strug­gle”. 

  27. Ibid. 

Author of the article

was born and raised in East Los Angeles/Boyle Heights but currently resides in Brooklyn, where she teaches and organizes. She has been a community activist in various capacities since the age of 13 when she was a student leader in the "Day Without a Mexican" General Strike.