Knocking on Labor's Door

Since the 1970s, more people want in than can get in to our movement. Author Lane Windham offers three takeaways from the 1970s for this moment in labor history.

Lane Windham will give a talk in New York City on Thursday, 7/19 as part of the #LaborTalks series (RSVP here) If you can’t make it, you can watch it live or later via Facebook. At the event and all this week, UCS is offering 15% off her book. If you order online, let us know if you’d like it signed.  

By Lane Windham

Workers and their unions are clearly under attack. The recent Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision undermines all unions, and private sector employers continue to fight unions at every step. Stewards often struggle to educate co-workers about what these assaults mean, and how to survive them.

One starting point for these conversations is to ask, “Why exactly are employers and conservative political forces fighting unions so hard?” In fact, bosses and right-wingers see the power in workers’ collective action; they fear it and try to tamp it down. The historical record shows that workers united often hold more power than they think.

My book Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide reveals that employers’ anxiety about a newly diversified and active working class was one of the driving factors behind a major assault on workers’ power. 

A wave of millions of working people came knocking on labor’s door in the 1970s, trying to organize new unions in the private sector, including throughout the South. Many of the people leading these drives were women and people of color who had long been excluded from the nation’s best jobs, and from many of the nation’s unions, but who had won new access through the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As they poured into these newly opened jobs, they demanded unions. They didn’t just want a job - - they wanted a good job. 

Historians have missed this wave of organizing because most only looked at data on union membership or union win rates, both of which decreased in this decade. However, I took a novel approach. I didn’t count just "yes" votes when I started to research National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections. Instead, I counted all the people who tried to form unions, whether they won or not. 

It turns out that roughly five million workers voted in NLRB elections in the 1970s - - half a million a year - - the same pace as in labor’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, another three million public sector workers signed up for unions in this decade. 

There were lots of surprising union victories. Workers at the Midwest Stock Exchange unionized, as did those at the nation’s first foreign auto transplant, Volkswagen. Even security guards who worked for Pinkerton, the notorious strike breaking firm, won a union in the 1970s. 

I interviewed workers and looked at polling, news accounts, dusty union records, and even the records of antiunion attorneys. My research shows that women powered the new wave of union organizing. In 1960, only 18 percent of union members were women; by 1984, that figure was 34 percent. African-American workers were, by far, the most likely workers to say they wanted a union, and the decade marked a high point for Southern organizing.

So what happened? If so many workers wanted unions, then why has the labor movement shrunk so much?

Corporate globalization and technological change certainly mattered. Employers attacked labor, in part, because they were scrambling to get a foothold in the new global economy, and they wanted to avoid unions’ demands on their shrinking profits. The fact that workers could no longer freely form unions also weakened labor. Three things changed on this front.

First, employers became far more willing to bend and break the law in the 1970s. The number of unfair labor charges against employers doubled in this decade, as did the number of illegal firings. This law breaking was effective. While workers won roughly 80 % of union elections in the 1940s, by the late 1970s they won less than half. 

Second, even unionized employers then at the core of the economy - - companies like GM, US Steel and Goodrich - - began to viciously fight their workers’ efforts to unionize. 

Third, employers began to rely much more heavily on union busters, who sowed fear about the new levels of women and people of color in the workforce, and used this diverse workforce to gin up their own union-busting business.

By bending and breaking labor law and using racism and sexism, employers effectively blocked union organizing, workers’ doorway into unions. While half a million workers a year had once tried to form unions in the 1970s, by 1983 only 165,000 workers even tried to get through the barriers to winning an election.

The labor movement pivoted in the 1980s and 1990s; public sector unions grew in strength because they faced far less resistance. Unions began to build power in new ways, such as through corporate campaigns and community coalition efforts. 

Today, the U.S. workers’ movement is once again in transformation. Women still hold a key role, and will be the majority of union members by 2025. Immigrants and their families bring new energy and numbers. Workers are experimenting with new organizational forms, like bargaining for the common good, which brings broad community issues to the table.  Look at that wave of red-shirted, striking teachers who walked out despite the laws that ban public sector strikes in many of their states. Their call was, yes, for better wages and benefits for themselves and but not just that: some called for raises for all state workers and all of them insisted on more funding for their students in a public education system that has been cut to the bone over the last few decades. They’re on the right track. 

One lesson from Knocking on Labor’s Door for stewards, and all members of the twenty-first century labor movement, is to ask what it is that employers and conservatives fear most. They’re not scared that working people will somehow begin to use the nation’s broken labor law more effectively. Employers made sure that wasn’t an option, starting in the 1970s.

Rather, employers and political conservatives see that today’s renewed activity among a diverse group of working people and realize that is has the power to upend the political and economic landscape. They are trying to quickly tilt the playing field in their favor because working people united - - whether those workers have a collective bargaining agreement or not - - are a mighty force to be reckoned with. Recognizing our own power is where we must begin. 


Lane Windham is the author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. She is also the Associate Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, and co-director of WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership).   









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