A group of black Virginia women negotiated better terms with their World War II-era jobs in Virginia.
Of the. Sally Hudson, one of 36 women members of the Virginia House of Delegates, did not speak to announce a new policy on March 3. Instead, the Democrat talked to his colleagues about a group of women who paved the way for other women. Buckle up, this isn’t a tale you’ll find in history books – and it’s been hidden for about 80 years.
When not in Richmond legislating on behalf of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, Hudson works as an economist and associate professor at the University of Virginia (UVA).
The story picks up in Charlottesville in the early 1940s. Hudson explained that at the time, the local hospital, operated by UVA, was struggling to retain staff. It was during this time that the United States became involved in World War II. Many Virginians were struggling overseas, while others moved to find jobs in big cities. Together, these elements have resulted in a staffing shortage in Charlottesville.
“But as we see right now, a man’s labor shortage is a woman’s chance to change the way we value people’s work,” Hudson said.
The delegate noted that at the time, hospital maids worked the longest hours for the lowest pay. It was all about black women changing the sheets and cleaning the rooms for less than $7 a week.
The hospital superintendent called attention to staff shortages and low rates of pay in 1941, and the university with UVA President John Newcomb at the helm promised to take the matter to the Virginia General Assembly. Over the next two years, nothing changed.
Two years was too much.
“In January 1943, 28 black women left work at UVA Hospital,” Hudson said. “They sent UVA President Newcomb a detailed memo outlining their calculations for a living wage of $9.30 a week and requesting a meeting.”
Newcomb refused, instead recruiting wealthier white women from the Red Cross as hospital volunteers. Over the next few months, most maids returned to work for the hospital at around $9 a week.
The following spring, the maids teamed up with the black orderlies. Together they threatened another walkout unless the hospital reduced their 12-hour work day to eight hours. Over the next four days, the university lobbied the state budget director for an eight-hour work rule.
“It’s funny how things in this town can happen really quickly when the right person really asks for it,” Hudson said.
Following the victory, the employees founded one of the first public unions for state workers. Actions taken in the early 1940s reduced employees’ workweek from 72 hours to 48 hours, doubled their wages and sick leave, and added overtime and 13 paid holidays to their benefits. The union also helped pave the way for the first training program for black registered nurses in Virginia.
The backlash begins
It didn’t take long before employee earnings faced challenges. Just three years later, the Virginia General Assembly banned state offices and agencies from recognizing public employee unions.
“Every major chapter in our history that has been marked by black gains has been met with white backlash,” Hudson said.
Today, the ability to collectively bargain is still a hot topic in Virginia. Several Republican-led bills attempting to crush Democratic gains have failed in the Virginia Senate. This did not stop the discussion.
“[W]e have heard a lot this session about how collective bargaining undermines freedom, how it prevents individuals from negotiating directly with their boss – and every time I hear this I can’t help but think this logic is detached from history. I have to stifle the urge to ask, ‘Don’t you think they tried that? Don’t you know that they came to the collective organization out of necessity? “said Hudson. “We all want to be judged on our own skills and talents, on the content of our character, but experience has long shown us that some people have to work twice as hard just to be seen for half of what they are worth…and when that happens, we come together, we work together because we’re stronger together. It’s so much harder to ignore one of us that way.
The Virginia House of Delegates is made up of 100 members. There are 36 women in total, including 25 Democrats. The remaining 64 members are men, including 23 Democrats. Republicans control the House with 52 members, including 41 men and 11 women.
Hudson acknowledged Democrats’ female majority in 2022, hinting at more female-centric storylines in the future.
“Ours is the first caucus in Virginia’s history that has more women than men, so we have a ton of women’s stories to share this month,” Hudson said.
Hudson called on the women of the House to action, to oppose the white backlash that has marked the entire history of the Commonwealth.
“[W]The story of omen is not only the story of boundary breakers, of women who break glass ceilings. It’s also the story of the women who would hold them back,” Hudson said. “And so we have a choice. We can be like the women of the Red Cross who would give cover to the men who divide and conquer, or we can stand with all our neighbors and ensure that no one is ignored.