Caring for the Commonwealth
This dissertation explores the labor and collective organization of domestic workers in metropolitan Boston to uncover the new labor activism of the last half century. In 2014, Massachusetts became the fourth state in the U.S. to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The law, the nation’s most comprehensive at the time, signaled a remarkable triumph for household employees whose collective activism anchored in Boston over four years achieved basic labor protections for tens of thousands. While the tale of this recent success has been captured by journalists and a handful of scholars, my study uncovers a multi-generational history of domestic workers’ fight for dignity and economic justice. I locate the origins of the 2014 victory in the grassroots organizing of pioneering Black, Caribbean, and Latinx women decades earlier. Local domestic workers and their allies sustained three separate waves of collective action during a half century marked by growing economic inequality, a decline in trade unionism, and mounting xenophobia. As I demonstrate, they developed a savvy repertoire of strategies that transformed household employment from a seemingly private, hidden affair into a societal concern requiring government intervention. Ultimately, my dissertation explains the emergence of a powerful and unexpected form of labor organizing--the new labor activism--that is community-based, multi-issue oriented, and propelled by working-class women of color. In directing critical attention to the relatively obscure history of domestic worker organizing, my study joins scholarship that expands analysis beyond the realm of the white male industrial worker to reconsider what constituted work, who comprised organized labor, and how we characterize recent labor history. By examining this particular workers’ movement, I present new insights into the groundswell of labor mobilization that erupted in American cities during the later twentieth century. Historians have accurately cast the period as one of organized labor’s weakness, dormancy, and decline. Even so, by prioritizing community-based campaigns anchored by immigrant and non-white women employed as domestic workers, I demonstrate that they also made it a time of hope and agitation, of rebirth and revival rather than repose. With appreciation for complexity, I gauge their activism not merely in terms of wins and losses, but also in regard to workers’ evolving sense of empowerment alongside their ability to spark larger public policy conversations concerning labor standards, the care economy, and the role of government.