Barbara Ehrenreich, Enemy of Labor

Culturebox hates to dis a fellow journalist, but she has to say it: Barbara Ehrenreich lacks a sense of worker solidarity. How else do you explain the fact that after toiling for three weeks as the employee of a cleaning service in order to write about the experience for Harper’s, she issued a call to readers not to hire maids? Having someone else clean your house is bad for you and your children, is her rationale. As she writes in her piece on the cover of the April issue of Harper’s:

To be cleaned up after is to achieve a certain magical weightlessness and immateriality. Almost everyone complains about violent video games, but paid housecleaning has the same consequence-abolishing effect. … A servant economy breeds callousness and solipsism in the served, and it does so all the more effectively when the service is performed close up and routinely in the place where they live and reproduce.

It may be true that having servants harms your moral character (though it may also not be true–is missing an early meeting because you were washing Johnny’s breakfast dishes really an improving experience? How about skipping June’s soccer practice because you had to vacuum the living room?). But what about the servants who need the work? Does not having it do good things for their moral characters? Ehrenreich seems to think it does. Working as a maid is worse than not working as a maid, she implies, because cleaning other people’s houses is so gross and demeaning. The insults to human dignity range from having to deal with “elaborate dust structures held together by a scaffolding of dog hair” and vomit and urine to relationships with employers that vacillate disturbingly between friendship and exploitation. Ehrenreich also deplores the rise of corporate cleaning services, with all the alienation of labor that they entail–bosses who garnish wages for minor infractions or lateness and the routinization or Taylorization of the work itself. There’s less worker autonomy, fewer breaks, and when you work for a company rather than a person, he or she doesn’t give you tips.

Ehrenreich concedes that there are advantages to signing on with a cleaning agency, such as being protected against abusive or cheating homeowners. But she appears to miss the more important point, which is that there’s strength in numbers. If you want to correct the evils of paid domestic work and of corporate cleaning services, doing away with them isn’t the answer, since the need to clean is ever with us. The solution is unionizing–which is harder when servants are independent contractors, easier when they are collected together under a single aegis. Under what circumstances do organizing drives tend to succeed? When labor is in demand. So why is Ehrenreich, a good leftist, trying to depress demand?

It’s her larger feminist agenda. Or so she would say, even though some might construe hers as an anti-feminist agenda. Ehrenreich’s real complaint is with middle-class feminists who she says have abandoned the cause of female servants in order to become their employers. So, does she think feminists should have been out organizing maids’ unions instead of pursuing white-collar careers? No, although that would have been the logical argument to make. What upsets Ehrenreich is that the middle-class feminists have conceded the fight with their husbands and male lovers over an equitable division of chores. If only they had won, and chores could get done without oppression, class difference, and the master-slave dialectic!

Impressed as she is by the character-building qualities of laundering your own socks, Ehrenreich seems not to realize that the reason women quit the battlefield is because, once they had greater earning power (of which she surely wouldn’t want to deprive them) they discovered the war wasn’t worth waging. Why should anyone have to scrub counters if they don’t want to and can afford not to? Or cook, for that matter? Or fix toilets, build cabinets, mow the lawn, or any of the other things we pay people to do in and around our homes? Why should we refuse to hire people who need the money? For more than 40 years, feminists have been demanding that domestic labor be viewed as part of the economy. Now it is, and Ehrenreich worries about our souls. The American economy, she says, is being “Brazilianized”–stratified into “a tiny overclass and a huge underclass.” The evidence for this? The fact that, “among my middle-class, professional women friends and acquaintances, including some who made important contributions to the early feminist analysis of housework, the employment of a maid is now nearly universal.” But if the ability to hire a maid is trickling down to the lower ranks of the middle class (which is where feminist theorists have traditionally resided) then the American economy is becoming more democratic and fair, not less. Greater numbers of women are getting to do what they want to do, and Ehrenreich wants them to give it up and tend to their homes. Luckily, there’s not a chance in hell they’ll listen to her.