Knocking on Labor’s Door is an impressive achievement. By combing through National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) records and revisiting some crucial but forgotten labor struggles from the 1970s, Lane Windham seeks to refute pessimists like Jefferson Cowie, who regard that decade as ringing the death knell of an empowered American working class. Specifically, Windham wants to call our attention to the energized struggles of African American, women, and immigrant workers. Newly emboldened by the previous decade’s rights revolutions, these members of the working class sought to join and reinvigorate the flagging American labor movement that had previously done much to exclude them. They indeed were “knocking at labor’s door.”
But did that door open? With all due respect to Windham’s ability to uncover the dynamics of previously ignored or overlooked struggles of this era, I want to provoke discussion by laying out an alternative narrative, based as much as possible on the compelling evidence of labor ferment she herself has unearthed and brought to life in the pages of this book.
Here is my alternative narrative:
Despite the enormous promise and energized constituencies made available by the rights revolutions of the 1960s—among women, African Americans, new immigrants, and youth—the labor movement failed to benefit from the fundamental gains of that golden era of social transformation. Even with a new generation of workers entering America’s factories, mills, and offices, many bringing with them a consciousness forged in rights struggles and a set of new legal tools honed by Great Society liberalism, the number of NLRB voters in private production barely budged between 1964 and the mid-1970s. After that, the number of union elections, let alone actual victories, began a long, slow slide into terminal decline. In 1964 1.28 percent of production workers (it is unclear to me if this figure, in fact, includes retail, service, etc.) voted in NLRB elections—the postwar peak came in 1953, when the figure was 2.04 percent—but that figure only increased to 1.31 by 1967 and dropped off after that, declining to 1 percent by 1975.
A secular graph using the same numbers provided by Windham would show nothing if not a steady decline. In other words, if the number of production workers participating in union elections is the metric by which we measure “knocking on labor’s door,” this was a feeble tap indeed. And that is just the total number of NLRB voters. A closer look at the NLRB annual reports also indicates a secular trend over the course of the decade in which the number of no votes in union representation elections began to outstrip those in favor of unions. Windham relies for her data on table 11 in the NLRB annual reports, which allows her to chart the percentage of workers voting in union elections. Creating a crude data series from table 14, however, shows a trend I believe is more significant: shrinking overall numbers voting in favor of representation, growing numbers voting against (figure 1).
Moreover, stonewalling employers and “union avoidance” professionals did not always have to play directly for no votes; creating enough fear or hostility or just passivity to induce workers to refuse to sign cards or to stay home on election day might prove sufficient—hence, the shrinking assent to unionization. That leaves the historian with the task of figuring out why so many workers actively opposed unions during the 1970s and took the action of casting a no ballot to block unionization efforts in their workplaces.
As Windham herself acknowledges, a majority of the NLRB elections in this era resulted in defeats for organizers and workers. In other words, while 30 percent of workers in a prospective bargaining unit might take the bold step of signing a union card and thus triggering an election, more often than not they proved unable to convince another 20 percent-plus-one of their fellow workers in the shop to join them. Too often this obstacle derived from persistent racial divisions in the American workplace, though union busters certainly did not hesitate to fan the embers of simmering hostility into flames. Even when a clear majority of black workers in a bargaining unit voted in favor of a union, for example, white workers continued to resist unionization—in large part, I would argue, precisely because blacks supported it. Where people of color constituted a majority of workers in a bargaining unit, in fact, unions won two-thirds of the elections; when whites remained the majority, they lost two-thirds. That, to me, is the most telling piece of data in Knocking on Labor’s Door. The promising drive in the textile industry at Cannon Mills is an excellent example of this barrier to union success; between a card check of sixty-five hundred workers and the union election itself, organizers proved able to win over another three hundred workers in a workforce of more than fifteen thousand. This cannot all be attributed to Cannon’s bruising antiunion tactics and campaign, so effectively sketched out by Windham. This fundamental failure to break through to white workers during the 1970s, to capitalize on the social energy unleashed by the movements of the previous decade, made labor’s precipitous demise in the Reagan years all but inevitable, I would argue.
That still leaves us with a set of important unanswered questions—what were the sources of the increasing resistance to the energy of renewal smuggled into the house of labor by the new enthusiasts? Perhaps Windham overstates the degree to which a reconfigured working class sought to break through into the unionized sector. Nevertheless, she certainly offers one of the most comprehensive historical accounts of the growth of the union-busting sector in this era, employers’ enhanced ability to block the door, and the growing enfeeblement of labor law as a tool with which it could be opened. Although I would contend that American employers had long been antiunion and had shown hostility to the Wagner Act from the moment it became law—Windham shows as much—there is no question that the “union avoidance” industry developed a powerful battery of new tactics during the 1970s and that this did much to quell whatever labor insurgency might have grown among a new generation of workers.
That said, regrettably, I would look elsewhere for the barriers that the new recruits to the ranks of labor came up against between 1968 and 1980. I might not have said this a year ago, but the current political climate in the age of Trump has convinced me that many white people, and white men in particular, simply and without the slightest hesitation will cut their own throats if that is what is required to keep black and brown people down and women out of their workplaces as equal partners. In the 1970s, if voting a union into a workplace meant empowering black coworkers, then whites resisted it. If it meant creating an organization in which women might wield power over men, then men resisted it (I recommend the film North Country to anyone who doubts this [dir. Niki Caro, 2005]). If it meant making room for the growing numbers of new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa . . . well, then, far better to suffer the indignities, low wages, and job insecurity of a union-free workplace than to make these folks equal partners in struggle. To be sure, employers seeking to reduce labor costs, shed benefits, and renege on the mounting legacy costs of a privatized welfare state in the face of stiff global competition did their level best to block unionization; but they had an awful lot of help from the majority of workers who voted against unions in all those NLRB elections. Employers may have bolted the door against a labor renewal, but the doorway itself was too often blocked by white workers—men and even an older generation of women workers. I share Windham’s conviction that historians should look much more closely at neglected NLRB elections during the 1970s; but when they do, I hope they will consider why so many workers—white, male, native-born workers especially—voted no. This may require looking behind the absolute numbers and reading through thousands of pages of NLRB hearings and testimony, especially in hotly contested elections. Employer intransigence and ineffective labor law, major factors in all representation cases in this era, were the independent variables in these elections. But we need to investigate the consciousness, motives, views, and intransigence of the growing numbers of no voters.
No doubt, I could be accused of blaming the victim here. Alas, I think Wind-ham herself inadvertently offers a good deal of evidence pointing to this conclusion. Certainly, Knocking on Labor’s Door identifies a very important aspect of labor’s potential for renewal during the 1970s. As Windham notes, African Americans, especially once they were emboldened by concrete civil rights gains and empowered by new tools provided by civil rights law, became some of the nation’s most ardent unionists; younger women, with a new consciousness sparked by the feminist movement, began to demand dignity in the workplace as well; and post-1965 immigrants often saw unions as a potential benefit of American citizenship. Her most compelling examples of bold efforts to expand unionism in an era generally hostile to organized labor illustrate the important role these groups played in defending and even extending the workplace gains won by the New Deal generation.
As Windham points out, many members of the new generation of post–Great Society workers rightly saw unions as an excellent and necessary means of shoring up the paltry social wage provided by the American state (a stinginess closely associated with the history of racial and gender politics). I appreciate and applaud the evidence of the unrecognized dynamism in this period of labor history, and I hunger to know more about it. (Given my own interests, the shipyard drive in Newport News is the most intriguing; how, I wonder, did IUMSWA succeed in building a biracial organizing drive in the South?) But for the most part, I suspect the exceptions prove the rule. Unfortunately, time after time, when these newly empowered workers sought to unionize they faced not only stiff employer resistance but also hostile coworkers and, at times, an indifferent union movement. When the latter did finally come around to tapping the energies of blacks, women, new immigrants, and veterans of the New Left, it proved to be too little, too late; the membership lagged even further behind when it came to recognizing that these new recruits represented labor’s only hope for renewal.
One closing remark. As Windham suggests in the final pages of Knocking on Labor’s Door, the new organizing tools demanded by the twenty-first century’s “fissured” workplace have created a different political imaginary among working people and their advocates (190). But I also wonder if a much older model might be tapped: the building trades, ironically one of the most hidebound sectors of the union movement. Even a century ago, these workers—predominantly white, male, and native born—operated in a fissured workplace, and their union card offered a passport to rights and protections on multiple jobs and worksites and in employer-employee relations. A competing model, of course, was the craft unions’ main rival at the start of the previous century: the One Big Union advocated by the Industrial Workers of the World. Somewhere between these two models of craft and industrial unionism, both cut loose from the particularities of the plant or firm, may lie a recipe for labor’s future. But we should not forget the central aspect of labor’s struggle that these models have always shared: they both recognize that the only power working people have ever had in the contest with capital is the ability to withhold their labor and disrupt production.