Philly honors Black leader of domestic workers union with new holiday

The holiday is the latest in a string of moves by City Council to boost profiles and protections for Philly’s 16,000 domestic workers.

Dorothy Bolden working at her desk at the NDWUA offices in Atlanta

Dorothy Bolden, founder and president of the National Domestic Workers Union, photographed while working at her desk at the NDWUA offices in Atlanta, circa 1970. (National Domestic Workers Union Records, Southern Labor Archives, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University)

Long before Philadelphia adopted regulations to guarantee paid leave and rest breaks for domestic workers, Dorothy Bolden was organizing fellow nannies and housecleaners while commuting around Atlanta via public bus in the 1960s.

Philadelphia City Council is now honoring Bolden, voting to declare her birthday, Oct. 13, Dorothy Bolden Day.

“It’s showing appreciation to women, particularly women of color … [who] leave their homes, leave their kids, to go take care of other children in other homes,” said Cynthia Stinson, a nanny of 22 years based in Philadelphia, who testified at a council hearing this week.

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Stinson is one of the people who had been pushing City Council to approve the holiday. Amid that organizing, she talked about Bolden with the parents who employ her, and it helped her advocate for better working conditions for herself.

“I think it opened the communication between us more,” she said.

The holiday is the latest in a string of moves by the council to boost profiles and protections for the city’s 16,000 domestic workers. Protections known as the Philadelphia Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights went into effect in May 2020, part of organizing across the country to extend basic guardrails for work done in the home.

“Domestic labor — cooking, cleaning, providing child care, providing emotional and physical support for families, maintaining a home — is some of the hardest, most necessary work in our society. It is the kind of work that makes all other forms of labor possible,” said Councilmember Kendra Brooks, the lead sponsor of the resolution and a former domestic worker.

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“I know what it’s like to work in other people’s homes and feel undervalued, underpaid, and overlooked,” she continued.

In her time, Bolden was head of the National Domestic Workers Union of America. Not a traditional union, it lobbied for the rights of domestic workers around the country. It also turned this group into a political bloc, by getting members to register to vote.

The aim was to put domestic work on par with other careers. Caretakers, house cleaners, and other domestic jobs, as well as agricultural workers, were excluded from New Deal labor policies that guaranteed basic worker protections, such as minimum pay and overtime.

“Domestic workers were excluded … specifically because they knew the workers were Black people,” said Shanique Jones, who organizes Black workers with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Bolden worked in the 1960s and 1970s to correct those policies, representing thousands of mostly Black domestic workers in Georgia. Between 1890 and 1960, the majority of employed African American women in the South were domestic workers, wrote Elizabeth Beck in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare.

Some exclusionary policies were later changed or lifted by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The union disbanded when Bolden, who died in 2005, stepped down. In the early 2000s, the National Domestic Workers Alliance took up her mantle.

“We consider her the mother of the domestic workers movement,” said Jones.

Even today, “there is still like this level of invisibility,” said Jones. “By bringing light to her, you’re bringing light to [Black domestic workers in Philadelphia] and also the injustices that they may face.”

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