The Domestic Workers’ Movement

Against the Current, No. 183, July-August 2016

Cheryl Coney

Household Workers Unite
The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built A Movement
By Premilla Nadasen
Beacon Press, 2015, 220 pages + notes, $27.95 cloth.

THE EXPLOITATION OF Black labor becomes even more apparent when we study the roles of Black women and work. Premilla Nadasen focuses on women domestic workers during a period of time when between one-third and one-half of all Black women were employed as domestics. Isolated in the individual home, they could not use traditional union tactics to organize. Yet they developed strategies through which they built sustainable networks.

As the author writes, “The domestic workers’ rights movement brought a new dimension to black working-class struggles. This was not a struggle for equal opportunity or individual access to previously closed occupations, but a broader campaign for economic rights for African American domestic workers and for a new definition of labor.” (34-35)

Embedded in the romanticized image of the African-American woman as a “mammy” figure who functions as a loyal servant allowed whites, North and South, an authoritarian hierarchy and gendered racism. Nadasen quotes historian Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ definition of “mammy” as “a code word for appropriately subordinate black behavior.” (12)

The author points to the ways Black women refuted that definition and insisted on a new narrative. She begins her first chapter discussing playwright and actress Alice Childress’ 1956 book, Like One of the Family. Compiled from stories written for the Baltimore Afro-American and Paul Robeson’s Freedom, they recount conversations between Mildred, a sassy domestic, and her friend, Marge.

In one story Mildred’s employer tells a friend that she is “like one of the family.” Once the friend leaves Mildred points out to her employer the several ways in which that was definitely not true.

While Premilla Nadasen recounts an episode of domestic workers organizing a Washing Society as early as 1881 to demand higher wages, she concentrates on the groundswell of organizing that took place between the 1950s and the 1970s. With increasing Black migration to urban areas, by 1950 Black women were 60% of the country’s domestic workers. Yet within 20 years the number of Black domestics shrank to 19.5% as Black women found more work opportunities.

“Ordinary” Women Become Leaders

Thumbnail sketches of Black women domestic workers who became key organizers provide insights into the many dilemmas they faced. They used fellowship and camaraderie in organizing to overcome racial discrimination and social inequality in the workplace — achieving victories in the profession from which later generations of Black domestic workers would benefit.

Featured in Household Workers Unite are Georgia Gilmore from Montgomery, Alabama; Dorothy Bolden from Atlanta, Georgia; Geraldine Roberts from Cleveland, Ohio; Mary McClendon from Detroit, Michigan; Geraldine Miller from the Bronx and Carolyn Reed from New York City. Several were moved by the great civil rights actions of the period, and became activists in them.

Georgia Gilmore worked as a nurse and midwife in the Black community, as a cook in a cafeteria and as a maid in private homes. Like many others in Montgomery she had several demeaning experiences with bus drivers. She decided to stop riding the segregated bus system.

A few months later Rosa Parks was arrested, and Gilmore attended the public meeting called to discuss what steps the community should take. She decided her role was to raise money and founded the “Club from Nowhere,” an organization of maids, service workers and cooks who donated food and money anonymously to protect themselves from being fired.

Eventually fired and blacklisted, Gilmore was encouraged to cook out of her own home; her dining room table a meeting space for the civil rights movement.

Also inspired by Rosa Parks, Dorothy Bolden became involved in the civil rights movement in Atlanta. A high school dropout and community activist who worked with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members and marched with Martin Luther King, she later co-founded the National Domestic Workers Union of America.

Bolden organized maids through using the bus line transfer point as an organizing hub. Members paid a dollar a week and attended weekly meetings that were both consciousness-raising sessions and a place for political education. Supported by the National Urban League and the Georgia Council on Human Relations, NDWUA had several offices and had an employment and training center.

To a large extent Black women domestic workers organized other household workers. Some were particularly interested in helping women to develop skills that would enable them to secure higher wages and reframe the character of domestic labor.

This reframing was necessary because caring for children or preparing meals are important skills; additionally when there are standards employers wield less control over the work process. Josephine Hulett’s 1973 workshop to 50 workers in Miami, entitled “Are You a Household Slave?” says it all.

Through these personal situations, we see the real lives of Black women struggling with limited employment opportunities. Although their experiences spanning several decades vary, the content they provide reiterates the theme of Black domestics fighting to organize while working in laborious jobs and attempting to support their families.

We see that they had the most to gain from organizing, yet had the least time to devote to it. Several were single mothers forced to do whatever necessary to provide for their families.

These women performed labor that was “invisible,” working for private households behind closed doors for little to no recognition and no protection by labor laws. Yet bound as they were to poorly paid, marginal jobs, these women organized and formed networks to ease their plight.

Domestic work didn’t affect only the worker; it left a mark on the lives of families, other Black women and the entire Black community, who recognized their unfair treatment.

In the epilogue Nadasen tells what led her to write about domestics: She is both the daughter and granddaughter of domestics. As an African-American woman whose grandmother worked as a domestic, and whose mother, single and with a high school education, worked various low-wage jobs to provide for three children, I found that the stories in Household Workers Unite hit close to home.

Forging Organization

In the intimate setting of the household, the individual employer constructed racial boundaries that the domestic worker was expected to silently endure.

Geraldine Roberts, who started the first domestic workers’ rights group in the postwar period, recounted a job interview in which a prospective employer examined her teeth and told her “Any girl…with a mouth this clean and pretty clean teeth was a pretty clean gal ‘cause I don’t like dirty help in the house.” (89)

Roberts’ experience is one of many examples where employers disrespected household workers. Nadasen draws on the parallels between the slave auction block and the women’s experiences. From before the Civil War Black women were the backbone of slave-owning white households: washing, cleaning, cooking and caring for the young and sick. They usually did this at the expense of their own children.

Although low-wage domestic work continued in the post-Civil War period, Nadasen is interested in exploring how domestic work was transformed by economic and technological change. As more women found paid work outside the home, domestic workers replaced them. These places were no longer the mansions of old, where there were many servants, but the individual home. In fact many domestic workers had to find work at a different household every day.

As domestic workers began to organize within the context of a civil rights movement, they found each other while riding the bus or put up notices in laundry rooms. Part of their organizing, just like the fabric of the book’s chapters, was through telling stories about their lives: how they realized their exploitation; how they learned to negotiate with their employers, or to leave; how they developed a sense of their own worth and how they wanted to change their lives.

The book’s seven chapters link women’s personal stories to their commitment to building various organizations of domestic workers. At first these were local networks, but by the early 1970s came a national conference of 600 domestic workers and the birth of national organizations.

Household Workers Unite blends women’s personal histories with historical research to showcase the lives of Black domestic workers. The women’s accounts of their lives while growing up and then working for white families — predominantly in the South — and the supportive research provided by the author assist in developing powerful narratives of a movement that was part of the civil rights and labor movements.

In outlining some of the alliances that these various domestic worker organizations made, Nadasen discusses the tensions that existed between cross-class alliances with middle-class women who were allies and also acknowledges the problem that domestic workers were generally not welcomed by organized labor.

She notes that New Deal legislation didn’t cover domestic work, a consequence of both “racial politics as well as assumptions about what constituted work.” She also explains that as unions “established boundaries of privilege around their members,” they “contributed to the marginalization of household workers.” (118)

For good reason, then, household workers had a distrust of unions. Despite this ambivalence, some Black women organizers saw the potential power of unions. For example, Carolyn Reed remarked, “What I’d like to see is a strong union of household workers…I think it has to be on our terms, not on the terms of some union organizers who see it as another membership — as another fee.” (119)

It was only in the late 1970s and early ’80s, as domestic workers in New York State fought for the legal right to organize and bargain collectively, that mainstream unions begin to take notice. Nadasen recounts how domestic workers took Tuesdays off to go to Albany and speak for the bill that would extend them rights other workers had already won. The final bill, however, covered workers in cleaning firms and employment agencies, not private households.

While the first five chapters recount personal histories of key organizers, the sixth is more theoretical, outlining how Congress debated expanding the minimum wage to cover domestic workers and how the rising feminist movement viewed domestic labor. While these debates resulted in some rethinking, the struggle for equality remains contested.

Early in the book Nadasen mentions the organizing Black women in and around the Communist Party did in the 1930s. She sees the New York-based Domestic Workers Union as prefiguring the domestic worker organizing of the postwar period, while having different roots. It is the story of already radicalized women — a story she acknowledges, but doesn’t chronicle here.

The final chapter notes the shifting demographics of the domestic worker — now more often an immigrant woman. Nadasen concludes with their organizing the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2007.

A major theme is the women’s use of storytelling as a political tool. As Nadasen writes, “Domestic-worker stories disrupted dominant narratives and offered an alternative history of domestic work, the intimate sphere, and labor organizing. They dispelled the ‘mammy stereotype,’ exposed the power imbalance between employer and employee, and vividly described a life of hardship.” (73)

These stories are a reminder that Black women have always worked and found ways to organize. Women, and even more so women of color, spent decades being overlooked and unfairly treated in the workforce (and the labor movement), so the story of domestic workers organizing is an exciting shift. Central to Nadasen’s story is how domestic workers provided leadership in their own struggles for justice.

July-August 2016, ATC 183