Premilla Nadasen, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015)
Within a short period of time, Premilla Nadasen has established herself as one of the most important historians of the US labour movement writing today. In Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement and her previous book Welfare Warriors (New York: Routledge, 2005), Nadasen explores how class, race, gender, culture, and the law constitute the meanings of the work of social reproduction and the ways in which working class women of colour have disrupted these meanings, defining this labour as work, the home as a workplace, and in the case of domestic workers, claiming a right to organize as workers. In doing so, Nadasen’s scholarship centers a working class black feminism long marginalized in male-centric histories of the Civil Rights and labour movements, and in middle-class white women’s histories of the women’s movement.
Household Workers Unite is a narrative history of African-American domestic-worker organizing and activism. The book focuses in on the period between the early 1950s and late 1970s when “domestic workers established a national movement to transform the occupation” (3). While Nadasen draws on a range of sources, including government reports and journalistic exposes, it is the oral histories of African American women activists—brilliant organizers like Geraldine Roberts, Dorothy Bolden, and Josephine Hulett—that anchor the book. These women tell their own stories about the meaning of their labour, their desire to be viewed as a worker, and the fight to transform their occupation. As working class African American women, their stories connect to the broader struggle for black liberation, highlighting the racial exploitation of domestic labor, and are a form of activism, “a strategic way to make sense of the past as well as the present and to overturn assumptions about domestic workers” (3).
Anchoring the book in stories “not told about domestic workers, but stories that domestic workers articulated themselves” (3) serves a political purpose. As Nadasen notes in the book’s introduction, mainstream media narratives around domestic work cast these workers as victims, disempowered and without agency. The narrative of victimization denies domestic workers’ agency and marginalizes not only contemporary domestic worker organizing but a rich history of collective action stemming all the way back to 1881 when African American laundresses in Atlanta formed a Washing Society and went on strike for better wages and working conditions, effectively shutting down the city.
While the 1930s witnessed another wave of domestic worker organizing, New Deal labour legislation failed to treat the home as a workplace and denied household workers coverage under basic labour protections, including the right to a minimum wage and the right to organize and bargain collectively. These gendered and racialized exclusions were mirrored in social policy, as the white male industrial worker and his caregiving wife became the model around which labour law and the welfare state were constructed, denying African American women and other women of colour full citizenship. This is legal and historical backdrop for the rise of a national domestic workers’ rights movement focused on ending the exclusion of domestic workers from employment protections institutionalized in the New Deal.
Yet prior to the emergence of a national movement, Nadasen tells us that organizers like Dorothy Bolden in Atlanta and Geraldine Roberts in Cleveland were cutting their political teeth in civil rights struggles. Unlike the middle-class, male leadership of that movement, the likes of Bolden and Roberts were working class women with little formal education. They experienced the realities of white supremacy not only in public spaces, but also in the homes of their white employers. Yet domestic workers resisted, playing a pivotal role in some of the earliest civil rights campaigns, including the Montgomery bus boycott. They raised money by cooking and selling food, and mobilized other household workers in support of the campaign. And they stood up to employers, insisting on being treated as full human beings not only on the bus but also in their workplace.
In the milieu of the black freedom struggle, domestic workers increasingly came to understand their exploitation as a legacy of slavery. Rather than reject their identity as domestic workers, “they claimed it and sought to bring recognition and respect to the work they did” (57). As Nadasen writes, “Motivated by the civil rights movement, they came to believe that black freedom could best be achieved by mobilizing domestic workers to press for improvements in their occupation” (56).
As local domestic worker organizing efforts grew in number, leaders adopted the tactics of the civil rights movement to a nascent domestic worker rights movement. In the 1960s, the movement developed multiple and sometimes overlapping strategies, including professionalization and where possible, unionization. In the 1970s, domestic workers campaigned for full citizenship rights and forged a sometimes-uneasy alliance with middle-class women’s organizations. While divides of color and class were never truly overcome, organizations like the National Organization for Women and figures like Gloria Steinem supported a campaign for minimum wage legislation for domestic workers. The perseverance of movement organizers, and their ability to leverage the power of middle-class women’s organizations, led to a series of victories. In 1974 and 1976, amendments to federal labour law extended protections, including the right to the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, to some categories of household workers. For the women at the heart of the movement, these victories meant they would be recognized as workers, not servants, disassociating household work from the legacy of slavery.
Sadly, at the peak of its power, the movement atrophied. Whereas over one-third of employed African American women in the United States worked as domestics in the 1960s, black women increasingly found opportunities in the growing service sector. The movement also lacked sustained sources of funding.
Yet since the late 1990s, there has been a rebirth of domestic worker organizing. Local organizations such as Domestic Workers United in New York City now form the backbone of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). The movement has fought for and won domestic worker bills of rights in a number of states. As the concluding chapters of the book make clear, immigration has changed the face of the movement and the question of immigration status has posed new barriers to organizing. Old battles need to be fought anew. As Nadasen states, “The shifting, contingent, and contested notions of work and citizenship suggest that this has been an important arena of political struggle for marginalized groups—a struggle that is still unfinished” (147).
Nadasen has done American labour history a great service. By recovering the voices of African American domestic workers and resurrecting a little know history, Household Workers Unite pushes the boundaries of the discipline, troubling those narratives of the labour movement that continue to center the experiences and struggles of the white male factory worker. In the days I wrote this review, the leadership of the United Auto Workers union expressed its desire to sit down with newly minted President Trump to talk trade. Meanwhile, the folks in the domestic worker movement are gearing up for the fight of their lives as their undocumented sisters are threatened with mass deportation. Maybe we should be looking less to the factory floor, and more to the kitchen, for the working class upsurge our historical moment so desperately needs.
A version of this article was published in Labour/Le Travail Vol. 79