Organized Labor’s Lost Generations

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

American labor has struggled to make substantial gains since the ’70s, but not for the reasons historians think.


Who can remember a time when labor wasn’t losing? Every seeming strategic opportunity turns out to be largely a mirage; the legal and economic environment only gets ever worse. In each of the past four decades, observers and organizers have heralded some new turning point—only for membership to keep falling and campaigns to keep failing. Take, for example, the past few years: Organized labor has made a run at a series of high-profile workplaces, the kinds it hasn’t been able to break into before. The United Automobile Workers set out to organize foreign-owned assembly plants in the right-to-work South—Volkswagen in Tennessee, Nissan in Mississippi. The International Association of Machinists did much the same, pursuing Boeing from Washington to South Carolina. And in the Northeast, unions have sought to expand their foothold in higher education by organizing thousands of graduate employees across a couple dozen private universities. But all of these efforts, and many others beyond them, have come—or appear to be in the process of coming—to grief. The autoworkers lost at the plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, the machinists in South Carolina. Graduate employees lost elections at Harvard, Cornell, and Duke universities—and while they won at Columbia, Yale, and the University of Chicago, the administrations have made it clear that they intend not to negotiate contracts, because under the Trump administration the National Labor Relations Board will likely overturn its earlier rulings. So even when workers win, they don’t win. As a result, a consensus has emerged among many activists and scholars of organized labor: No matter what American workers do, no matter the scope or ingenuity of their union campaigns, they are trapped in the rusty legal armor of the NLRB. The National Labor Relations Board is suffocating us, but we’d be naked and exposed without it. When did it all go wrong?

Increasingly, many have looked to the 1970s as the period when labor’s slide started. The idea of the ’70s as labor’s lost decade is old, emerging out of the fissures—real and imagined—between the New Left and the working class. The scenes are familiar, even to the point of cliché: the 1970 hard-hat riot, when construction workers beat up antiwar protesters in Lower Manhattan; the enthusiasm of the AFL-CIO for the Cold War in general and the Vietnam War in particular; the violent resistance to racial integration among blue-collar white ethnics; and the union bosses like George Meany, who could be found backslapping Richard Nixon on the golf course. But conspicuously absent from such accounts is a later generation of labor activists who fell outside the Meany mold: young, black, and women workers, whose activism was informed by their participation in the protest movements of the 1960s. They were labor’s last hope—a militant new generation of activists, drawn from the professional and working classes, who might have saved organized labor from itself—and by recalling their history, we can get a much better sense of the suppressed alternatives to our current situation.

This task is central to Lane Windham’s new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door, which attempts to show how the 1970s working class engaged in behavior very different from the quiescence and conservatism for which it is generally impugned. While some have argued that the working class lost its will to fight, even its will to live, in these years—a decade-long diminuendo as performed by Bruce Springsteen—Windham sharply points the other way. Even as worker actions convulsed Chile and Brazil, even as South Africa saw massive industrial upheaval, Italy had its autunno caldo, and Britain shivered through its “winter of discontent,” American workers were waging their own fierce workplace battles. Far from being bypassed by a global wave of resistance, they joined “this worldwide uprising in the 1970s,” Windham writes, “and NLRB elections were one of their chosen platforms.”

Active but constricted within this regulatory regime, American workers did not leave an altered political scene, as the Brazilian labor movement did with the new Partido dos Trabalhadores. Neither did they leave a transformed intellectual scene, as did the Italian workers, from whose action emerged the now-widespread current on the global left called “autonomism.” But American labor was transformed nonetheless—not only by the willingness of workers to stand up for themselves, but by the demographics of the workers willing to do so. “Who were these workers who tried so hard to organize unions in the 1970s, and what did they want?” Windham asks. “Many were part of a transformed and newly diversified working class. Men of color and women of all backgrounds gained new access to positions in the U.S. workforce by the 1970s, benefiting from the new laws and workplace expectations won by the civil and women’s rights movements.”

By recovering the forgotten militancy of the 1970s, Windham’s work helps to revive an old discussion on the left. Beginning in the late 1960s, as radicals lamented the exhaustion of the old proletariat’s transformative political capacities, a number of them began to invest hope in the promise of an emergent “new working class” drawn from the ranks of alienated white-collar workers. This discussion was most explicit among French intellectuals like Serge Mallet and André Gorz, but it had a marked presence in the United States as well, and indeed captivated some of the leading socialist thinkers of the time. Harry Braverman, Barbara and John Ehrenreich, and Michael Harrington all tried their hand at some formulation of the idea, arguing that as America became a postindustrial society, a new stratum of professional and service workers, moved by the politics of the 1960s, would help revive labor and left-wing activism.

Much of this was remarkably prescient, but the timing was wrong. Several decades later, the energy of Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign—as well as other mobilizations of frustrated professionals, such as adjunct- and graduate-employee unionism—has flowed from these sources. But in the 1970s, there was a missed connection: As the old part of the working class disintegrated and another was newly formed, they passed each other like ships in the night, without recognizing their common plight. How and why this happened is central to Knocking on Labor’s Door, and one of Windham’s great strengths lies in how she gives us answers, providing concrete examples through chapter-length case studies of the organizing campaigns that developed in this historical context. By doing so, she maps the connections that were made—some along lines anticipated by radical intellectuals, others in unexpected formations—and tracks how employers, jolted awake by labor militancy, got much more sophisticated at snuffing out these sparks of working-class resistance before they could catch and spread.

Windham is one of those rare academics who has worked professionally as an organizer, and the intellectual advantage that this experience has provided is hard to overstate. At times, historians who write about social movements but have never been a part of them romanticize agency and resistance, eliding the slow, effortful process by which a movement is built and grown. The insight that the organizer gains, on the other hand, is the ability to grasp the hidden connection between how power is organized and how workers perceive the world. Until you’ve tried to get workers together for a fight, it’s quite hard to understand how much of what they say and do day-to-day is a surface representation of the much deeper strategic calculations that they are compelled to make in relation to those who wield power above them—calculations so constant that they are not so much rational or conscious as phenomenological. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a worker behave erratically, then heard someone explain, “He’s got a terrible boss.”) Windham’s book is an effort to show this relationship between power at the juridical and economic levels and the calculated choices that lead individuals to carry forward struggles on the shop floor.

Windham’s first case study is the strongest and would be excellent required reading for every beginning organizer. She tracks a years-long campaign at the massive Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Virginia, a workplace the size of a small town. Since the 1940s, workers at the shipyard had been represented by an independent union, the Peninsula Shipbuilders Association (PSA), whose origins lay in an illegal company union—the kind of management-controlled representation scheme banned by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. After a 1939 Supreme Court ruling against it on these grounds, the company union was refounded and given the minimum of autonomy needed to pass the legal test.

Yet the inadequacy of this representation scheme became clear in the 1960s, as African Americans and women were gaining entry into such industrial workplaces with the aid of equal-employment law. In the South, a reverse flow of African-American migration, with workers moving back southward after civil-rights legislation passed, brought militancy along with it. At Newport News, black workers began using civil-rights law against the discriminatory job structure, which—as in many manufacturing industries—trapped them in the dirtiest, lowest-paying, and most dangerous jobs. Although the PSA opposed their efforts, black workers succeeded in winning an affirmative-action order from the new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Aggravated by the PSA’s inaction, black workers decided to replace it; four of them reached out to the United Steelworkers of America. But the USWA saw the campaign as impossible and offered only two staff organizers—both white—while refusing to commit anything further until the rank-and-file organizing committee reached 500. The shipbuilders hit the goal less than a year in and launched the campaign. The organizing committee tracked workers down in restrooms, at home, and in church; its members sneaked around behind machinery at work. During shift changes, USWA and PSA supporters would gather outside the yard’s 19 gates to buttonhole the shipbuilders. The card drive took around five months, propelled in large part by the militancy of the women newly present in the workplace, whose needs the PSA had refused to meet. “A lot of [the men] moved because of the women standing up in the union,” recalled one such woman worker.

The conglomerate that owned the shipyard, Tenneco, sought to tilt the scales toward the PSA, giving its representatives free rein to campaign while trying to silence the USWA’s advocates. Management also hired Seyfarth Shaw, the country’s leading anti-union law firm, and conducted an anti-union campaign of closed-door meetings with workers. The supervisors, one worker recalled, “would be letting you know that if you go that way [with the USWA] instead of keeping the PSA, things are going to be different here. Not to your best interest.” Tenneco was also able to count on the leaders of Newport News’s black middle class to support the PSA. The publisher of the local black newspaper, Milton Reid, ran a full-page editorial backing the older, more conservative union, proposing that affirmative action might one day, on its own, obviate the need for a union entirely. Reid even prevailed on the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. to cancel his planned appearance at a USWA rally before the election.

Despite these efforts, the USWA triumphed in a massive 1978 election. Five days later, Tenneco and the PSA filed “nearly identical objections” to how the election had been conducted. After a year of the case languishing in appeals, the USWA’s new members walked out on strike. The conflict quickly escalated: Strikers scattered nails in the parking lot to puncture the tires of strikebreakers and picketed the facility on water as well as on land, forming a “steelworker navy” to interrupt seaborne deliveries, while Tenneco hired a thousand “permanent replacements.” A strike so large proved too financially burdensome for the union to sustain, and after 82 days, the USWA began to wind it down. But despite this defeat on the picket line, the appeals court eventually upheld the NLRB’s ruling, ordering Tenneco to the negotiating table. “It had taken twenty-one months and four legal rulings,” Windham writes, but the workers at Newport News “finally squeezed through labor’s door and won their USWA collective bargaining rights.”

The Newport News story is an uplifting one, but for Windham it offers the exception that proves the rule. Tenneco made ships for the Navy. By law, this production had to happen in the United States, depriving the employer of the leverage used by so many manufacturers beginning around this time—the threat that they would leave. Windham’s second case study, of the North Carolina textile maker Cannon Mills, illustrates the more common pattern. A company deeply steeped in Southern anti-unionism but recently opened to black employment by civil-rights law, Cannon Mills beat back one union drive after another, threatening and firing rank-and-file organizers and violating labor law again and again. Finally, after decades of organizing, a workforce diminished by years of downsizing eventually voted to join the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) in 1999, just in time for the mill to close down entirely.

A case study of a campaign at Woodward & Lothrop, a Washington, DC–based department-store chain, captures a similar pattern, but this time in the new economy emerging in the 1970s. Deregulated and under increasing competitive pressure in the 1970s, retailers like “Woodies” began to assault the working conditions of their employees. The workforce, more than one-quarter African-American and three-quarters women, was feeling the worsening squeeze of part-time work and falling wages—the shape of things to come. As at Newport News, there was an independent union descended from an illegal company union, but the boss only fought the drive halfheartedly, and the workers managed to triumph—only to lose their jobs entirely when Woodward & Lothrop was swept away by corporate consolidation. Today, Windham notes, retail work represents about one-tenth of the labor market. “Yet retail wages are among the nation’s lowest, and employers often refuse to hire workers full time, give them benefits, or even give them a week’s notice on their schedules.”

The question of what might have been echoes throughout Windham’s last chapter, a study of 9to5, the movement for women clerical workers. Started by Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy, middle-class feminists radicalized in the late 1960s who found themselves working degrading office jobs at Harvard, it began as a collective and discussion group for young women “who despised ‘wifely’ duties like getting professors tea.” Powered by the growing stream of women into the white-collar workplace, 9to5 evolved quickly from a group handing out newsletters at Boston subway stations to an independent organization for female office workers.

9to5 wasn’t a union exactly, but something new. The organization engaged in advocacy and lobbying and eventually began to campaign against employers—particularly banks and insurance companies—from outside the workplace. It held demonstrations at shareholder meetings, circulated newsletters, and published reports. As Windham notes, 9to5 was the forerunner of a now-familiar phenomenon: the organizations, often called “alt-labor,” that have sought to advance workers’ causes without pursuing the often-impossible goal of collective bargaining.

While 9to5 did eventually spin off an actual union, Local 925 of the SEIU, the organization enjoyed its greatest success in advocacy and consciousness-raising. The clearest sign of this came after Nussbaum brought Jane Fonda to meet with clerical workers in Cleveland, leading to one of Hollywood’s most class-conscious mass products, the 1980 boss-kidnapping comedy masterpiece 9 to 5. All told, though, Windham views this moment as another lost opportunity—a chance to break out of the tightening fetters of labor law, to treat workers as whole people rather than narrow legal beings. “Their approach,” she writes, “could have been a revolutionary one for all of America’s labor movement.”

What emerged in the 1970s was in this way inchoate—all possibility, far less realization. “The 1970s union organizing push never reached its full promise,” Windham writes. “Organizing efforts collided with panicked employers’ reactions to the new globally and financially centered economy.” While some workers, like those at Newport News, managed to win their unions and negotiate contracts, the overall pattern, particularly in growing sectors of the labor market like clerical and retail work, was defeat.

The defeat was partly structural. The new wave of unionism in the 1970s emerged out of an economic restructuring of the United States that reconstituted the working class and brought a new generation of men and women—and a new politics of feminism and anti-racism—into the workplace. But it also applied new pressures to daily life—for example, the time bind of the two-earner household—and enabled employers to pack up and leave when they felt the local labor market was no longer favorable to them. Sinking profitability put pressure on employers to resist their workers with new resolve, a hostility to unionization and labor organizing that, Windham writes, “set the employment terms that would govern the nation’s slow transition out of industrial capitalism.”

Windham measures employer anti-union activities by charting the number of ULPs, or charges of unfair labor practices, made by unions. ULPs are the procedural redress that workers or their organizations may pursue when management interferes with legally protected organizing rights—such as by interrogating workers about their intentions or activities, or by threatening or punishing them for organizing—and are therefore the best index of intimidation and anti-union activity. From 1950 to 1980, ULPs rose by a factor of seven, with the fastest period of acceleration coming after the 1973 recession.

Employers’ increasing willingness to dabble in the dark arts was motivated by economic pressure, but it was enabled by the burgeoning new industry of professional union busters. For example, Seyfarth Shaw, the firm that represented the Newport News shipyard against the USWA and Yale University against its clerical workers, quadrupled in size in the second half of the 1970s. This emergent union-avoidance industry helped managers push the bounds of labor law, but it also did more ideological work. Martin Jay Levitt, the repentant author of Confessions of a Union Buster, recounted how employers hired him to “awaken within the mostly white supervisor corps a hatred of blacks…contempt for women, mistrust of the poor.” Since the goal was to produce a reasonable fear in workers of managerial retribution, frontline managers had to be taught vindictiveness. Remembering his work against the hospital-organizing campaign by Local 1199, Levitt wrote of a movie he would play for managers: “We particularly like a scene in which a very fat, very dark female face fills the screen, and the woman says in a thick, southern drawl, ‘Jes’ gimme eleven nahhhnty-nahhn.’… We didn’t say much when we showed the film. We didn’t have to.” At Jackson Lewis, another premier anti-union law firm, a partner warned of new organizing efforts coinciding “with awakening recognition by women of their rights.”

Windham catalogs the steps of the new-model anti-union campaigns that ran parallel to the new labor organizing. First, prevent workers from signing cards at all. Then, delay: “Always go to hearing,” instructed one anti-union consultant. “Suffice it to say, you have at least 500 issues. So you litigate those issues…. You could come up with them for almost a year, as we did in one case.” Next, threaten the possibility of “bad feelings” and workplace conflicts in the future. Finally, hold the jobs themselves hostage. In the formulation offered by another anti-union consultant, “If excessive wage demands add a lot to our already existing losses it could force us to close.” The trick, of course, is the non-threat threat—the suggestion that it’d be a shame if anything were to happen to your nice arrangement here. “You’re free to vote as you please. But vote smart,” as the same consultant put it. This repertoire of tactics is still with us today.

To those who have never been in the midst of a union campaign, it remains a bit of a mystery how this sort of thing works. After all, workers get to vote in a secret-ballot election. How can management actually coerce them? Windham doesn’t quite come out and explain this. Most likely, she understandably wants to portray the workers in her narrative in a positive light: They were struggling heroically against increasingly long odds. So you don’t hear much from those workers swayed by anti-union campaigns. But they existed then, they still exist now, and it is therefore worth thinking about why such efforts affect them.

To succeed, an anti-union campaign needs to get into workers’ heads. It must rattle them. This is possible because of the mystifying operation of American labor law itself. The NLRB election process is designed to resemble more familiar kinds of elections: It’s a contest between candidates, and people will go to the polling place and vote for their choice. The process taps into familiar ideas about the impropriety of influencing or even asking about how someone else is voting. But a union doesn’t actually resemble political representation like the kind you choose in November. Unlike with voting for your senator, in an NLRB election, the electorate itself transforms into the thing it votes for. A group of workers voting for a union are not really voting for someone or something; they are voting to become something together. It is as if everyone who wanted a candidate to be elected had to volunteer for the campaign.

This mystification is where most American anti-union campaigns live. Organizing will only work if other people do it with you, and keep doing it with you. If your comrades fall away, you will be exposed. For this reason, management doesn’t need to make a coherent case. Bosses can, and reliably do, make contradictory arguments: The union won’t accomplish anything; the union will put us out of business. The campaign need only sow confusion and erode the bonds of trust among workers by creating an atmosphere of tension and anxiety. A “no” vote in a union election isn’t necessarily a negative verdict on the general question of unionization. Rather, the election is an acid test of how much workers trust each other to stick together—how much they can envision themselves as a part of the future collective they are voting into being. This is the meaning of the refrain heard in the course of every campaign: “I’m not against unions in general, just this one.” What the speaker of such a statement is saying is that he or she is not part of the group. In other words, the abstract idea of a union is worthless on its own; it’s always a question of how far the network of relationships extends and how much pressure it can bear.

Surely, one reason for the growing distance of middle-class liberalism from the labor movement is how alien such collective responsibility is from the individualist and competitive logic of professional life. But lots of workers still understand it. Some years back, I spent a few days helping out on a unionization drive at a Connecticut hotel. The campaign had reached the critical point where enough people had joined for management to get wise to what was going on, and this meant that the union had a weekend to assemble an indomitably large majority or else the bosses would start firing everyone. I had a car and a little bit of organizing experience, so I was happy to spend the weekend paired up with rank-and-file members of the organizing committee, going to the homes of undecided workers.

Two days in a row, I went with a worker to look for his friend who hadn’t joined. When we found him outside his building, I was mainly useless in the two-hour sidewalk discussion that followed—and not just because it moved in and out of patois. The friend kept insisting that he worked hard to foster a good relationship with management. Plus, he’d been a member of a union at his last job, at a New York City hotel, and it hadn’t made things any better. In the mode of an election canvasser sharing useful information, I noted that as far as I knew, the unionized hotel workers of New York had much better working conditions than their counterparts just about anywhere else in the country. But my comrade understood what was really being said: something about where this person stood in the web of social relationships that made up this hotel, and his fear of disturbing that delicate web. And so he framed his reply in answer to this more subtle set of anxieties. “Look, here’s the situation,” he said. “We field slaves are going to run away. You’re like a house slave. If you don’t come with us, it’s more likely that we’ll get caught. So you need to come.” His friend agreed with the comparison, but he remained unmoved.

The mass escape—what a metaphor for working-class organization in the 21st century. If the group acts in sync, they all make it. But as stragglers are picked off one by one, everyone remaining becomes more vulnerable and likelier to peel off. The NLRB system, in other words, suggests to workers that they are making individual choices that will simply be aggregated into a majority. But no union results from aggregation. Workers must decide, purposefully, to be together.

The 1930s framers of US labor law designed it with this mystification at its heart, in part to slip it more smoothly into American liberal political culture. Then, in the 1970s, just as long-excluded kinds of workers began to assert themselves within the institutional framework of midcentury liberalism, employers flipped the system on its head: The fiction of individual choice, once an ideological advantage for workers, ultimately proved a better weapon for their employers. And it remains so to this day.

The first major wave of organizing attempts in the postindustrial economy coincided with employers’ discovery that they could turn the liberal labor-law regime against their insurgent workers. Windham’s book helps track this discovery. For this reason, the organization of low-wage service industries—the growth sectors of the labor market—has long been written off as impossible, and working conditions within them have continued to deteriorate.

The false appearance of a fair and representative system has worked to the benefit of increasingly rapacious employers for 40 years. In this way, the failure of American labor law stands as both the cause of and a metonym for the overall institutional breakdown of American liberalism. Perhaps there was a moment when the scraps of the liberal regime might still have been sewn back together into something usable. In many ways, that prospect is what we’ve been witnessing since 2008 with a new groundswell of labor organizing, much of it pressing hard against the limits of the law. But the Trump administration has foreclosed whatever remained of that possibility. Now we’re in the world described by those two hotel workers on the sidewalk: a more raw contest between fear and solidarity, with no reasonable mediator to step in, hear both sides, and secure justice. On the one hand, it’s frightening to let go of the illusion of liberal procedural fairness. On the other hand, it’s the truth, and that’s probably where we should start if we’re going to begin again.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy