The National Committee on Household Employment has come of age.
Its members in the last 12 years have built a 10,000-member organization, confronted the establishment and changed legislation.
Now, as demonstrated at their recent eighth annual conference at Memphis State University, they are hard up against the problems that will determine whether they will become a viabel long-term organization or . . . a straw in the wind.
"We have to face our own internal organizational problems; we must learn to tap major sources of funds, to confront racial issues, to wake up our members who have gotten tired," announced Carolyn Reed, New York household-worker-turned-NCHE president.
Many coworkers, satisfied with wage increases -- the federal minimum wage and Social Security protection were extended to household workers in 1974 -- had decided to sit this convention out.
But a hard core of 127 household workers and former workers (now business people, accountants, teachers, municipal employes) had come to continue the fight -- many on 12-18 hour bus rides, or on plane trips paid for by a summer of fish fries, raffles and bake sales. They came in business suits with bulging brief cases to find ways to nudge the bureacracy to spread training programs and improve the enforcement of existing wage and Social Security laws.
Despite the Urban League's long history of moral support, more than one delegate at the conference mentioned the need for more concrete assistance.
"My local Urban League office doesn't seem to know what a household worker is," snapped Luciel McNeil, representing Household Technicians of Charlotte, N.C.
Louise Jackson, who cleans houses for $6.50 an hour in Tulsa, Okla., jumped up from her seat at the opening session to denounce "black leaders who forget their grandmothers picked cotton . . . and forget to respect us when they find out we are household workers.
"When we are dressed up, you can't tell us apart," she said, "and honey, we are somebody."
Said Reed, who shared the platform with National Urban League official Mildred Love: "I know there are problems within the Urban League, but I know the league and president Vernon E. Jordan will fight for us if we articulate our needs."
Others discussed tactics, as the group rejected a confrontational approach in favor of a program aimed at working within the system.
"It takes time to get involved," said Annie Love, a household worker, municipal employe and community activist in Miami, Fla.
"You won't have time to get to all those meetings, if you are going to church all the time, or talking all night on the telephone. You have to get involved in your community if you want to do political action."
"We have to improve training," said Nina Benton, now a beauty parlor operator in Jackson, Miss.
"We have to teach our workers to run households for professional working couples, take important messages, raise children, prepare meals and handle modern fabrics and equipment."
Added Reed, "We have to face the things that some of our members find discomforting, like working for the increasing numbers of black professional women. They need our help too."
To help them "relax and get to work," Reed forgot about Roberts Rules of Order and typical convention format. Instead, she opened with rousing gospel songs and prayers. And she trotted out an impressive assortment of federal agencies and organizations who gave their blessings, support, and the kiss of legitimacy.
The Labor Department sent Alexis Herman, the 33-year-old head of the Women's Bureau, who traced her own roots to household employment (she cleaned houses to pay for college) and cited her bureau's grant of just under $10,000 to cover the transportation, and lodging of women who otherwise could not afford the NCHE conference.
The Ford Foundation's project officer came to check out the work of NCHE, which operates primarily on a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant.
Urban League official Mildred Love came to declare long-term backing of the league, and Dorothy Height brought greetings of the National Council of Negro Women.
Also there were representatives of the National Commission on Working Women, the Women's Action Alliance, the New York State Division of Human Rights and executives from the New York City and Flint Rock, Mich., Urban Leagues.
Ruth Santiago of the New York Foundation and the Eastman Fund typified the approach of the session's leaders.
"You have talents, and you can do these things," she said. "Don't be afraid of foundations. And don't be afraid of writing proposals; they are just word pictures of what you are already doing."
Said 45-year-old Flo Guilyot of New Orleans: "I learned everything I know from these conventions. I used to earn $1.60 an hour. Now I get $3.85. And I know they can't call me 'girl' or (spelled out like a dirty word) 'M-A-I-D!' Now my boss is even talking to me about sick leave. dIn 25 years of household work, I didn't know I could get these things."
Sister Manuela, representing the D.C.-based "International Association of Household Technicians," said she was thrilled with Reed's announced support for "our Spanish and other foreign sisters who often have a worse time than we do."
It all ended properly with a dinner, "not in some fancy Hyatt-Regency," as Reed said, "but where your roots are -- in a church in the heart of Memphis' black community."
Thanks and small flowers went to the speakers and officials. But the biggest speech and the biggest bouquet went to Mary Walton, the local woman who cooked and served the dinner.