Domestic Workers and the Historical Limits of Racial Moderation in the Urban Sunbelt

Authors: Julia Gunn*, University of Pennsylvania
Topics: United States, Ethnicity and Race, Gender
Keywords: American South, civil rights, domestic workers, organized labor, War on Poverty, workplace justice
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Napoleon D3, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper examines how domestic workers in Charlotte, North Carolina used War-on-Poverty dollars to demand workplace justice and inclusion in the New Deal order. Like agricultural and public workers, domestic workers were excluded from the FLSA and other New Deal labor protections. In Charlotte, household workers faced the added burden of working in North Carolina, the least unionized state in the nation, and one notoriously hostile towards organized labor. This paper traces the history of Domestics United, an organization founded in 1966 to improve wages and working conditions for some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers—black women laboring in white southern households. Domestics United challenged existing notions of race and gender, as well as ideas about work, poverty, and inequality. By following civil rights activists, domestic workers, business leaders and elected officials as they debate poverty and inequality, this paper highlights the tensions between civic boosters’ efforts to promote Charlotte as racially progressive, business leaders’ antagonism towards organized labor, and black women’s struggles for fair pay and dignity in the workplace. While much War on Poverty scholarship has focused on black women making claims to the state based on their status as mothers, the history of Domestics United shows black women making demands as workers—and it was this that would be the organization’s downfall. The backlash against Domestics United reveals how Sunbelt anti-unionism constrained workplace activism in purportedly progressive Charlotte, a city where the politics of racial moderation effectively undermined challenges to the prevailing economic order.

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