Category Archives: Labor History

Martin Luther King Jr., union man

Source: Peter Cole, The Conversation, January 18, 2019

If Martin Luther King Jr. still lived, he’d probably tell people to join unions.

King understood racial equality was inextricably linked to economics. He asked, “What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?”

Those disadvantages have persisted. Today, for instance, the wealth of the average white family is more than 20 times that of a black one.

King’s solution was unionism…..

Related:
Economic justice was always part of MLK Jr.’s message
Source: Peter Kelley, Futurity, January 20, 2019

Labor rights and economic justice were always part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s progressive message, historian Michael Honey reminds us in a new book.

The book, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, (W.W. Norton, 2018) came out April 3—the day before the 50-year anniversary of King’s assassination. ….

When King Was Dangerous
Source: Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin, January 21, 2019

Martin Luther King Jr is remembered as a person of conscience who only carefully broke unjust laws. But his militant challenges to state authority place him in a much different tradition: radical labor activism.

Working Women versus Employers: An Insider’s View

Source: Anne Ladky, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
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In her book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide, Lane Windham compellingly illuminates the context of organizing in that decade and dispels long-held myths. She makes clear that it was not a lack of organizing that resulted in the decline in unionization in the following decade but the aggressive refusal of companies to tolerate union organizing activity—or any campaigns that they perceived could lead to unionization—aided by government failures. The experiences of those of us in what has been called the working women’s movement bear out her arguments.

I am not a historian—my comments are aimed at connecting what I was experiencing as an organizer with Windham’s narrative. I was organizing in the 1970s around women’s employment issues as a member of the Chicago Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and then as a member of Women Employed (WE). I joined the staff of Women Employed in 1977, became its executive director in 1985, and served in that position for thirty-two years. WE, whose founding is noted in the book’s second chapter, is now a forty-five-year-old organization whose mission is to break down barriers to women’s economic advancement and promote workplace fairness. It has a staff of twenty; it is locally based with national policy reach. The organization has opened hundreds of occupations to women, helped outlaw and reduce sexual harassment, did some of the very first work on family-friendly workplace policies, made affirmative action a dramatically effective tool for women’s advancement, and much more. Today, its priorities are to change workplace policies and practices that affect low-paid working women, expand work-family policies, and enable more low-income women to enter and succeed in higher education. While the organization’s priorities have changed to address evolving barriers facing low-paid female workers, the organization’s mission is unchanged since its founding in 1973….

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Tangled Up in Race: Working-Class Politics and the Ongoing Economic Divide
Source: Dan Graff, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
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The title of Lane Windham’s impressive new exploration of union organizing in the 1970s, Knocking on Labor’s Door, immediately calls to mind Bob Dylan’s hit single “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Whether the allusion is intended or not, the song’s release date resonates, since 1973 — marked by the oil crisis and stagflation — is widely considered among historians to be the year of reckoning for the New Deal order, the US labor movement, and the heyday of American liberalism. But where Dylan’s song is a dirge, with its mournful narrator accepting “the long black cloud” announcing death, Windham’s monograph exudes an opposite tone. By uncovering stories of worker-activists who organized with a purpose and a passion reminiscent of the 1930s, Windham rejects the notion of the 1970s as “the last days of the working class” (3)….

Labor Feminism Meets Institutional Sexism
Source: Katherine Turk, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
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Lane Windham’s Knocking on Labor’s Door offers important contributions to labor and working-class history and to the emerging literature on American capitalism. Most important, the book reminds us that the 1970s did not mark a gloomy descent into neoliberalism; rather, those years were shot through with electrifying possibilities.

My comments will reflect on how Knocking on Labor’s Door handles the identity politics of sex and class. The book offers striking insights into the political economy of the 1970s; in particular, it sheds new light on employers’ efforts to protect their profits as they navigated a globalizing landscape. But in blaming those employers when union campaigns led by women and men of color fell short, Windham downplays other factors — especially the roadblocks thrown up by wage-earning white men. Laboring women had to aim their campaigns for equity at their employers as well as at their union “brothers.” Aware of the distinct yet related challenges they faced everywhere they worked, many women experimented with and blended new and well-established forms of activism. The formal labor movement thus offers too narrow a lens to capture the range of outcomes that working people — women in particular — imagined and pursued as they fought the baked-in inequities that shaped workplaces and unions alike…..

I Hear You Knockin’. . . . But You Can’t Come In
Source: Alex Lichtenstein, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
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Knocking on Labor’s Door is an impressive achievement. By combing through National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) records and revisiting some crucial but forgotten labor struggles from the 1970s, Lane Windham seeks to refute pessimists like Jefferson Cowie, who regard that decade as ringing the death knell of an empowered American working class. Specifically, Windham wants to call our attention to the energized struggles of African American, women, and immigrant workers. Newly emboldened by the previous decade’s rights revolutions, these members of the working class sought to join and reinvigorate the flagging American labor movement that had previously done much to exclude them. They indeed were “knocking at labor’s door.”

But did that door open? With all due respect to Windham’s ability to uncover the dynamics of previously ignored or overlooked struggles of this era, I want to provoke discussion by laying out an alternative narrative, based as much as possible on the compelling evidence of labor ferment she herself has unearthed and brought to life in the pages of this book.

Here is my alternative narrative:…

Author’s Response
Source: Lane Windham, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
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I am grateful to Anne Ladky, Dan Graff, Katherine Turk, and Alex Lichtenstein for their carefully considered and provocative analyses of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. In writing the book, I aimed to open up a fresh discussion of the workers’ movement in the pivotal 1970s and also to offer new approaches for understanding working people’s struggles today. These accomplished scholars and activists clearly have embraced both undertakings. I would like to also thank the Newberry Library for hosting this forum and the journal Labor for allowing us to further our dialogue here….

Connecticut Labor History in the Classroom

Source: Cecelia Bucki, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History, Vol. 15 no. 3, September 2018
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In May 2015, the Connecticut General Assembly passed Public Act No. 15 – 17, encouraging local school districts to teach the history of the American labor movement. This was the culmination of years of advocacy by teachers, union activists, and supportive legislators.

Unions for Workers in the Gig Economy: Time for a New Labor Movement

Source: William J. Tronsor, Labor Law Journal, Vol. 69 no. 4, Winter 2018
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From the abstract:
The gig economy has fundamentally changed the employer-employee relationship throughout America. In the past, employers relied on an industrial model for production, depending on long-term employees to ensure quality and productivity. The traditional employer-employee relationship was the norm and America’s labor laws were built around that relationship. Today, in order to hinder collective action and skirt America’s labor laws, employers are classifying their workforce as independent contractors. Whether these companies are accurately classifying their workforce as independent contractors requires an extremely fact-based legal assessment, but the ambiguity in the law has made it advantageous for employers to deliberately misclassify their workers. This has resulted in the rise of the gig economy, led by companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, and Grubhub. The gig economy has created a new class of workers, i.e., gig workers. A class of workers whose numbers are growing every year and workers who find themselves unable to avail themselves of the protections of America’s labor laws. The American workforce has evolved, and America’s labor laws need to evolve to respond to these changed circumstances. This article examines the history of organized labor, the importance of organized labor, and the circumstances that brought about the gig economy in America. The article also proposes new organizing strategies, changes that should be made to the law to ensure that all workers are able to collectively organize and avail themselves of the protections of America’s labor laws, so that the organized labor movement can be brought into the 21st century.

The Spread of Anti-Union Business Coordination: Evidence from the Open-Shop Movement in the U.S. Interwar Period

Source: Alexander Kuo, Studies in American Political Development, Volume 32 Issue 1, April 2018
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From the abstract:
What explains the development of repressive employer coordination? Classic historical American business and labor literature focuses on institutions of labor repression and employer associations, but little systematic examination of such associations exists, particularly during the interwar period. Similarly, recent political science literature on the origins of industrial institutions underemphasizes the importance of repressive employer associations. I use new quantitative subnational evidence from the U.S. interwar period, with data from the open-shop movement in the United States at the local level after World War I. I test a variety of families of hypotheses regarding variation in repressive employer coordination, with specific data measuring the threat posed by organized labor. I find that such threats posed by unions are correlated to repressive employer associations. The results have implications for understanding local-level variation in the business repression of labor movements in the early twentieth century and contribute to our understanding of labor repressive institutions and the incentives of firms to collectively act.

Union lobbies Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday, Aug. 20, 1866

Source: Andrew Glass, Politico, August 20, 2018

On this day in 1866, the newly organized National Labor Union called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday. The coalition of skilled and unskilled workers, farmers and reformers pressured Congress to enact labor reforms. It dissolved in 1873 following an ill-advised venture into third-party politics in the 1872 presidential election.

Although the NLU failed to persuade Congress to shorten the workday, its efforts heightened public awareness of labor issues and increased public support for labor reform in the 1870s and 1880s.

The Knights of Labor, a powerful advocate for the eight-hour day in the 1870s and early 1880s, proved more effective. By 1886, the Knights counted 700,000 laborers, shopkeepers and farmers among its members. Under the leadership of Terrence V. Powderly, the union discouraged strikes and advocated restructuring society along cooperative lines…..

Five Lessons from the History of Public Sector Unions

Source: Priscilla Murolo, Labor Notes, June 11, 2018

As public sector unions contemplate losing key rights under the law, it’s worth remembering that for much of their history, such unions organized with no rights at all.

It wasn’t till 1958 that New York became the first city to authorize collective bargaining for city employees. Wisconsin did the same for state employees in 1959, and federal workers got bargaining rights in 1962.

Yet as early as 1940, a book titled One Thousand Strikes of Government Employees described strikes dating back to the 1830s, when workers at U.S. Navy shipyards stopped work multiple times to press demands for better wages and conditions. ….

Why Do Workers Strike?

Source: Martin Glaberman, Jacobin, May 30, 2018

Think conservative workers won’t strike? Think again. History shows it’s not workers’ ideas that count, it’s the conditions they face on the job.

…. Here, we reproduce the concluding chapter of Wartime Strikes. The historical backdrop of wartime strikes and those that have taken place today are obviously different, and Glaberman’s analysis of why auto workers took the actions they did can’t be directly transposed onto today’s events.

But his insistence that working people can be transformed when they’re forced to deal with the reality in front of them is an essential reminder for anyone trying to understand where and how the next working-class upsurge might continue to spread today. ….