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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Transforming the Borders of Citizenship: Domestic Worker Organizing from the Ground Up

  • Author(s): Purtill, Maureen Gaddis
  • Advisor(s): Estrada, Leobardo
  • et al.

Domestic workers are the workers that make all other work possible. They are nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly and for people with disabilities. Despite the importance of this work with our families and our homes, domestic workers and their labor are often undervalued. Because of the historic and systemic devaluing of domestic workers and domestic work, domestic workers are organizing at multiple scales for dignity, membership, respect, and recognition as real workers, and as full and valid members of society. Their organizing efforts transform what it means to be a citizen in the United States, and challenge common assumptions within the urban citizenship literature about which sites of contestation are most important in the neoliberal era.

Despite the fact that the majority of domestic workers today are immigrant women of color, who may be among the least likely to have access to formal citizenship rights, many are organizing at the forefront of "transformative organizing", an organizing model that seeks to heal the world by healing ourselves, and by building power fueled by love and a recognition of our interdependence. These contestations not only demand rights and responsibilities associated with citizenship, but invite us to view citizenship as a relationship between people based in our interdependence and mutual respect as human beings on this earth. I argue that these organizing efforts offer a new set of practices and conceptualization around transformative citizenship, at a time when US society is grappling with questions of who should belong, and who should be excluded from formal citizenship.

ALMAS, Alianza de Mujeres Activas y Solidarias, or The Women's Action and Solidarity Alliance, is a domestic worker organization that has been organizing around domestic workers rights since 2005 in Northern California. ALMAS is the domestic worker project of the Graton Day Labor Center, and is a member of the steering committee of the California Domestic Workers Rights Coalition (CDWRC), and a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). Through participant-observation in the domestic worker movement as an organizer and researcher with ALMAS, I incorporate an intersectional analysis to questions around domestic work, contestations around membership and citizenship, and the impact of intersecting identities and scales of influence on ALMAS members in their struggles for justice.

A focus on primarily unauthorized immigrant women of color organizing along a shared point of unity as domestic workers helps to shed light on the multi-scalar nature of citizenship as it is contested by people who lack both formal citizenship status and substantive worker citizenship, and workers' rights, at the intersection of the gendered immigration and racialized sector of domestic work.

This dissertation is an in-depth case study of the organizing efforts of ALMAS, in the context of its work as a member of broader local, state , and national groups, coalitions, and alliances. Their organizing efforts challenge some of the major assumptions within the Urban Citizenship literature, which suggest that the city or local is the most relevant scale where citizenship and membership are being contested in the neoliberal era. While the assertion that the local is important is not incorrect, it does not fully explain the transformative citizenship and organizing practices of domestic worker groups. The city or local is important, but considering the multiple ways that domestic workers are excluded, organizing efforts to expand citizenship, membership, and women's and workers' rights must happen at multiple scales simultaneously, with the city being only one of many sites of contestation. Important sites and scales of contestation also include the body, the home as workplace, the state, and the nation, among others.

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