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“Have you ever been here?” Yterenickia Bell asks me while we wait for the door to the Cascade Skating Rink to open. “It’s historic,” she says, leading me out of the December rain and into the fluorescent-lit roller-skating rink in the Adamsville neighborhood of West Atlanta. “People have been gathering here for years.”
The ice rink is waiting for the night crowd. Video games sit quietly in a corner. The snack bar is dark except for a flashing neon sign. But it’s not empty: a handful of people in orange shirts and masks chat at the other end of the rink before braving the rain to vote for Senate candidate Raphael Warnock. Bell is the GOTV director for Care in Action, an advocacy group whose members are mostly nannies, house cleaners and domestic servants. “We operate from here because we have everyday people who are workers who may have lost their jobs due to COVID, and a saturation of them live in this area,” she says. “It’s the community that helps the community.”
I would come to Georgia to see the Democrats’ basic game ahead of the Senate runoff election and, in particular, to understand the role this group of domestic workers, most of whom are women of color, played in turning the state purple. At the moment, the ice rink is the center of the action. From here, Bell organized 250 door knockers a day to publicize the race and the coordination logistics. “It takes people who are committed to this work and who know what it’s about,” she says. “They have to get up at eight every morning to be here by nine for training, and then go to their special lawn and knock on people’s doors.” In the two months leading up to the runoff election, Care in Action reached 5.85 million voters, either by phone, mail, or in person, including more than 1 million door knocks. “Georgia is about to save our entire democracy, so we’re all in it,” says Bell.
These efforts have paid off. Shortly after the Georgians elected a Democrat president for the first time in 30 years, they elected Warnock, a black preacher, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish millennial, to represent them in the Senate and gain Democrats’ tight control over the chamber . In the black-majority boroughs, early numbers indicated that turnout in the January runoff would surpass November 2020, reaching levels not seen since Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. Republican turnout was also strong, but not enough to reverse a second blue wave in so many months.
While Care in Action is not affiliated with Stacey Abrams, who is widely credited with making Georgia blue, its work is a direct extension of the Democrats’ decades of efforts to reshape the state through organizing color voters. “What it takes to win in Georgia is a multiracial coalition,” said Rep. Nikema Williams, who served as deputy director of Care in Action in 2018 and now holds the seat of the US House of Representatives, formerly owned by Rep. John Lewis was held. And just as this coalition did not come together overnight, it also relied on generations of organization by black domestic workers. “I believe investing in long-term community-based organization and power-building will pay off,” said Ai-jen Poo, Senior Adviser to Care in Action and founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Throughout our history, black domestic workers have organized and really affirmed their dignity through organization.”
Atlanta is the birthplace of this movement. The first recorded domestic worker strike occurred in 1881 when black women in Atlanta left their jobs to demand better wages. Dorothy Lee Bolden helped found the National Domestic Workers Union of America (a forerunner of the NDWA) in the city in 1968. It was less of a formal union than an education and advocacy group that Bolden ran for nearly three decades. She built an infrastructure that led the union directly to the people it represented. She used public buses to hold informal meetings and to recruit domestic workers on her daily commute. There were two requirements to join the union: Members had to be domestic workers and they had to vote.
Bolden began her career as a domestic servant when she was 9, washing diapers for the family that her mother employed as a housekeeper. As an adult, she cleaned houses and looked after children during the day and spent her nights listening to Dr. Seeing Martin Luther King on TV as she sewed for her daughters. She marched with King when he came to Atlanta, and she organized a boycott of city schools in 1964 to protest the differences in educational quality between black and white children, and she applied the lessons of her activism to the NDWU. “A domestic worker is a counselor, a doctor, a nurse. She looks after the family she works for as much as she does her own, ”she said in 1983. Even so, domestic workers“ have never been recognized as part of the labor force ”. Determined to change that, she built a permanent domestic worker community that included once disempowered people working in isolation.
The NDWU eventually expanded to 10 other states, received employee compensation and social security benefits, and helped raise the minimum wage in Atlanta by 33 percent. Bolden also had an influential voice influencing national politics; Their expertise was sought by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
The movement wavered a little in the 1980s when union power waned, but it was revived a decade ago when Poo began organizing home care workers to push for better OSH. After scoring victory after victory, she found that the women she had brought together were a wasted electoral bloc. In 2018, she launched Care in Action to cast votes for candidates standing on policies that domestic workers could benefit from. That same year, Abrams ran for governor of Georgia while advancing an unabashedly progressive agenda that included expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, and ensuring quality public education. Abrams received the first endorsement from Care in Action, and the group mobilized 300 domestic workers to promote them.
The people who worked on this campaign remember that there was a nice synergy with domestic workers advocating the possibility of Abrams becoming Georgia’s first black governor. “We were very careful to have a program aimed at people who had been overlooked in the political process for far too long,” recalls Williams. “Our unique ability was that our members actually did the acquisition. It really changed the game for us and the way we were able to expand the electorate. “
Though Abrams lost her bid, thanks in no small part to her opponent’s electoral repression tactics, then Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Poo and others felt they had bottled a bolt of lightning. In terms of the people knocking on the sidewalk, Care in Action was the largest grassroots independently funded effort in Georgia during the 2018 election cycle. Since then, it has expanded to Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan. It started small and focused on some state candidates and the presidential election to expand its activities in Georgia.
Despite the challenges of a pandemic that forced a rethink in terms of campaigns and infrastructure, Care in Action was able to transport the energy of 2018 through two more highly competitive races in 2020. “I think that [Abrams’ loss] was the momentum we needed that got us ready and able to run for the Senate runoff and get involved with a general, ”says Bell. “We could essentially turn our state blue.”
Melanie Jackson, a domestic worker in the Atlanta area, I realize that by acquiring with Care in Action, she felt she was making a difference in a state whose elections have a profound impact on the rest of the country. She recalls a recent conversation she had with a black man in his thirties who told her he wasn’t going to vote – he just didn’t feel there was any reason. She says she stared at him in disbelief. “You’re going to miss your first opportunity to send a Georgia black to the United States Senate?” She asked him.
He replied, “Sister, just because you said that, I’ll vote for the guy.”
“We closed our eyes,” she told me. “I know he worked this through, and he probably was thinking of me when he pushed those buttons. No doubt on my mind “