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  • Author’s Response
  • Lane Windham (bio)

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Figure 1.

Laborers’ union member Virginia Powell working on a commercial construction site in downtown Washington, DC, in 1980.

Photograph by Martha Tabor, © University of Maryland (courtesy of Martha Tabor Collection, University of Maryland Libraries)

[End Page 100]

I am grateful to Anne Ladky, Dan Graff, Katherine Turk, and Alex Lichtenstein for their carefully considered and provocative analyses of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. In writing the book, I aimed to open up a fresh discussion of the workers’ movement in the pivotal 1970s and also to offer new approaches for understanding working people’s struggles today. These accomplished scholars and activists clearly have embraced both undertakings. I would like to also thank the Newberry Library for hosting this forum and the journal Labor for allowing us to further our dialogue here.

Ladky’s contribution deserves a special note. Her firsthand account of her activism with Chicago’s Women Employed (WE) over a period of forty years is a stand-alone treasure that gives new insight into the motivations and strategies that propelled one of the most enduring organizations of the 1970s working women’s movement. I am fascinated, for instance, that WE’s founder, Day Piercy, drew inspiration from the 1960s strategies of the United Farm Workers, even adopting the farm-workers’ slogan, “Rights and Respect.” Her story offers new support for Knocking on Labor’s Door’s key assertion that the women and people of color who pushed to form unions in the 1970s were fueled by “rights consciousness” from the civil rights movement. Ladky also had personal experience with the tsunami of employer resistance that I describe in the book. She recalls facing “very hostile management consultants” when pushing for affirmative action measures, for example. I only wish that I had interviewed Ladky for the book and included more of WE’s compelling story; I hope that future researchers will rectify my omission.

A common theme in the comments of the other three participants—Graff, Turk, and Lichtenstein—is the role of white men in 1970s union organizing campaigns. In various ways, each asks whether working-class white men’s determination to assert their racial and gender privilege, especially in the wake of gains by the civil and women’s rights movement, was a potent and underexamined roadblock to workers’ success in 1970s unionization efforts.

It is certainly true that Knocking on Labor’s Door is not centered on white men, though white men do appear as actors and are woven throughout the narrative. [End Page 101] Rather, the startling story that inspired me to write the book is that of the women of all backgrounds and men of color who demanded entry into America’s labor unions as soon as they secured the kinds of private-sector jobs that were eligible for unionization. Theirs was a previously untold history, and I dug hard to make them the focus of my research and analysis. It was never my intent to overturn, or even to discount, accounts of what I call the “hard-hatted silent majority” (7). My book makes clear that many white men were racist and sexist, as were some of the unions they headed. We meet the white, racist journeyman who hassled the African American ironworker Todd Hawkins, for example (43), and the men who resisted women’s entry into their unions, meeting them with slashed tires and gunshots (40). White men, however, have already gotten the lion’s share of historical attention on the 1970s working class. Knocking on Labor’s Door situates their actions and motivations within a long overdue broader perspective.

The commentators are correct, however, that more research is needed to probe the specific impact of working-class white men’s role in 1970s union organizing, with an eye to what Graff calls “the persistence of internal divisions” in the working class. I doubt, however, that such a deeper interrogation of white men’s actions in union elections would point us in a straight line to the conclusions the participants draw here. Lichtenstein, for instance...


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