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When the Excluded Organize

Premilla Nadasen

The domestic workers who asserted their rights in the 1970s provide a model for organizing workers today.

A domestic worker, likely in the early 1940s. Library of Congress

Interview by

Today, middle-class women are urged to “lean in” to waged labor and break the glass ceiling, with the expectation that working-class women can be relied on to care for the children and wash the kitchen floor.

The social upheaval caused by the entrance of large numbers of women into the workforce in the 1970s has never really been reckoned with in the United States — the contradictory demands of modern family life (sell your labor on the market, while taking care of kids at home!) have simply been absorbed by mothers taking on a “second shift,” or a third or a fourth; and by working-class women in low-paid service jobs as maids, day care workers, and home health care aides.

Demands for “work-life balance” are more of a whimper than a bang; in accepting the idea that “work” is what you do in the office and “life” is what you have in your off hours, we are already far from radical Second Wave demands to envision a new way to define and divide labor.

At a time when having a woman in the board room or the White House is proposed as if it is the height and full realization of the feminist project, it is critical to remember and learn from the struggles of women who not only refused to consider a feminism that would lift up wealthier women while marginalizing everyone else, but built a movement based on redefining household work.

Historian Premilla Nadasen has written an important history of domestic workers in the mid-century, who, despite spending their days in separate households, won big collective victories for workers. Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Built a Movement holds important lessons for our current politics.

Nadasen was interviewed for Jacobin by editor Megan Erickson.


In the mid-twentieth century, African-American domestic workers built a movement centered on redefining perceptions of household labor and exacting higher wages and benefits for laborers. The subtitle of your book is “The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Built a Movement.” Why do you think this story has been left out of our historical narrative for so long, and why is it important to revisit today?

PN

The heart of the book is the movement that emerged in inspiration to the Montgomery bus boycott, in which domestic workers across the country organized with the specific aim of transforming the occupation of domestic work. They formed a national organization in 1971 called the Household Technicians of America, demanding rights, dignity, and professionalization.

When grassroots organizers began to develop community groups in the 1950s and ’60s, and this movement formed in the 1970s, there were a few things they were attempting to do. One was to organize as workers, and the other was to bring the recognition of their labor into the public and political discourse.

Their histories were marginalized both within the Civil Rights Movement and within our discourse; so much of our understanding of the Civil Rights Movement is centered on the struggle to end legal segregation. The dominant narrative of the struggle has been male-centered and focused on messiah figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, which has pushed these particular women to the side. I also think the dominant narratives of the labor movement, which has mostly centered male union workers in a history of their rise in the 1930s and victories in the 1940s and ’50s, has marginalized these stories.

And it’s not that either of these narratives is inaccurate. The union movement won important benefits for certain sectors of the working class in this country. But they’re partial narratives that don’t tell the entire story. What these stories can do for us is help us understand the complicated ways people have fought for justice in this country; for economic justice, for racial justice, for gender justice.

Especially at this moment in time when we’re told the union movement is at its weakest point in the past eighty or ninety years — it’s declining, or there is no union movement now. Looking at the history of domestic worker organizing and how non-traditional workers are organizing today, I see the fast-food workers and Fight for 15 movement as part of that larger community that domestic workers are connected to today. It’s a broader model of organizing that can really point the way forward to how workers in a neoliberal economy can begin to win.

A main thread of the book is the workers’ use of storytelling to build a movement, rooted in the tradition of women going into the same occupations as their mothers, and potentially strengthening the critique of labor conditions and sense of possibility for radical change over the generations.

PN

I don’t think class identity is a given, I think it’s made. And for these particular women, what I saw as I read about and learned about their organizing was that their very notion of themselves of domestic workers, ascribing to this class identity as exploited workers, came through storytelling, through the stories they had heard through their mothers and grandmothers.

That was then recreated when they were talking to other domestic workers and attempting to mobilize them — it was through the storytelling they developed an identity and were ultimately able to organize a successful nationwide movement.

It was so easy in the context of the economic crisis of the 1970s, to say, “Americans first, we deserve these jobs.” You see this rhetoric everywhere now, and it was present then, too. But these organizers had the foresight to think about how the history of exploitation for African-American women so closely paralleled that of the immigrants coming in.

Geraldine Miller, for example, explicitly articulated the connection between processes of racialization and class exploitation with enormous sophistication. Most of these women were not formally educated; many had dropped out of school, very few actually finished high school. And when I read their words and analysis about labor organizing and class politics, I was incredibly impressed.

It came out of their life experiences, their family histories, and the storytelling about how this occupation functioned in capitalism. They talked about the work of social reproduction and about how their labor as paid domestic workers was connected to the unpaid labor of housewives, who were doing the same work without pay. They used this understanding as a basis to establish the alliance with middle-class women. I was very impressed with how they articulated the politics that underlay their organizing.

In today’s political discourse, there is a tendency to talk about struggles for cultural recognition and redistribution as separate or even opposed, but the domestic workers you write about regarded them as inextricably linked. How did that shape their strategies or goals?

PN

The cultural figure of the “mammy” in history cast African-American women as this sort of loyal servant and in part served to confine them to domestic work. There was a sense that a domestic worker was there to take care of the white family, had no needs of her own, and no family of her own to take care of.

It’s a perfect example of the way in which racialization and class and gender oppression came together in the lives of these women. The notion of the culture of servitude coupled with economic exploitation led them down this path of transforming the occupation.

Like nurses and teachers, household workers have a status as “outsiders within.” They are expected to love the work they do, and then materially exploited by employers on that basis, getting hugs and thank you cards instead of raises. How did household workers use their close relationships with families to their advantage in organizing for their rights?

PN

It was actually surprising to me. Before I started doing research, I just assumed an antagonistic employer-employee relationship. As a scholar and activist, that was how I was trained to think. The employer is paying and is controlling the work process, so of course these women would be challenging their employers. And they did challenge them, but the avenues they used enabled them to also embrace them simultaneously.

It’s a different model of labor organizing, and came about in part because these workers were isolated, and in very close contact with their employers on a day-to-day basis. Employer and employee would sit down regularly and chat about each other’s lives.

They had to be very careful about how this relationship evolved over time. Thus, many of them tried to work with employers to develop employer organizations advocating for worker rights, while maintaining a clear sense of themselves as workers.

It’s interesting to think about this in contrast to the discourse among domestic worker organizers today. We hear a lot about this as a “caring” occupation, and how “care” is at the center of it, which I didn’t see much of in the organizing of the 1960s and 1970s. I think that’s because the language of care is one that appeals primarily to employers. These women talk about loving their job — but they didn’t do their work because they cared.

Employers commonly talked about household workers as “one of the family,” using that language to implicitly or explicitly mandate longer work hours, to encourage the employees to take their hand-me-downs or leftover food as payment. And the employees knew that they were not part of the family; they were not part of the will, they could not sit at the dinner table. Carolyn Reed, an organizer in New York, made it very clear: “I don’t want a family, I want a job.”

It drives home the idea that, though they might love their work, in the same way a doctor or teacher does, they fundamentally still want to be treated as workers, to be paid adequately, and to receive benefits.

Household workers were excluded from industrial unions and labor regulations in the 1950s and ’60s. Many of the activists you write about saw the creation of their own alternative union as a key goal. Do you think that should be a goal of today’s activists?

PN

I think the notion of what a union is should be expanded. I think even when they were talking about “union,” they had a very clear sense of what a union meant to them, and it was not the manufacturing model. It was not male-led or male-defined. It was a union that appealed to a broad spectrum of people.

For example, in the 1970s, when there were large numbers of people immigrating to the United States, many of these women were saying, “We need to embrace them, even though they are undercutting our wages.”

It wasn’t a question of, “Are they documented or undocumented? Are they citizens, and how long have they been living in our country?” None of that was an issue. It was a question of, “How do we mobilize a collective workforce so that we are stronger as domestic workers?” That’s a model of unionism we can learn from today.

And how do we do that?

PN

One of the lessons is that organizing cannot or should not always be tied to a particular employer. The history of union organizing in this country is organizing employer-by-employer, industry-by-industry.

I think that is outdated given all the ways the workforce has shifted in the past thirty to forty years. We can learn from the community-based organizing these women did. I see that emerging in domestic worker organizing today — labor organizing is increasingly based in the community rather than in the workplace.

Another lesson is to include people who are documented and undocumented, citizens and non-citizens, people who are members of your union and those who are not, in your efforts. One of the things I’ve observed in contemporary domestic worker organizing more recently is that domestic worker organizers become advocates for workers regardless of whether or not they are members of an organization.

I think the members-only approach that has shaped union history in this country has served ultimately to isolate and alienate unions from the general public. The long-term goal should be to build a broad-based movement.

We also need to move away from advocating for employer-based benefits towards state-based protections. That’s really significant, because what it suggests is that if we push the state to be responsible for ensuring basic rights for workers (and I would argue for non-workers). If the state is in the position of protecting basic rights, you will still have certain basic rights as a worker even if you change jobs, and the state would be in a position to enforce that.

It seems that at the same time that women, especially middle-class women, were entering the workforce in large numbers, in the 1970s and ’80s, and demand for household workers and day care workers was at its highest, wages lowered and conditions worsened for domestic workers and daycare workers.

PN

The movement began waning in the 1970s and ’80s, in part because they had won federal minimum wage protections in 1974, and in part because of economic crisis. Funding diminished enormously, and there was a rise in conservatism across the country. There was a whole set of larger forces that weakened it, and they were ultimately unable to carry out their agenda as they envisioned it.

I think there was a cultural backlash against so many middle-class women entering the workforce. It was centered on this crisis of, “What’s going to happen to our children?” and the idea that “day care isn’t good for our children.” This social crisis was in part generated by a backlash against feminism.

That, coupled with the influx of immigrants, documented as well as undocumented, who started to be the primary domestic worker workforce, further served the advocates of deregulation of the industry. When the Fair Labor Standards Act amendments were passed in 1974, there was a provision excluding home health care workers from the minimum-wage standards.

That’s been the battle more recently that was hopefully resolved permanently at the end of August, when a federal appeal brought back Obama administration regulations including home health care workers in minimum-wage legislation.

And even though undocumented immigrants did have labor rights until very recently, and there have been some court rulings that have limited them — and I think that’s very important because it suggests the ways in which the state creates new processes of exclusion, that even if we claim labor rights belong to everybody, there are always categories outside that, that can continue to serve as an exploited labor force.

Frances Fox Piven has written about how welfare-to-work programs were conceived in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s with the idea of getting women off the rolls and into domestic servitude, in response to a historical shortage of domestic workers. How has Clinton-era welfare reform reshaped the struggles of domestic workers?

PN

That’s a really important component of the conversation for poor and working-class women. Welfare is no longer an option for working-class women, because welfare as we know it has been dismantled by a Democratic administration. They have been pushed into the workforce and because they don’t often have the resources or time or opportunity for education, they are pushed into occupations like domestic work.

Welfare-to-work legislation has weakened the position of women who end up in this particular occupation. It’s had an enormously negative impact on domestic workers and created more competition between the new immigrants and the African-American women in this occupation. Because of that, it’s all the more important that people attempt to upgrade this occupation, to increase wages, improve working conditions.

The huge number of women performing waged work today leaves feminists with important questions. Someone has to do the work of cleaning the house or taking care of the kids, but how do we ensure that these needs are met in an equitable way, in such an inequitable society?

PN

The history of domestic work, and if we go back to the women organizing in the 1950s and ’60s, is a history both of economic exploitation and exclusion from labor rights, along with the cultural associations linked to the occupation that served as the foundation for the organizing.

I think that’s still present and relevant today. There has to be a rethinking of this work. When feminists today or in the 1960s or ’70s or ’80s refer to household work as “shit work,” it contributes to the way this occupation is marginalized in the discourse. That way of thinking has to be transformed.

Today, the National Domestic Workers Alliance says that domestic work is what makes all other work possible. It has to be reevaluated and re-centered in our analysis of employment and in thinking about which kinds of work are most important. In addition to that it has to be recognized legally as the same kind of work, valued the same way.

I mean, why have home health care workers not been protected by minimum wage until very recently? This is essentially nursing that’s being done by people being paid very little. That hierarchy has to be rethought, in terms of legislation, payment, and social value.

What might that that look like?

PN

It has to be part of a bigger political agenda. For these women organizing in the 1960s and ’70s, it was part of rejecting the mammy stereotype, of moving beyond the notion that African Americans were servants, and that their employers needed to have bodily control over them. In that regard, it challenged a history of racism and racial exploitation that had been central to domestic work.

In the long term, I think we need more collective forms of childcare and housework. We need to think about state support for these services and state employment for people. The model that exists now of individual families hiring individual workers is one that has essentially privatized this labor. Households are responsible for taking care of their own children.

We do have a public education system, so even though it’s not funded the way it should be and it’s under attack, most people believe that children should be educated beyond the age of five by the state and that’s a basic right.

Why don’t we have the same assumptions about taking care of children when they’re younger? Having a child and raising a child should be a basic right that we are entitled to as people living in this country. My long-term vision is, “How do we socialize these needs and services families use?”

You’ve pointed out how the labor of caring for children has become more atomized than ever, which parallels increased precariousness for household workers, and all workers categorized as “independent contractors” — as an ever-growing number of workers today are. What lessons can we glean from the history of domestic worker organizing that are applicable to broader, present-day labor struggles?

PN

In some ways, the country wasn’t quite ready for the organizing model of domestic workers in the 1960s and ’70s. There was still an assumption of US dominance as the manufacturing center of the world, and the significance of the manufacturing sector to the overall functioning of the economic model of the country.

Fifty years later, we see a very different economic model in place in this country, one more reliant on occupations that closely resemble domestic work: the atomization, the precarious nature, the multiple employers, the lack of state benefits or enforcement, the fact that so much of our work is service work and the employees are largely women of color or immigrant women.

The sectors of employment that are growing today are not the male-dominated manufacturing sectors. It’s service work, done by people considered independent contractors, or working part-time, or not guaranteed regular work hours.

According to the government accounting office, 40 percent of American workers are contingent workers. Uber drivers, contingent faculty, nail salon workers — all fall into this category. The domestic workers rights movement can offer us a way to think about how to bring workers together even if they are precarious, if they are atomized, or contingent, and offer a model that’s more of a social movement unionism model, rather than one based on a particular employer or occupation.

Today domestic workers are not necessarily only doing domestic work. They might end up doing nail salon work or taxi driving. People are no longer working just in one occupation and staying only in that occupation for a long period of time.

What have you seen in your academic work, or in your activism, that makes you optimistic?

PN

I see so much grassroots organizing going on around me, with Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, home health care workers, in the immigrant rights movement. There’s often concern about how we don’t have a central national figure that can bring it all together. And it’s true we don’t have one figure, but maybe dispersed movements are how we’re going to transform this world.

I don’t have the answers, but I do think there are many ways in which people are thinking about developing alternative structures. I’m talking about people who have a real alternative political vision and about ways they’re optimistic that our current small-scale efforts are going to lead somewhere.

Something’s gotta give!

PN

Exactly!