The Cleaning Power Cooperative
by Ivonne Canellada, Global Connect Blogger
Earlier this year, the entertainment news was abuzz with the nominations given to one of the most controversial films of the year: The Help.
The movie touched the subject of the racial discrimination faced by African-American housekeepers during the fifties and the sixties. The “hero” of the film, a white woman who interviews the spirited housekeepers, gives voice to their story when she publishes a book.
Controversy stirred from the fact that in the film a white woman was portrayed as the savior of the the African American housekeepers. While many people have criticized it, I personally loved this film because I see myself and many local housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers who still struggle with the same issues today.
Today housekeepers and domestic staff are still mostly minorities and immigrants. In Chicago, immigrants from Mexico, Philippines, Africa, and Eastern Europe, work for cleaning agencies or on their own.
Last year, Dorchen Leidholdt, director of Sanctuary for Families told Voices of America that sexual harassment was among the most frequent issues minority workers deal with.
"Immigrant women, especially young immigrant women, are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment in the workplace," she told VOA.
Leidholdt says most of her clients are immigrants, “And we hear horrifying stories about what they are subjected to by employers," she said. The National Domestic Workers Alliance is calling for an international law banning harassment.
Other common issues include insecure workplaces, insufficient compensation and a range of health violations. The National Domestic Worker’s Alliance is currently lobbying for inclusion in the National Labor Relations Act and is actively promoting bills in California that would extend new rights to domestic workers.
Locally, there has been less progress. Back in 2010 the Chicago Workers Collaborative, along with four other labor rights organizations, won a legal battle that made wage theft a crime.
Today, local organizations continue to lobby for new laws to protect housekeepers, nannies and others.
The Cleaning Power Cooperative, a group made up of local women, took matters into their own hands and after years of working with cleaning agencies that withdrew pay from them and abused them, they decided to create a Cooperative that would give them work on their own terms and they would be able to share this work with other cooperative members, thereby creating jobs for themselves and their coworkers and looking out for each other in times of need.
Editors Note: Due to the fact that the cooperative is made up of mostly undocumented women, their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
The Cooperative was founded in 2008 by Cris, a feisty 40-year-old woman from Zacatecas, Mexico. Cris says she said she decided to create her own cleaning group after suffering many years of abuse and prejudice at the hands of unscrupulous agencies who routinely decided when and if they would get paid, did not pay them over time, called them to work and then sent them home for no reason. Cris is a mother of four and to compliment her income, she also works at a factory during the day. She is the sole provider of her family as her husband lost his job a few years ago.
“I came here from Mexico 18 years ago, I crossed the border in order to work and have a better life for my family. One of the first jobs I got was thru a cleaning agency. I worked with them for a few years but the abuse was rampant. Especially because most of us were undocumented, they thought we could be taken advantage of easier; I was eventually able to find the job I have at a factory. I helped cofound the cooperative because I was tired of the abuse in the agencies and even though it has been tough, we started meeting at the Latino Workers Union of Chicago and Biblioteca Popular once a week in the evenings, there we have been given the support of its staff into organizing and creating our website and book our jobs.”
Cris is interested in the total well-being of her colleagues. She has invested in non-toxic cleaning materials and says she is proud to run a “green cleaning cooperative.”
“We use all environmentally safe products and our employers are also like us so we have had good things so far, but we need more work because people come in trying to join us and they think that right away we have work for them but unfortunately, this is not the case. Hopefully in the future we will be a big organization like the Domestic Workers Alliance in California and help out other workers all over the country.”
Lilia, a member of Cleaning Power Cooperative, is a spunky down to earth mother of two. She is also from Mexico. She is also undocumented. She immigrated with her husband and made a family here and she was a wife and mother, dependant on her husband for income and was five months pregnant with her second child when, in 2008; her husband was detained and deported back to Mexico, leaving Lily to fend for herself and grow the courage she needed to survive.
“I did not speak any English and in 2008. I got a call saying my husband was at the detention center on California and 26th street in Cook County. He was detained during a traffic stop and eventually was deported back to our country; Mexico,” she recalls.
“I was pregnant, with another young child in tow, alone, and desperate,” she says. “I gathered my courage and started selling cosmetics, clothes, and eventually was connected to a cleaning agency where I more or less had a regular job, but the abuse and the working conditions were terrible. And eventually I joined the coop.”
“Without the support and encouragement of our coop I would not be able to pull thru. I am grateful for this group and I want to see it grow and become an organization that helps many people in our circumstances,“ she says.
The Cleaning Power Cooperative is just one example of local women uniting for their rights and working together in the struggle for a better life.