Last Monday President Obama announced Assistant Attorney General Thomas Pereze of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division as his nominee for labor secretary. The announcement was met with criticism from Senate Republicans due to his support of protections for vulnerable and undocumented workers. Indeed, Perez has proven himself a champion of many progressive causes throughout his career. As has been pointed out already, conservative resistance to Obama’s first Latino cabinet member can hardly attract positive attention to the GOP from Latino voters.
Among Perez’s credentials is his initiation of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in Montgomery County, Maryland during his time on the County Council. Guaranteed rights of domestic workers are controversial and rarely pass in U.S. politics — at the state level, only New York has managed to ratify one. Disappointing, but not shocking in a labor landscape which systematically undervalues "pink-collar" jobs.
Indeed, domestic work, a profession dominated by women and immigrants (two of the most vulnerable groups in the workforce), has been intentionally left out of U.S. labor politics from the get-go. In 1938, when the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was initially passed, domestic workers were left out as a concession to southern politicians whose constituents wanted to preserve "slavery-era conditions" for domestic workers.
And why not? Domestic workers aren’t just women (who already can’t possibly be responsible for supporting a whole family — men are the breadwinners, right?). They’re also overwhelmingly women of color, a demographic of workers historically erased from both labor rights and feminist activism. It is an oft-cited critique of second-wave feminism that while white women were fighting to break into the labor force, black women had been laboring in the domestic environment for decades — and being granted inconsistent levels of recognition as fully human workers.
Up against nearly a century-old gendered exclusion from labor rights, Perez’s nomination is good news for domestic workers and their advocates.