Unsung Black Heroines Launched a Modern Domestic Workers Movement—Powered By Their Own Stories

Source: Yes! Magazine

Excerpted from Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

In the late 1990s, household workers around the country began to organize to address the exploitation and abuse in their occupation. These domestic workers, immigrant nannies, housecleaners, and elder-care workers from all over the world—the Philippines, Barbados, Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Indonesia, and Nepal—used public shaming strategies to draw attention to particularly egregious employers, sued for back pay, developed support groups, organized training and certificate programs, and lobbied for statewide domestic workers’ bills of rights. In building a movement, domestic workers used storytelling to connect workers with one another. Barbara Young, for example, a former nanny and an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, joined Domestic Workers United in New York City in the early 2000s. Young was in a park one day with the child she cared for when another household worker, Erline Brown, invited her to a DWU meeting in Brooklyn. “People were telling the stories about the work that they were doing, not getting vacation, not getting paid for holidays.,” she explained. “It was the first time I was hearing stories from workers coming together.” DWU mobilized women of different racial, ethnic, linguistic, and national backgrounds. Despite the diverse origins, all the stories seemed to resonate with one another. As Young put it: “Some people had different stories but similar stories.”

This contemporary organizing is making its mark on today’s political landscape, but as a movement the struggle for domestic workers rights started decades ago among private household workers, mostly African-American women, who established a powerful nationwide movement to bring dignity, rights, and professionalization to their labor. One of their central goals was to revalue and upgrade the status of household labor. This distinguished them from many in the feminist community who denigrated housework in order to make a claim for employment opportunities outside the home.

Like contemporary organizers, they relied on storytelling to build political solidarity and recruit workers to their movement. Storytelling provided a means of transforming household labor: to critique the occupation, but also to imagine domestic work differently. The movement sought to change the character of domestic labor and to bring it recognition. And it did so in multiple ways, including successfully lobbying for amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1974, which won household workers federal minimum wage protection after nearly forty years of exclusion. Meet three of the women who helped launch this movement:

1. Josephine Hulett: A working mother seeking advancement

Josephine Hulett was a single mother and household worker who formed the Youngstown Household Technicians in 1968. Two years later she became a field organizer for the National Committee on Household Employment, a middle-class organization that was interested in developing a network of domestic worker groups. Hulett traveled around the country sharing her personal story with local organizations and encouraging them to participate in the first-ever national convention of household workers, which took place in 1971. Many household workers identified with the experiences Hulett shared of hardship, mistreatment, efforts at advancement, and juggling work and single motherhood.

As a high school dropout with few job opportunities, Hulett turned to domestic work to support herself. Because she couldn’t afford paid child care, she left the baby with her ex-husband’s family during the day, and ventured out from her home in Girard, Ohio, near Youngstown, in search of day work. At her first job she earned $25 a week for five and a half days. She paid eighty cents for bus fare, walking two and a half miles each way to avoid paying for an additional bus. Her employer’s husband owned a produce company, yet she was given only a hot dog for lunch every day. She cared for four young children and cleaned a large house from top to bottom. Although she frequently worked late, she was never paid for overtime.

One day, when she left thirty minutes early to take her son to the doctor, her employer docked her pay. The next day she left at five o’clock and informed her boss she would never work overtime again. The following week, she was fired.

Continue reading