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Susan Green

Slave Markets

(3 February 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 5, 3 February 1941, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the Bronx alone there are at least thirty established slave markets. These are street corners where Negro women gather at seven in the morning and wait sometimes all day to sell their labor to some housewife who wants her dirty work done for almost nothing. There are more such slave markets in the Brighton Beach and Brownsville sections of Brooklyn.

The tokens of these women’s servitude are a dark skin and a paper package under the arm, containing their work clothes. They stand around, huddled in doorways and vestibules in the cold, snow and rain of winter, or in the broiling sun and heat of summer, waiting for a customer for their labor. They may wait a half day before they get a break, or they may wait a whole day and go home – having wasted their energy just waiting and no money to show for it.

The condition of these women is just another proof that the capitalist system is absolutely bankrupt. It can no longer take care of the simplest needs of the poor people.

Deserve Relief

The slave markets first appeared in the depression, which hit the Negro people a harder blow than anybody else. When unemployed white men began to work for any wage at all, Negro men were forced out of their jobs. That was when the Negro women went out on the streets to look for household work.

It was possible for these jobless women to get work on the streets because many middle-class people found them cheaper than regular maids. For the heavy cleaning and real dirty work, the Negro woman was called in. When it was learned by other housewives that it was possible to hire cleaning women for 15¢ or 20¢ an hour, they began to call in the Negro women to do the most distasteful tasks – scrubbing, window-cleaning, washing, cleaning bathrooms.

The existence of the slave markets also proves the two-faced character of the boss government. It is supposed to be giving relief to destitute people to enable them to get the necessities of life. Many of the women who sell their labor in the slave :market are on relief. But what the government hands out is a mere pittance that does not cover bare needs. It is harder for a Negro family to get along on relief than a white family. The average rent in Negro sections is one third higher than it is in corresponding white districts. So Negro women have to sneak in a bit of work in order to exist at all.

Furthermore there are women in the slave markets fully entitled to relief who do not get it. They refuse to submit to the indignities the relief client is subjected to. They will not sell their souls for relief that does not relieve anyway. But they sell their labor in the slave markets where the housewife picks them up as she does a bunch of carrots or a loaf of bread.

Miserable Wages

At these corners, waiting for work, can be seen old women gnarled and bent from a lifetime of labor. But there are plenty of neat, capable-looking women in middle life, as well as young women and girls. Men come to the slave markets and try to lure the young women and girls to their apartments – to perform other tasks than housework. But these women are seriously looking for housework and refuse to go with a man.

The women get paid whatever sum they can command from the individual housewife who hires them. The rates are a bit higher now than they were during the depression. A good worker who has established a reputation for herself, can get 35¢ or 30¢ an hour. Others get 25¢ and less, depending on the neighborhood and the time of day they are hired.

Because these women are absolutely unprotected, they are often gypped. They may be promised 35¢ an hour, when the housewife pays them, she will give only 25¢. Or they will be promised $1.50 for a job and then the housewife will try to take off 50¢ for the lunch the cleaning woman ate.

All the boss politicians are shouting today how American “democracy” has respect for the individual and how we’re all supposed to fight for it. Certainly these women who peddle their labor on street corners don’t get any respect or anything else. Many a Negro girl, fresh from the South and full of ambition, finally lands in the slave market. Here she stands and shoos off what is politely called “immoral advances”, until a housewife picks her up. Girls who thought they could make something of themselves loves their morale as week after week they frequent the slave markets.

And this is true of white house workers as well as of Negro. Even though the white women do not sell their labor in street markets; they are just as unprotected in their work as the Negro. They often work for $5 a week, living in. Their hours are practically limitless – an 80-hour week being quite common. They are employed at one figure and when pay day comes they receive less. Often a white girl takes a household job thinking it will be only temporary. She hopes to go to school in the evening and make something of herself. But she doesn’t get time off and can’t go to school or do anything a human being needs time to do. After a while she begins to think of herself as just a servant and a drudge.

A Union Needed

From time to time agencies of the boss government as well as private clubs and associations of boss women, have made a big noise about “doing something for those poor domestic workers.” But all this is a flash in the pan. Workers never get any thing unless they fight for it themselves.

In New York City there are about 200,000 household workers, both Negro and white. But they are powerless because they are not organized. Of this great number of domestic workers only about 400 belong to a domestic workers union. That is the trouble.

These downtrodden and exploited workers have no reason to fight for a non-existing democracy. But they have every reason in the world to fight for one big union of the 200,000 domestic workers in the city. Only with a strong union, of Negro and white together, will the domestic workers be able to talk turkey – to demand union wages, hours and conditions.

That will be the death knoll of the slave markets, of the “immoral advances”, of the gypping, of the demoralization of tens of thousands of women who do honest and hard labor.

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