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.