Dallas Maids Get Organized

Betty Lockhart is an attractive, gray-haired woman with a ready laugh, a great deal of energy, and no small amount of chutzpah. Since February, she’s been walking the streets of Oak Cliff and West Dallas after work and on her days off talking to women at bus stops, in churches, at grocery stores – trying to persuade as many of the approximately 11,000 household workers in Dallas she can talk to that it’s in their interest to organize.

The women Lockhart talks to – household workers, she calls them, not domestic workers or maids – have been called the last frontier of labor organizing. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates there are 1.3 million private household workers; that’s more than likely half the true national total. A few – mostly in New York and Washington D.C. – are organized, but Lockhart’s efforts are the first in Dallas, and, as far as she knows, the first in Texas.

What Betty Lockhart wants for Dallas household workers is this: a health insurance plan paid for by the workers themselves, a group pension plan, paid holidays, sick leave, a credit union, and, of course, a decent wage.

Lockhart hopes to narrow the range of chores household technicians are asked to perform, which at the moment includes most anything a homeowner can dream up. Regular household chores, such as cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing, are one thing, but sometimes “household” work turns into unrelated duties – running errands, babysitting, and the like. She thinks that by restricting the duties of a household technician the job will become more professional.

Lockhart’s fledgling group, the Dallas chapter of the National Committee on Household Employment, is also trying to professionalize the work by setting up a training program for its members. “It’s in your interest,” she reminds employers, since incompetent help, as they well know, can cost them dearly. Two incidents she recently read about illustrate her point. In the first, a household worker in New York spent the day scrubbing an old piece of furniture. Afterwards, she discovered that she had thoroughly scraped off an expensive antique finish. In the other, a conscientious woman cleaned out an ash-filled urn in her employer’s apartment – only to learn later that she had flushed her employer’s late husband down the toilet. A training program Lockhart is now organizing through El Centro College would minimize the possibility of such mistakes.

“Since 1972, we have come under the minimum wage laws so now we have to make $2.20 an hour. You got a child who’s 16 years old, he can go out and make $2.20 an hour. And a lot of these women are heads of households like myself – we cannot live on two dollars and twenty cents an hour.

Forty-five women have signed up so far; Betty Lockhart feels she needs at least 500 before the group can work effectively. Although none of the women who have signed up have experienced employer intimidation, many Lockhart talks to are afraid of losing their jobs.

“They’re really afraid of getting involved,” she says. “I’ll talk to them and some of them will say, ’Well, I don’t want to get involved because Mrs. Whatever will be unhappy about it.’ Then you talk to some, and they’ll say, ’Well, I’m happy on my job. They’ve got me in the will.’ So I’ll say, ’Have you seen the will?’ ” She laughs. ” ’Don’t tell me about the will,’ I tell them. I always say give me my flowers while I live. This is how a lot of domestic workers are really dominated.”

Forty-five women is not very many, and Betty Lockhart is the first to admit it. But each day she keeps recruiting, hoping that one day she can look back and see women performing housework because they really do want to be a part of a profession, one that is respected and pays reasonably well. Otherwise, there may come a time, she says, when “household workers become like the dodo bird,” because young people want nothing to do with the old-style maid’s role.


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