In this groundbreaking history of African American domestic-worker organizing, scholar and activist Premilla Nadasen shatters countless myths and misconceptions about an historically misunderstood workforce. Resurrecting a little-known history of domestic-worker activism from the 1950s to the 1970s, Nadasen shows how these women were a far cry from the stereotyped passive and powerless victims; they were innovative labor organizers who tirelessly organized on buses and streets across the United States to bring dignity and legal recognition to their occupation.
Dismissed by mainstream labor as “unorganizable,” African American household workers developed unique strategies for social change and formed unprecedented alliances with activists in both the women’s rights and the black freedom movements. Using storytelling as a form of activism and as means of establishing a collective identity as workers, these women proudly declared, “We refuse to be your mammies, nannies, aunties, uncles, girls, handmaidens any longer.”
With compelling personal stories of the leaders and participants on the front lines, Household Workers Unite gives voice to the poor women of color whose dedicated struggle for higher wages, better working conditions, and respect on the job created a sustained political movement that endures today.
Some of the women profiled in the book:
Gilmore put her household worker skills to use during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, forming an organization of domestics, The Club from Nowhere, raising money, feeding demonstrators, and creating meeting spaces, yet her name is relatively unknown. Gilmore believed the maids’ refusal to ride was indispensable to the boycott’s success. “Because you see they were maids, cooks. And they was the one that really and truly kept the bus running. And after the maids and the cooks stopped riding the bus, well the bus didn’t have any need to run.”
Bolden worked alongside Martin Luther King and SNCC activists in Atlanta, formed the National Domestic Workers Union of America, and pioneered strategies of organizing domestic workers on the city bus lines. She once said: “Dr. King would always stand out in my mind, he’s the strongest one of them. [But] he had help, he had women like me,” along with such leaders as Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer: “Strong women that didn’t back down.”
In 1965, Roberts started the Domestic Workers of America in Cleveland, which opened a placement office to help workers obtain jobs and launched a clothing drive for needy school children. “The domestic worker has been the kind of worker that has been overlooked and ignored—what I refer to as an invisible worker,” she explained. “No one really sees that worker in the labor market and whatever benefits other workers are thinking of or attemptin’ to get or are gettin’ the domestic worker has not been included.”
Sloan headed the National Committee on Household Employment, which organized the first national gathering of domestic workers in 1971.
“Many employers are slowly beginning to realize that there has been a revolution in the kitchen, and like it or not, there is a new force and a determined new worker who will no longer work unreasonable hours under unreasonable conditions for unjust wages, some leftover food and a worn-out garment.”
Hulett worked as a domestic for twenty years before she became a field officer for the Household Technicians of America, the first national organization of household workers. Telling her story became the hallmark of her leadership.
“After all, there’s a sense in which all women are household workers. And unless we stop being turned against each other, unless we organize together, we’re never going to make this country see household work for what it really is—human work, not just ‘woman’s work’: a job that deserves dignity, fair pay, and respect.”
Miller lived in the Bronx and founded the Bronx Household Technicians and the New York State Household Technicians. She worked to build alliances between African American and immigrant domestic workers.
“Immigrants were coming in and [employers] were hiring them instead of the African American because they were cheap labor and they could get by with it. You know, they could threaten the woman with deportation and they can’t threaten us, we’d a been threatened already, and we’re still here.”
Based in New York City, Reed eventually became the head of the National Committee of Household Employment and spent years attempting to build a labor organization of household workers.
“Unions . . . are run by men. I want the household workers union to be run by women.”