- Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement by Premilla Nadasen
Boston: Beacon, 2015
240 pp., $27.95 (cloth)
After the 2011 release of the film The Help, the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) released a statement criticizing the film and the novel it was based on for historical inaccuracies and stereotyping of black domestic workers ("An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help," www.abwh.org/images/pdf/TheHelp-Statement.pdf [accessed June 19, 2016]). At the end of the statement, the ABWH signatories offer a suggested reading list that includes pathbreaking historical books on black women's labor, including Tera Hunter's To Joy My Freedom and Jacqueline Jones's Labor of Love Labor of Sorrow. Premilla Nadasen's Household Workers Unite should be added to this list; it too illuminates the historical realities of domestic work and the labor and activism of African American women. Nadasen writes against the "victimization narrative" shown in books and films like The Help, which promote images of "passive household workers" and fail to reflect the realities of black women's labor and activism (2). Using women's own narratives about their lives and work, Nadasen presents a history of African American household workers' efforts to build a national labor movement from the 1950s through the 1970s. Household Workers Unite is a history of collective action of household workers across the United States in cities such as New York and Atlanta but also of the efforts of individual activists such as Carolyn Reed and Josephine Hulett, who built alliances across race and class lines in order to build a movement that redefined labor and domestic work.
Nadasen focuses on the role of storytelling in cementing black domestic workers' identities as laborers and mobilizing women into political action. African American women drew on family histories of slavery, domestic work, and the history of race to develop political working-class identities, engage in "overt, collective, and public forms of opposition" and claim "rights as workers" (5–6). Nadasen also chronicles how employers created their own narratives of domestic workers as "family" that served as a means to try to control working conditions, establish and protect racial boundaries, and disassociate domestic work from labor. As Nadasen notes, "The metaphor of family suggested an emotional bond, mutual obligations, and a relationship separate from the marketplace, obscuring what was in fact a market relationship" (88). Domestic-worker activists resisted employers' portraying household work as "care work" and fought to establish it as labor (84).
Storytelling was a "base-building tool" that connected women and created solidarity between them (81). It was also "a form of activism and a means of political mobilization" (58). Hulett, for example, worked as a domestic for twenty years before she became a full-time field organizer for the National Committee on Household Employment and told stories of her tenuous working conditions and the lack of protection and rights she endured as a domestic worker. Her "willingness to share her story became her [End Page 135] signature strategy for organizing domestic workers" (74). Storytelling also offered a way to "overturn assumptions about domestic workers" (3). One of these assumptions was that domestic workers could not be organized. Domestic work was excluded from most protections and collective bargaining rights under labor law; it was associated with unpaid care work and considered "unorganizable" by "mainstream labor" and unions (35).
The marginalization of domestic workers within the labor movement and their isolated working conditions "demanded a more nuanced approach to labor organizing, departing from the confrontational, zero-sum model guiding traditional labor organizing" (105). They used grassroots, community-based strategies to organize workers in public places. Reed, for example, "recruited at bus stops, service entrances, and neighborhood gourmet shops" (116). Far from being a group that could not be organized, as many assumed, domestic workers were effective at building cross-racial and cross-class alliances that included undocumented immigrants and activists involved in the civil rights movement and the feminist movement. They were able to "build bridges...