In Knocking on Labor’s Door, Lane Windham challenges the narrative that the 1970s was a decade defined by backlash and defeat for the American working class. Rather, she argues, millions of American workers, particularly young workers and many of them people of color, participated in union organizing drives in the private sector economy with energy, creativity, and also some success. Windham refocuses the lens on the decade and away from total union membership numbers, which point to a movement in decline, and instead zeroes in on the five million workers in the private sector who participated in union elections. These numbers show the “magnitude and breadth of organizing efforts that a transformed working class waged in the crucial years of the 1970s” (3). They point to levels of union organizing that mirror those of the 1950s and 1960s and, as Windham argues, to a continued persistence of American working-class militancy.
Windham’s “transformed” working class describes the inclusion of these workers in areas of the economy that had “good jobs,” jobs with decent pay, regular hours, and security. New workers in these good jobs went about unionizing to make them into “really good jobs.” As Windham explains, they did so by combining “old working-class tools—like unions and labor law—with newer legislative victories from the civil and women’s rights movements in order to shore up their prospects in a changing economy” (3). Women and people of color in many cases led the way in these efforts. If the energy and will to organize continued apace in the 1970s, to what can we attribute the labor movement’s decline? Windham challenges the alienation, apathy, and bureaucracy narratives and points instead to increasing, and increasingly sophisticated, union-resistance and avoidance tactics on the part of employers in the face of growing global competition and US labor law as the cause for declining union membership by the early 1980s.
In the first section of the book, Windham presents a national picture of union organizing in the 1970s, explaining in broad terms how labor law worked in the post-war era, the racial and gendered contours of American employment opportunity, and the shifting responses by employers to the demands of the transformed working class. At the center of the book’s argument is the idea that workers in the 1970s were committed [End Page 77] to making their way through the narrow door that opened onto the security of high wages and benefits found through unionization. These workers drew from experiences in social and political movements of the 1960s as they crafted organizing strategies in their workplaces. All anticipated an economy that would continue to grow and employers who would come to the bargaining table. These efforts were met with increased employer resistance as specialty legal firms developed sophisticated antiunion strategies and globalization ate away at profits.
In the second section of the book, Windham explores organizing at the local level, looking at drives in shipbuilding and textiles in Virginia and North Carolina and among retail and clerical workers in Washington, DC, and Boston. While not all these campaigns resulted in union contracts, the examples showcase how workers built organizing drives that intersected with civil rights activism and second-wave feminism and sometimes found pathways to power outside traditional collective bargaining. The local studies offer a comparative framework to examine industries, tactics, global and technological impacts, and organizing strategies to evaluate the successes and failures of the 1970s.
After decades of trying, in 1978, shipbuilders in Newport News, Virginia, won a union election at the largest employer in the state. Workers employed by Tenneco, the conglomerate that owned the nearly hundred-year-old operation, had been “represented” by a company union since the 1930s. By the mid-1970s, Windham argues, a recently won EEOC agreement over access to better work and training, a wildcat strike over mandatory overtime, and the activism of an interracial group of women propelled the organizing drive forward. The expansiveness of the workplace and the far distances many workers lived from the yards required building multiple and overlapping connections. Women workers talked union with their coworkers in bathrooms, in carpools...