MAKE: New Models of Labor 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.

By Premilla Nadasen - Viewpoint Magazine

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. READ MORE

Photo: African American women picket for unionization; Source: The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives