Jenny Carson, A Matter of Moral Justice: Black Women Laundry Workers and the Fight for Justice. University of Illinois Press, 2021. 289 pp.
Reviewed by Mary M. Báthory Vidaver, University of Mississippi
In the 1930s, leaders and organizers claimed that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) offered a union home for industrial workers of any race, gender, ethnicity, or skill. Sadly, as Jenny Carson describes in this thorough examination of workers in New York City’s commercial and industrial laundries, the rhetoric concealed a caveat. The CIO and its affiliates (in this case, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America or ACWA) might offer a universal home, but control would remain almost exclusively with white men. Black women made up the majority of workers in the city’s laundries, initiated activism, organized employees, and maintained union loyalty. Still, white male laundry owners, workers, and union staff minimized the women’s participation in contract negotiation and strategic decision-making. As a result, Black laundry workers remained underpaid, membership in the union declined, and labor leaders appeared increasingly ineffectual. The story is familiar to readers of labor history, yet Carson insists on optimism. A scholar-activist, she presents not just a scholarly monograph but a cautionary tale of lessons learned and mistakes to avoid for current union organizers and leaders.
In many ways, A Matter of Moral Justice greatly resembles Vicki Ruíz’s ground-breaking Cannery Women, Cannery Lives. Like Ruíz, Carson provides the reader with a detailed account of the industry, factory processes, positions, and worker characteristics. And the specifics of the laundry business described by Carson bears more than a passing resemblance to the canning business described by Ruíz: a workforce numerically dominated by women of color but in which the minority white women receive the better paying, less onerous job assignments; white male managers demanding sexual favors; uneven workflows. The narrative conveyed by Carson is also similar to that described by Ruíz: the bridging of cultural differences by the employees, the partnership with radical leftists, the creation of a democratic unionism that offers leadership roles to women of color, and the undermining of that success by bureaucratic and hierarchical union executives. Even the Teamsters make a repeat performance.
Yet, despite the similarities, A Matter of Moral Justice is more than a reiteration of the 1987 classic. Instead, it details a series of small but significant interventions. For example, Carson rejects the assumptions of “passivity and victimization” made by both contemporaries and later scholars about the employment opportunities for Black women who migrated to northern cities (3). While ceding the limited options open to these women and the persistence of occupational typing by race and gender (in the North and South, white women delegated the washing of clothes to African American women), she argues for their agency. In choosing between cotton fields, domestic service, and the rugged, dangerous industrial laundries, Black women chose the latter. The laundry industry “served as the vehicle through which African American women first escaped domestic service and entered the industrial workplace” (4). It was also the vehicle, beginning in 1924, through which they first entered the union movement.
Through her choice of primary protagonists, Carson also unpacks the diversity within New York’s African-American worker community. The migration of Blacks to New York City in the 1920s was not a monolithic transfer of former agricultural workers from the U.S. South. Dollie Robinson came from North Carolina in 1930, but Charlotte Adelmond arrived from Trinidad in 1924. They arrived in New York with different expectations, cultural norms, and styles which impacted their opportunities within ACWA and their interactions with its white, primarily male leadership. Robinson’s mother brought her north to escape the underfunded schools and ever-present violence in the Jim Crow South; Adelmond grew up on a Black-majority island with a history of militant, left-leaning racial and economic activism. Interviews with several laundry veterans recalled that the Caribbean migrants “arrived here very politicized…with socialistic ideas” and that they were often at the forefront of union campaigns (200). While both women were fierce advocates for their race and their workers, Robinson focused on facilitation and conciliation. Adelmond, on the other hand, was known for knocking recalcitrant laundry owners and managers to the ground with head butts. They brought these same approaches to their interactions with white men who formed the ACWA leadership team.
And here is the one issue I have with this well-researched, well-argued, and well-written book. While Carson explores some of the diversity amongst the Black laundry workers, she does not undertake a similar explication of the majority Jewish and Italian ACWA leadership team. In her argument, they are all white. However, in the decades covered in Carson’s book, Jewish identity was more fluid. In debates over a Jewish home-state, in the language of U.S. immigration law, and, of course, most tragically, in the rhetoric of Hitler’s Germany, racial constructions dominated those of religion or ethnicity. While never subjected to chattel slavery, American Jews also faced social ostracism, segregation of facilities, and institutional quotas from the dominant white culture.
It seems from Carson’s research the Black laundry workers perceived the union leaders as white. Yet, it is not clear that the leaders shared this racial understanding. For example, she quotes from a 1940 article in Harlem’s Amsterdam News reporting that union placement offices prioritized “refugee whites” over Black union members (147). Given the timing, it seems likely that these were Jews fleeing Hitler. Was this a question of white racism towards Blacks or a Jewish response to white racism in the form of restrictive visa requirements in one nation and genocide in another? How might differing definitions of whiteness and race have complicated union relationships?
Yet, this complaint does not take away from the strengths of Carson’s book and her contribution to conversations about race, gender, and organized labor in the United States. She provides a detailed foundation on which scholars can build and expand and grants Black women laundry workers the voice and respect so long denied them.