Intersectional Histories of Domestic Worker Organizing

by Chris Tilly, University of California, Los Angeles, USA and member of ISA Research Committees on Sociology of Work (RC30), Labor Movements (RC44), and Social Classes and Social Movements (RC47), Georgina Rojas, Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), Mexico, and Nik Theodore, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

Research on informal worker organizing has recently advanced from simply demonstrating that informally employed workers can organize successfully to analyzing how these organizations succeed. Though numerous case studies examine informal worker mobilization in a single sector within a single country within a single historical period (and often within a single organization), few studies have attempted to leverage cross-national or historical comparisons to explain the forms, strategies, and degree of success of informal worker movements.

There is tremendous potential for cross-national and historical analysis to illuminate how informal worker organizations function. Our comparative analysis of domestic worker organizing in Mexico and the United States looks both across history and across countries – admittedly a complex set of comparisons. This article summarizes a part of our work in progress. To theorize the actions of these worker organizations, we draw on analyses of intersectionality in social movements by Norma Alarcón and Jennifer Chun, among others, since domestic workers (henceforth DWs) are characterized by multiple, subordinate identities: as women, as low-status workers, and as members of marginalized racial and ethnic groups. In addition, we draw on multiple foundational social movement literatures, including those examining resource mobilization, political opportunity structures, identity, and framing.

Three streams of activism characterize the evolution of organizing and advocacy trajectories in the two countries. The first two streams build on an intersectional “working woman” identity. One stream has mobilized elite labor feminists; the other consists of trade unions. The third stream, which we call “new social movements,” comprises various innovative grassroots movements built around identities as women, ethnic group members, or migrants (none of them actually “new” identities). The history we recount here draws on multiple sources, including our own recent fieldwork, but leans especially heavily on Mary Goldsmith’s historical research in Mexico, and that of Premilla Nadasen and Eileen Boris in the US.

Comparing Mexican and US histories

In Mexico, a first wave of activism, roughly between 1900 and 1950, was initially propelled by elite feminists linked to the revolutionary movement and later the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Domestic workers joined in later, organizing dozens of unions (linked to the PRI) from the 1920s into the 1940s. Developments in the US during the same period were similar, though not as long-lived: elite labor feminists carried out vocal advocacy for domestic worker rights from the 1920s to the 1940s, and again in the 1960s. Like their Mexican sisters, US domestic workers organized unions during the period from the 1930s to the 1940s, in this case under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Beginning in the 1970s, new social movements played an especially prominent role in a way that involved some ruptures with the past. In Mexico, new DW associations formed with support from liberation theology organizations and feminist intellectuals unconnected with, and often critical of, the PRI. They highlighted the disproportionately (intra-national) migrant and indigenous identities of Mexican domestic workers. In the US, the control of the National Committee on Household Employment, a vehicle for elite labor feminist advocacy that had functioned on and off from the 1920s, passed to Edith Barksdale-Sloan in 1972. Barksdale-Sloan, a black feminist who made common cause with the African American Civil Rights Movement, supported the formation of dozens of local organizations of black women domestic workers that flourished during the early 1970s but then declined. In the 1990s, US immigrant rights activists and women of color feminists responded to the demographic shift of domestic work increasingly from African-American to immigrant women by organizing new associations based primarily in immigrant communities, culminating in the formation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance in the 2000s.

But DW unions also enjoyed a resurgence in both countries, fueled by some of the same new social movement energy. In the US, taking advantage of changes in state law affecting the large number of publicly funded homecare workers providing care to elderly and disabled persons, progressive public sector unions with strong bases among communities of color and women organized homecare unions in a number of populous states from the 1980s forward. In Mexico, the largest and most influential domestic worker association, the Center for Support and Training of Household Employees (CACEH) formed a trade union, the National Union of Men and Women Domestic Workers (SINACTRAHO) in 2015 – the first active domestic worker union since the 1940s – taking advantage of a political opportunity opening in Mexico City, which is a separate jurisdiction in Mexico. CACEH and SINACTRAHO’S main leader, Marcelina Bautista, in some ways embodies the Mexican DW movement’s entire evolution. A migrant from the poor, heavily indigenous state of Oaxaca, she first became active in a liberation theology organized group, then worked with middle-class feminist advocates, broke away to form a worker-led association, and then – again mentored by middle-class labor feminists – established a union.

Deploying subjectivity

Across the three organizing streams, and to some extent within each stream over time, organizations in the US and Mexico have emphasized different aspects of DWs’ intersectional identities to mobilize new bases and forge alliances with external allies. The identities that have combined intersectionally to sustain DW organizing across these streams have been – without implying an evolutionary path – first as women, second as workers, and third as marginalized and racialized minorities. The movements have deployed what Chela Sandoval calls “tactical subjectivity,” accessing multiple mobilizing axes, frames, and allies in ways that adapt to shifting configurations of power. Their advances have been strengthened by changes in the political opportunity structure, which in turn have enabled DW organizations to achieve, not only public recognition and support from key civil society representatives, but also a growing national presence in policy-making circles. For domestic workers in these countries, then, intersectional identities have been fundamental both to attracting members and building organizational unity, and to formulating successful strategies.

Direct all correspondence to:
Chris Tilly <>
Georgina Rojas <>
Nik Theodore <>

, , Mexico, United States, Volume 8, Issue 2

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