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Labor’s Forgotten History

Steve Sherman Mar 8

Issue 233

A standard version of the history of the Sixties and Seventies emphasizes the eclipse of class struggle by “new social movements” based on racial, gender, or sexual identity, or new demands such as environmentalism or anti-war. In the standard account, the unions were too white, male, bureaucratic and sclerotic to orient themselves to the new movements, and declined under the out-of-touch leadership of AFL-CIO head George Meany before being pushed off the cliff by Reagan when he fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and broke their union.

Recently, that narrative has been subject to growing revision. Some writers have emphasized the rank-and-file revolt of the Seventies, which fed off of Sixties anti-authoritarianism. Others have highlighted the surge in public sector union organizing, which moved in tandem with struggles for racial and gender justice. And now Lane Windham’s book, Knocking on Labor’s Door arrives, truly upending the old narrative. Far from being irrelevant to the “new” actors in the Seventies, African Americans, women and young people made numerous efforts to organize into unions. Their efforts were often supported by union leaders. They were largely unsuccessful, not because of any fundamental incompatibility between them and the unions, but because they were blindsided by a well organized anti-union offensive whose impact resonates to this day.

U.S. corporations had reasons to be exceptionally anti-union. The United States never passed large-scale social democratic legislation, such as a national healthcare plan. However, many workers enjoyed pay and benefits that amounted to a social democratic deal as a result of union contracts. Thus benefits were paid directly by corporations. When profits dropped in the Seventies due to increased international competition, the unions, as the crucial barrier to reducing costs, entered business’ crosshairs.

African Americans, women and young people made numerous efforts to organize into unions throughout the 70s.

Business rapidly developed the social and political clout to stop unions in their tracks. In workplaces, they deployed many of the anti-union tactics familiar today — using anti-union consultants and law firms, forcing meetings to intimidate workers during unionization drives, firing and other forms of harassment aimed at active members of the workforce and stonewalling on contract talks if the union won recognition. Skirting the bounds of legality was encouraged. Windham highlights the role of business schools in developing and propounding this new strategy. When unions looked to the Democratic-controlled federal government to reform labor laws and strengthen unions’ hands against the offensive, business was able to block this as well.

Tragic Timing

The employers’ offensive was all the more tragic because the working class had been transformed by the struggles of the Sixties. African Americans and Latinos were moving from the most marginal jobs to the mainstream as civil rights laws were enforced. The number of women in the workforce was increasing. The anti-authoritarian spirit of the Sixties was carried into the workplace by young workers. African Americans, Latinos, women and young people were all more open to unions than the white men who had long dominated the paid workforce. But an upsurge in union membership, which would have facilitated the entrance of this multiracial working class into the middle class and might have also revitalized the culture of unions, was blocked by the employer offensive.

Windham details four case of the upsurge — three union organizing drives and one new hybrid form of organization. In all the cases, young, often non-white workers struggled with elan and enthusiasm. However, the outcomes varied.

In a shipyard in Newport News, the ongoing governmental relationship with the shipyard and laws protecting American shipbuilders helped the union. Even so, they had to fight with an unsuccessful strike and an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board (still sympathetic to workers under Carter) before they were able to win a contract.

At Cannon Mills in North Carolina, hopes that a narrow loss in 1974 could be reversed in 1985 were frustrated by the darkening political economic climate. The company effectively stoked fears of international competition and claimed it could work with the Reagan administration to protect American textiles, although this proved untrue. Ultimately the union would win in 1999, only to see the plant close for good three years later.

A union drive in 1979 at Woodies department stores in D.C. was successful, apparently because the company was not yet fully onboard with the anti-union offensive. Right to work laws in Virginia — where some of its stores were located — were used to weaken the union, however. The union helped the workers weather the consolidation storms triggered by competition from discount stores better than workers in non-unionized stores.

The 9to5 organization in Boston, which grew out of the ferment of the women’s movement, took a dual approach. It protested governmental and corporate institutions to pressure for better working conditions, higher wages and improved opportunities, while also trying to unionize predominantly female workplaces. The former strategy proved more effective than the latter and paved the way for numerous “alt-labor” campaigns today.

Solidarity Day

In the conclusion to the book, Windham draws attention to Solidarity Day, a march on Washington to protest Reagan’s policies in 1981 called by the AFL-CIO, the largest labor rally in U.S. history. Notably diverse themes — including environmentalism, healthcare, the Equal Rights Amendment and defense of social security — characterized the signs. But unions were unable to stanch the decline in their power, as both strikes and organizing drives receded in number and effectiveness.

The events recounted in Knocking on Labor’s Door are crucial to understanding the present, but are little known. For nearly four decades, workers have been unable to mount an offensive. There were plenty of noble exceptions — the 1997 UPS strike, Justice for Janitors, Smithfield, the Chicago Teachers — but none were able to break out of their locale or sector and trigger a more widespread movement or a broad public debate about the status of the working class.

Fight for $15, using more of the tactics pioneered by 9to5 than conventional strikes or organizing drives, has gone some ways to trigger such a debate. Yet it is hard to see how a Sanders-style New Deal will be turned into law without an upsurge of workers’ struggles. The water has been muddied recently by efforts to pit “identity politics” against “class politics” as if one either supports the struggles of African Americans, women, LGBTQ people, etc or one supports fights for a higher minimum wage and single-payer healthcare. The history recounted here demonstrates that far from being one or the other, “identity politics” struggles energized the working class struggles of the Seventies. If, after the long drought, the working class once again seizes the stage, it is likely to be with a similar dynamic.

Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide
By Lane Windham
University of North Carolina Press, 2017

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Photo: Striking Prince George’s County workers rally at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, Maryland Aug. 13, 1980. Credit: D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection.