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.”