Workers rights, Labor Day and Jewish values: Its time to pass a domestic workers bill of right

editor’s note: AB  889 passed the State Senate after this article went to press. The bill now goes to the Governor’s desk for his signature.


For years, my partner and I have employed domestic workers for child care and household care and cleaning. I could not have pursued my community violence prevention and social justice work without their support. Nor would the quality of our time with our children have been the same.

At first, I didn’t see myself as an employer. Only one person worked for us, and just part time at that. I now have a different perspective.

Two years ago, I was excited to hear that the National Domestic Workers Alliance was bringing its successful New York state campaign for a domestic workers bill of rights to California. I’ve since become active in the campaign through Hand in Hand and Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, two groups that are part of a broad California coalition. Because of the campaign, I became aware not just of my responsibility to think about work breaks, annual wage increases and vacation and sick pay, but also my responsibility to negotiate respectfully and transparently with the person I employed to create a mutually beneficial work relationship.

While many labor protections have become standardized in American industries over the last century, child care providers, caregivers and housekeepers have been historically excluded from the benefits most other workers take for granted — overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, healthy sleeping conditions for overnight workers.

But change is on the horizon, in the shape of A.B. 889, known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. It would bring thousands of California workers into the fold of fair labor protections. Two weeks ago, I attended a large rally in Sacra-mento to urge final passage of the bill, which has passed the state Assembly and moved out of the Senate Appropriations Committee to an impending vote on the Senate floor. Passing this bill will right a historic wrong.

Why are the rights of domestic workers a crucial issue, especially for the Jewish community?

As with the general population, the number of elderly Jews who need home care is exploding; about 20 percent of the American Jewish population is 65 or older. Like many of us, I have family members and friends who are ill, have disabilities or are aging, and who rely on domestic workers to provide care and allow them to live a life of dignity and relative independence. But half of all home apass so-called “right-to-work” laws or make it more difficult for unions to collect dues. Anti-labor politicians, pundits, conservative foundations and other ideologues cynically use the economic downturn to scapegoat workers and their unions.

These attacks serve to reinforce the increasing concentration of wealth, diminish the flow of purchasing power needed to revive the economy and deny workers a voice in their workplaces. Anti-labor forces in Michigan are even attempting to deny voters the opportunity to enshrine the right to collective bargaining in their state constitution.

As the unions that represent working men and women are systematically crippled, the corporate money that has flowed untrammeled into American politics since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United gives the wealthy more influence than ever over public policy and legislation.

This comports with the justice our Jewish traditions teach us to pursue. That is why an overwhelming majority of delegates to this year’s annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs passed a resolution strongly supporting collective bargaining rights in the public as well as the private sector. As the resolution reminds us, “religious commandments in the Torah and Talmud relating to the employment of workers are imbued with respect for labor rights.”

Ki Teitzei, the Torah portion read in congregations around the world the Shabbat before Labor Day this year, commands employers to be fair and honest in their dealings with employees (Deuteronomy 24:14-15), and it obligates Jews to practice mutual aid (Deuteronomy 22:1-4). On this Labor Day, let us rededicate ourselves to rebuilding the broad solidarity that has always been the foundation for a fair, decent and strong society.


Paul Kivel is a social justice educator, activist and writer. He is a member of the Bay Area regional council of Bend the Arc, Hand in Hand and Kehilla Community Synagogue.