Lane Windham’s Knocking on Labor’s Door offers important contributions to labor and working-class history and to the emerging literature on American capitalism. Most important, the book reminds us that the 1970s did not mark a gloomy descent into neoliberalism; rather, those years were shot through with electrifying possibilities.
My comments will reflect on how Knocking on Labor’s Door handles the identity politics of sex and class. The book offers striking insights into the political economy of the 1970s; in particular, it sheds new light on employers’ efforts to protect their profits as they navigated a globalizing landscape. But in blaming those employers when union campaigns led by women and men of color fell short, Windham downplays other factors — especially the roadblocks thrown up by wage-earning white men. Laboring women had to aim their campaigns for equity at their employers as well as at their union “brothers.” Aware of the distinct yet related challenges they faced everywhere they worked, many women experimented with and blended new and well-established forms of activism. The formal labor movement thus offers too narrow a lens to capture the range of outcomes that working people — women in particular — imagined and pursued as they fought the baked-in inequities that shaped workplaces and unions alike.
An especially admirable piece of Knocking on Labor’s Door is its clear explanation of the problems facing employers in the 1970s. They were newly in a vise, squeezed at once from above and below. As globalization transformed the American economy and threatened corporations’ formerly predictable margins, employers saw attacking their newly emboldened labor force as a less imposing challenge than harnessing the abstract whims of international capital. Employers thus fought their workers’ organizing campaigns with every tool in their box, and they also built some new ones. These efforts largely succeeded; employers emerged from the decade more firmly in command of the workforce than they had been in decades.
Considering the sheer height of the deck that was stacked against workers in the 1970s, their militancy is all the more remarkable. But how might these show-downs have turned out better for workers? One group whose support could have made a difference was working-class white men. In Windham’s case studies, the women and men of color who sought to organize tended to find themselves a step or two behind their employers. This was often because they had to build unity within their ranks by persuading white men to get on board before they could direct united energies outward to counter their employers’ schemes. When, in the early 1980s, more of these men opened up to broader notions of class power, the conservative legal climate and permissive business culture had reworked the playing field into more difficult terrain for all laboring people.
By now it is a truism that white men find psychological and practical advantage in their separation from and superiority over women and men of color — even when that elevated status is more symbolic than material. As women and men of color have taken advantage of new workplace equality laws, white men have adapted to shore up their long-standing privilege. Many of the women who rode new nondiscrimination and affirmative action provisions into blue-collar jobs in the late 1960s and 1970s endured humiliating harassment and terrifying hazing on their jobs and found their unions reluctant to respond. Windham does acknowledge the problem of working-class fragmentation, noting, for example, that the white men at the Kannapolis, North Carolina, textile factory profiled in chapter 5 “viewed the union as an organization for black workers, not for them” (113).
But throughout the book, wage-earning white men appear more as a stumbling block than a solid barrier. This may be because Windham intends Knocking on Labor’s Door to squarely challenge histories of work and class that have decentered women, such as Jefferson R. Cowie’s 2010 book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.1 By highlighting white men’s declining fortunes and conservative turn as the decade’s most significant class dynamics, Stayin’ Alive has become a useful foil for scholars of sex, race, and class in recent American history.2 But white male workers do seem essential to the major turning points in Windham’s account — whether in their presence or in their conspicuous absence. Of course, these guys should not occupy the spotlight on their own. But considering Windham’s and Cowie’s books together raises a question of enduring significance: what does it mean to be part of a class with someone who defines himself against you?
Because Windham limits her search for class-based activism to union-based labor organizing (or, in the case of the clericals’ association 9to5, workers whose organization comes to affiliate with a union), she overlooks other, arguably more vital fonts of gendered class formation that sprang up in the 1970s. Knocking on Labor’s Door intends to fuse old and new labor history approaches, with old labor history looking to the formal politics of collective bargaining and its younger sibling looking within and beyond them. Indeed, Windham does reveal how workers drew energy and ideas from the civil rights and feminist movements for their campaigns. But the book ultimately locates organized labor as the terrain that hosted the most important workplace rights battles in those years. As a result, the book imposes an order and a discipline onto workplace-based efforts that many at that time — especially women — did not perceive.
In a decade that bore extraordinary liberatory potential, women pushed the idea of workplace equality — a concept that quickly gained cultural, political, and legal currency — in many directions at once. Certainly, some directed their energies into organized labor and affiliated associations like 9to5. But many others took advantage of new legal protections such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, built feminist groups, policed state enforcement agencies, protested in the streets, carved out new autonomy by aligning with their bosses on new terms, and challenged the boundaries between paid and unpaid feminized labor as rooted in the traditional hetero-nuclear family. They attacked institutional sexism everywhere they found it — which was pretty much everywhere.
Laboring women were uniquely positioned to perceive unions’ limits as well as their potential. Most were locked out of or subordinated within hierarchical unions or relegated to utterly exploitive forms of work that were difficult or nearly impossible to organize. Mindful of this history, laboring women have had to be imaginative, flexible, and above all, practical. They have worked through long-standing institutions, extracting their benefits while holding them accountable. But they have also built their own organizations, revealing how existing structures fall short and pushing for reform from new pressure points. The book’s chapter on 9to5 reveals one such novel approach, but 9to5 was anomalous among such working women’s associations in its formal partnership with a union, SEIU District 925.
Examining a fuller spectrum of women’s workplace activism in the 1970s reveals that many were aware that class could be a weak social binding agent. They sought to build alternative sex-based solidarities by exposing how gendered economic exploitation fed broader systems of male-driven power. Chicago’s Women Employed is perhaps the best example of an organization that pioneered strategies to unite working-class and professional women in common cause. Certainly, efforts to generate sex-based solidarity bore their own problems, as any historian of feminism — or feminist who was active in the 1970s — will tell you. We can draw powerful lessons from their efforts to build enduring alliances that refused to paper over meaningful differences.
Knocking on Labor’s Door goes a long way in exposing the 1970s as years of real promise and contingency. It was also a decade of feminist struggle to reshape the consciousness of working-class men — an effort whose urgency remains. We should place Windham’s volume in conversation with other histories of sex, race, and class that look beyond labor unions, as did many of the workers who made this history. Just as sex equality laws offered new leverage and inspired fresh strategies in the 1970s, today, some women are looking beyond the law to social media – driven strategies that have exposed, shamed, and even toppled powerful sexual abusers. Of course, there is still much to do to protect all laboring women from mistreatment on the job. As recent history reveals, combatting the deep roots and expansive reach of workplace sexism demands every available instrument, and more.
See, for example, Klein, “Apocalypse Then, and Now.”