The New Workers, and New Militancy, of the Seventies

(The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives)

Striking dressmakers take a break in a diner around 1955. 

The 1970s is often pointed to as the decade in which the power of labor unions first began its precipitous decline. And it’s true. On the face of it, labor union density took a hit in certain sectors during this economically tumultuous decade. 

Many labor historians have argued that this decline was brought about not only by economic shifts, but also by the complacency of union leadership and the stereotypical union member—the white blue-collar man—losing interest in collective institutions. However, in her new book Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide, Lane Windham argues that this is a myopic view of labor history—one that papers over important worker-led organizing during that decade.

Windham tells the stories behind a surge of organizing drives in sectors like retail, services, shipbuilding, and textiles, led by women, people of color, and young workers. She paints a picture of a newly diversified working class that was, in fact, embracing unions, not walking away. The only problem? They weren’t winning union elections. Thanks to, Windham contends, a ramped-up hostility toward unions and more aggressive union-busting tactics, American companies in the 1970s successfully beat back this organizing wave.

The American Prospect talked with Windham, who is 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), about her book.

The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Justin Miller: So let’s start out with the basic question of what the book is about, and what the impetus for writing it was?

Lane Windham: The book is about union organizing in the 1970s and it’s focused on the private sector. The big idea behind the book is that most historians, when they talk about the 1970s, talk about it as a decade of declension. They say that workers turned away from unions; that unions did very little to reach out to workers. Jefferson Cowie even talks about the 1970s [in his book Stayin’ Alive] as “the last days of the working class.”

So I tell a very different story. In Knocking on Labor’s Door, I say that the 1970s are really the first days of a newly diversified, reshaped, reenergized working class. Basically, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women and people of color had far more access to all kinds of jobs they hadn’t done before. And as they poured into these jobs, they didn’t just want a job. They wanted a really good job. So they started to organize them through labor board elections. There’s this whole new wave of union organizing of workers of all stripes, but led in large part by women and people of color.

Instead of looking at the number of workers who won unions or the union density, I looked at the number of workers who were trying to form unions—what the NLRB calls “eligible voters”—and it turns out that the number of workers trying to form unions through the labor board was steady through the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, despite the fact that you had a huge increase in employer resistance in the 1970s.

About five million workers tried to form unions throughout the 1970s. Of course, also through the 1970s, you have about three million public-sector workers who successfully joined up with unions. And that’s something that historians knew about and talked about, but this private-sector wave has been pretty invisible.

Now what happens is that even though these workers are trying to form unions, they aren’t always successful. Employers really ramp up their resistance: Incidences of law-breaking double in the 1970s. 

Why do you think it’s useful and important to make that distinction that there was still an equal rate of organizing and union elections in the 1970s, even though the rate at which they were won decreased?

I think that it’s important to not only talk about winners. History is made up of losers, too. When we study the struggle and we understand the people who struggle and why they struggled, then we also have to ask, “If they lost, why?” And if you only look at the wins, then you miss this huge effort among women and people of color who were trying to enter into the labor movement, who were trying to enter into really what was our nation’s most secure social compact—which is a union contract. And they were unsuccessful in doing that. Then you’re having a discussion about structure, about laws, and about what they came up against. And I think that’s the discussion that we haven’t been having enough.

You talk about how a lot of these workers are African Americans entering into new types of jobs in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and women were also surging into the workforce at unprecedented rates. Can you tell me a bit about who these workers were?

Women were very key to this new wave of labor organizing. Of course, women had long worked—especially women of color. But in the 1970s, women poured into the nation’s workforce. Twelve million more women were working by the end of the decade than at the beginning. And many joined unions. In 1960, only 18 percent of union members were women. But by 1984, that figure was 34 percent. Today, it’s 48 percent, but the CEPR estimates that by 2025 a majority of union members in the country will be women.

So who are these women? Well, I actually break that out in the book and I look at the number of eligible board voters by sector. What you see is a huge increase in the 1970s in service, retail, and FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate). Over half of finance was women, because it was all the women working as the administrative assistants, the bank tellers, and all that stuff. Historians have long talked about how unions weren’t organizing and didn’t try to reach out to the service and retail sectors, but in fact, there’s a huge uptick in terms of the organizing in these sectors.

Black workers were by far the most likely to say they wanted to join a union. Seventy percent of African American blue-collar workers said they would join a union if given the chance. The AFL-CIO estimated during this period that one out of three new union members was African American. So these workers were, for instance, in textiles. For years, black workers had been excluded by Southern textile mills. Black men could get sort of the dirty, dusty jobs; black women were excluded altogether. After the Civil Rights Act, you have far more black workers in the textile mills, and they push to organize.

This was at a point when globalization was starting to become a factor in the American economy and companies are competing more and more with companies abroad. Can you paint a picture of what the economic landscape was during the 1970s and how American industry was changing?

Sure. After World War II, Germany and Japan, all of the United States’ economic competitors, had basically been flattened by the war. So the U.S. corporations were able to build this really hegemonic system in many ways. American business had a whole lot of power. But it starts to change by the late 1960s. That’s when the rate of profit for private businesses in the U.S. starts to fall. And in fact, the nation starts importing more merchandise than it exports, starting in 1971, for the first time since 1893. So there’s this big change.

You also begin to see a shift where the locus of power is away from manufacturing and toward finance, or even retail.

For a long time, American manufacturers had been key. But they are now facing this crisis of profit and massive global competition. And so they react in a number of ways at this point. They begin to hire more temporary workers, try to contract out work more. They begin to push down labor standards and wages. They try to roll back union contracts. But one of the main things that they try to do is attack union organizing. They try to make sure that no more workers have the ability to enter into a union contract.

You talk in your book about the union drive at the Woodward & Lothrop department stores in Washington, D.C., which included 5,000 workers. I was struck by that because you just don’t hear about many drives that large anymore, especially not in retail. In what ways is that drive a good case study for your larger point about this continued surge of organizing led by women and African Americans?

It was the largest union election ever in Washington, D.C. And it was at their department stores and two distribution centers. This was a situation where most of the people who formed the union were the front-line workers working retail.

Now, historians have been clear about how this was a time in which retail was gaining in power. This is the time you start to see, especially into the 1980s with Walmart, retail is starting to gain power over manufacturing. They basically talked about how labor was never able to get any foothold in terms of the retail industry. What we didn’t know was that these retail workers were trying to form unions.

Basically, I had a list of the largest National Labor Relations Board elections. I saw that Woodward & Lothrop was on there and thought, "That’s a great story." But I started to wonder if it could have just been this one-off thing. Could it have just been this one department store? Because it seemed really different from what historians were saying. So I went in and actually looked at the monthly NLRB reports through the 1970s and there was lots of organizing in retail and in lots of department stores. They weren’t necessarily winning, but they were definitely trying.

At Woodward & Lothrop, there was this group that was majority female and a good proportion who were people of color. And a lot of young workers.

Even though they worked at this prestigious department store, they didn’t have affordable health care. They didn’t have a pension. Their wages were very poor. For years, department stores had not hired black women and men in anything except for what you might call the uniforms—the bellhop opening the door or the lady serving in the tearoom. You did not have black employees who rang people up on the floor. That started to change in the 1960s after a series of protests across the country led by the NAACP. Through the movement, these department stores were pressured to open up sales positions. At Woody’s, they started by having black women wrap presents for the holiday season and eventually hired women to work on the shop floor. By the time you get to 1979, which is the time of this election, you have a good number of women and men of color in there who are very union-minded, and they push through a union.

This is UFCW Local 400. In this case, they brought in lots of staff and it was the first big campaign of the UCFW [after its merger]. They ran a campaign where at a certain time of day, all their organizers would start at the top of 14 department stores all over the D.C. area and pass out leaflets as they worked their way from the top to the bottom. And very quickly people sign up and send in cards. They are able to run a pretty successful campaign.

I want to talk more about how the 1970s became this turning point in regard to companies adopting more aggressive union-busting strategies and really pushing back against the creation of new unions in various sectors. Can you explain when and where you first start seeing these more aggressive tactics?

There were sort of two stages of the employer resistance. The first stage was in the late '60s, and there was a group of top-level executives from top Fortune 500 companies like General Electric, U.S. Steel, and so on. They form a group of executives called the Labor Law Reform Group and they actually try to change labor law to bend it in their favor. They’re basically unsuccessful in doing that because even under Nixon, labor still has a lot of sway. They’re not able to change things through Congress. However, they do start to bend and break the laws at a whole new level in the 1970s. Three things happen on that front. One is that they break the law a lot more. There are far more incidents of unfair labor practices in the 1970s.

I have a chart in the book which shows the Unfair Labor Practices from 1950 to 1990, and you can see there’s basically a seven-fold increase and a lot of the rise is right there in the 1970s.

The second is that the manufacturing companies are actually more likely than service or retail to break the law. I break out ULPs by sector and show that by the 1970s, there’s actually a higher rate of incidents of lawbreaking per worker in that sector—[when workers are trying] to form a union in manufacturing—than in service and retail. What’s so interesting about that is that manufacturing was the most unionized sector. So what that tells us is that companies that were unionized in other areas—perhaps up North—viciously fought when other workers tried to unionize.

The third thing is that they were far more likely to use union busters. Many of these were actually “trained” in the nation’s universities and began to learn there that good business practices in the United States meant resisting unionization. Not only that, but those consultants bred fear about all these women and people of color coming into the workforce. They used the diversification of the workforce to gin up business.

I’ve got a number of examples of that in the book. One anti-union consultant offered what he called a union vulnerability audit. To figure out if you were vulnerable to a union you basically count the number of women, Hispanics, and blacks. One guy basically says, “You only have to hire as many black or Hispanic workers as necessary. Cubans—they’re okay to hire, but don’t hire the Puerto Ricans.” They basically would take advantage of employers’ and supervisors’ fears around diversification.

As you say, the common narrative among labor historians is that workers were turning away from unions during the 1970s and leadership at the unions became more complacent. Can you talk about how union leadership was reacting to this groundswell of change within the workforce?

In general, the unions were very reluctant to hire women and people of color as organizers. The change at the leadership level was glacial. But unions were also going along with the workers who were organizing. They were filing the petitions and running the campaigns. The evidence is that they absolutely were organizing.

I think that the narrative that we have, that unions had become bureaucratic and complacent and so on—well, yes and no. I think we need more study to understand that better.

So it was not monolithic.

Absolutely. And they essentially got pulled along by a social movement.

What was the biggest unexpected thing you learned from researching the book?

It was Southern. These workers built from the civil rights movement in the South. You had black workers who had moved up North because they couldn’t get a decent job in the South and they brought back with them ideas of unionization. The locus of activity in many ways was Southern. So how does that change our narrative when we understand that the largest wave of union organizing in the second-half of the 20th Century was in the South? 

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