When We Failed

Book Review:

Windham, Lane, “Knocking on Labor’s Door. Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide.” University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2017

Capitalism is said to have begun in the middle of the 17th century in England. Workers and bosses have been fighting since then. Any period in that great long battle for democracy, dignity and a living wage would be an interesting period.

picketing

This author chose the 1970s in the United States. Certain underlying economic and social developments made it a period of interesting class warfare.

  • The civil rights movement and the women’s movement had created a more diversified, and more militant bunch of activists into organizable workplaces
  • The “American Century” of economic domination over the war-weary victims of World War II was noticeably beginning to end
  • America’s most devoted and seasoned labor activists had been driven away by the great witch hunt that began in 1946. Union militancy had turned into “business unionism.”

Union density peaked at about 35% of the workforce earlier, but unions still had about 20% of the workforce in the early 1970s. Union members had far better wages, better benefits, better pensions, and better jobs than the workforce at large. Part of the consequence of getting more for union members while ignoring other workers was increasing isolation for the unions.

Nevertheless, young people wanted to unionize. They fought hard. For the most part in the 1970s, they lost. One could argue that the events from 1947’s Taft Hartley law to 1970 had foreordained that labor would lose, but that isn’t Mr. Lane’s argument. It’s mine.

Lane argues that companies simply worked harder at union busting. They increasingly won government over to their side. By the end of the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan was elected, the downhill slide was evident to everyone. In 1995, maybe a little late, the AFL-CIO started trying to adjust to the new situation.

One shining light in Lane’s book is the early success of an organization called “9 to 5.” They organized women to fight for the workplace rights that the larger women’s movement had won through federal legislation. The idea of organizing outside the control of government authorities like the National Labor Relations Board was a good one, and they had some early successes. However, it didn’t last.

In fact, most of the hopes that young activists may have had for union organizing in the 1970s were crushed. This is not a happy book to read. I wish he had chosen the 1990s, when American labor began to show some real promise.

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” talk show every Saturday at 9AM Central Time. We podcast it and “Workers Beat Extra” dialogue on Wednesdays on Soundcloud.com. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my old personal site.

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