- Tangled Up in Race: Working-Class Politics and the Ongoing Economic Divide
The title of Lane Windham’s impressive new exploration of union organizing in the 1970s, Knocking on Labor’s Door, immediately calls to mind Bob Dylan’s hit single “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”1 Whether the allusion is intended or not, the song’s release date resonates, since 1973—marked by the oil crisis and stagflation—is widely considered among historians to be the year of reckoning for the New Deal order, the US labor movement, and the heyday of American liberalism. But where Dylan’s song is a dirge, with its mournful narrator accepting “the long black cloud” announcing death, Windham’s monograph exudes an opposite tone. By uncovering stories of worker-activists who organized with a purpose and a passion reminiscent of the 1930s, Windham rejects the notion of the 1970s as “the last days of the working class” (3).2
In “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Dylan’s narrator urges, “Mama, take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore,” and “put my guns in the ground, I can’t shoot them anymore,” but in Windham’s Knocking on Labor’s Door, new workers embraced the emblems of the Civil Rights Act while redeploying the weapons of the Wagner Act to forge a fairer, more inclusive political-economic order. Or at least they tried to, which is her main point. By showing how American workers—in particular, young, female, and African-American workers—organized and mobilized at rates comparable to the previous twenty years, Knocking on Labor’s Door revises our understanding of that pivotal decade increasingly considered the hinge separating the age of [End Page 85] Roosevelt from the age of Reagan.3 In her retelling of the 1970s from the perspective of workplace and union activists, that hinge was much noisier, more malleable, and indeed briefly open to becoming something else entirely—perhaps a bridge connecting the linked causes of workplace and racial and gender justice. This is an important book, and it shows the continuing relevance of evidence-based scholarship (that is, history) in countering the conventional wisdoms that increasingly shape the commonly nonsensical narratives that dominate our public discourse.
First, let me stress that this monograph is excellent at multiple levels as a monograph: perfectly conceptualized, smartly structured, elegantly written, and succinctly realized. Deftly weaving a compelling narrative from a multiplicity of primary sources—in particular, National Labor Relations Board data, activists’ oral histories, labor union and employer records, and press coverage of organizing campaigns—Windham has created a book of equal use to scholars, students, and the general public. I predict widespread adoption of Knocking on Labor’s Door in college courses on US history.
Adopting a two-part structure, Windham first draws the big picture, addressing two hugely important and interrelated questions: What explains organized labor’s precipitous decline since the 1970s? Did a rights consciousness exhibited in the struggles for gender and racial inclusion eclipse a labor consciousness embedded in the unions of the AFL-CIO? Her answer is a single, synthetic one, and she builds upon but surpasses prior scholarship. As Windham argues, workers in the 1970s organized at levels comparable to their predecessors in the 1950 and 1960s; moreover, emboldened by the Civil Rights Act’s passage in 1964, they were an increasingly diverse lot, fusing the freedom struggle and the union agenda into their activism. As they sought to extend the frontier of the uniquely American, collectively bargained, largely privatized welfare state, however, they ran smack into an emboldened employer class dedicated to confronting the squeeze on profits by rolling back labor costs. It was capital’s pushback, then, and not labor’s complacency or distraction by “identity politics,” that explains union decline.
While that assertion in and of itself may be neither novel nor especially controversial (at least among labor historians), Windham creates something original and important by deploying new evidence and connecting heretofore disparate narratives. In the second part of the book, she deepens her argument by presenting in rich detail four case studies of a diverse, empowered working class battling to open the door to...