- Labor Feminism Meets Institutional Sexism
Lane Windham’s Knocking on Labor’s Door offers important contributions to labor and working-class history and to the emerging literature on American capitalism. Most important, the book reminds us that the 1970s did not mark a gloomy descent into neoliberalism; rather, those years were shot through with electrifying possibilities.
My comments will reflect on how Knocking on Labor’s Door handles the identity politics of sex and class. The book offers striking insights into the political economy of the 1970s; in particular, it sheds new light on employers’ efforts to protect their profits as they navigated a globalizing landscape. But in blaming those employers when union campaigns led by women and men of color fell short, Windham down-plays other factors—especially the roadblocks thrown up by wage-earning white men. Laboring women had to aim their campaigns for equity at their employers as well as at their union “brothers.” Aware of the distinct yet related challenges they faced everywhere they worked, many women experimented with and blended new and well-established forms of activism. The formal labor movement thus offers too narrow a lens to capture the range of outcomes that working people—women in particular—imagined and pursued as they fought the baked-in inequities that shaped workplaces and unions alike.
An especially admirable piece of Knocking on Labor’s Door is its clear explanation of the problems facing employers in the 1970s. They were newly in a vise, squeezed at once from above and below. As globalization transformed the American economy and threatened corporations’ formerly predictable margins, employers saw attacking their newly emboldened labor force as a less imposing challenge than harnessing the abstract whims of international capital. Employers thus fought their workers’ organizing campaigns with every tool in their box, and they also built some new ones. These efforts largely succeeded; employers emerged from the decade more firmly in command of the workforce than they had been in decades.
Considering the sheer height of the deck that was stacked against workers in the 1970s, their militancy is all the more remarkable. But how might these showdowns have turned out better for workers? One group whose support could have made a difference was working-class white men. In Windham’s case studies, the [End Page 91] women and men of color who sought to organize tended to find themselves a step or two behind their employers. This was often because they had to build unity within their ranks by persuading white men to get on board before they could direct united energies outward to counter their employers’ schemes. When, in the early 1980s, more of these men opened up to broader notions of class power, the conservative legal climate and permissive business culture had reworked the playing field into more difficult terrain for all laboring people.
By now it is a truism that white men find psychological and practical advantage in their separation from and superiority over women and men of color—even when that elevated status is more symbolic than material. As women and men of color have taken advantage of new workplace equality laws, white men have adapted to shore up their long-standing privilege. Many of the women who rode new nondiscrimination and affirmative action provisions into blue-collar jobs in the late 1960s and 1970s endured humiliating harassment and terrifying hazing on their jobs and found their unions reluctant to respond. Windham does acknowledge the problem of working-class fragmentation, noting, for example, that the white men at the Kannapolis, North Carolina, textile factory profiled in chapter 5 “viewed the union as an organization for black workers, not for them” (113).
But throughout the book, wage-earning white men appear more as a stumbling block than a solid barrier. This may be because Windham intends Knocking on Labor’s Door to squarely challenge histories of work and class that have decentered women, such as Jefferson R. Cowie’s 2010 book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.1 By highlighting white men’s declining fortunes and conservative turn as the decade’s most significant class dynamics, Stayin’ Alive...