The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in Relation to Trade Unionism (1940)

Esther Cooper Jack­son is a rad­i­cal civil rights activist. A mem­ber of the South­ern Negro Youth Con­gress (SNYC), she went on to become the man­ag­ing edi­tor of the famous rad­i­cal jour­nal, Free­domways, which pub­lished such fig­ures as CLR James, James Bald­win, and Kwame Nkrumah. As an under­grad­u­ate at Ober­lin Col­lege, Cooper Jack­son observed the plight of the black domes­tic work­ers who cooked and cleaned for the stu­dents, prompt­ing her to begin a thor­ough inves­ti­ga­tion of domes­tic work in the United States. In the spring of 1940, she defended a Master’s The­sis on the work­ing con­di­tions of black domes­tic work­ers, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to their strug­gles to union­ize. (For more on Esther Cooper Jackson’s The­sis and the broader con­text of black fem­i­nism, see Erik S. McDuffie, “Esther V. Cooper’s ‘The Negro Woman Domes­tic Worker in Rela­tion to Trade Union­ism’: Black Left Fem­i­nism and the Pop­u­lar Front,” Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist His­tory 7, no. 2 (2008): 203-209.) The the­sis can be read as one of the most thor­ough the­o­ret­i­cal and empir­i­cal stud­ies of the labor of social repro­duc­tion in twen­ti­eth-cen­tury United States his­tory. Although the forms and processes of social repro­duc­tion have no doubt changed in this coun­try, many of Cooper Jackson’s insights, meth­ods, and ques­tions still stand, espe­cially when we rec­og­nize that domes­tic work remains one of the largest occu­pa­tions in the United States and is still largely per­formed by migrant women of color. More­over, the very con­di­tions which Cooper Jack­son iden­ti­fies as the chief griev­ances of domes­tic work­ers remain the hall­mark demands of their move­ment, and the obsta­cles which make this kind of orga­niz­ing so oner­ous have per­sisted into the 21st cen­tury. We present here an excerpt from her The­sis, with the kind per­mis­sion of Tami­ment Library and Robert F. Wag­ner Labor Archives, New York City.


In spite of the increased mech­a­niza­tion of the home, and the use of mod­ern elec­tri­cal con­ve­niences, large num­bers of women still find employ­ment in pri­vate homes. Today more women in the United States work in domes­tic ser­vice than in any other occu­pa­tion. About one and one-half mil­lion women were employed in domes­tic ser­vice when the 1930 Cen­sus was taken.

Domes­tic work itself is not a pop­u­lar occu­pa­tion since there are many dis­ad­van­tages attached to it, and hence women tend to look on it as a last resort when they are unable to obtain any other type of work. The may dis­ad­van­tages with which domes­tic work­ers are con­tend­ing have made it nec­es­sary to dis­cover some means of elim­i­nat­ing or mit­i­gat­ing the dis­ad­van­tages of this occu­pa­tion. Some domes­tic work­ers have turned to union­iza­tion just as work­ers in other occu­pa­tions have done as a means of improv­ing their con­di­tions of work.

Negro women often have to face dis­crim­i­na­tion and prej­u­dice in addi­tion to the prob­lems which domes­tic work­ers as a whole must face. Since Negro women con­tinue to be employed in domes­tic work in large num­bers, this study is con­cerned with a con­sid­er­a­tion of their prob­lems and their attempts at union­iza­tion.

The mate­rial for the body of this study was obtained from inter­views, from let­ters, Gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, and from mag­a­zine and news­pa­per arti­cles. Those inter­viewed included orga­niz­ers of unions, both union and non-union domes­tic work­ers, some employ­ers of domes­tic work­ers, spe­cial­ists in the Women’s Bureau, Depart­ment of Labor, in the National Negro Con­gress, in the Women’s Trade Union League, and in other agen­cies and orga­ni­za­tions. Let­ters were received from the national head­quar­ters of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor, the Con­gress of Indus­trial Orga­ni­za­tions, the National Urban League, and the Work Projects Admin­is­tra­tion.

It is the plan of this study to exam­ine, first, the sta­tus of Negro women as domes­tic work­ers in the United States; that is, the his­tor­i­cal changes that have taken place in this occu­pa­tion, the num­bers engaged in this occu­pa­tion at present, the con­di­tions and prob­lems of Negro women in domes­tic work. Sec­ond, trade union­ism in the United States today, par­tic­u­larly in rela­tion to Negro women and in rela­tion to other occu­pa­tions which have been thought to be unor­ga­ni­z­able, will be exam­ined. Data on the exist­ing unions in New York, N.Y., Newark N.J., Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Chicago, Illi­nois, which are the only unions in exis­tence as far as the writer can ascer­tain, will be pre­sented. An exam­i­na­tion of clubs and other orga­ni­za­tions of domes­tic work­ers and instances where domes­tic unions have failed, will fol­low. Atti­tudes of oth­ers toward unions of domes­tic work­ers will be inves­ti­gated, atti­tudes expressed by such orga­ni­za­tions as the Women’s Trade Union League, the Young Chris­tian Asso­ci­a­tion, by Gov­ern­ment agen­cies such as the Work Projects Admin­is­tra­tion and the Women’s Bureau of the Depart­ment of Labor, by orga­nized labor rep­re­sented by the Con­gress of Indus­trial Orga­ni­za­tions and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor, by the gen­eral pub­lic rep­re­sented in news­pa­pers, mag­a­zine, women’s clubs, by employ­ers and employ­ees. Finally, this study will appraise the extent to which trade union orga­ni­za­tion has offered a par­tial solu­tion to prob­lems faced by Negro women domes­tic work­ers.

Chapter 1: The Negro Woman Domestic Worker in the United States

The United States cen­sus includes under domes­tic and per­sonal ser­vice a wide range of occu­pa­tions from laun­dresses and char­women to hair­dressers and man­iourists. How­ever, this study is lim­ited to an inves­ti­ga­tion of Negro women employed in pri­vate homes, who per­form gen­eral house­work and who han­dle ser­vices for mem­bers of the house­hold and their guests. In spite of the fact that there are many social and eco­nomic prob­lems related to domes­tic work in pri­vate homes, there is lit­tle data avail­able as to num­bers, race, age and mar­i­tal sta­tus or domes­tic work­ers.

Although the exact num­ber of house­hold work­ers at the present time is unknown, an esti­mate can be made from the 1930 cen­sus. More than 3,000,000 women were employed in domes­tic and per­sonal ser­vice in 1930. There are no accu­rate fig­ures as to how many women were engaged in domes­tic work in pri­vate homes, but from cen­sus fig­ures, the Women’s Bureau has indi­cated that well over 1,400,000 were in this group. Three of five Negro women work­ers reported their usual occu­pa­tion as in domes­tic and per­sonal ser­vice; included in this num­ber, the Women’s Bureau has esti­mated that over 600,000 Negro women were domes­tic work­ers in pri­vate homes in 1930. It is a strik­ing fact that there is a high con­cen­tra­tion of white women house­hold work­ers in the age group under 20; 24.2% were in this class age, as con­trasted with 15.8% of all white women gain­ful work­ers, 15.9% of all Negro women gain­ful work­ers, and 14.4% of Negro women in gen­eral house­work.1 There are, also, large num­bers of older white women in domes­tic work, but for Negro women the age dis­tri­b­u­tion is more scat­tered. It appears, then, that domes­tic work is pre­dom­i­nantly an occu­pa­tion for very young or rel­a­tively old white women and for Negro women of all ages.

Strik­ing dif­fer­ences between white and Negro domes­tic work­ers with respect to mar­i­tal sta­tus emerge from an analy­sis of cen­sus data on this sub­ject. Among white domes­tic work­ers, the per­cent­age mar­ried in 1930 did not exceed 25% for any age group. In the case of white women, domes­tic work is done char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally by sin­gle, wid­owed and divorced women. Among Negro domes­tic work­ers, how­ever, the mar­ried woman is the rule. From 25 years on the per­cent­age of sin­gle Negro women in domes­tic work is small. From cen­sus data, we find that in the 1930 pop­u­la­tion, 33% of Negro mar­ried women were gain­fully occu­pied and 8% were in gen­eral house­work, but of all mar­ried white women, only about 10% were gain­fully occu­pied and less that 1% were in gen­eral house­work.2

In order to under­stand more thor­oughly the role of the Negro woman domes­tic worker in present soci­ety, and the prob­lems which they face, we shall exam­ine briefly the his­tor­i­cal changes among these employ­ees in the United States. As one com­men­ta­tor, writ­ing at the turn of the cen­tury put it: “In study­ing the ques­tion of domes­tic ser­vice, there­fore, the fact can­not be over­looked that cer­tain his­tor­i­cal influ­ences have affected its con­di­tions; that polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions have changed its per­son­nel, and indus­trial devel­op­ment its mobil­ity.”3

Dur­ing the early his­tory of our coun­try, ser­vice of every kind was done by trans­ported con­victs, inden­tured white ser­vants, Negroes and Indi­ans. These ser­vants often com­plained of long hours of work and ill treat­ment, while the house­wives com­plained of “ungrate­ful ser­vants and inef­fi­cient ser­vice.” In the South, the large plan­ta­tion devel­oped with its big house and its eco­nomic self-suf­fi­ciency. Here the Negro slave was the house ser­vant. With respect to this pat­tern one can see why Roscher, the Ger­man econ­o­mist, dis­cusses domes­tic ser­vice as an appen­dix to his treat­ment of slav­ery. The plan­ta­tion owner and his wife looked on the Negro house ser­vant with an air of benev­o­lence and mater­nal­ism. The rela­tion­ships between ser­vant and mis­tress exhib­ited all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the feu­dal rela­tion­ship of mas­ter and serf. When slav­ery was abol­ished in 1863, many for­mer slaves who had been domes­tic ser­vants con­tin­ued in this capac­ity, receiv­ing a small sum of money for the work.

The num­ber of Negro women domes­tic work­ers in the period just fol­low­ing the Civil War is not known. It was not until 1890, when the first sep­a­rate occu­pa­tional sta­tis­tics of Negroes was taken by the Cen­sus Bureau, that one could get rea­son­ably exact infor­ma­tion on the num­ber of Negro women domes­tic work­ers in the coun­try. In 1890 the total Negro pop­u­la­tion was 7,488,676 or 11.9% of the total pop­u­la­tion. Agri­cul­tural and domes­tic work­ers com­prised the bulk of the Negro pop­u­la­tion at this time. Almost one-third of all the Negroes gain­fully employed were clas­si­fied as domes­tic work­ers, although the num­ber employed as house­hold work­ers in pri­vate homes is not avail­able.4 By 1900 there was an increase of 361,105 domes­tic work­ers in the Negro group, an increase of 37.7% over the num­ber in 1890.

Migra­tion of Negroes to both North­ern and South­ern towns in search of bet­ter wages, hours, and con­di­tions of work and other urban attrac­tions may account for some of this increase. Negro girls and women, espe­cially, migrated to the city from rural areas in search of domes­tic work. In the South, many white women went into the cot­ton and steel plants, and in so doing employed Negro girls to look after their homes and take care of their chil­dren. For this the Negro domes­tic received wages rang­ing from 50 cents to $3.50 a week.5 In the North, wages for domes­tic work were higher, and thus pro­vided an attrac­tion to those seek­ing bet­ter con­di­tions of work. How­ever, in the North the Negro faced much com­pe­ti­tion in domes­tic work in addi­tion to the fact that he was refused work alto­gether in lines of indus­try monop­o­lized by white per­sons. Thus, Greene and Wood­son say in The Negro Wage Earner: “How­ever, the keen com­pe­ti­tion for jobs in the North, the fact that domes­tic ser­vice car­ried with it no social stigma as in the South, and the higher wages paid, all served to weaken the Negroes in this field.” These authors also point out that even though there was a numer­i­cal increase in the num­ber of ser­vants in 1900 over 1890, the pro­por­tion of Negro women in domes­tic ser­vice showed a decline in 1900 which was due to the keen com­pe­ti­tion for jobs and to the increased effort of the Negro hus­band and father to pre­vent his wife and daugh­ters from “work­ing out.”

From 1900 to 1914, the pro­por­tion of all Negro women employed in domes­tic per­sonal ser­vice con­tin­ued to decline. In the North some employ­ers pre­ferred whites and immi­grants to Negro domes­tic work­ers. Added to this prob­lem, was the ten­dency towards smaller homes so that house­wives could per­form house­hold duties alone or with one domes­tic worker. The bak­eries, the cloth­ing stores, laun­dries, dairies, etc., began to do work which was tra­di­tion­ally the role of the domes­tic worker. In the South, the domes­tic ser­vants began to tire of the feu­dal rela­tion­ship and tie to the house­hold; they had for so long been made to feel and acknowl­edge their social and racial lone­li­ness. Thus, migra­tions to the North con­tin­ued. Even though there was a decrease in the pro­por­tion of Negro women in domes­tic work, this field remained one of the main occu­pa­tions in which Negroes were employed.

By 1920, there was a fur­ther decrease in the pro­por­tion of all Negro women who were in domes­tic work. Here again we see var­i­ous fac­tors enter­ing into the sit­u­a­tion; not only does the decrease indi­cate that Negro women entered into some of the indus­tries and other occu­pa­tions at this time, but indi­cates also the whole trend in mod­ern house­keep­ing. That is, the urban house­wife began to use mod­ern mechan­i­cal appli­ances and time-sav­ing devices. She also resorted to the use of birth con­trol mech­a­nisms, so that there were few or no chil­dren, and thus there was a decrease in the num­ber of moth­ers’ helpers and other domes­tic work­ers whose duty it was to help care for the young. In spite of this decrease in the pro­por­tion of Negro women employed in domes­tic ser­vice which has con­tin­ued to the present, there was an absolute increase in the num­ber from 1920 to 1930. It seems highly prob­a­ble that the Negro woman will con­tinue for some time to be employed in domes­tic ser­vice because of the keen com­pe­ti­tion which she meets in all types of indus­trial work. thus, it is fit­ting to exam­ine at this time the con­di­tions under which domes­tic employ­ees must work, and the prob­lems which  they face today.

From the few recent stud­ies of domes­tic work­ers which are avail­able one con­cludes that low wages, long hours, and poor work­ing con­di­tions are char­ac­ter­is­tic of this occu­pa­tion. Negro women domes­tic work­ers have been dis­crim­i­nated against and exploited with dou­ble harsh­ness. The high turnover among Negro women domes­tics is thereby partly explain­able. From var­i­ous avail­able reports we may con­clude that the major prob­lems of domes­tic work­ers are lack of employ­ment stan­dards, long hours and low wages, exclu­sion from the ben­e­fits of social insur­ance and other pro­tec­tive leg­is­la­tion, and the social stigma attached to domes­tic work.

Lack Employment Standards

Because house­hold work­ers are scat­tered in many pri­vate homes, thou­sands of indi­vid­u­als bar­gain for work. To some extent com­pet­i­tive forces bring about an equal­iza­tion of wages. That is, domes­tic work­ers move from job to job in search of higher stan­dards, at the same time that employ­ers are on the watch for work­ers who will accept lower wages and longer hours. These com­pet­i­tive forces, how­ever, are fully likely to drive down the level of com­pen­sa­tion received by domes­tic work­ers as to main­tain or raise that level. Hagel Kyrk, Assoc­iate Pro­fes­sor of Home Eco­nom­ics at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, states on this point:

The ser­vices of house­hold work­ers are but one of many desir­able goods for which per­sonal income may be spent. Those with incomes suf­fi­ciently high can pay high wages as they can buy expen­sive clothes, and pay high rentals. Those with lower incomes strug­gle to bal­ance their bud­gets by search­ing more and more inten­sively for cheaper help. One of the most dif­fi­cult points in the house­hold employ­ment sit­u­a­tion arises from these two cir­cum­stances – a rel­a­tively low income and a stan­dard of liv­ing that calls for one, pos­si­ble two hired work­ers, and two or more younger chil­dren. Every ele­ment in the sit­u­a­tion makes for long hours, heavy work, low wages and lim­ited accom­mo­da­tions.6

The house­hold employee has no wage scale based on skill, amount of work required, or expe­ri­ence. She is usu­ally untrained and unskilled. The demand for effi­cient and trained work­ers is much larger than the sup­ply. Lit­tle effi­ciency can be expected when an employ­ment office brings coun­try girls to cities by the truck loads to work at “star­va­tion wages,” and when employ­ment bureaus regard the pay­ment of an appli­ca­tion fee as the only require­ment for place­ment. In a study made in Chicago by the Women’s Bureau, Depart­ment of Labor (1933), it was dis­cov­ered that of 246 domes­tic work­ers report­ing on their train­ing, just over one-fourth, whether white or Negro, had attended such classes, but less that 3% of the total had received  there all the prepa­ra­tion for their work. More than one-fourth of the total had secured all their train­ing in their own homes; about one-eight had received all in the homes in which they had worked; and one-third had their train­ing in both these places. Employ­ers report­ing in this same study in Chicago indi­cated inad­e­quacy of train­ing and expe­ri­ence of domes­tic work­ers in their employ­ment. More employ­ers found train­ing inad­e­quate in cook­ing and serv­ing than in any other kind of house­work; almost one-third had found it nec­es­sary to give train­ing in these branches. Other reported that employ­ees needed train­ing in “my ways of doing things.” Other kinds of work in which employ­ers found it nec­es­sary to train their employ­ees were plan­ning, care of chil­dren, dish­wash­ing, order­li­ness, and use of equip­ment, par­tic­u­larly elec­tri­cal equip­ment.

Long Hours and Low Wages

Today employ­ers of domes­tic work­ers work their mil­lion and half employ­ees an aver­age of sev­enty-two hours a week and pay them lower wages than are paid in any other occu­pa­tion.7 Knowl­edge of wages paid and hours required of domes­tic work­ers in var­i­ous sec­tions of the coun­try are revealed in a num­ber of spe­cial stud­ies.

In 1938, For­tune Mag­a­zine sent to more than 17,000 For­tune sub­scribers, to 500 edi­tors of women’s pages of news­pa­pers, and to 3,000 women’s clubs, a ques­tion­naire on the ser­vant prob­lem. The fol­low­ing con­clu­sions on wages and hours were included in the results of the sur­vey.

Wages were high­est in the North­east, low­est in the South. Thus, 73% of gen­eral house­work­ers in the New Eng­land, Mid­dle-Atlantic sec­tion earn $40 and over a month; 60% in the west­ern half of the South earn under $40 a month.

Wages were high­est in cities of over a mil­lion. Thus, 82% of gen­eral house­work­ers in cities of more than a mil­lion earned $40 and over a month; 58% in com­mu­ni­ties of less than 5,000 earned under $40.

Wages of white and Negro house­work­ers ran almost par­al­lel up to $30 a month; there­after, they favor the whites mod­er­ately. But in spe­cial­ized jobs, wages over $50 favor the whites over­whelm­ingly.

Five out of every six domes­tic work­ers worked more than 8 hours a day; two out of every six worked more than 10 hours; one out of six work more than 12. Short hours were most fre­quent in the west and in small com­mu­ni­ties; long hours in the South and in the big cities.8

In Lynch­burg, Vir­ginia (1936-1937), a study was spon­sored by a Join Col­ored-White Com­mit­tee of the YWCA and an Inter-Racial Com­mis­sion. A total of 141 ques­tion­naires were filled out by 64 employ­ers and 77 employ­ees. The fol­low­ing con­clu­sion on wages and hours were included in the results of the study.

The typ­i­cal wage of the group cov­ered by the study was $5 or $6 per week, as rep­re­sented by the two largest classes of approx­i­mately the same num­ber of cases. Two cases were reported at $1.50 and one at $10 and there was one report of pay­ment in the form of a house “on the lot” rent free, and one pay­ment made only in cloth­ing.

There were 63 employ­ees who received pay dur­ing sick­ness as against 40 who did not; 58 were paid for vaca­tions and 31 were not. There were 19 employ­ers who states that they gave a raise in wages after a period of time, while 55 employ­ees said they had received no raise on their present job.

There was one report of a work­ing week of 91 hours and 16 of 80 to 90, the typ­i­cal num­ber being 72 per week.9

Another study was con­ducted in Philadel­phia in 1932 by the Women’s Bureau of the United States Depart­ment of Labor. Of the 74 domes­tic work­ers who answered ques­tion­naires, only one-fifth were white, and the major­ity of those were for­eign born; this fact is sig­nif­i­cant for our pur­pose. The fol­low­ing con­clu­sions on wages and hours are included in the results obtained in this study.

About two-thirds of the women liv­ing in who reported the length of their usual day worked as much as 12 hours or more. Two-fifth of all report­ing went on duty between 7 and 8 o’clock in the morn­ing. Nearly one-half of those by whom the time of quit­ting work was given, went off duty between 7 and 8 o’clock in the morn­ing.

The median of the week’s wage of ther 72 women report­ing is $14.60; for those liv­ing out the median is lower than for those liv­ing in, the amounts are $12.70 and $15.25 respec­tively. The white women had a median some­what higher than that of the Negro woman – $15.35 in con­trast to $14.5.10

A more recent Gov­ern­ment inves­ti­ga­tion is that of the Bureau of Research and Sta­tis­tics of the Social Secu­rity Board. An analy­sis was made of 3,645 reg­is­tra­tion cards pro­vid­ing a ran­dom sam­ple of the active and inac­tive files for domes­tic work­ers reg­is­tered with the State Employ­ment Office in four cities – Cincin­nati and Lake­wood, Ohio; Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware; and the Dis­trict of Columbia. Data on wages were obtained for 1,734 work­ers reg­is­tered in 19936, 1937, and 1938. The fol­low­ing results seemed sig­nif­i­cant.

In all of the cities cov­ered and in each year most fre­quent weekly cash wage was from $5 to $7. In Cincin­nati, Wilm­ing­ton, and the Dis­trict of Columbia, a larger pro­por­tion of Negroes than of white work­ers received from $7 to $9, but larger pro­por­tions of white work­ers received $11 and over.

In Cincin­nati, Wilm­ing­ton, and the Dis­trict of Columbia daily wage rates var­ied from 50 cents to $3.50; the largest num­ber of work­ers, 164 out of the total 450 received between $2 to $2.50 a day. In each of these cities 90% of the work­ers reported to have been work­ing on an hourly basis received from 25 to 30 cents an hour.

In the records cov­ered by this field study it was found that there was lit­tle dif­fer­ent, as a rule, in the wage rates of those who live in the homes of their employ­ers and those who live out, and , in a few instances, wages were lower for those liv­ing out.11

In all of these stud­ies pre­sented here and in other scat­tered stud­ies it was dis­cov­ered that over­time is rarely paid for, that a reg­u­lar 8-hour work day as thou­sands of other work­ers not take for granted is only an ideal to domes­tic work­ers. Thus, in Rochester, New York, a domes­tic worker recently begged for a code set­ting hours of house­hold labor at 84 a week, twice that of most fac­tory reg­u­la­tions.

Exclusion From Social Insurance and Legislation

Leg­is­la­tion in the field of domes­tic work has been slow, partly due to the lack of stan­dard­iza­tion of domes­tic work, and the lack of a union front of either employ­ers or employ­ees to set up stan­dards in wages, hours, and con­di­tions of work upon which favor­able leg­is­la­tion might secure a foothold. Only three states, New York, New Jer­sey, and Con­necti­cut, place house­hold employ­ment under workmen’s com­pen­sa­tion laws, and Con­necti­cut only if there are four employ­ees work­ing for one employer. New York places domes­tic work­ers in line for unem­ploy­ment insur­ance only if there are four employ­ees work­ing for one employer.

Today only one state, Wash­ing­ton, has a law which reg­u­lates hours of work in a house­hold employ­ment. This law was passed in 1937 and estab­lishes a 60 hour work week for all employ­ees in pri­vate house­holds but per­mits longer work­ing hours in emer­gen­cies.12 The orig­i­nal draft of the bill included a six-day week, dou­ble pay for over­time, and pro­vi­sions of $50 fine for vio­la­tion. In order to get the bill through leg­is­la­ture, its pro­po­nents were forced to drop these pro­vi­sions. The results of the pas­sage of the bill have not been what its pro­po­nents had hoped for: employ­ers have been non-coop­er­a­tive in many instances and employ­ees are hes­i­tant to report vio­la­tions of the act for fear of los­ing their jobs.

Only one State, Wis­con­sin, has set min­i­mum wage rates for women and minors in domes­tic work. This leg­is­la­tion, the Oppres­sive Wage Law, passed in 1925, is quite flex­i­ble in that it is inter­preted and admin­is­tered by the State Indus­trial Com­mis­sion.13 How­ever, the offi­cials who admin­is­ter the Wis­con­sin Law find it dif­fi­cult to see that the laws are being upheld because of the many iso­lated places of employ­ment, because of pub­lic opin­ion, which resents inves­ti­ga­tion of pri­vate homes, and because the employ­ees are reluc­tant to file com­plaints.14

In the Social Secu­rity Act, passed in August 1938, house­hold employ­ers were exempted from Fed­eral old-age and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance. The Social Secu­rity Board, how­ever, has pointed out the sound pol­icy of extend­ing age-old insur­ance to as many of the nation’s work­ers as pos­si­ble and has rec­om­mended that the excep­tion of domes­tic ser­vice be elim­i­nated with allowance of a rea­son­able time before that effec­tive date.

Social Stigma Attached to Domestic Work

Domes­tic work­ers have been made to feel and admit their social infe­ri­or­ity. They are often called by their first name, both by strangers and friends, chil­dren and adults. What one com­men­ta­tor said in 1897 often holds in 1940:

The domes­tic employee receives and gives no word or look of recog­ni­tion on the street, except in meet­ing those of her own class; she is sel­dom intro­duced to the guests of the house, whom she may faith­fully serve dur­ing a pro­longed visit. The com­mon daily cour­te­sies exchanged between mem­bers of the house­hold are not always shown her; she takes no part in the gen­eral con­ver­sa­tion about her; she speaks only when addressed, obeys with­out mur­mur orders which her judg­ment tells her are absurd, is not expected to smile under any cir­cum­stances, and min­is­ters with­out protests to the whims and obeys implic­itly the com­mands of chil­dren from whom def­er­ence is never expected.15

The owner-slave, lord-vas­sal, mas­ter-ser­vant tra­di­tion remains, as For­tune points out, the chief rea­son on the one hand, “why house­wives have failed to be real­is­tic in their han­dling of ser­vants … and on the other, why domes­tic work is unpop­u­lar and domes­tic work­ers dif­fi­cult to obtain.” Again, the Pub­lic Infor­mant Assis­tant of the Women’s Bureau, Depart­ment of Labor, points out quite vividly: “House­hold employ­ment gen­er­ally is viewed as unskilled work and per­sons so engaged are looked down upon socially. This belief holds despite the fact that house­hold tasks are var­ied and when they are done effi­ciently demand intel­li­gence and a con­sid­er­able vari­ety of skills.” Finally, the domes­tic worker may be given a room off the laun­dry, or even in the garage; she has no secu­rity of any kind, and is treated in such a way by mem­bers of the fam­ily that a social stigma is attached to her.

Work con­di­tions faced by domes­tic work­ers con­sti­tute a seri­ous prob­lem for the thou­sands of indi­vid­u­als directly affected, as well as for soci­ety as a whole. Indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions, in attempt­ing to shape a pro­gram for improv­ing con­di­tions of domes­tic work­ers, have come to the con­clu­sion that orga­ni­za­tion of domes­tic work is one of the bases upon which higher stan­dards might be main­tained. In the efforts to union­ize domes­tic work­ers, lead­ers had fol­lowed closely the expe­ri­ences of other work­ers who have orga­nized trade unions and have focused pub­lic opin­ion on their prob­lems.

Chapter 2: Frontiers of American Trade Unionism

The rapid strides in union­iza­tion among allegedly unor­ga­ni­z­able work­ers are of con­sid­er­able sig­nif­i­cance for domes­tic work­ers. Rea­sons given for the impos­si­bil­ity of orga­niz­ing agri­cul­tural, white col­lar, tech­ni­cal, and pro­fes­sional employ­ees are sim­i­lar to those given for the impos­si­bil­ity of orga­ni­za­tion among domes­tic work­ers. Such rea­sons include iso­la­tion, inde­pen­dence of each worker, the lack of strong bar­gain­ing power since each employer con­tends with each employee, the over­crowded labor mar­ket which makes com­pe­ti­tion keen, mobil­ity of the worker asso­ci­ated with fre­quent changes in employ­ment, the lack of class feel­ing and unity, and hence, the inabil­ity of work­ers to get together for meet­ings. Although these hand­i­caps to union­iza­tion are real, they have def­i­nitely been shown to be not insu­per­a­ble in the case of white col­lar, pro­fes­sional, and agri­cul­tural work­ers, since all of these groups are cer­tainly on the road to strong union­ism.

The assump­tion that domes­tic work­ers are unor­ga­ni­z­able has been proved false in cer­tain Euro­pean coun­tries. As early as 1910, a domes­tic work­ers’ union was started in Lon­don.16 This union was the out­come of a series of arti­cles writ­ten by a social­ist jour­nal­ist, C. L. Shaw, with the assis­tance of Kath­lyn Olivier, a domes­tic worker. The story of the devel­op­ment of this union is impor­tant for our pur­pose. After five months of inten­sive study, Mr. Shaw and Miss Olivier called a meet­ing of domes­tic work­ers to which twelve per­sons responded. After nine months of work in edu­cat­ing the domes­tic worker and house­wives to the union pro­gram, the mem­ber­ship increased to 95. There were many dis­ap­point­ments, many humor­ous inci­dents, but also a grad­ual increase in mem­ber­ship. This union attempted prin­ci­pally to obtain shorter hours, higher wages, and health­ier work­ing con­di­tions, and has set up stan­dards for car­ry­ing these prin­ci­ples into effect. A recent devel­op­ment in the Eng­lish Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union is the sup­port given by the Trade Union Con­gress since 1931.17 The pro­gram of the Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union has been enlarged so as to include a leg­isla­tive pro­gram, the main­te­nance of social clubs and activ­i­ties, and pro­vi­sion of legal aid for mem­bers, and an employ­ment bureau for aid­ing mem­bers to secure work.

The Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries have made a start at union­iza­tion of domes­tic work­ers. In Lithua­nia, Den­mark, and Swe­den, trade unions for domes­tic work­ers were orga­nized dur­ing 1932.18 The demand which these unions have made include equal civil and polit­i­cal rights for their mem­bers, the exten­sion to domes­tic work­ers of hours of work leg­is­la­tion, free employ­ment exchanges, inclu­sion in sick­ness and acci­dent insur­ance schemes, and the improve­ment of con­di­tions as regards to wages, hours, food, and liv­ing con­di­tions. Some of these goals have been achieved. For exam­ple, the union in Swe­den suc­ceeded in plac­ing domes­tic work­ers on the same foot­ing as other work­ers in their work con­tracts. Also domes­tic work­ers now come under the com­pul­sory insur­ance act, and can use the pub­lic employ­ment bureaus since the abo­li­tion of fee-charg­ing agen­cies in 1926.

The change of the posi­tion of domes­tic work­ers in Rus­sia is a very impres­sive one.19 Before the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion, domes­tic work­ers in the cities often worked from dawn to dark­ness. The liv­ing con­di­tions of work­ers liv­ing-in were inad­e­quate: a cot in the hall­way, closet, or kitchen were often the only place that the domes­tic ser­vant had to sleep. The food which the work­ers pre­pared was served to the employer, while the worker ate food with lit­tle nutri­tional con­tent. The pay was lit­tle and vaca­tions were unheard of. Today under the trade unions, all domes­tic work­ers are orga­nized. The work seven hours a day, and some­times six, received an annual vaca­tion with pay, and if health requires it, receive a few vaca­tion in a sana­to­rium or rest home. Under the Rus­sian Domes­tic Worker Order (Leg­isla­tive Series, 1926) which reg­u­lates the con­di­tions of employ­ment of domes­tic work­ers within the Labor Code, the work­ing day is often divided into sev­eral peri­ods so as to allow the work­ers rest period.20 The social stand­ing of domes­tic work­ers is equal to other work­ers. There is no stigma attached to the occu­pa­tion such as we find in the United States today.

The domes­tic work­ers’ unions in these Euro­pean coun­tries have con­tin­u­ally pushed for an inclu­sion of domes­tic work­ers in pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion mea­sures. The Den­mark Union has suc­ceeded in pro­hibit­ing night work for domes­tic work­ers, and in pro­vid­ing free time for recre­ation and night school, if so desired. In Switzer­land, the union has given much sup­port to the nine hour rest period law. In each of these coun­tries com­pul­sory sick­ness insur­ance for domes­tic work is in force, due to the efforts of the unions.

In Italy, before the Fas­cist regime, domes­tic work­ers and employ­ers were strong. Today, how­ever, col­lec­tive agree­ments between domes­tic work­ers and employ­ers are for­bid­den by the Royal Decree of July 1926.

The domes­tic work­ers’ unions in the United States have before them the expe­ri­ences of unions of domes­tic work­ers in Euro­pean coun­tries and the expe­ri­ences of unions among white col­lar, agri­cul­tural, and pro­fes­sional work­ers in the United States. The out­look for domes­tic work­ers’ unions does not look so dark when we con­sider the strug­gles which other unions have had. Domes­tic work­ers’ unions have been orga­nized in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., New York, N.Y., Newark, N.J., and Chicago, Illi­nois. First steps toward union­iza­tion have been taken in other cities. It is the plan of the next few chap­ters of this study to exam­ine the expe­ri­ences of these par­tic­u­lar unions, and to dis­cover the extent to which union­iza­tion has offered some solu­tion to the work prob­lems of domes­tic work­ers in the United States.


Chapter 4: Attempts to Organize Domestic Workers’ Unions: New York and Newark

In New York city, efforts to orga­nize domes­tic work­ers have yielded some­what greater results in terms of num­bers enrolled than in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In rela­tion to the rel­a­tive sizes of the cities, and rel­a­tive num­ber of house­hold employ­ees, how­ever, union achieve­ments in New York are less impres­sive than in Wash­ing­ton.

The begin­nings of a the New York Union date from the spring of 1936, when a club of domes­tic work­ers in New York ini­tia­tive a cam­paign to bring together all work­ers in pri­vate fam­i­lies into some sort of an orga­ni­za­tion for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. Under the slo­gan, “Every domes­tic worker a union worker,” they estab­lished them­selves as the Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union of New York. At this begin­ning stage, it was an inde­pen­dent union not affil­i­ated with any of the estab­lished labor orga­ni­za­tions. The new union was launched pub­licly at a mass meet­ing held in June, 1936, at a Labor Tem­ple, on which occa­sion speeches of encour­age­ment were deliv­ered by a num­ber of New York labor and civic lead­ers, includ­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Build­ing Ser­vice Employ­ees, the Women’s Trade Union League, and sev­eral other women’s orga­ni­za­tions. Mem­ber­ship began to increase after that meet­ing, although the growth was far from rapid.

At the present time the mem­ber­ship of the Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union is about 1,000. It has taken the impor­tant step of affil­i­a­tion with the Build­ing Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tional Union of the AF of L, and at present is the only active domes­tic work­ers’ union in the coun­try so affil­i­ated. There are two branches: Local 149 in New York City, and Local 130 in New Rochelle. Local 149 is the branch which is of par­tic­u­lar inter­est since its mem­bers are mainly (80%) Negro women from Harlem, New York City. Its exec­u­tive sec­re­tary states that the rate of growth is increas­ing. The mem­bers of the Local are reported to have shown their enthu­si­asm by say­ing that the Union is “the only decent thing that has hap­pened to us.”21 Dues are unusu­ally low for a trade union orga­ni­za­tion. The ini­ti­a­tion fee is reported as 50 cents and the monthly dues as 50 cents. The gen­eral pro­gram of the New York Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union is exhib­ited by its bul­letin and by state­ments of offi­cers. One of the bul­letins fol­lows:

Twelve to Six­teen Work­ing Hours Per Day

House­hold Work­ers. Why this dif­fer­ence in work­ing con­di­tions? The painters have a strong union which gives them Social Secu­rity, Workmen’s Com­pen­sa­tion, pro­tec­tion on the job, and leisure time. The Build­ing Ser­vice Work­ers have received the same ben­e­fits from the Union.

If the Build­ing Ser­vice Work­ers want the same rights as other work­ers – time for recre­ation, church, fam­ily and friends.

If we want an ade­quate wage, social secu­rity, and con­sid­er­a­tion on the job, we too must build a strong union.

Join the Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union, Local 149, and speak for your­self, your rights, and your secu­rity.

Join the Union and through its strength get a 60 Hour Max­i­mum …work week, workmen’s com­pen­sa­tion, higher wages, social secu­rity.

The pres­i­dent of the Union, Miss Dora Jones, has sug­gested the fol­low­ing stan­dards that domes­tic work­ers are seek­ing in a one-employee house­hold.

  1. I would like to know what the job I’m tak­ing really is; what time I’m expected to be on duty, how large the house or apart­ment and fam­ily are, whether there are chil­dren small enough to require me to give my evenings watch­ing them.

  2. I’d like a clear under­stand­ing that I’m to do no heavy laun­dry work, no wash­ing win­dows above the first floor.

  3. I would like a room of my own. I don’t expect a bath of my own, but for the family’s sake as well as my own, I think a def­i­nite time should be set aside when I can feel that the bath­room is mine.

  4. I should like to a 10 hour work week and one com­plete day off a week, not too after­noons.

  5. I think I deserve two weeks vaca­tion with pay, after I’ve had the job a year.

  6. I wish wages which will provide me with decent-plus clothes, some small sav­ings and med­ical insur­ance.

  7. I want three square meals a day (cof­fee and one roll, does not, in my opin­ion, con­sti­tute an ade­quate lunch.)

  8. I wish to have two evenings a week, when I am free to have callers in this, my home. Nat­u­rally, I prefer to enter­tain them in some part of the house which is not occu­pied by the fam­ily.

  9. I would be will­ing to sub­mit to a med­ical exam­i­na­tion for the sake of my own health as well as to be able to present a cer­tifi­cate of health to my employer.

  10. I wish two weeks extra pay at time of dis­missal and a fairly writ­ten ref­er­ence.22

One can read­ily under­stand Miss Jones’ belief that “com­pared with the present work­ing con­di­tions, the ful­fill­ment of these would be ‘Utopia.’” Actual con­di­tions in New York cer­tainly fall short of this ideal. The “slave mar­kets,” which num­ber about 200, accord­ing to the Union, are at the bot­tom of the scale. Here on New York’s street cor­ners, women wait for house­wives to come to them to bar­gain for a day’s work. Many Negro women stand on these cor­ners until they are hired for 25 cents or 25 cents an hour, or even 15 cents, although 50 cents I the stan­dard rate. Jobs usu­ally last three or four hours. When these women do obtain work, they some­times have to do a month’s clean­ing in a day.23 They are often given stale food on the the­ory that “a one day fast won’t kill a worker.” For this rea­son, they some­times bring their own lunch. One woman who worked six years clean­ing win­dows on the fifth floor of an apart­ment said, “Never again will I horn in on the Win­dow Clean­ers Union.”

The Union has to con­tend with domes­tic agen­cies who charge 10% of the monthly wage for jobs, a sum which must be paid in advance and is not refunded if the worker is not hired. Added to this, girls are brought in from the South and Penn­syl­va­nia, some­times in truck loads, to fill jobs at $15 per month, where they must pay the first month’s salary for trans­porta­tion costs. The Union girls, Negroes of Local 149, stated to the Sun­day Worker:

Fel­low comes down on a trip through Geor­gia and Alabama and wants to know don’t we want to make more money. We get such low pay down there.

I’m from Atlanta and you don’t make much down there. Well, it ain’t but nat­u­ral that $40 a month sounds pretty good to you and that’s what the fel­low promises.

You can read about how they rope in inno­cent girls to the city to be pros­ti­tutes. Well, it’s the same way they do us girls who work out.24

In a 1933 report by the Divi­sion of Junior Place­ment of the New York State Labor Depart­ment, there was revealed much exploita­tion of young women in domes­tic ser­vice. the report showed that girls of 15 and 16 years of age were made to work with no let-up from 6:30 AM to 10 or 11 at night or later. Their wages were fre­quently below $15 per month, and in some cases they were expected to work for “a good home with no cash wages what­ever. the wages actu­ally paid were not always the wages which the employer states at the employ­ment office. Besides this, food, liv­ing con­di­tions, and moral stan­dards were low, espe­cially in crowded apart­ments.“25 Author­i­ties agree that con­di­tions are the same today.

Con­fronted with many prob­lems, this small group of orga­nized domes­tic work­ers has begun its task of clas­si­fy­ing domes­tic work­ers accord­ing to the jobs they do, such as cooks, gen­eral house­work­ers, etc. defin­ing the work and duties which the Union would require. The employer must sign a con­tract which states exactly the work con­di­tions to be kept. The Union demands 50 cents an hour for part-time work, 50 cents an hour for gen­eral house­work­ers, and as much as $100 a month for cooks. The work day is lim­ited to 10 hours and the work week to 60 hours. The New York Union does not allow “on call’ pro­vi­sions, that is, arrange­ments for addi­tional hours in the day or week to be spent in the employ­ers’ home “on call” but not actu­ally work­ing. The Union does not allow lower wages for work­ers who “live in”; it points out that “liv­ing in” means extra respon­si­bil­i­ties and longer hours. One full day or two half days off per week are required. Added to this, the Union demands two weeks vaca­tion with pay after one year of employ­ment; two weeks vaca­tion with pay after one year of employ­ment; two weeks notice before dis­charge, a pri­vate room and three full meals if the worker lives in, and no heavy laun­dry to be done by the gen­eral house­worker.

[ … ]

There is a good deal of hos­til­ity toward the Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union of New York City from var­i­ous groups. While there are 100,000 domes­tic work­ers in New York City, the Union as yet has no more than 1,000 mem­bers. Atti­tudes towards the Union are fac­tors which help to make or break the Union. One woman employer, upon being inter­viewed, said:

I always have an under­stand­ing with my ser­vants and I know just how to treat them. I don’t need a union to dic­tate to me how I should work them, or what day of the week they should have off. Take Mary, for instance, she’s been with me for two years, the longest I’ve ever kept a maid, and she never com­plains about the hours. She’s faith­ful. If she started to get into her head any of these silly ideas about join­ing a union, I’d have trou­ble right away. I tell Mary that if she works hard, and does it well, we won’t have any dif­fi­cul­ties, and she can stay with me as long as she wants to.

A Negro woman employer, a “sophis­ti­cated New Yorker,” said:

My girl gets here at 8 o’clock in the morn­ing and goes home at 6:30. She sel­dom stays later unless I have to enter­tain. Negroes should join unions, but domes­tic work­ers wouldn’t know what to do even if they had a union. They’re too igno­rant, and like good times too much to take them seri­ously.

Because of such atti­tudes, the offi­cers seem to be fear­ful that some­one will try to break up the Union. Out­siders try­ing to learn more about union activ­ity are not received par­tic­u­larly cor­dially at Union head­quar­ters, espe­cially if they ask about meth­ods used to obtain stan­dards, and to enforce them. Often the woman in charge of the office refuses to answer any ques­tions or refers the inquirer to some open meet­ing at a later date. This atti­tude is under­stand­able. Union mem­bers are afraid of what out­siders will do to them. They know the oppo­si­tion which other work­ers have faced and they know the sig­nif­i­cance of black­lists. They know, too, that their orga­ni­za­tion is new, that it is not firmly estab­lished, that they are opposed on many sides, and thus, they are apt to assume that any out­sider is likely to be an enemy.

To the sup­port of the Union, how­ever, come cer­tain lib­eral house­wives. One woman said that she never hires except through the Union, and that she is going to do all that she can “to spread the gospel” to her friends and neigh­bors. One group of women vol­un­tar­ily agreed to place the 60-hour work week in their homes as an exper­i­ment; the trial period proved to be a suc­cess and the women now employ union girls in their homes and are pleased with the work they are receiv­ing in return.

From all avail­able evi­dence it seems as though the house­hold work­ers are pleased with the Union. From work­ers who are mem­bers of the Union, the fol­low­ing are sam­ples of their feel­ings:

The Union has been a God-send. I have some time to myself now; I get time for rest, and to go to a movie every now and then …

I just joined the Union two months ago. Before I belonged, I quit two jobs ‘cause I couldn’t stand it, and then spent a month on the “slave mar­ket” work­ing by the day for 25 cents an hour. A girl that lived next door to me told me about the Union. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I went down and talked a bit to some girls who belong. I ain’t never been sorry that I’m a Union mem­ber and I’ll fight for the Union all I can.

A young Negro mother said that she now has more time to spend with her chil­dren and that the lady for whom she works didn’t want her to join the Union at first, but that after a time the employer was relieved to find that the girls didn’t “picket” her on the slight­est dis­agree­ment, and didn’t make impos­si­ble demands.

Busi­ness does not con­sume all of the time of the Union. Recre­ation is also a part of the pro­gram. On cer­tain after­noons dur­ing the week, tea is served at the head­quar­ters. Many races and nation­al­i­ties take part in these activ­i­ties in New York, since the prob­lem is not so com­pletely a Negro one as it is in Wash­ing­ton.

The New York Union states as its achieve­ments: “We have been suc­cess­ful in deal­ing with griev­ances and in plac­ing mem­bers on jobs under union con­di­tions.” the Union con­sid­ers its great­est prob­lems to be lack of funds ade­quate to carry on union activ­i­ties and edu­ca­tional work, as well as the usual hand­i­caps which are encoun­tered in try­ing to orga­nize work­ers in this occu­pa­tion. These hand­i­caps are stated to be a high turnover of mem­bers, irreg­u­lar­ity in free time, utter exhaus­tion at the end of the work day, and “a vari­ety of their occu­pa­tional prob­lems and racial back­grounds.”

[ … ]


This study has exam­ined the con­di­tions and prob­lems of Negro women domes­tic work­ers in the United States today and has empha­sized par­tic­u­larly their par­tic­i­pa­tion in trade union activ­ity.

The fact that Negroes have often been the founders and orga­niz­ers of the domes­tic work­ers’ unions in the United States is of sig­nif­i­cance for our study. More Negro women have not only suf­fered from lack of employ­ment stan­dards, long hours, and low wages, exclu­sion from social insur­ance and leg­is­la­tion, and social stigma attached to the occu­pa­tion, but they have also been forced to receive lower pay and to work under lower stan­dards than white employ­ees. House­wives, know­ing they can get domes­tic work­ers at almost star­va­tion wages, have played employee against employee. One of the worst types of human exploita­tion is the “slave mar­ket” found in New York city, and one of its ugli­est aspects is the way in which girls are shipped up in car­loads from the South to stand on cor­ners wait­ing for work at 25 to 35 cents an hour. These work­ers have formed the nucleus of the Union in New York.

In look­ing over the four Unions con­sid­ered in this study, we see that the bulk of union­ized domes­tic work­ers are those who have suf­fered most from eco­nomic exploita­tion and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. In the main it is these work­ers who are paid com­par­a­tively well by wealthy employ­ers. Domes­tic employ­ees who work by the day or night, who are hired and fired often, and who receive far below a liv­ing wage are the ones from whom an active union pro­gram may be expected.

Of the 600,000 Negro women domes­tic work­ers in pri­vate homes in the United States today, less than 2,000 are orga­nized. These 2,000 are con­cen­trated in four cities: New York, Newark, the Dis­trict of Columbia, and Chicago. We find that domes­tic work­ers’ Unions have set up wage and hour stan­dards and have estab­lished con­tracts to enforce these stan­dards.

The Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union of the Dis­trict of Columbia has set up a con­tract which not only includes wage-and-hour stan­dards but indi­cates just what the work is to include, such as gen­eral house­work, iron­ing, sewing, cook­ing, etc., has set up stan­dards as to uni­forms, break­age, liv­ing arrange­ments, vaca­tions, insur­ance, hol­i­days, and pro­vi­sion for enter­tain­ment of friends when the worker is liv­ing in the home. Both employer and employee sign the con­tract, both agree­ing to one week notice by either party if the con­tract is bro­ken. House­wives are often will­ing to sign con­tracts if they are assured of effi­cient ser­vice in doing so. Although train­ing classes have been started by the Dis­trict of Columbia Union with the coop­er­a­tion of the WPA classes, the Union has not yet been able to guar­an­tee well trained work­ers for all the cells which come through the Union office.

The Wash­ing­ton Union is fac­ing other prob­lems, too. The total mem­ber­ship of the Union, 500, is an insuf­fi­cient num­ber for effec­tive bar­gain­ing.  Lead­er­ship among the domes­tic work­ers has been slow in devel­op­ing, and Union mem­bers often to not coop­er­ate fully with the Union’s employ­ment office and place­ment bureau. Domes­tic work­ers in the Dis­trict as yet have lit­tle feel­ing of unity; they have been accus­tomed for gen­er­a­tions to work in iso­la­tion. Negro domes­tic work­ers often have more loy­alty to the class which they serve than to other domes­tic work­ers. Thus we find a num­ber of seri­ous prob­lems fac­ing the Wash­ing­ton Union. The Union has proved, how­ever, that a domes­tic work­ers’ Union is not impos­si­ble in the Dis­trict, that wage scales and clas­si­fi­ca­tion of domes­tic work­ers is impor­tant for effec­tive union­iza­tion, and that work can be found for mem­bers of the Union at stan­dard wages, hours, and con­di­tions.

The New York Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union, with mem­ber­ship of over 1,000, is the largest of its kind in the United States, and the only domes­tic work­ers’ union affil­i­ated with the AF of L. It has empha­sized a leg­isla­tive pro­gram, cen­ter­ing about a drive for a 60-hour week, inclu­sion of domes­tic work­ers in workmen’s com­pen­sa­tion ben­e­fits and min­i­mum-wage laws. In attempt­ing to carry out this pro­gram, the Union has been hand­i­capped by insuf­fi­cient funds and lack of coop­er­a­tion on the part of domes­tic work­ers and the pub­lic in gen­eral. How­ever, the Union, with the aid of the Inter­na­tional Labor Defense has had some suc­cess in deal­ing with griev­ances between employee and employer. Its mem­bers, nearly all Negro women from Harlem, report to inter­view­ers that improve­ments which they have achieved since join­ing the Union, although they are ret­i­cent at first in talk­ing with out­siders. The New York Union will per­haps be the nucleus for union­iza­tion of domes­tic work­ers on a nation-wide scale. In New York may be found domes­tic work­ers already union-con­scious with a pro­gram, with lead­er­ship, and knowl­edge of union tac­tics. Here, too, are the head­quar­ters for many other unions in the coun­try, pow­er­ful unions which started out with small mem­ber­ships and with many obsta­cles to over­come.

The Newark, N.J. Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union is per­haps the least active of the four Unions inves­ti­gated for this study. Orga­nized in 1936, the Union now has 250 mem­bers, some of whom never come to union meet­ings or par­tic­i­pate in any of its activ­i­ties. Per­haps the devel­op­ment of the Union in Newark has been slow because of tremen­dous oppo­si­tion which mem­bers have met on all sides. Negro women them­selves have looked to the Union as an impos­si­bil­ity and have cyn­i­cally waited for its fail­ure. White house­wives upon being inter­viewed have expressed oppo­si­tion to the Union, and have pre­dicted that it can never include in its scope all domes­tic work­ers and there­fore can­not be effec­tive. House­wives have car­ried this opin­ion to domes­tic work­ers in their employ­ment; these work­ers in turn have been imper­vi­ous to any pleas which the orga­niz­ers and mem­bers of the Union have made to them. The future of the Union can­not be pre­dicted. Per­haps the fact that over 200 women are receiv­ing wages and work­ing hours accord­ing to union stan­dards maybe an incen­tive for build­ing the Union.

The Chicago Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union, as far as can be ascer­tained, has roots which extend fur­ther back than any of the other domes­tic work­ers’ unions. As early as 1930, some inves­ti­ga­tion of con­di­tions of work among domes­tic work­ers in Chicago had been accom­plished, with the aid of the National Com­mit­tee on House­hold Employ­ment and the Women’s Trade Union League. The work took on a fresh start in 1935 when the Domes­tic Work­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion was orga­nized. This Union has been char­ac­ter­ized by waves of opti­mism fol­lowed by waves of pes­simism. After the defeat of the 8-hour bill for women in domes­tic work in 1939, the Union entered its most bit­ter days. The Chicago Union seems to be hold­ing its mem­ber­ship but not increas­ing its num­bers. Its newly defined pro­gram is mod­est; it includes open­ing train­ing classes for domes­tic work­ers, and con­tin­u­ing a pro­gram of edu­ca­tion through news­pa­per arti­cles, church con­tacts and union-spon­sored pro­grams. The future of the Chicago Union depends on its abil­ity to find lead­ers among its mem­bers who will devote full time to devel­op­ing and car­ry­ing out the pro­gram of the Union, and on an expan­sion of its pro­gram so as to include much more than a leg­isla­tive drive.

There are pos­si­bil­i­ties that the Mil­wau­kee Domes­tic Employ­ees’ Club and the Engle­wood, N.J., Work­ing Women’s Club, among other orga­ni­za­tions, may develop into bonafide unions. Many of these clubs are of recent origin and have not yet gained a foothold or have been con­fused as to pro­gram and poli­cies. They may, how­ever, be able to derive guid­ance and some degree of encour­age­ment from the expe­ri­ence of the four active unions.

The many dif­fi­cul­ties of orga­ni­za­tions are not the only prob­lems which domes­tic work­ers face. They must deal with deep rooted opin­ions and atti­tudes hos­tile to union­iza­tion, such as those expressed by women’s clubs, by employ­ers, by employ­ment agen­cies, by cer­tain domes­tic work­ers who iden­tify them­selves with their employ­ers, by news­pa­pers and mag­a­zi­nes. The domes­tic work­ers’ unions have real­ized that such atti­tudes have been coun­ter­acted at least par­tially by active sup­port given to the Unions by such promi­nent orga­ni­za­tions and agen­cies as the Women’s Trade Union League, the National Urban League, the National Negro Con­gress and the Women’s Bureau. Other sup­port has come from pro­gres­sive employ­ers and women’s clubs, and cer­tain Negro news­pa­pers. Finally, the CIO has sup­ported the var­i­ous attempts of union­iza­tion and has expressed its inten­tion of tak­ing orga­ni­za­tional steps in this field in the future. The con­vic­tion of the CIO that union­iza­tion is pos­si­ble for domes­tic work­ers is of sig­nif­i­cance for the domes­tic work­ers’  Unions already orga­nized and for any which may be attempted in the future. Such sup­port tends to stim­u­late orga­ni­za­tion.

We have seen in this study that union­iza­tion among domes­tic work­ers is a fairly recent phe­nom­e­non in the United States, and hence, a very small per­cent­age of the total num­ber of orga­ni­z­able domes­tic work­ers is union­ized. In exam­in­ing the his­tory of some large labor orga­ni­za­tions of today, such as the United Mine Work­ers, the Amal­ga­mated Cloth­ing Work­ers, and the News­pa­per Guild, etc., we have dis­cov­ered that mem­ber­ship was very small in the first years of orga­ni­za­tion. It is true also that when the CIO was first orga­nized, it gave its atten­tion to help­ing small Unions of rub­ber and auto­mo­bile work­ers, which were the fore­run­ners of the many affil­i­ated CIO Unions of today. Hence, the small begin­nings made in union­iz­ing domes­tic work­ers are no indi­ca­tion that they are unor­ga­ni­z­able.

It has been stated else­where that domes­tic work­ers are unor­ga­ni­z­able for a num­ber of alleged rea­sons includ­ing espe­cially the point that they work in iso­la­tion. How­ever, it has been shown in this study that sim­i­lar state­ments have been made con­cern­ing agri­cul­tural, white col­lar, tech­ni­cal and pro­fes­sional work­ers, and yet these work­ers have orga­nized them­selves to an appre­cia­ble extent and have sought to stan­dard­ize their work con­di­tions. We have seen also that domes­tic work­ers in Eng­land, in the Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, in Rus­sia, and pre-fas­cist Italy have proved that domes­tic work­ers can effec­tively  bar­gain for higher wages, fewer hours, favor­able leg­is­la­tion, and more human liv­ing con­di­tions. While the future of union­iza­tion among domes­tic work­ers in the United States can­not be pre­dicted, nev­er­the­less, it can be con­cluded that the prob­lems faced by Negro women domes­tic work­ers are respon­sive to ame­lio­ra­tion through trade union orga­ni­za­tions even when we rec­og­nize the many dif­fi­cul­ties which are involved in union­iz­ing this occu­pa­tion.


  1. “Domes­tic Work­ers in Pri­vate Homes,” Social Secu­rity Bul­letin 2 (March 1939): 12. 

  2. Ibid., 16. 

  3. Lucy M. Salmon, Domes­tic Ser­vice (New York: The MacMil­lan Com­pany, 1897), 72. 

  4. Lorenzo Greene and Carter Wood­son, The Negro Wage Earner, Wash­ing­ton, D.C.: Asso­ci­a­tion for the Study of Negro Life and His­tory, 1930), 337. 

  5. Ibid., 60. 

  6. Hazel Kyrk, “The House­hold Worker,” Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tionist XXXIX (Jan­u­ary 1932), 36. 

  7. Eve­lyn See­ley, “Our Feu­dal House­wives,” Nation CXLVI, May 29, 1938, 613. 

  8. “The Ser­vant Prob­lem,” <For­tune XVII, March 1938, 81-83. 

  9. “House­hold Employ­ment, Lynch­burg Study,” Y.W.C.A., Lynch­burg, V.A. (1936-1937), 3. 

  10. House­hold Employ­ment in Philadel­phia, Bul­letin No. 93, U.S. Depart­ment of Labor, Women’s Bureau (1934), 7. 

  11. Unpub­lished Report on “domes­tic Work­ers” by the Social Secu­rity Board (1936, 1937, 1938). 

  12. Wash­ing­ton State, 60 Hour Bill. I.W.C. Order No. 33, Indus­trial Wel­fare Com­mit­tee, Wash­ing­ton. 

  13. Wis­con­sin Min­i­mum Wage Reg­u­la­tion, From C-5a Indus­trial Com­mis­sion, Wis­con­sin 

  14. Leila Doman, “Leg­is­la­tion in the Field of House­hold Employ­ment,” Jour­nal of Home Eco­nom­ics XXXI (Feb­ru­ary 1939): 92. 

  15. Salmon, Lucy, 158. 

  16. Priscilla Moul­der, “Eng­lish Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union,” Life and Labor 2 (August 1912): 45. 

  17. Gladys Boone, “Domes­tic Work­ers’ Union in Great Britain,” Women’s Press XXXIII (Jan­u­ary 1939): 35. 

  18. Erna Mag­nus, “The Social, Eco­nomic, and Legal Con­di­tions of Domes­tic Ser­vants,” Inter­na­tional Labor Review XXX (August 1934): 337. 

  19. See Susan M. Kings­bury and Mil­dred Fairchild, Fac­tory, Fam­ily, and Women in the Soviet Union (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 1935). 

  20. Erna Mag­nus, “The Social, Eco­nomic, and Legal Con­di­tions of Domes­tic Ser­vants,” 337. 

  21. Sun­day Worker, April 11, 1937. 

  22. New York Post, March 14, 1938. 

  23. Gor­don Brooks, “Domes­tic Work­ers Orga­nize to Beat Slave Mar­ket and Agency Racket,” Fed­er­ated Press East­ern Bul­letin, Feb­ru­ary 14, 1938. 

  24. Sun­day Worker, April 11, 1937. 

  25. New York Times, June 18, 1933. 

Author of the article

is a radical civil rights activist, former social worker, a prominent leader of the onetime Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), and co-founder of the journal Freedomways.