Household Worker Organizing, Its Lessons for Labor Today

Against the Current, No. 178, September/October 2015

Premilla Nadasen

INCOME INEQUALITY IS at its highest point in a century, as real wages for most Americans have barely budged for decades. Corporate streamlining, downsizing and outsourcing have led to a dramatic decline in manufacturing jobs in the United States. Public sector unions are under attack across the country, most visibly in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile those on the left lament the weakness of the labor movement in American politics. Indeed the mainstream labor union has waned, with a private sector unionization rate of only 6.6%. But a working-class movement that includes farmworkers, domestic workers and the Fight-for-$15 seems to be growing.

The example of household workers, who for generations have utilized alternative labor strategies, illustrates how these marginalized labor sectors have a great deal to offer us in thinking of a new way forward. They have not only organized in a sector historically considered unorganizable; they also count among their members the very people that most unions have shied away from: poor women of color.

Domestic work is representative of a paradigmatic shift in labor, as the conditions of labor for other workers seem to converge with and more closely resemble those of private household workers.

In the past few decades labor restructuring has expanded the category of service and precarious work, often filled by women and immigrants. Neoliberal economic trends, including attacks on the unions, the dismantling of the welfare state, and the decline of well-paying jobs are contributing to the transformation of labor, which is increasingly becoming insecure, intermittent, low-paying, and unregulated.

Although discussions of precarious work have proliferated over the past several years, I argue that there has always been a sector of the American labor force that has experienced precarity, been denied basic labor rights, and forced to turn to innovative labor organizing strategies. Indeed, the class of workers in protected and stable employment situations was always a minority of workers.

Domestic workers of the 1960s and 1970s are illustrative not only of the new conditions of labor, but also new patterns of organizing. Their strategies of community-based labor organizing, social movement tactics, and state-based rather than employer-based protections provide a history and a framework for understanding how precarious workers can organize.

I look to these historical models as a precursor for new labor organizing today.

1960s Domestic Worker Organizing

African-American household workers are an important, if somewhat understudied, component of the post-World War II Black freedom and labor movements. They participated in civil rights campaigns and also formed an independent movement for workers’ rights.

Less than 20 years after the decline of this movement, another struggle for household workers’ rights emerged, made up primarily of immigrant women. Looking at these two movements together allows us to think about the shifting economic climate for labor organizing, but also how both of these movements relied on history and storytelling as political strategy. And it suggests that working-class struggle is present even in the current seemingly bleak organizing climate.

In the 1950s and 1960s, domestic workers were a large percentage of the grass-roots activists who participated in civil rights campaigns, perhaps most evidently in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Historians have documented how domestic workers were strategically positioned in white households to gather information, provided a mass base both in street demonstrations and in church meetings, and sometimes served as local leaders because of their knowledge and standing in the community.

In addition to their indispensable roles in civil rights protest, domestic workers also organized their own movement. They mobilized in cities around the country to transform the occupation of private household work, which had come to so vividly symbolize Black servitude and white exploitation of African-American women.

Household workers refused to enter through the back door, take hand-me-downs in lieu of payment, and serve at the beck and call of their employers. In their view the struggle for domestic workers’ rights was a struggle for Black liberation.

These workers eventually came together in a national formation, The Household Technicians of America, which at its peak had a membership of 25,000. They pushed for dignity, higher pay, professionalization, and labor protections, from which domestic workers had been excluded since the 1930s.

They succeeded in establishing a national voice for household workers and gaining federal minimum wage for this occupation in 1974.

Organizing outside the formal labor movement, household workers had few allies among labor leaders. They did, however, receive support and inspiration from the civil rights, women’s and Black Power movements. In this regard they were more akin to the social movement unionism of the 1990s — relying on mobilization strategies and developing political alliances to build a movement rather than a union structure.

The organizing approach of Dorothy Bolden was one example. Bolden, a confidant of Martin Luther King, mobilized a citywide movement of household workers in Atlanta in the 1970s demanding a minimum wage and a written contract with specified rights and responsibilities.

She used city bus lines as her organizing venue — riding the buses and speaking to household workers on their way to work. She also tapped the support and resources of employers to bring attention to the plight of household workers and greater recognition and value to the work.

Women’s Leadership and Vulnerability

In building a movement, household workers relied on African-American women’s history as well as the history of racism and slavery. The trope of slavery became the most important framework for thinking about this occupation and was repeated among household worker organizers.

The history of slavery highlighted the racialized nature of the work and the connotations of servitude that continued to shape the occupation. In their campaign for transformation, domestic workers rejected labels tinged with notions of slavery and servitude. They refused to be called servants, “mammies,” or aunties, and referred to themselves as household technicians.

The Bronx Slave Markets of the 1930s also came up again and again in their organizing. These were street corners in New York City where African-American women stood to be hired as day laborers in the midst of the Great Depression, when work of any kind was hard to come by.

Such hiring practices symbolized African-American women’s vulnerability and the super-exploitation they experienced as household workers. Two African American journalists, Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, had written about the street corner markets and dubbed them the “slave markets” because of the ways in which Black women’s bodies were bartered.

Household workers in the 1970s had not directly experienced the slave markets, but they knew of them.
Geraldine Miller, for example, came from a family of household workers and began working alongside her mother at the age of six in her home town in Kansas. After moving to New York she heard stories of the Bronx Slave Market and how employers looked for the women with the most scarred knees, since that meant they scrubbed floors down on all fours.

The stories of the slave markets became part of Miller’s organizing toolbox, as she insisted to other household workers that no one should have to scrub floors on their hands and knees. Slavery and the slave markets became a way for household workers to analyze their current situation.

That imagery helped them make sense of an occupation that exploited and disempowered them. It also became a way to draw women into their organization. It is a powerful example of how history is used and narrated by social movement activists, as is workers’ claiming of their family histories — their mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts who had labored as domestics.

The references to slavery and family history were part of the process of constructing solidarity and political consciousness, part of how they made a movement.

Changing Demographics and Strategy

Household workers in the 1970s were organizing at a time when the racial makeup of the workforce was shifting. Civil-rights-era gains prompted many African-American women to leave the occupation, and changes in immigration law in 1965 enabled the entry of larger numbers of immigrant women into the United States.

So, at the very moment when African-American domestic workers organized, the occupation was becoming increasingly dominated by immigrant labor. The shift from a largely African-American to a largely immigrant workforce raises questions about organizing strategy.

One of the most interesting discoveries in the course of my research was the relationship between African-American and immigrant domestic workers in the 1970s. Although African-American leaders of the household workers rights movement were tied to the Black freedom movement, from the start they reached out to and embraced immigrant domestic workers.

Organizers were committed to building a diverse movement that spoke to the needs of all domestic workers. There is evidence that Chinese, Jamaican, Haitian, Salvadoran and African-American household workers formed alliances.

Sustained interracial collaboration was an exception, however. African-American women were not successful at building the kind of diverse movement they envisioned, in part because as these relationships were being nurtured, the movement itself was weakening.

Nevertheless, I think their commitment to organizing a multiracial movement is instructive for thinking about building worker solidarity and dispelling myths of the inevitable tension between African-American and immigrant workers.

Less than two decades after the movement of African-American women folded in 1980, another movement emerged, led by immigrant domestic workers. Like the previous generation, these workers came together in neighborhood or community organizations rather than labor unions.

The ethnic-based groups or workers centers served as a space for workers to connect with one another and develop systems of support. It included women from Mexico, El Salvador, the Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia, Barbados and dozens of other countries.

This racially diverse movement engaged in public shaming of abusive employers, professionalization and training, and pushing for bills of rights to protect the workforce. They formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance to bring together the local and neighborhood associations.

Examining how these two movements developed alternative labor formations offers an opportunity to think about the shifting economic climate. The context for the two movements was very different.

The 1960s and 1970s presented a moment of expanding social rights, with gains made in the right of public sector workers to organize, extension of the Fair Labor Standards Act to previously uncovered occupations, and greater investment in social security and food stamps.

The 1990s, on the other hand, was a period marked by a shredding of the safety net, the decline of manufacturing, the movement of factories abroad, an attack on labor unions and diminishing rights for workers.

With increasing numbers of workers who are part-time, subcontracted, temporary or self-employed, there has been a cutback in basic benefits like pensions, health insurance and paid vacations. Regular, predictable work is no longer guaranteed. More working Americans go from job to job, or from occupation to occupation.

This kind of precarious work is the norm today. But there has always been hierarchy and inequality in the U.S. labor force. Not all workers lived the good life even during the golden moment of the 1950s. There was a sector, whether African-American domestic workers or Mexican bracero workers or Puerto Rican contract laborers or Filipino farmworkers, who always faced these precarious labor conditions and never had the labor protections we take for granted today. They were excluded from much of the labor legislation passed during the New Deal.

Facing Today’s Realities

Perhaps the real shock of today’s neoliberal economy is not that working Americans are now facing these difficult work conditions — but that so many Americans are facing such conditions. In fact, what the typical American worker is experiencing today recalls what the African-American worker experienced in the 1950s.

Given how household workers always were and still are on the margins, while other forms of labor are increasingly coming to resemble household labor, perhaps the real lessons of this organizing is that it offers a way forward for the labor movement.

Because of their isolation from the mainstream labor movement and exclusion from labor laws such as the National Labor Relations Act, household workers have had to forge an independent organizing path. They couldn’t rely on union representatives and union funding. And they were more likely to develop alliances with employers.

In addition the structure of the domestic labor occupation didn’t fit the model upon which the mainstream labor movement was built, which very often relied on a manufacturing model and was premised on the idea that a worker would be employed by a single employer for much of their lifetime.

Consequently, benefits were often tied to a particular employer or industry. And organizing was usually dependent upon collective workspaces.

In contrast, household laborers are dispersed — located in private homes with very little contact with other workers — and because they are engaged in work so closely associated with women’s unpaid household and located in the domestic sphere, their labor is often not considered real work.

This context meant that household workers have had to establish new forms of labor organizing that spoke to the particularities of their occupation.

They engaged in one-on-one bargaining with employers and couldn’t turn to union reps to advocate on their behalf.

They sought to publicly shame employers when they violated workers’ sense of dignity.

They sought to establish labor protections through legislative channels rather than based on one’s employer.

And they organized all household workers regardless of ethnic and racial background, length of time in service, credentials, or immigration status.

Organizing pioneered by domestic workers in the 1960s is an early example of the social movement unionism that emerged in the 1990s.

The innovative labor strategies that household workers engaged in, much like Justice for Janitors and hotel maids in recent decades, offer a different way to think about how to organize in a neoliberal economy.

It suggests that labor organizing has to expand beyond the shop floor to the public square, that benefits should be rooted in legislation affecting both organized and unorganized workers, and that the labor movement needs to be more inclusive rather than focusing primarily on the union’s own members — and requires that we integrate an analysis of race, ethnicity and gender in any discussion of labor organizing.


I want to conclude by saying a few words about historical memory and activism. I just completed a book on domestic worker organizing in the postwar period and part of what I look at is how activists construct historical memory.

I suggest that examining how social movements construct narratives can tell us about their political analysis and their strategic organizing. The memory of slavery, as I’ve discussed, is one example of this.

In addition, the histories of organizing provided inspiration. The example of the civil rights movement — especially the examples of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks — were powerfully resonant for household workers. Household workers today draw on civil rights activism and the domestic workers rights movements of the 1970s as models for social change.

Barbara Young is a household worker who serves as the national organizer and spokesperson for the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Young was born in Barbados and moved to New York after her job in the public sector was eliminated because of structural adjustment policies.

When she began to organize other household workers in New York, Young was moved by the stories she heard from other household workers and drew on the examples of women like Rosa Parks and Dorothy Bolden to think about political strategy and the possibilities for organizing this sector.

So, in part because of the difficulties of organizing this occupation and the kinds of challenges workers encountered, history — both the history of the occupation and the history of organizing — proved to be important. Workers drew on history and constructed their own historical narratives to understand domestic work and to forge new campaigns for social change.

September-October 2015, ATC 178