Household Workers Unite is a history of domestic worker organizing that can and should inform labor organizers who face new challenges in organizing people in the new labor markets created by the retreat from manufacturing and traditional forms of employment. With the “sharing economy” or the “gig economy” the labor force is atomized in ways that resemble the challenges that faced household workers who faced a far more difficult challenge to organizing than industrialized workers. Premilla Nadasen’s history of household worker organizing can and should be a useful resource for more a broad range of workers.
Throughout the history of domestic worker organizing, black women have been at the forefront. For household workers, racism and sexism intersect to devalue their work and complicate their organizing. It was even difficult for household workers to get their work recognized as “work” given the gendered notions of women as caretakers and homemakers. There was a paternalistic assumption that even though domestics worked long days and weekends and were paid a pittance, they did the work out of love, that they were “part of the family” even though they were expected to use the back door, a separate bathroom, eat leftovers and use separate dishes. There was this “Mammy” vision that comforted employers that exploited the women who worked for them, an assumption of service owed.
Domestic workers were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, denying them minimum wage, workers’ compensation for injuries on the job, unemployment insurance and even Social Security. They were also denied the right to organize, though the challenge of organizing when each individual worked for another employer meant their campaigns had to focus on changing legislation and societal attitudes toward domestic employment. When Congress had hearings about including household workers in the FLSA, they laughed about how that could end up with them having to wash dishes.
With courage and determination, women of color found ways to organize. They would do outreach on buses, work on educating employers and organizing employers as well as workers. They lobbied for changes in the law and for minimum wage. They worked to professionalize their occupation, even for changing their job title to household technician to recognize that their work is skilled and worth of respect.
Household Workers Unite is a book I would recommend highly to labor organizers and people who work to combat systemic racism, even if they do not work on labor issues. This book is a case study in intersectionality, highlighting how racism, sexism, and later, the vulnerability of immigrants, work together to devalue not only the work, but the people who do it.
It presents a more complex view of the civil rights movement and how respectability politics erased many of the contributions of African American women like Georgia Gilmore to the struggle. It also reveals a more complex picture of second wave feminism which was often indifferent to the struggle of working class and poor black women, focused on the white professional woman’s advancement. For example, Gloria Steinem was a strong supporter of the domestic worker’s unions and volunteered her efforts to mobilize women’s organizations to ensure compliance with new amendments to the FLSA.
These are the stories of many women, women whose stories are too seldom heard, women who organized with the protection of the government, who supported families without fair labor standards and who worked to change it. They have won victories, though the struggle is incomplete. As they asserted their rights and won changes in the law, employers turned to ever more vulnerable workers, immigrants who could be threatened with deportation or who could be kept ignorant of their rights. And so the work continues.
But as our economy changes, as traditional forms of work are fractured, the lessons of how to organize workers who do not work in one place or with one employer become ever more valuable.
This is an important book for anti-racist organizers and labor organizers, people interested in the history of worker movements, the nexus of feminism and racism. It is, however, primarily a history of many different organizations, local, state and national organizations formed by these women. It can feel a bit like alphabet soup at times. Occasionally it can be too granular, reporting that a meeting was called to order, for example. For me, Nadasen follows too closely that advice to tell us what she is going to write about, write it, and then tell us what she wrote. It becomes redundant because she does not only apply that advice to each chapter, but to the subsections of the chapters. The feeling of having already read something shortly before had the effect of dislocating me, making me think I had lost my place.
So, it is not a perfect book, but it is an important book. I want more of it actually, more of the human side, the stories of the women, these courageous women who sought justice in the workplace, not just for themselves but for all domestic workers. I want more of the stories and ideas of those women organizing in the 20’s and 30’s, stories that make it clear that while the term intersectionality was coined in 1989, the idea of intersectionality was part of black feminist organizing long ago.
I received an advance reader’s copy from Beacon Press through LibraryThing.
- Household Workers Unite at Beacon Press
- Interview with Premilla Nadasen from American Historical Association