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.