Telling Labor History through Stories: An Interview with Historian Premilla Nadasen

By Sadie Bergen

To celebrate Labor Day, AHA Today interviewed historian and Barnard College professor of history Premilla Nadasen about her recently published book, Domestic Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement (Beacon Press, 2015).

Premilla Nadasen

Premilla Nadasen

Nadasen presents the history of African American domestic workers organizing for rights in the postwar United States, focusing on the stories of the individual women who coordinated grassroots campaigns and, by the 1970s, formed national organizations like the Household Technicians of America and the National Committee on Household Employment. These organizations succeeded using storytelling and their own histories to build a movement that continues to serve as a model for labor activists today.

Q: What led you to the story of postwar African American domestic-worker organizing?

A: My first book, Welfare Warriors (Routledge, 2004), was on the welfare rights movement of the 1960s. But I also observed and eventually became involved with the contemporary struggle for domestic workers’ rights—a powerful movement of women of color fighting for decent pay and better working conditions. I became interested in how African Americans organizing as household workers set a precedent for alternative labor organizing and offered a new perspective on the civil rights movement.

Q: Why do you think this history has been left out of dominant narratives of labor history in the United States?

A: Labor history has been influenced to a large degree by a male-centered manufacturing model. Household labor has historically not been considered real work, in part because of the location of the work, in the ostensibly private space of the home. It has also been associated with women’s unpaid labor, and its workforce is made up largely of immigrants and women of color.

Q:What challenges did you face in writing a history driven by personal stories?

A: History told through personal stories is, of course, just one angle on presenting a history. It means that certain aspects of that history, such as the institutional history, are given less attention. I feel strongly, however, that the history of this occupation had to be told from the perspective of the workers, since it is often missing from the dominant narrative. Their personal stories don’t tell us everything about their occupation. But they do tell us about their motivations, their aspirations, and their understanding of history.

Q: Did you have any “aha!” moments in the archives?

A: My “aha!” moment was when I came across the household workers’ movement’s involvement with the emerging field of women’s history in the late 1970s. The women in this movement had articulated their own historical narratives about domestic work—the history of their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, who labored in other people’s households as well as the racialized aspects of the occupation. In the late 1970s, they increasingly interacted with professional historians as the fields of women’s history and African American women’s history were being solidified. And they insisted on the inclusion of black working-class women’s history as a component of the larger narratives.

Q: What separated the household workers’ movement from contemporaneous labor activism in the US?

A: Household workers were considered outside the boundaries of labor and were marginalized in the labor movement. Nevertheless, these workers made a claim to labor rights and insisted that household labor be treated the same as all other forms of labor. They developed innovative labor strategies—organizing in public venues such as city buses, developing alliances with employers, and pushing for state-based rather than employer-granted benefits. This model emerged from the precarious labor conditions under which most of them worked. Their movement may serve as a model for contemporary activists who are organizing a similarly precarious labor force.

Q: Could you explain what the Club from Nowhere was and how it connects labor and civil rights history?

The Club from Nowhere was an organization of maids and service workers formed by domestic worker Georgia Gilmore in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1955 bus boycott. Gilmore rallied other domestic workers to make sandwiches, bake pies, and prepare chicken dinners for sale as a way to raise money and aid the boycott. She was one of the most important community members to offer tangible assistance and to build political support for the protest. Women like Gilmore were an indispensable component of the civil rights movement, not only as foot soldiers, but as community leaders.

Q: How did household workers use history and storytelling as “an organizing tool”?

A: They used them to build a political community, make sense of the occupation, and establish standards for reform. For example, Geraldine Miller, a household worker activist in the Bronx, told stories of the “Bronx Slave Market,” street corners where unemployed African American women waited for day work during the Great Depression. Miller had never experienced actual slave markets, but she told of how employers looked for the women with the “most-scarred knees” because that was an indication that they scrubbed floors on their hands and knees. For Miller, the telling of this story became a way to convey the outrages of the occupation as well as to develop a strategy for reform. She encouraged the household workers she organized to never, ever scrub floors on their hands and knees.

Q: In the epilogue of the book, you discuss your social justice approach to writing and teaching. How does that approach manifest itself in your work as a historian and as a professor of history?

A: I came to study history because I was deeply immersed in the anti-apartheid and anti-racist movements as an undergraduate. My broader interests about how power is wielded, how social change unfolds, and how social movements emerge continue to be concerns for me. The social justice approach has also shaped my commitment to write history in an accessible way. I see this book as about historical memory—the way historical narratives are constructed by professional historians, the way working-class people and activists construct their own historical narratives. Part of what I aim to show is that history is a powerful tool—one that even people outside the profession must take seriously.

Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. A longtime scholar-activist, Nadasen works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert academic witness. She also writes about household labor, social movements, and women’s history for Ms., the Progressive Media Project, and other media outlets.

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