The workers labor forgot: Race, household workers, and the new fight for activism and social change

Dismissed by labor as “unorganizable,” African American household workers developed new strategies for changes

Published August 29, 2015 1:29PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>terex</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(terex via iStock/Salon)

Excerpted from "Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement"

In 1971 Geraldine Miller, a household worker, was riding the train to work in Westchester County in suburban New York City when she struck up a conversation with a woman who began to talk about “fringe benefits” for household workers and informed her about the Urban League’s organizing efforts. The idea of better working conditions for household workers immediately caught Miller’s attention. “I wanted it, and I wanted it with a passion.”  She attended a meeting of the Professional Household Workers Union, a New York City group initiated and led by Benjamin McLaurin of the Urban League, and learned about the work of the NCHE and the upcoming national conference of domestic workers. Miller arranged for league sponsorship of a bus for a group of workers to travel to the meeting in Washington, D.C. To recruit workers, she created a leaflet that read: “Stop, Look, and Listen. Become Aware of Your Rights as a Household Worker.” She recalled: “I went out on street corners especially near the trains and I gave them out to all the people that rode on my train. Days that I didn’t work, I would catch a corner where [there was] a bus stop . . . we stood outside a couple of the unemployment offices and gave them out.” Some women needed an incentive to get involved. “They said we’ll come if you cook and take something,” Miller, known for her culinary talents, explained. “I said okay, I’ll cook. So I took a certain amount of my money and I gave them what they wanted. They wanted food that I had cooked and they got it.” Through her organizing and culinary enticements, Miller mobilized thirty-three women to attend the national conference. Although she had no prior political experience, after returning home from the conference, Miller formed the Bronx Household Technicians and the New York State Household Technicians, eventually becoming a prominent organizer and leader in the Household Technicians of America.

Domestic-worker activists, like Miller, were labor organizers attempting to build a movement to transform the conditions of their work. They were continuing a long history of domestic-worker organizing. From the washerwomen’s strike in Atlanta in the 1880s to the upsurge of activism in the 1930s, household workers had repeatedly demonstrated not only their ability to resist and control the work process, but to organize collectively and make demands on their employers and the state. Workers in the 1960s and 1970s received little support from mainstream unions and maintained their autonomy from traditional labor leaders. Because they were not subject to union procedures or National Labor Relations Board rules, they were free to chart an independent course. Their marginalization from the labor movement as well as the distinctiveness of their labor made it necessary for them to develop new and untested patterns of labor organizing. They were isolated workers working in the privacy of the home, typically as an employer’s sole employee. This demanded a more nuanced approach to labor organizing, departing from the confrontational, zero-sum model guiding traditional labor organizing. More often than other labor activists, domestic workers attempted to cultivate support from employers. Workers sometimes used their importance to the household, and their intimate association with family life, as leverage in their negotiations. In addition, they sought state-based protections, such as minimum wage, that applied to all household workers, not only those who were formally organized. They utilized social movement strategies and advocated more egalitarian approaches to labor organizing. Their strategies were often community based, since reaching out to workers in their places of employment was often difficult. So neighborhood associations, public places, and city buses became centers of domestic-worker activity. Activists tailored their tactics to the contours of the occupation. Because of this they broke new ground in worker resistance—mobilizing poor domestic workers, primarily women of color—and expanded the history of American labor activism.

New Approaches to Organizing

Miller’s commitment to organizing household workers was seeded during her forty-plus years of experience as a domestic worker. She was born in Sabetha, Kansas, in 1920, in her words, “the same year that women got the vote,” and came from a family with a long history of domestic work, and seemingly few escape routes. “Well, housework is something that’s been here for ages and it’s gonna be here after I’m gone if they have houses. It’s something that the average woman does. And that was my one reason for putting the Household Technicians together, was that . . . all the family that I knew . . . did housework. So that meant they was working for peanuts.”  When her family moved to Atchison, Kansas, her grandmother, mother, and her aunt Retta all worked in the Burns Hotel, washing sheets and dishes, floors and windows. When she was still in preschool her mother started taking her to work, and at the age of six, she was sent to the kitchen to help out. By the time she was twelve, she was fully schooled in housecleaning and worked on weekends and evenings. “Aunt Retta gave me a sense of dignity about the profession,” she said. “She was very particular about what you should do in a home; how the home should look.”

Her aunt saved money to put Geraldine through college. But when Geraldine was seventeen, her mother was murdered, and Geraldine, distraught, refused to go to college. “I was really interested in doing whatever it was that dulled the pain.” After finishing high school she decided to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a dancer, and joined a traveling show that took her throughout the South. “It was my fault that [college] didn’t happen. My idea back then was to run down the road and dance.”  She married at the age of twenty-one, but her husband was a “womanizer” and within two years she’d left him. During and after World War II, Miller held a number of jobs in addition to dancing and household labor—she worked in stores, hotels, and on an assembly line in a chicken-processing plant.

Searching for something better, in 1954 Miller relocated to New York City, where she ended up doing mainly domestic work and living in the Bronx on Morris Avenue, a short distance from the site of the most notorious “slave markets” of the Depression. She recounted hearing stories from women who stood on Burnside Avenue, waiting to be selected for cleaning jobs. “Sometimes they’d ask to see your knees and the women with the worst-scarred knees were hired first because they looked like they worked the hardest.”  Hearing these stories was transformative for Miller: “This is just one of the things that kind of woke me up.” But scrubbing floors on her knees was not Miller’s preferred chore. She prided herself on her cooking ability, a skill she’d cultivated over the years. “Whatever I did, I would try to make it better the next time. You know, if it was cooking, find out more, do what you can, and I did—served on all the Jewish holidays. I’ve had people who would call me back each time. And each time, it was sometimes more money because they would like the way I do things.”  Geraldine never had children of her own, but she took care of plenty. “I wished I had a dime for every time I helped somebody with a baby, you know, because I love children.” Despite Miller’s love for what she did, she recognized it as work and was convinced “that we were a labor group.” Miller had previously not been involved in politics. But she did attend the 1963 March on Washington at the urging of her employer. She didn’t know a soul there and didn’t fully understand—until much later—the significance of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She was nevertheless moved, because “he was a symbol for us . . . the little people he probably didn’t even know about.”  After learning of the incipient movement of household workers, she dedicated herself to fighting for the rights of those “little people” who she soon realized were not that little after all.

Joining hundreds of other household workers at the first national gathering of the HTA in 1971 thrilled Miller. It was unlike anything she had ever seen before: “Over 500 black women who were household workers, who looked like they was Miss Ann herself—not Miss Ann’s maids, but Miss Ann.” She explained: “When you say, ‘Miss Ann,’ you’re talking about that person you worked for, who had the money, who was able to buy the clothes and think nothing of it.”  Miller attended the Saturday-night banquet, toured the White House, and listened to Shirley Chisholm and Josephine Hulett. “That was the thrill of my life, to see that many women and listen to their stories and how hard it was for some of them.” When household workers gathered in the nation’s capital, they shared their experiences as workers and also discussed how they could wield power.

Like other workers, household workers attempted to negotiate with their employers for higher wages and better working conditions. But they could not do so as a unit, as was the case for workers who had union representatives and bargaining agents and could use the threat of a strike as leverage. The employer-employee relationship in household work was distinct from that of other occupations because of its personal nature and the ways in which employers could easily let workers go. Miller was deeply aware of how the one-on-one relationship structured employer-employee negotiation. After working for one woman for eight years, Miller was let go because her employer thought she was getting too old. “She fired me. She didn’t think it was going to work out. In housework you don’t have any recourse. If a person decides you’re getting too old and you’re not capable of doing the work instead of sitting down and discussing it with you and letting you know that there’s something amiss here.” Miller was deeply troubled by her treatment and wished that her employer had engaged her in a respectful discourse about her expectations. A better model, she suggested, would be to “let the woman know that you cannot do this type of work. . . . You sit down and you talk about your duties” rather than simply disposing of one person and replacing them with another. The intimate nature of domestic labor necessitated that positive personal interactions be maintained. Most household workers valued cordial relationships and open lines of communication with their employers. Josephine Hulett said of one employer: “We did . . . learn to communicate, which was an advantage to both of us.”

Domestic workers had historically used quitting as a form of resistance. Quitting was the primary way of wielding power for individual workers who had few other avenues of resistance. Carolyn Reed learned through her organizing that it might not be the best, or the only, strategy: “Whenever I got tired of a job, I’d just walk away from it. It’s the very things that I tell some of our women not to do today. If there’s something that’s wrong, I should be able to talk to you about it.”  So, while employers were the source of low pay and poor working conditions, workers navigated the relationship carefully—striking a balance between persuading and educating employers, while also asserting their rights.

The personal relationship that made this job so capricious and unpredictable could also be a source of power for domestic workers. Families became dependent upon individual workers because of the emotional ties and bonds of trust that had been forged, and because their personality seemed well suited for the job. Some children saw caretakers as “second mothers,” and some employers relied on housekeepers to ensure the smooth functioning of the home. One employer referred to her worker as a “security blanket, always there to help me.”  Domestic workers—in many cases considered essential to the management of the household—used this power of loyalty to win demands from their employers. “Maids was very valuable to a household,” observed Dorothy Bolden. When Geraldine Roberts became aware of how indispensable she was to her employer, she was emboldened: “Many of us learned that we were important to them, which was amazing and surprising to us, and that’s when we began to feel we didn’t have to say ‘yes ma’am’ anymore.”  The reliance of the family on specific domestic workers enabled employees to use this leverage to their advantage. Bolden explained: “I always understood that the employer was a human being too. You have to learn how to sit down and relax and talk to her.”  Many domestic workers were able to negotiate higher salaries and better working conditions precisely because employers could not imagine life without “their girl.”

Household workers’ method of negotiating is instructive as a model for contemporary labor organizers. Because each employer—in the vast majority of cases—had only one employee, and because employees were isolated from one another, they engaged in one-on-one bargaining. A lone domestic worker could not be represented by others and had to act as her own bargaining agent. So instead of relying on a union hierarchy to speak for them, domestic workers were individually empowered. As a result, the ability of individual domestic workers to establish ground rules for employment and wield power within the relationship was critical. According to Bolden, the organization “can’t negotiate with private employers, private homes. You have to teach each maid how to negotiate. And this is the most important thing— communicating. I would tell them it was up to them to communicate. If I wanted a raise from you I wouldn’t come in and hit you over your head and demand a raise—I would set out and talk to you and let you know how the living costs have gone up.”  In this spirit, NDWUA offered mediation for employer-employee disputes to reach fair and just solutions. Rather than placing their fate with union leaders who they may or may not have voted for and who may not effectively represent their interests, activists’ approach put the power in the hands of individual workers who could decide for themselves their priorities and under what circumstances they would work.

Although domestic workers used personal leverage and negotiation, they could not always rely on employers’ goodwill. Even though individuals negotiated by themselves, collective demands and mobilization were central to the movement. And domestic workers routinely relied on other workers as a source of support. They shared grievances and came up with common solutions that strengthened their individual bargaining positions. As household workers reached out to other workers, their stories became a way to convey acceptable and unacceptable standards of employment—including wages and benefits. This kind of informal education was critical for shifting expectations. The stories of scarred knees, for example, became emblematic of what domestic workers would not do. And after that story was told, few wanted to ever scrub floors on their knees again. The formation of community and common standards, even if not a union, was seen as a way to shape labor relations and establish a level of job control.

Unlike more traditional forms of labor organizing that recruited workers employed by a single company or individual, household workers mobilized workers regardless of their employer. But multiple employers meant that strikes were difficult to organize among household workers. When she first began to organize in Cleveland, Geraldine Roberts planned a one-day strike with the goal of having workers attend a daylong seminar. The loss of a day’s wages was significant for household workers, however, so Roberts called for community donations to cover workers’ wages. But little came of this. In addition, many employers threatened to fire their workers if they participated in a walkout. The strike was called off. Due to their financial dependency, and because they were dealing with multiple employers rather than a single company, workers instead sought state-based legislative protections such as minimum wage that would apply to all household workers, not only those who were organized or had more enlightened employers. But this also required mass mobilization.

Excerpted from "Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement" by Premilla Nadasen (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

By Premilla Nadasen

Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. She also writes about household labor, social movements, and women’s history for Ms., the Progressive Media Project, and other media outlets.

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