The title of Lane Windham’s impressive new exploration of union organizing in the 1970s, Knocking on Labor’s Door, immediately calls to mind Bob Dylan’s hit single “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”1 Whether the allusion is intended or not, the song’s release date resonates, since 1973 — marked by the oil crisis and stagflation — is widely considered among historians to be the year of reckoning for the New Deal order, the US labor movement, and the heyday of American liberalism. But where Dylan’s song is a dirge, with its mournful narrator accepting “the long black cloud” announcing death, Windham’s monograph exudes an opposite tone. By uncovering stories of worker-activists who organized with a purpose and a passion reminiscent of the 1930s, Windham rejects the notion of the 1970s as “the last days of the working class” (3).2
In “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Dylan’s narrator urges, “Mama, take this badge off of me, I can’t use it anymore,” and “put my guns in the ground, I can’t shoot them anymore,” but in Windham’s Knocking on Labor’s Door, new workers embraced the emblems of the Civil Rights Act while redeploying the weapons of the Wagner Act to forge a fairer, more inclusive political-economic order. Or at least they tried to, which is her main point. By showing how American workers — in particular, young, female, and African-American workers — organized and mobilized at rates comparable to the previous twenty years, Knocking on Labor’s Door revises our understanding of that pivotal decade increasingly considered the hinge separating the age of Roosevelt from the age of Reagan.3 In her retelling of the 1970s from the perspective of workplace and union activists, that hinge was much noisier, more malleable, and indeed briefly open to becoming something else entirely — perhaps a bridge connecting the linked causes of workplace and racial and gender justice. This is an important book, and it shows the continuing relevance of evidence-based scholarship (that is, history) in countering the conventional wisdoms that increasingly shape the commonly nonsensical narratives that dominate our public discourse.
First, let me stress that this monograph is excellent at multiple levels as a monograph: perfectly conceptualized, smartly structured, elegantly written, and succinctly realized. Deftly weaving a compelling narrative from a multiplicity of primary sources — in particular, National Labor Relations Board data, activists’ oral histories, labor union and employer records, and press coverage of organizing campaigns — Windham has created a book of equal use to scholars, students, and the general public. I predict widespread adoption of Knocking on Labor’s Door in college courses on US history.
Adopting a two-part structure, Windham first draws the big picture, addressing two hugely important and interrelated questions: What explains organized labor’s precipitous decline since the 1970s? Did a rights consciousness exhibited in the struggles for gender and racial inclusion eclipse a labor consciousness embedded in the unions of the AFL-CIO? Her answer is a single, synthetic one, and she builds upon but surpasses prior scholarship. As Windham argues, workers in the 1970s organized at levels comparable to their predecessors in the 1950 and 1960s; moreover, emboldened by the Civil Rights Act’s passage in 1964, they were an increasingly diverse lot, fusing the freedom struggle and the union agenda into their activism. As they sought to extend the frontier of the uniquely American, collectively bargained, largely privatized welfare state, however, they ran smack into an emboldened employer class dedicated to confronting the squeeze on profits by rolling back labor costs. It was capital’s pushback, then, and not labor’s complacency or distraction by “identity politics,” that explains union decline.
While that assertion in and of itself may be neither novel nor especially controversial (at least among labor historians), Windham creates something original and important by deploying new evidence and connecting heretofore disparate narratives. In the second part of the book, she deepens her argument by presenting in rich detail four case studies of a diverse, empowered working class battling to open the door to securing better jobs and livelihoods. The case studies are selected to show the activism across sectors, from shipbuilding to textiles, from retail to offices; furthermore, they are arranged to anticipate the critical reader’s assertion of the danger of a single story.4 One by one, Windham dismantles the claims of union decline supposedly made inevitable by affirmative action, globalization, technology, and professionalism. By “ask[ing] readers to dwell in that moment when U.S. unions were still relatively strong, and when labor’s decline seemed far less certain,” Windham effectively restores the 1970s as a decade of contingent moments that may have produced alternative outcomes. As she rightfully concludes, “no natural law says that retail and service jobs must be bad jobs, that global interconnectedness must mean class disparity, or that broad economic prosperity is doomed to be unattainable today” (10–11).
Inevitability, no doubt, is the enemy of the historian who must be vigilant in refusing to convert historical phenomena into historical agents (“capitalism,” for example, or “technology,” or “industrialization”). At the same time, however, we must remain attuned to historical actors’ resignation to the way things were, a manifestation of disempowerment that is often experienced as inevitability. As Windham herself notes, the union losses of the 1970s helped produce just this outcome in the succeeding decades, as fewer labor activists saw the viability of organizing new workers, while fewer workers saw unions as viable vehicles for their own betterment. We are now at a moment where a smaller percentage of Americans in the private sector belong to a union than at any time in the past one hundred years, meaning that very few workers today, especially younger ones, even know what a union is, let alone whether they would find joining one desirable. Taking it as a given that employer opposition to unions will endure, the challenge for labor activists in rebuilding the union movement now involves educating fellow workers essentially from scratch on the virtue and viability of the union project. As Windham states in the conclusion, “My hope is that as workers begin to explore new ways to build power, this book will complicate and enrich the conversation about how they lost that power in the first place” (191).
I have no doubt that Knocking on Labor’s Door would enrich the education of any worker or union activist, but there is an important aspect of the failure of 1970s labor activism that she leaves largely unexplored, or at least glosses over. And that is the ongoing tensions among workers themselves over what Nancy MacLean terms “the struggles for inclusion” in the labor market and the labor movement, tensions that have endured for half a century, since the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial and gender discrimination at work.5
Windham is aware of this, of course, and throughout the book she integrates these tensions into her narratives of various union campaigns. Take the example of race. Multiple times she notes that black workers were significantly stronger union supporters than white workers; she also discusses white opposition in the textile campaigns to alleged black-led unions as well as white clerical worker-activists’ early indifference to child care, a priority for black coworkers, which caused a schism within 9to5. But while not omitting these facts and episodes, she does not directly address the implications of these racial divisions, whether for organizing drive momentum, the success of union certification elections, or the stability of collective bargaining. In Windham’s telling, a working class remade by the black freedom and feminist movements confronted employers who blocked the door due to declining profits more than anything else. But she never really addresses when and how much white privilege coalesced with managerial prerogative, whether in antiunion strategies or in workers’ minds. Furthermore, we do not learn how much of unions’ very limited resources had to be focused on persuading diverse workers of their commonalities when so much in their lives — neighborhoods, schools, churches — seemed to argue otherwise. In short, Windham presumes a remade working class, paying less attention to the persistence of internal divisions critical to understanding the limits of labor activism, whether we are talking about the 1970s or today.
In the book’s conclusion, Windham effectively summarizes the devastating implications of union decline since the 1980s, both for workers and for the nation more broadly. Addressing the importance of unions for furthering a progressive political agenda over the past several decades, she asserts, “Unions impact their members’ votes.” And she points to the recent presidential election as proof, noting that a “majority of members of union households voted for Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump in 2016, as did 56 percent of union members” (188). This last statement is true, but only barely, and it is another indication of the enduring divisions within the American working class. With massive proportions of workers of color voting for Clinton, there is no doubt that a majority of white union members and households voted for Trump. Surely the big lesson of the 2016 election is one of race. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently argued, Donald Trump’s ascendance as the first explicitly white president was premised on white people, sliced almost every way, voting for him as white people — white men, white women, white Protestants, white Catholics, white employers, white managers, and white workers, including white union workers. The power of race to shape the American political economy persists.6
As we anticipate what workers’ struggles for justice will look like in the future, we should also expect to see ideas about race — sometimes openly and sometimes not — undergirding, buttressing, and clinging to seemingly timeless and innocent American ideas such as individualism, merit, effort, entrepreneurship, and innovation. And that makes paying more attention to worker conflicts during past struggles for workplace democracy and inclusion just as important. Still, this critique does not take away from Windham’s signature achievement in Knocking on Labor’s Door. By reminding us of the vibrancy of the union movement in the 1970s, by reasserting the connections between the causes of labor and civil rights, and by restoring the contingency in the struggles that led to our current economic divide, Windham has produced a superb book that should shape the next decade of historical scholarship.
“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was originally released on the soundtrack LP Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Columbia Records, 1973); as a single, it peaked at number 10 (Cash Box Top 100, November 10, 1973, tropicalglen.com/Archives/70s_files/19731110.html). The song’s lyrics are available at Bob Dylan’s official website, bobdylan.com/songs/knockin-heavens-door/.
Here Windham references – and rejects — Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.
“The danger of a single story” is the title of a 2009 lecture by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (TED, Ideas Worth Spreading, July 2009).