By Gerard Di Trolio
Lane Windham convincingly shows that the history of U.S. unions in the late 1970s and early 1980s is not one of stagnation that easily led Ronald Reagan to declare war on them and win. There were significant organizing drives led by women and people of colour that showed the possibility of union renewal.
In the 1970s more women were entering the workforce and jobs that were either limited or practically unobtainable to African Americans began to open up because of civil rights legislation and affirmative action that an earlier generation of black and left labor activists helped to bring about.
Knocking on Labor’s Door is divided into two parts. In the first part, Windham looks at this organizing upsurge at the national level and provides us with the important political and legal context that this occurred in.
In the second part, Windham provides four case studies that demonstrate the new kinds of organizing going on in the 1970s. There is the story of the Newport News shipyard organizing drive, an examination of the two union elections at the Cannon Mills textile factory in Kannapolis N.C., the organizing drive at Woodward & Lothrop in the Washington D.C. Area, and the emergence of the 9to5 organization.
Along the way we learn some interesting details about the era. Union organizing in the 1970s went hand in hand with legal challenges to ensure that companies respected civil rights legislation. This was a major part of strategy in the Newport News shipyard organizing drive because many skilled trades had been blocked to African Americans. In all of these union drives, young workers, African Americans, and women were the most likely to support unionization.
The study of the women’s organization 9to5, is an important look on how the labour movement became involved in an area that it had not previously organized, clerical workers, and how a group like 9to5 would preconfigure other “alt-labour” organizations that would seek to represent workers outside of the traditional union and collective bargaining structure.
Windham provides plenty of statistics on how unionization in this period led to significant narrowing of wage gaps based on race and gender. The narrowing of these disparities would suffer a major blow in the 1980s as unions were put on the defensive and deindustrialization eliminated many of the jobs that were finally unionized and opened to African Americans during the 1970s.
Ultimately the promise of the 1970s went unfulfilled. Windham identifies a number of factors in its failure that are familiar to those who have studied the period. Employers became resistant because of declining profits, globalization began to take off, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the most severe recession since the 1930s increased the unemployment rate above 10 per cent in 1980-81. However, as Windham notes, some of the workers that she wrote about did manage to hold on to the gains they made, but far too many did not.
Knocking on Labor’s Door is a must read for those trying to understand the decline of the labour movement after the 1970s and how we have arrived at the situation we are now in. It provides many important historical lessons on how the labour movement moved into new territory and organized a diverse range of workers that had not been union members before and in industries where there was little to no union presence. The history that Windham has provided us syncs up with, and should be read along other recent books like Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts and Kim Moody’s On New Terrain.
This trilogy provides important explanations of how capitalism and the working class has changed over the past four decades as well as providing important historical lessons that the labour movement must draw from to rebuild its capacities. Building a renewed labour movement will require what the workers profiled in Knocking at Labor’s Door set out to do – organize previously unorganized sectors of the economy and bring in a new pool of union members that reflect today’s very diverse working class.