From the November-December 2017 issue of News & Letters
Chicago—I went to a book launch on Oct. 14 at the Newberry Library for Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide, by Lane Windham, published by the University of North Carolina Press. Windham had interviewed workers, and focused on a different analysis of labor unions than mainstream theorists.
She contended that there is not a loss of interest in unions, but that laws have been passed that weaken the union movement. Companies have used the old standby of pitting one group, white men and some white women, against another group, women and people of color.
OBSTACLES TO ORGANIZING THE SOUTH
Her background was in the South, where union organizers felt that women and people of color were not interested in organizing.
The reality is that new union members came from these groups, but established union leaders undercut them because they feared the gains made by women and people of color due to progressive laws such as affirmative action.
The panelists and Ms. Windham spoke on new research included in her book and a new way of looking at this missed opportunity. If, in the future, racism and classism can be overcome, unions or new movements of workers’ associations may give birth to a new wave of workers winning back rights that are being lost today.
LOW-PAID WOMEN’S WORK
Women Employed and the organization 9 to 5 were also discussed. Anne Ladky, a panel member and recently retired executive director of Women Employed, said that her organization had faced a decision on what road it would take: organize secretaries and upper-class jobs for women, or be advocates for women workers at the low economic end.
Ladky said they chose to stick with the path that inspired their founding, the farmworkers’ struggle for a union and the Civil Rights Movement. They chose to work for paid sick days and minimum wage increases, and to work with those women workers most in need of support.
Upcoming struggles discussed included the push from the Right to get rid of affirmative action, the minimum wage or any raise in the minimum wage and the spreading of misnamed “right-to-work” laws.
Another question raised was why white workers make choices that go against their self-interest. Is it because people of color would benefit from what unions manage to win for their workers?