In August 1976, before Ron Chernow wrote his famous biographies—of Grant, Hamilton, and Washington—he was a freelance magazine writer in New York with a story in Mother Jones. It was our cover that month: a gripping profile of the fight by domestic workers, primarily Black women, to form a union. Chernow writes that they’re “the last frontier of labor organizing.” (It goes without saying these were earlier times, before the Reagan era, when one could think of labor as having a “last” frontier.)
Most of the piece focuses on Carolyn Reed, a worker in New York who on her midday break goes to other apartments, getting to know each door worker to organize them. You can read more about her here, from Yes magazine, which excerpted a portion of Premilla Nadasen’s book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. And much of our own piece can be found here, with Google Books. It includes vivid scenes in which Reed stands up to Republican legislators in the New York state Assembly. When probed by them on the role of helping the elderly who want to be treated like family by their workers, she is forthright:
“Can I just make a comment on the companion thing,” she says gently. “I don’t like to take the companionship thing and make it an excuse for someone being underpaid. Basically this is what happens. For too long, we have been addressed as ‘one of the family.’ The basic thing is to be paid and have the right kind of coverage.”
It works. The legislators are convinced to vote in Reed’s favor (though she worries it’s only appeasement for bigger battles down the road). Reading about wins like this is not only gratifying; it also helps make sense of how workers have continued to organize. The National Domestic Workers Alliance is relatively new, forming in 2007, but has gained and grown from the hard work by Reed and others—and it has amassed increasing power. You can read about the long history of this work in a timeline we created, too.
But, for a moment back to Reed. There is a gem of a moment in this article in how she came to organizing work.
It is 1963, she is working in a home and wants to join marchers in Washington, DC. Her employer says no. They want her to work a dinner party at their home that evening instead:
In protest, [Reed] kept the television set blaring throughout the day, pouring out speeches from the Lincoln Memorial. At the dinner table, one pompous doctor wondered aloud, “What do these people want?” He answered his own question: “What they need is an education.”
“That galled me so,” says Reed, “that I said in the kitchen, ‘What the hell do you think they’re marching for?’ So I went into the dining room and I passed the beans. When I got him, I just—choomph!—right in his lap. ‘Excuse me so much,’ I said, ‘I really should be educated as to how to serve beans.'”
She then retired to her room and nobody dare bother her that night. Her employers still retained her.
Incredible! If you have any stories of activism spurred by or involving beans, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I imagine it will be hard to beat this one though.