- I Hear You Knockin’. . . . But You Can’t Come In
Knocking on Labor’s Door is an impressive achievement. By combing through National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) records and revisiting some crucial but forgotten labor struggles from the 1970s, Lane Windham seeks to refute pessimists like Jefferson Cowie, who regard that decade as ringing the death knell of an empowered American working class. Specifically, Windham wants to call our attention to the energized struggles of African American, women, and immigrant workers. Newly emboldened by the previous decade’s rights revolutions, these members of the working class sought to join and reinvigorate the flagging American labor movement that had previously done much to exclude them. They indeed were “knocking at labor’s door.”
But did that door open? With all due respect to Windham’s ability to uncover the dynamics of previously ignored or overlooked struggles of this era, I want to provoke discussion by laying out an alternative narrative, based as much as possible on the compelling evidence of labor ferment she herself has unearthed and brought to life in the pages of this book.
Here is my alternative narrative:
Despite the enormous promise and energized constituencies made available by the rights revolutions of the 1960s—among women, African Americans, new immigrants, and youth—the labor movement failed to benefit from the fundamental gains of that golden era of social transformation. Even with a new generation of workers entering America’s factories, mills, and offices, many bringing with them a consciousness forged in rights struggles and a set of new legal tools honed by Great Society liberalism, the number of NLRB voters in private production barely budged between 1964 and the mid-1970s. After that, the number of union elections, let alone actual victories, began a long, slow slide into terminal decline. In 1964 1.28 percent of production workers (it is unclear to me if this figure, in fact, includes retail, service, etc.) voted in NLRB elections—the postwar peak came in 1953, when the figure was 2.04 percent—but that figure only increased to 1.31 by 1967 and dropped off after that, declining to 1 percent by 1975. [End Page 95]
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A secular graph using the same numbers provided by Windham would show nothing if not a steady decline. In other words, if the number of production workers participating in union elections is the metric by which we measure “knocking on labor’s door,” this was a feeble tap indeed. And that is just the total number of NLRB voters. A closer look at the NLRB annual reports also indicates a secular trend over the course of the decade in which the number of no votes in union representation elections began to outstrip those in favor of unions. Windham relies for her data on table 11 in the NLRB annual reports, which allows her to chart the percentage of workers voting in union elections. Creating a crude data series from table 14, however, shows a trend I believe is more significant: shrinking overall numbers voting in favor of representation, growing numbers voting against (figure 1).
Moreover, stonewalling employers and “union avoidance” professionals did not always have to play directly for no votes; creating enough fear or hostility or just passivity to induce workers to refuse to sign cards or to stay home on election day might prove sufficient—hence, the shrinking assent to unionization. That leaves the historian with the task of figuring out why so many workers actively opposed unions during the 1970s and took the action of casting a no ballot to block unionization efforts in their workplaces.
As Windham herself acknowledges, a majority of the NLRB elections in this era resulted in defeats for organizers and workers. In other words, while 30 percent of workers in a prospective bargaining unit might take the bold step of signing a union card and thus triggering an election, more often than not they proved unable to convince another 20 percent-plus-one of their fellow workers in the shop to join them. Too often this obstacle derived...