Care: The Highest Form of Capitalism

Premilla Nadasen’s latest book covers America's care economy, its carceral legacy, and the potential for intervention in systems of exploitation.

Intro

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—one that begat many a mommy thinkpiece, many a motherhood memoir, almost all of which decried and valorized the hard work of mothering—Premilla Nadasen’s latest book, which delves into the care economy of the US, could not have arrived sooner. Nadasen, a distinguished historian of labor and grassroots organizing, challenges readers to scrutinize the way contemporary care discourse centers white, middle-class families. Care: The Highest Form of Capitalism (Haymarket, 2023) reorients this discourse away from the white nuclear family towards those who simultaneously provide and are systemically denied the care that capitalism depends upon.

Where Nadasen shines is in her extensive research on: an expanding carceral wing of the state, an ever-dwindling pool of resources for the many, and the miserable condition of care as we know it. Her narratives center the people who organize through these harrowing predicaments, and these anecdotes are skillfully woven into what is ultimately an academic book. Through storytelling, Nadasen examines the way vague notions of care obscure the vastly different working conditions of paid and unpaid “carers.” Notably, she posits that, despite what some Marxist feminist scholars argue, the crisis of social reproduction is not contradictory to––but rather always has existed as a source of––profiteering. While the care economy provides relief, it also facilitates new modes of biopolitical management and violence.

Nadasen makes some important interventions, and even attempts to blur the false dichotomies of worker/surplus and employer/employee; but, stunningly, she neglects to make explicit just how much “care” is carceral. Despite brief mentions of guardianship, halfway homes, and the foster system’s separations of loved ones, she misses a vital opportunity to talk about the imbalances in the shreds of care so many of us desperately struggle to obtain. The carceral wing of the state has grown, as have attempts to crack down on resistance. Since major legislative changes like the overturning of Roe and the passing of Texas Senate Bill 8 have complicated the opaque and complex landscape of abortion access, more physicians and nurses in states with abortion bans face the choice of reporting their own patients to authorities or risking legal and professional consequences. Children are surveilled and die in the very schools the right attempts to defund. City governments and the non-profit sector propose housing “solutions” such as enclosed parking lots for tents, vehicles, or tiny homes, all while using the legal system and police forces to criminalize poverty. Shelters make criminals of their residents through enforcement of curfews, searching of personal belongings, the monitoring of movement; the prospect of stability is only given in exchange for compliance.The most accessible options for psychiatric and elder care in the United States are scams at best, and warehouses at worst, folding paternal and familial logics into worker incentivization. But these forms of “care” go largely uninterrogated. Here, “care” comes with a hefty price tag and emotional baggage, even if you had the privilege of choosing to receive it in the first place.

Still, Nadasen’s book is hopeful and smart. Its title, a not-so-subtle nod to Lenin, hopefully will attract a burgeoning leftist, a home health aide powering through pangs of exhaustion, or a young organizer; its accounts of worker-led movements and radical coalitions are a salve for sore bodies. Nadasen’s storytelling of fed-up domestic workers and organizers demanding better, her thoughtful discussion on the abolition of work, and her sincere engagement with the complex relationship many of us have with the state, certainly made me hopeful about the care that could be.

Excerpt

Domestic workers have always organized, whether through day- to-day resistance or mass mobilization. There are countless examples of individual actions, such as pan-toting, work slow-downs, and quitting, as well as collective struggles. As early as 1881, African American washerwomen in Atlanta formed an association called the Washing Society. They gained the support of nearly three thousand washerwomen, went on strike for higher pay rates, and nearly shut the city down, as Tera Hunter has written in her path-breaking book To Joy Our Freedom. After World War I, when African Americans migrated north, domestic workers, in a quasi-collective assertion of their labor power, refused live-in work so that they could come home to their families every night.
In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, household workers across the country organized. In New York City, Dora Jones mobilized one thousand mostly Finnish and African American household workers—a group that became a local chapter of the Building Services Employees International Union. They established a hiring hall that offered employment services to its members and sought to replace informal arrangements with contractual relationships. Likewise, in the later postwar period, as sociologist Mary Romero has documented, Chicana workers in the Southwest shifted from full-time work with a single employer to the “business” model of cleaning for multiple families.

In 1971, African American women household workers established the first national movement of domestic workers. The Household Technicians of America (HTA), an organization with a membership of twenty-five thousand was dedicated to pay, professionalism, and respect. It included Dorothy Bolden, in Atlanta, discussed in chapter 1, who helped form the locally based National Domestic Workers Union of America; Mary McClendon, who took the lead in establishing the Household Workers Organization in Detroit in 1969; and Geraldine Miller, who was active in the National Organization for Women and founded the Household Technicians Union in the Bronx.

These workers challenged the servitude and low pay that characterized household labor and, in the process, pushed the boundaries of traditional labor organizing. The movement advocated for standardization of the occupation, employment contracts delineating rights and responsibilities, increased political power vis-à-vis employers, training and professionalization programs, and minimum wage coverage under state and federal laws. They dispelled the notion that they were “part of the family,” disputed that they did this work because they cared, and critiqued the emotional demands on them. They made claims to labor rights, political inclusion, and equal recognition for their labor.

They received minimal support from labor unions and turned instead to civil rights, Black power, and women’s organizations. They also developed their own strategies: Dorothy Bolden rode bus routes in Atlanta to recruit women into her organization. Geraldine Miller relied on the commuter train as a site of organizing. Carolyn Reed, also discussed in chapter 1, recruited domestic workers in laundry rooms in New York City. They organized women regardless of their immigrant status or their racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds.
One of their campaigns that best illustrates the goals of equality and recognition was for inclusion of domestic workers in the minimum wage provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Domestic and agricultural workers were excluded from New Deal labor protections, including minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the right to organize and bargain collectively. Over time, some states offered labor protections and, by 1950, because of lobbying by labor feminists, domestic workers received social security. But when the HTA emerged, they still did not have a federal minimum wage.

Household workers’ primary goal was to secure the same legal recognition and social standing for domestic work that was afforded to other forms of work. Edith Barksdale-Sloan, one of the early middle-class leaders of the movement, argued: “Pay must be increased to provide a livable wage. Second, workers must receive the so-called ‘fringe benefits,’ which long ago stopped being ‘fringes’ in every other major American industry.” They staked their claims both on the value of the work and on the rights of the worker. For them, domestic work was not distinct from other kinds of work—it was work, period, and deserved the same treatment. They did not call themselves caretakers, family members, maids, or domestics, and preferred to be known as household technicians. In this way, the domestic workers’ rights movement at its core was a labor struggle centered on a fight for expanded rights and protections. As organizer Carolyn Reed put it: “Household workers are the last frontier of labor organizing.”

Domestic workers lobbied on behalf of the proposed amendments to the FLSA, testified before Congress, and mobilized employers to support them. In 1974, with the passage of congressional amendments, they won inclusion in the FLSA, moving one step closer to full equality. In the wake of this victory, their press release stated:

Minimum wage coverage for household workers gives to these one and a half million employees a legal man- date, a recognition of the value of their services and basic equality with other workers.... For the domestic worker, whether she is Black, White, Red or Brown, or lives in the North, East, South or West, it means a new respect— for her service and her person—and the ability to support herself and family.

In a context of expanding state protections and the federal government’s presumed commitment to mitigate formal inequality, domestic worker activists made important strides toward winning a measure of recognition and legal protection and shedding the paternalism that underpinned their exploitation.
This was a significant historical moment. It was the final gesture of the New Deal welfare state before the shift to a ruthless neoliberal order, the last gasp of an economic program that was never designed to be inclusive and thus created momentum for a turn away from a safety net. But it also signified the historic outcomes made possible by an alliance among policymakers, middle-class allies, and grassroots activists when that comradery was built on the work and vision of the most marginalized.

The relationship that HTA developed with middle-class housewives in making claims for a federal minimum wage was particularly significant. It was a partnership premised on a common understanding that both paid and unpaid household workers were negatively impacted by the devaluation of domestic work. Josephine Hulett, field organizer for the HTA, explained in an interview: “After all, there’s a sense in which all women are household workers. And unless we stop being turned against each other, unless we organize together, we’re never going to make this country see household work for what it really is—human work, not just ‘woman’s work’: a job that deserves dignity, fair pay, and respect.” This campaign for rights was a far cry from demands to support workers on the basis that they care for middle-class people, which has marked the contemporary care discourse.

More recently, a new generation of domestic workers has organized. Beginning around 2000, dozens of groups, including DWU, took shape around the country. They addressed the on- going exploitation of household workers, egregious instances of abuse, and the practice of what they, like earlier organizers, called “modern-day slavery.”

In the summer of 1989, Christine Lewis came to New York City with her five-year-old daughter from Trinidad, where she had worked as an early childhood educator, and moved in with her older sister in the Bronx. Shortly after arriving, Christine went in search of work so she could pay rent, put food on the table, and buy clothes as the weather turned cold. She traversed the city, she explained, and “discovered Central Park, the ‘creme de la creme’ of all the parks I had seen. And women who looked like me— brown—pushing alabaster babies in stylish Maclaren [strollers].”

She became a nanny. It was gratifying work, but she found that, in addition to providing childcare, she was expected to run errands and clean the house: “Nanny work morphs into taking your shoes to the shoemaker, taking your coat to the dry cleaner, cooking food for the house.” Clear-eyed and confident, Christine never hesitated to assert her rights. She told her employer: “My focus is on your child...I will cook for the kid. I will do the kid’s laundry. I will help the kid with home lessons...I’m not doing anything extra that’s not centered around the child.”19 Still, she worked from 8:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night and was paid $350 a week with no overtime compensation, which translated to five dollars an hour. For Christine, the exploitative pay and unrealistic expectations stemmed from the fact that she was a woman of color engaged in women’s work: “It’s immigrant women of color who feel the brunt of this pain. A white girl will come to the job and get more money and less time because she’s white.”

Christine connected with other domestic workers in the park. “This park was truly the crossroad of the United Nations. There were women from Nepal, the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Congo, Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, Bangladesh, England, Ireland, Russia, and Poland.” Through conversations with other domestic workers, Christine learned the value of organizing. As she explained, “New York was my new home, and it was at my new job, during these tattle-tales with the other babysitters that I realized we have to empower each other around what is acceptable and not acceptable in an industry that is rife with exploit[ation] and disrespect.” She was aware of the risks of speaking out. “Speaking truth to power could have gotten you fired,” she observed. But she had a fighting spirit and never let fear deter her.

Christine became one of the stalwart leaders of DWU. The organization provided support and offered legal advice to domes- tic workers. Their slogan, “Tell ’Dem Slavery Done,” spoke to the fact that, in Christine’s words, “We were working for poverty wages. We were working for long hours. Women were being talked down to. Women were treated like slaves.” She was a key organizer for the New York State Bill of Rights campaign in the early- to mid-2000s, which granted domestic workers the right to overtime pay, one day off every seven days, three days of paid vacation after a year of work for the same employer, and protection from racial and sexual harassment. It was an important victory but, according to Christine, fell short of what domestic workers needed in terms of pay guarantees, paid time off, health insurance, and social security.
On top of the lobbying and legal support, DWU also fostered a sense of community by practicing a kind of collective care in which people helped one another out. They offered food, child- care, housing, and stipends for people in economic need. “We have a community. We have what you call the village. Every- body looked out for everybody,” Christine explained. She also relied on “the village”—family and friends, especially her sister and nephew—to help care for her daughter when she worked fourteen-hour days at her first job. She was there during DWU’s early years and leads the organization today.