Knocking On Labor’s Door

Knocking On Labor’s Door, by Lane Windham (University of North Carolina Press, August 2019) Paperback ed. 312 pp., $27.95, ebook $19.95

The 1970s saw both a remarkable uptick in labor democracy advocacy (as well as general militancy) and an eventual decline in fortunes for American unions writ large. In a decade that was marked by the smashing of old norms and even institutions of American life and a general acceptance that the country had to change (in what direction was anyone’s guess), organized labor proved no exception. The same ten years saw the rise of Miners for Democracy (MFD) and Steelworkers Fight Back, the fall and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, Sr. and the continued saliency of public sector unionism contra the already declining manufacturing based unions.

All this tumult and more is covered by Lane Windham in a new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. Windham, though too young to have participated in the internescine labor struggles, is well versed in the trials and tribulations of internal union politics, having focused on promoting rank-and-file participation in policy and decision making in organized labor, particularly among all-too-often excluded female workers. She is currently the Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and co-director of WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership) and has long taken in interest in labor history.

Windham paints a picture of a labor movement besotted with both chaos and great hope. While the number of American workers actually involved with organized labor was in decline (and had been since the early 1960s), groups that had often been left voiceless for the first time had a chance to participate in the actual democratic functions nascent in their locals and even internationals. Prior to the late sixties, the great labor unions of this country often struggled in good faith and bad with the “problem” of enfranchising members en mass.

Membership dissatisfaction with the status quo manifested itself in many ways during the seventies, as examined by Windham. Black workers, whose specific protests were often tabled by management and union alike, had already begun to form dissident caucuses in their respective locals, publishing newsletters and even newspapers shining a light on the black unionist concerns, and running candidates against entrenched incumbents. Women began to enter union politics as well, having come to the labor movement through the enormous (and ongoing) organizing drives among public sector professions such as teachers, nurses, government office workers, etc.

Also ubiquitous and covered by such publications as yours truly were the simple struggles of rank-and-file members of all races and genders to make the democratic mechanisms of labor more accessible to themselves. Hence the upset campaigns of MFD and Steelworkers Fight Back. In spite of physical intimidation and even heinous violence, members across the country pushed stultified leadership to answer for their ignorance of membership concerns

Windham’s unique insight into the labor struggles of the 1970s fuels her contention that labor’s decline was not inevitable nor was due to the inability of the trade union to stay fresh and relevant to then-contemporary workers’ struggles. Rather, unionists should look upon the ethos of rank and file agitation and robust (if imperfect) enfranchisement that existed in that decade as a possible model for the future.

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