New Orleans I haven’t been able to bring myself to see, The Help, a movie ostensibly set in the early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi where a young, white writer gives voice to her African-American maid friends during the Civil Rights era. Fantasy has little appeal for me. I did go to see the Gary L. Goldman documentary, Yes Ma’am, about housekeepers in New Orleans that was filmed around 1979 and released more than 30 years ago in 1981. I had moved back to New Orleans in 1978 to direct a pilot project for ACORN to organize domestic workers under the auspices of the Household Workers Organizing Committee so was organizing exactly those workers while Yes Ma’am was being filmed, so could test what was on screen with the reality of my own experience.
Thirty years on the film is embarrassing and somewhat enraging to watch, but nonetheless an invaluable reminder of the elaborate artifice that was constructed in the social fabric that wove race and class together unevenly in the best of times, and particularly poorly in the aftermath of both civil and women’s rights movements with left both sides confused and without a language to explain themselves. The elaborate pretense that the mistress and master of the house, their children, and the maid were all family was the most perverse and revealing, but having watched it close at hand and done hundreds of home visits with some of those same housekeepers, I can only comment how lucky both sides got off in Yes Ma’am.
Outside of the family dramas that were likely bridged for Goldman by Bethany Bultman, an old family name in New Orleans uptown society, who is now head of the New Orleans Musicians’ Assistance Foundation and a cultural anthropologist, the interviews that hang truest were with a housekeeping “technician,” as she called herself who was part of a small organization begun in 1973. We had tracked them down in 1978 as well and their finest hour was past them when we met with them. She looked no more than in her 30’s and talked about the tensions in the job. Her children were even more articulate as they both acknowledged the relationship their mother had with her employer’s children and the contradictions presented in their own lives by her work.
We heard these stories by the hundreds. We had assembled a list from early morning leafleting and contact at streetcar and bus stops dropping off domestic workers Uptown and along the Lakefront. We had also mined Polk’s and the crisscross directory for names of women who self-identified as maids or domestics. We had a simple issue that triggered the organizing because for the first time domestic workers had gained coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) and had to be paid the minimum wage. January 1, 1979 was the trigger, and it was obvious that a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was being imposed on many of the estimated 5000 domestic workers employed in New Orleans at the time. Early on the bus stops the workers were doubtful that employers would pay what many of them called the “top wage” which was really the minimum wage. Talking to the workers we found many were hardly making $1 per hour even if one credited lunch and transportation which were allowable offsets commonly paid and expected.
[It was painful for me to watch one segment of Yes Ma’am where a maid and her “friend” employer started the day with coffee au lait, knowing that it might have been effectively deducted from her wages! It was disappointing that Yes Ma’am missed the almost the entire boat on wages and livelihood as they focused on the relationships almost exclusively so the fights about social security payments and minimum wages were not part of their shoot, which I obviously regret, even while appreciating what was revealed.]
We were careful to always frame the HWOC as an organizing committee and an association or co-op for household workers and decidedly not a union, since we were so often asked if in fact that is what people were building. At the first meeting of some 50 domestics the women on the organizing committee elaborately drew the distinction. The HWOC organized a march in the center of the Lake Terrace neighborhood that attracted more than a 100 people, starting at a park space in the middle of the upper middle class suburb, while every door was leafleted with information demanding compliance with the newly instituted minimum wage of $1.65 per hour. We ended up suing the IRS for not forcing compliance with the minimum wage and not informing the DOL Wage and Hour Division of tax returns where domestics as having been provided social security payments (also a legal requirement), and settled that well. There were other highlights that had to do with calling out employers like the Gambino’s of the well known bakery family for paying peonage wages in violation of the FLSA.
Behind the forced cultural conformity there was fire though. I will never forget a march we did from our office at the time at 628 Baronne Street a couple of blocks away to the DOL’s office in the old post office federal building in Lafayette Square with about 40 or so of the household workers to present the HWOC demands for enforcement of the minimum wage in New Orleans. In the pre-meeting the ladies had practiced what they would say to the DOL and how they would describe the organization and its aims as an improvement association for housekeepers and so forth. They marched through the door and demanded to meet whoever was in charge. The director emerged finally. I was at the front so could hear the whole exchange. He asked the spokeswoman who they were and what was going on?
She looked him in the eye and in a loud voice for all assembled to hear announced that, “We are a UNION of domestic workers and we want to be paid what the law requires!”
I learned an organizing lesson that moment that I would never forget, and which all of these movies remind me of vividly, if bizarrely.