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How Black Domestic Workers Organized Without 'The Help'

We talked to historian Premilla Nadasen about her new book, "Household Workers Unite," and about how white savior narratives are bullshit.

by Gabby Bess
Aug 25 2015, 6:15pm

All images courtesy of Beacon Press

Household Workers Unite by historian Premilla Nadasen sheds light on the untold story of domestic workers' fight to gain rights and respect in their profession. The book, out today via Beacon Press, is a much-needed antidote to the white savior narratives that ignore the agency and contributions of women of color in the fight against racism. Films and books like The Help portray houseworkers as stereotypical mammy figures; in turn, their white employers often promoted patronizing narratives of houseworkers as "one of the family" while refusing to see their care work and affective labor as deserving of livable wages. The book spans a huge timeline: from the antebellum period; to the street corner markets in the 1930s, where houseworkers would wait for jobs like slaves; to black Marxist advocates like Alice Childress and Claudia Jones; to the post-war civil rights movement; to the women's movement in the 1970s; to the present day. Household Workers Unite chronicles how African American houseworkers resisted, organized, and fought back against their exploitation. I spoke with Nadasen about the importance of this narrative and the future of work.

Broadly: The most interesting thing about the book, to me, came at the very end, when you started talking about your personal life and how you came from this lineage of domestic workers. Could you talk more about why you decided to write Household Workers Unite?
Premilla Nadasen: I've been interested in the issues of poor and working-class women since I was an undergraduate, and it continued through graduate school. I first wrote on the welfare rights movement, but the more immediate issue, for me, living in New York City, was the vibrant domestic workers rights movement. Around 2005, I would pass by their demonstrations and read about their campaigns in the news, and I was fascinated by it. I was fascinated by this very diverse group of mostly middle-aged women who were out on the streets demanding rights as domestic workers. As a historian I began to think about the history of domestic worker organizing and the precedent for this kind of movement. When I started to read about some of the history of domestic organizing, I was surprised that there wasn't a monograph about it.

At the same time, I was very personally involved in the domestic workers rights movement, and I still am a supporter of the organizing that has taken place over the past ten years. I initially worked with Domestic Workers United in New York City, but starting in 2007 with the formation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the movement has gone national. They recently formed an international federation of domestic workers as well.

The mammy stereotype promoted the idea that they purely existed to serve white families and had no families of their own.

Yeah, I was very surprised when I learned that New York only passed a bill of rights for domestic workers a few years ago.
That was in 2010. New York was the first state in the country to do so, and it really got the ball rolling in terms of getting other states to then wage similar campaigns. Hawaii now has a bill of rights, as well as California, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. A number of states around the country are pursuing a similar strategy. One of the things that a bill of rights campaign does is it protects workers who are both organized and unorganized. If you think, for example, about labor unions—when workers at a particular company organize—it's really only those workers at that company who are organized. Whereas the household workers movement is establishing a different kind of labor organizing, which suggests that workers, regardless of who they are employed by, will benefit from the basic provisions of a bill of rights. This means that all workers are entitled to a certain minimum wage and number of benefits.

I think that's especially important at this moment, when the mainstream labor movement is really in decline. The unionization rate in the private sector in the US is very, very low. It's something like six or seven percent. So I think the issue is how do you get workers to organize and fight for their rights, and I think [what the household worker's movement is doing] is a whole new model that we can turn to and look at.

Your book starts off with a denunciation of the movie/book The Help. Was Household Workers a reaction or correction to the way that black domestic workers were portrayed in Kathryn Stockett's novel?
I read the book when it came out, and then I did watch the movie. I was very interested in the film, and I was very interested in its portrayal of domestic workers. Obviously, the very title of the film suggests that its going to be about the workers themselves, but I didn't see the film or the book as a narrative about workers. It was about a young, white woman and her journey of self-discovery. The domestic workers were really just a platform or a backdrop for the protagonist's self-discovery. The film takes place at a moment in the civil rights movement when domestic workers were very active in forming organizations, as I wrote in the book when I talked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Although they're virtually unknown today, domestic workers were very vocal and took active part in the boycott after Rosa Parks's arrest. The activist and domestic worker Georgia Gilmore fed demonstrators, created meeting spaces, and founded the Club From Nowhere, which organized maids and service workers who wanted to get involved in the boycott. Domestic workers weren't afraid to speak up, and they weren't just playing a behind the scenes role. The Help was a real misinterpretation on the part of Kathryn Stockett.

I thought [The Help] was just so typical. Black women are most often portrayed as props or supporting characters to a white woman's narrative. The thing about the about it that was so egregious is that it was such a huge critical success. The movie won like four Academy Awards.
I applaud Kathryn Stockett for trying to expose the injustices in the industry, but it did promote an erasure of black domestic workers and their ability to tell their own stories. That's where my book can offer something different—the real history of organizing and resistance among the workers.

I loved that your book starts off with a quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: "What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it." The book follows that theme of the importance of narrative, and the importance of shifting the narrative of history from one that implies houseworkers are nameless, disempowered victims to one that illuminates how they were active agents in their own liberation. Why is changing the narrative so important?
I think that quote encapsulates what I was trying to do in the book, which was to give these women the space to tell their own stories and to bring them to life on the pages of the book through their very own words. I did a lot of digging and a lot of mining in the archives to find their stories and how they understood their family life and their work and why they were organizing. I really wanted to have their stories be the center of this book, and I found that their stories were very much stories of empowerment. Despite the fact that is was a difficult occupation and despite the fact that they were being exploited and mistreated, there was a lot that was uplifting in reading about the way they collectively organized.

That's where my book can offer something different—the real history of organizing and resistance among the workers.

As a black feminist writer who always finds herself reading and writing things about representation and how representation in media is important, etc., I'm always curious to see how other people deal with those issues.
I think representation is how people are seen. It's fundamentally about how the world sees us. In terms of domestic work, the way these women were seen was so utterly central to the way they were marginalized. Because houseworkers were seen as maids and servants, the mammy stereotype promoted the idea that they purely existed to serve white families and had no families of their own. That representation of the African American woman as a mammy defined the occupation for so long that I think transforming that representation or that self-presentation was really the crux of this movement. That's when the women said, we are not maids, we are not servants, we are not nannies, we are household technicians. "Household technician" is a slightly awkward term, but I think what it really symbolized for houseworkers is how their labor was skilled labor. Their labor was utterly important labor and it was work that needed to be valued.

It was also very gendered labor. Later in the book you mention how the domestic worker movement coincided with the women's liberation movement, and as middle-class woman were going to work, they were hiring these black, lower-class women to kind of fill in where they needed them to in order for them to work outside of the home. There's this element of double oppression, in regard to class and gender. Domestic work is, indeed, a skilled labor but it's also a form of exploitation, still. Another woman's liberation and freedom, usually a white woman's, is at the expense of a poorly paid domestic worker.
Yeah. If you go back to the movie The Help, and you think about the relationship between the white female employers and the black domestic workers, it was ultimately a relationship that was very fraught with tension. And that's what I anticipated when I started writing this book—that of course there would be tension between and employer and an employee in the occupation. But what I found is that household workers and employers were able to develop a political alliance, especially around the minimum wage campaign. That was really interesting to me because I think the way they built that alliance was by recognizing that household work, whether it's the unpaid work that housewives do or whether it's the (under)paid work that domestic workers do, it's all women's work. So they built an alliance around this gendered notion of household labor as women's work, and it was very successful in helping pass the 1974 amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which finally brought domestic work the federal protection of minimum wage. Gloria Steinem and the National Federation of Women were all working very closely with the domestic rights movement. I think that's very instructive for thinking about the question of gender and labor especially.

But that didn't mean there weren't complications. The biggest issue that emerged later was the question of enforcement. You had some feminist activists who were allied with workers, but then when it really came time to encouraging middle-class women to treat their employees fairly, it didn't always happen as planned. That continues to be a problem today with employers who mistreat or tend to underpay their domestic workers.

To back up before the women's movement and back to the civil rights movement, you also touched upon how the houseworkers rights movement was related and integral to the civil rights movement. In your research, did you find any instances of tension between the women and men within the civil rights movement?
The civil rights movement was so male-defined. When we think about the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, it's usually Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Some other names might pop up occasionally, but really the most visible leaders are the men. The 'I Am a Man!' slogan was really indicative of the civil rights movement being about reclaiming manhood, at least the narrative that we are told today. The reality of the civil rights movement was much more complicated. What looking at the civil rights movement from the angle of domestic workers suggests to us is that women played a much more central role in terms of defining what the movement was about. For them, the movement was not about reclaiming manhood, obviously, but reclaiming marginalized labor.

We are not maids, we are not servants, we are not nannies. We are household technicians.

I remember you had written about a male civil rights organizer who was trying to get preachers to be more militant in their fight for civil rights during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He instructed them to "take off their aprons" and used very gendered language to shame men who weren't a part of the fight for civil rights. That seems like it would have been alienating for household workers who were a crucial part of the movement.
Absolutely. Both the civil rights and the women's movement denigrated household labor to a certain degree.

As you mentioned before, household worker activists were a huge part of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the years after that, it seemed like buses served as a place for household workers to organize. Household worker Dorothy Bolden disseminated flyers to other domestics on her way to and from work. Was it an important tactic that household workers organized secretly in passing?
Part of it had to do that domestic workers were working inside the privacy of other people's homes. If you think about labor organizing generally, like in a factory, you're usually organizing workers in their place of employment. That couldn't really happen with domestic workers because they were isolated; they were usually the only worker, and they were essentially behind closed doors all day. Because of that, the organizing had to take place in public spaces like in the bus stops and in the streets. It's an interesting way to think about the new models of labor organizing that are happening in public venues and in decentralized locations.

What are some of the major organizations that are advocating for domestic workers now?
There's an organization called the National Domestic Workers Alliance. There's an organization in California called Mujeres Unidas y Activas, and then there's a Filipina organization called Damayan.

Would you say that domestic work is moving away from a black women's profession to one that is populated by Filipino and Mexican immigrants?
Yes. There are far fewer black women in the occupation today then was the case in the 1960s or 70s. That shift happened at the very moment when these women were organizing. There's only a few instances where they were able to build a real multi-racial coalition, but the fact that they hope to and intended to was very instructive to how we can think about building labor coalitions today.

This is just me theorizing out of my ass, but it just seems like the burden of undervalued labor just keeps shifting. First it was white women who were housewives, then when white women were able to go off to work they could shift their housework to black houseworkers, and once black women gained a certain social mobility the work has now shifted to illegal immigrants. It seems like, instead of valuing housework—women's work—it just keeps getting outsourced to the people we value the least, until they start pushing back.
That's an important point. It's really an indication of how this work is marginalized and devalued. It's the kind of work that no one really wants to do. So the people that have very little other options are the people who end up in the occupation and who are the most vulnerable.

Is the only way to move away from that to monetarily value the labor more?
It's a hard issue, and I think that the monetary benefits are part of it, but only part of it. If we think about it as work that just anybody can do and that these workers are easily replaceable, then I think the work will continue to be devalued, even if there is a higher minimum wage. The fact of the matter is that this is incredibly important work. We're talking about the women who raise our children and prepare our food. The labor itself is what enables many of us to go to work and without that labor our society would essentially shut down. It is possibly the most important work that happens in our society.

This work is marginalized and devalued. It's the kind of work that no one really wants to do.

It seems like domestic workers—live-in workers, at least—are very rare. But now there are startups and apps like Handy that offer houseworkers on-demand for a few hours. I'll see ads on the subway that offer housecleanings for $25, which seems ridiculously low. How can anyone, let alone the workers, be making money off of that? It seems like that might be the future of housework.
I've seen those ads, too. It's very disheartening. There's no way to survive off of those wages. I don't think startups like that are a step forward. I think what's happening is that there's now the creation of a middleman who's managing who gets work and who doesn't get work and how long they work for. In most of these companies workers are not getting benefits, decent wages, or regular work. Unfortunately, it's so indicative of where our economy is going. When you think about Uber drivers, for example, they're experiencing something very similar—this idea that you might or might not get work and you're not really guaranteed anything. It's very precarious. This isn't new for the domestic worker industry, but other occupations are becoming more and more like domestic work. It's happening with adjunct professors, it's happening with journalists, it's happening with people who are doing "consulting" work. The benefits that we took for granted in the 1950s—pensions and Social Security—just doesn't exist for the vast majority of workers today.

Yeah. It seems grim, but it's also a little hopeful? You are starting to see a backlash to all this. At VICE, for example, we just unionized. A lot of other media companies are starting to as well. It seems like unions might be coming back?
I hope so. Your example of media companies unionizing is really important. Just a few generations ago professional, middle-class workers didn't have to unionize because you were pretty much guaranteed a good job. Middle-class workers have seen a decline in the jobs that are available, but I actually think that creates the potential for more solidarity between low-wage workers and middle-class workers who are finding it more and more difficult to survive in this economy. What I see is a growing support for unionizing between white-collar and professional workers that wasn't the case a couple generations ago.

It's interesting. Once things start affecting the white, middle class then it's like, "Oh wait! We should do something about this." I guess that's positive.
Yeah, there's definitely potential for major change to happen.