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To Unionize or not to Unionize: That is the Question

For the last couple weeks I have been finishing this chapter on the amazing Esther Cooper Jackson and her master’s thesis written in 1940 on domestic workers and unions. Its pretty damn incredible. During the first half of the twentieth century domestic workers formed unions in Birmingham, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Newark, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and a host of other cities.

These unions were quite militant. Neva Ryan, the president of the Chicago Domestic Workers Association wrote in a 1934 editorial that she didn’t know why domestic workers had not revolted long ago. But that the new union was the writing on the wall.

Of course, this was not without a significant amount of resistance from employers and agencies. Take for instance this anti-union posted from a 1942 article published in NY PM Daily.

Anti Union Poster from PM Daily 1941

I’m really just sharing this because I find it laughable. One woman alone can run a household! She simply chooses not to! Of course. Sigh.

Anyway, on to the subject of this post. Currently, domestic workers in the United States are not permitted to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. Domestic workers over the years have set aside a movement for inclusion in the Act, in favor of advocating for legislation guaranteeing minimum wage, social security, maximum hours, etc.

But now that domestic worker bills’ of rights have been passed in several states the question of unionization is back on the table. It’s a really complex issue.

First, there is the issue of citizenship. Unions would not necessarily be able to protect those who are undocumented. Because immigration issues are so important to organizers, as they should be since a significant number of domestic workers in the US are immigrant women, they are invested in exploring other models for representing workers.

I wonder how well bills of rights will protect undocumented workers at all? Hmm. I will have to get back to you on this.

As an aside, in many parts of Europe undocumented workers do have certain legislative protections and can be advocated for by unions. Just gonna leave that there. Since I could write a tome about America and the politics of migrant labor and capitalism. I have to resist including this in the dissertation all the time.

But then there is the pressing issue of enforcing the bills of rights. Many domestic worker advocates and activists see unionizing as the answer. It would give workers the ability to collectively bargain, and a way to combat the isolation of private household work.

I have no idea what the right answer is here. Its a really tough question. But what I will say is that I learned an important lesson as a scholar by witnessing these debates at various times.

I think labor scholars and Leftists like myself sometimes get caught up in the magic that was early twentieth century labor organizing. To be barred from unionizing was a major injustice in my eyes. Because I know what unions can do. Or, should I say, did do.

I have watched labor scholars both relish in the melancholy that is the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the glory days of Left labor organizing, while advocating for unionizing where ever it is not.

Thanks to my research and conversations with current domestic workers, I realize that unions are not the only, and not always the best means for organizing. Especially in this moment, which is nothing like the moment in which Neva Ryan called for domestic workers to revolt.

Parts of that long gone movement seem to be returning. I see elements of it in the organizing of fast food workers, for instance. But issues of race, gender, and citizenship complicate this question for domestic workers.

I find that the debate has really expanded my historical lens and compelled me to ask new and different questions. I’m a better scholar for it.

As for now, I can finally remove the post-it on my desk reminding me to write this post. And leave the question of rather or not to unionize here on the cutting room floor.

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About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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