Domestic Workers’ Rights, the Politics of Social Reproduction, and New Models of Labor Organizing

Submitted by vicent on February 17, 2016

“Labor has to recognize us as a force. And how do you do that? Maybe it’s developing a union of our own.”
– Carolyn Reed

In the 1970s, a powerful movement for domestic workers’ rights emerged on the national political stage. Through their organizing, African American household workers argued for the inclusion of housework and social reproduction in the larger politics of wage labor and made a case for the centrality of this occupation to capitalism. These black working-class feminists claimed that household labor was essential for the maintenance of human life, and pushed for expanded monetary benefits and federal labor protections. The movement’s broader definition of labor, as well as its distinctive approaches to mobilizing a precarious labor force, offers new models of worker organizing that speak to some of the challenges facing the contemporary labor movement.

The organizing efforts undertaken by household workers have critical implications for our engagement with the history of the labor movement. Labor unions rarely reached out to domestic workers, in part because they believed that domestics were unorganizable, but also because the unions’ very definition of labor simply did not include household employment. The approach adopted by many industrial unions in the first half of the 20th century was premised on a manufacturing model. Workers were organized in large-scale collective spaces—usually a factory floor—and went on strike to wield leverage against their employer. Through such actions, some workers won better wages, pensions, and health and vacation benefits from employers.

While effective in large factory settings, this model is less applicable in the contemporary moment. Over the past few decades, there has been a rise in precarious labor in the United States, with a greater proportion of workers employed on a part-time, subcontracted, or temporary basis and with more workers who change employers or occupations frequently. Coupled with this is a decline in manufacturing jobs and an expansion of the service sector, which has mushroomed in part because families and households are increasingly outsourcing the labor of social reproduction to wage-laborers. Families buy prepared food, hire landscapers, or purchase the services of care workers instead of doing this work themselves. A growing number of workers are in the food industry, health care, and personal or home care—occupations that are more likely to be populated by women and people of color. Employment insecurity has been compounded by attacks on unions, fewer pension and retirement benefits, and a shredding of the social safety net.

American workers today are in a more unpredictable situation than 50 years ago. They are not guaranteed unemployment and workers’ compensation, paid vacations, and sick leave. Workers tend to be more dispersed and employed in isolated settings, where it is harder to organize. They are more likely to be classified as independent contractors or temporary workers. And they are more likely to work for multiple employers over the course of their working lives, rather than for a single employer.

While these economic changes may seem indicative of the neoliberal shift, certain categories of employment in the United States have always experienced this kind of insecurity. Household labor has historically been precarious, characterized by part-time, intermittent work with few benefits. Household workers operated essentially as independent contractors, changed employers frequently, and had little job or income security. They were excluded from labor protections in the 1930s and marginalized by organized labor. The domestic workers’ rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s rectified some of these exclusions, and offered a precedent and possible model for mobilizing an insecure labor force.

While there have been some advances, the occupation of household work is still precarious. Over time, household workers have won access to social security benefits and the federal minimum wage, but they are still excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and Civil Rights laws. And even when workers are legally covered, those laws are not always enforced. Domestic workers today are overwhelmingly immigrant women who are often unaware of their rights, may not be fluent in English, and may be undocumented, and thus are more likely to be legally exploited. Furthermore, paid private domestic work is still largely unregulated. In these ways, this sector of the American workforce has always experienced conditions akin to what other wage workers have come to encounter in recent decades under neoliberalism.

So as we ponder how to organize precarious workers, we may learn something from those in the domestic workers’ rights movement. Household labor has rarely been considered a site of resistance and organizing. The work of social reproduction that household workers engage in—cooking, cleaning and caring—is often not considered economically productive labor, because of its association with women’s unpaid housework. Because women have done this work for centuries without pay, it tends to be viewed as a “labor of love” not meriting competitive compensation. The location of the work in the home also makes it harder to recognize it normatively as work. Furthermore, because the paid workforce has been made up of low-wage immigrants and women of color, the social value attached to this labor is minimized; and it is a dispersed workforce, in which the number of employers may exceed the number of employees, making strikes an unlikely labor tactic. In the postwar period, despite these difficulties of organizing, a national movement for domestic workers’ rights emerged which won important protections for the occupation and transformed the social standing of African American household workers.

Origins of Domestic Worker Organizing

African American women have a long history of being confined to the occupation of paid household labor. They were the primary domestic labor force during slavery and in the post-emancipation South. After World War 1, with the Great Migration and the curtailment of European immigration, they became the predominant household labor force in nearly all regions of the country. By World War 2, the association of African American women with household labor was firmly solidified in the stereotypical “mammy” figure—a content and loyal household worker who always chose her employer’s family over her own.

Belying the stereotype, of course, African American household workers were not content and loyal, and resistance was common. It often took the form of individualized, day-to-day opposition to work expectations, such as refusing to do certain kinds of tasks or refusing to live-in. But household workers also organized collectively. As Tera Hunter has recounted, African American washer women in Atlanta in 1881 formed a washing society and went on strike to demand higher rates for their labor.1 In the 1930s, a number of domestic worker organizations were formed to counter the rise of what journalists Marvel Cooke and Ella Baker called “slave markets,” where African American women stood on street corners to be hired as day laborers. Cooke and Baker described the experiences of these domestic workers: “Under a rigid watch, she is permitted to scrub floors on her bended knees, to hang precariously from window sills, cleaning window after window, or to strain and sweat over steaming tubs of heavy blankets, spreads and furniture covers. Fortunate, indeed, is she who gets a full hourly rate promised. Often, her day’s slavery is rewarded with a single dollar bill or whatever her unscrupulous employer pleases to pay.”2 In the postwar period, given the context of black freedom organizing, African American women began to more systematically challenge the racialized nature of the occupation and the notions of servitude that characterized domestic service. In the 1960s, household workers established local organizations to demand higher wages, contractually-based employment, federal labor protections, and recognition of the value of their work.

Geraldine Roberts grew up in Arkansas and attended segregated schools. She left home at a young age, married, moved to Cleveland, and divorced. As a single mother, she had little opportunity to complete her education and ended up doing domestic work. As a domestic, she was not treated like a worker with rights, but as a servant whose body was the property of her employer. She described one job interview when an employer, after examining Robert’s teeth, 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.”3 The story conjures up images of the slave auction block where slaves’ physical health, including their teeth, was closely examined by potential slave buyers. Roberts recounted the way employers routinely used physical separation to maintain a racial hierarchy: “There was a back room that was the bathroom, that would be the bathroom for myself and… other household employees… all black, and we were all told to use that bathroom, and to never use the family bathroom.”4 Roberts became involved in the civil rights and black power movements and drew parallels between Jim Crow segregation and the racialized nature of household labor. In 1965, she started the Domestic Workers of America to mobilize other household workers in Cleveland.

In Atlanta, Dorothy Bolden rode the city bus lines to recruit workers for her new organization, the National Domestic Workers Union of America (NDWUA). Bolden began domestic work at the age of nine. When the civil rights movement emerged, she worked closely with Martin Luther King and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to ensure equal access to education in Atlanta. But it was her organizing of household workers where she made a name for herself. In 1968, she established a city-wide organization that insisted on a minimum wage of $15 a day plus car fare, and developed standards for the occupation.

In 1971 Roberts, Bolden, and other household workers formed the Household Technicians of America (HTA), the first national organization of household workers. The name of the organization indicated their commitment to reframe domestic work as a professional occupation that requires skill and should be treated the same as all other forms of work. With the help of middle-class women in the National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE), an organization of employers dedicated to reforming the occupation, six hundred mostly middle-aged African American women met in Washington, D.C. to hammer out the details of their new organization. The HTA connected workers’ groups from around the country, served as a national voice for this labor constituency, and fought for professionalization, a federal minimum wage, and respect for the work they did.

Revaluing Household Labor

The core of the domestic workers rights’ movement was fundamentally defined by a demand for greater respect and recognition for household labor. Most household workers believed that their mistreatment, low wages, and lack of labor rights were rooted in the normative devaluation of household labor. Consequently, they made claims for the importance of this work. Dorothy Bolden, for example, worked in other occupations, but she loved domestic work and wanted to bring to it the recognition that she believed it deserved. She initiated an annual “Maids Honor Day,” in which employers wrote nomination letters explaining why their maid should be named Maid of the Year. “The purpose of this event,” the NDWUA announced, “is to recognize and honor outstanding women in the field of domestic labor, for their courage and stability, and the remarkable ability of being able to take care of two households at one time.”5

The movement’s campaign for federal minimum wage protection also illustrates the effort to revalue household labor. Members of the HTA and their allies in the NCHE testified before Congress to extend the federal minimum wage to household workers and rectify the inequality built into labor law during the New Deal. Domestic work was one of the occupations excluded from federal labor protections in the 1930s. At a moment when labor leaders and government officials had come to an agreement that American workers should be assured minimum wages, overtime pay, unemployment and social security benefits, certain key occupations were outside the purview of labor laws. A race and gender hierarchy already existed among different types of work, but New Deal labor legislation reinforced and institutionalized it through the passage of laws that protected certain workers but not others. This, in combination with a powerful labor movement limited by a particular conception of work rooted in the male-dominated manufacturing sector that did little to organize household-based and other marginalized workers, further heightened divisions within the American working class.

In their testimony in the early 1970s, members of the HTA and their allies presented their vision of the importance of household labor and the need for this occupation to be treated the same as all other work. Edith Barksdale Sloan, an African American civil rights activist who headed the NCHE and facilitated the formation of the HTA, said her in her testimony that domestic work should be afforded the same rights of social citizenship and New Deal benefits as other occupations: “Pay must be increased to provide a livable wage… workers must receive the so-called ‘fringe benefits,’ which long ago stopped being ‘fringes’ in every other major American industry. At this time, household workers usually do not receive paid sick leave, vacations, or holidays. Coverage under unemployment and workmen’s compensation is extremely limited and varies widely from state to state.”6 These views were echoed by Carolyn Reed, a domestic worker and organizer based in New York: “I feel very strongly that I contribute just as much as my doctor contributes, you know. And that because he is a doctor does not make him better than me, as a household technician.”7 In 1974, Congress finally passed amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that federally guaranteed minimum wage for domestic workers.

Feminist Alliances

The domestic workers’ rights movements developed alliances with some strands of the women’s movement that were also trying to bring recognition to social reproduction. Their efforts to revalue household labor paralleled similar theoretical discussions taking place in some feminist communities. Feminists in the 1960s, however, were a diverse group with different and competing positions. Many middle-class women who had been confined to the domestic sphere and felt constrained by their roles as mothers and housewives began in the 1960s to seek more opportunities outside the home. This sentiment was best expressed by Betty Friedan in her seminal book The Feminine Mystique. Friedan wrote about “the problem that has no name” and struck a chord for millions of housewives around the country who had eschewed careers to make family and home the center of their lives, but felt deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled. In making her claim for more opportunities outside the household, however, Friedan denigrated household labor. As she wrote: “Vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.”8

Other feminists sought, like household workers, to revalue household labor. Welfare rights activist made a claim for government assistance to support them in their work as mothers and insisted on the right to stay home and care for their children at a moment when the state was becoming more demanding about requiring women on welfare to take paid employment outside the home.9 The wages for housework movement, which included women like Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici, attempted to reclaim housework as legitimate labor.10 Rather than seeing women’s employment outside the home as the only path to liberation, they advocated attaching a wage to it as a way to revalue the work and compensate women. This argument was rooted in an understanding that wages were a measure of labor’s worth in a capitalist economy. Moving domestic labor from the unpaid to the paid category, they believed, would bring social value and recognition to the work. Although this was a legitimate argument, the experiences of paid domestic workers offer a different perspective. Some domestic labor had been commodified since the emergence of capitalism. As domestic workers repeatedly attested, a wage, in and of itself, did not raise the status of the work.11

Nevertheless, activists in both the wages for housework movement and domestic workers’ rights movement had a common goal of drawing attention to household labor—both paid and unpaid. Reed supported Social Security for housewives as a way to recognize that work, claiming, “they can all become household technicians.”12 At a moment when many African American women as well as middle class women were fleeing household labor in search of other job opportunities, women in the HTA and the wages for housework movement chose to stay and expressed love of the work they did. As Reed explained: “I really love the work, and that’s why I chose to organize the work—because I love what I chose to do as a profession.”13

Challenging the long-standing home/work distinction that emerged with the rise of wage labor, the campaigns that domestic worker activists engaged in and the ideas they articulated illuminate how the work that takes place in the home is not a labor of love, but a form of labor exploitation that both reflects and recreates structures of power. When black domestic workers were denied the right to use the family restroom or expected to eat their food at a separate table, racial distinctions and racial hierarchies were remade. Activists drew attention to the work that took place in the home, a space that is often not considered a site of work. They argued that the way this work was allocated and valued was centrally important. Unequal power relations in the home, whether between husband and wife or between employer and employee, reproduce inequality along race, class and gender lines.

New Organizing Model

The domestic workers’ rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s suggests ways that the contingent workers of today can begin to organize. Because their place of employment was not a viable location to recruit members, household workers organized in public spaces. Rather than the factory floor, city bus lines, public parks, and neighborhoods became the sites of organizing. Workers formed collective community-based organizations even though they worked for different employers. They did not establish employer-oriented labor formations but directed their demands at the state, insisting that legislation be passed that would protect all workers in the industry. They also organized workers regardless of their immigration status. They sought to professionalize the occupation and raise the overall standards of allowable work—refusing, for example, to wash windows or scrub floors on their hands and knees. Questions of race, gender, and culture were central to the organizing, as the above particularities of African American women’s history attest. These constructs became a way to build solidarity among domestic workers.

The domestic workers’ rights movement also complicates assumptions that employers should be the primary targets of labor organizers. Household workers labored in the intimate space of the home. They were privy to a family’s personal matters and sometimes developed emotional bonds with their employer’s family. Although employees organized to wield more leverage and power, they did not necessarily want an antagonistic relationship with their bosses, since they would continue to work in close quarters with them. Many household worker activists developed collaborative relationships with employers and encouraged the creation of employer organizations to support their movement.

The domestic workers’ movement’s emphasis on revaluing forms of social reproduction resonates especially at a moment when good-producing industries account for less than 13% of U.S. employment.14 Valuing the paid and unpaid work of social reproduction, whether it is that of fast food workers, landscapers, home care workers, or housecleaners, is the first step to considering them part of the labor movement and including them in our conversation about how worker power can transform the economic climate.

The distinctive organizing approach that domestic workers adopted emerged from the particular character of the occupation. Other occupations, including Uber drivers, nail salon workers and day laborers are similarly self-employed, with few labor protections and less secure employment. The growth of these occupations is an example of how the workforce is increasingly coming to resemble domestic work. Unsurprisingly, these kinds of contingent workers are also organizing and leading the way to a redefined labor movement. The tactics and strategies utilized by household workers might not be applicable to all industries, but they suggest alternative models of organizing and new ways for workers to come together and wield power.