- Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide by Lane Windham
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017
312 pp., $32.95 (cloth); $27.95 (paper); $24.99 (e-book)
The dominant narrative of labor and union organizing in the United States during the 1970s is a story of defeat. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, organized labor was at its peak. Some three-fourths of manufacturing plants in the United States operated under union contracts. Union-negotiated wages and benefits significantly improved the standards of living for millions under collective bargaining agreements and millions more in nonunion workplaces where management sought (for varying reasons) to keep up with those union standards. By the 1970s, this narrative tells us, the labor movement was in freefall: bureaucratization and business unionism shifted unions' focus away from organizing; workers had become more individualistic and less open to collective action; and unions stood squarely outside the rights revolutions that reshaped the country. As a result, union density declined and organized labor further retrenched in the following decades as technological change, globalization, the ascendancy of retail over manufacturing, and stagnating wages and productivity hit the nation's core industries especially hard. But, as persuasively and powerfully argued by Lane Windham in Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide, this narrative does not fully reflect organized labor's story. In fact, Windham asserts that the 1970s were a "pivotal decade" (2) shaped by robust labor organizing and activism in workplaces across the United States. Windham makes the story of labor in this decade one of momentum and promise, not stagnation and decline.
Windham's starting point is the new working class that began to emerge in the late 1960s. Growing out of victories won by the civil rights and women's rights movements that opened access to the job market, an increasingly diverse working class began entering and reshaping myriad workplaces. Younger workers, women, and people of color, especially in the manufacturing sector, fundamentally remade the workforce in businesses across the country. Members of this new working class did not just want jobs; they wanted good jobs that paid well. They wanted health care, retirement plans, and access to what Windham calls the "highest tier" of the US employer-based social welfare state. They wanted respect on the job. These, Windham shows, were key factors underpinning the desire for unions and what drove organizing efforts throughout the private sector in the 1970s. Collective bargaining and unions were the tools with which workers could force employers to fulfill their social welfare roles and move toward equality in the workplace.
According to Windham, the real story of labor in the 1970s can be found in grassroots organizing and at the level of individual, firm-level union campaigns. From this perspective, traditional markers of union power, such as the declining percentage [End Page 134] of workers in unions or the numbers of union elections won, do not tell the whole story. Windham looks at other indicators to understand workers' motivations and desires through the decade, principally the numbers of workers who attempted to unionize, measured by the numbers of workers who voted in National Labor Relations Board union-certifying elections. What this metric shows is that the numbers of workers trying to form unions remained steady through the 1950s and 1960s, and—led by a newly diverse and rights-conscious working class—through the 1970s.
Windham explores labor organizing in the 1970s through four case studies that give readers a sense of the range of industries being organized, geographic regions where workers were attempting to form unions, and factors contributing to success or failure of firm-level organizing campaigns: shipbuilding at Tenneco in Newport News, Virginia; textile manufacturing at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, North Carolina; retail at Woodward and Lothrop department stores in metro Washington, DC; and among secretaries, clerical workers, and other female office workers in the Boston area. The South...