Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide

Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide

Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide

Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide


The power of unions in workers' lives and in the American political system has declined dramatically since the 1970s. In recent years, many have argued that the crisis took root when unions stopped reaching out to workers and workers turned away from unions. But here Lane Windham tells a different story. Highlighting the integral, often-overlooked contributions of women, people of color, young workers, and southerners, Windham reveals how in the 1970s workers combined old working-class tools--like unions and labor law--with legislative gains from the civil and women's rights movements to help shore up their prospects. Through close-up studies of workers' campaigns in shipbuilding, textiles, retail, and service, Windham overturns widely held myths about labor's decline, showing instead how employers united to manipulate weak labor law and quash a new wave of worker organizing.

Recounting how employees attempted to unionize against overwhelming odds, Knocking on Labor's Door dramatically refashions the narrative of working-class struggle during a crucial decade and shakes up current debates about labor's future. Windham's story inspires both hope and indignation, and will become a must-read in labor, civil rights, and women's history.


One sweltering July morning in 1976, Jan Hooks, a thirty-one-year old Southern white woman trained as a secretary, crushed a hard hat over her head of unruly curls. the 1970s offered fresh promise for America’s working class, and Hooks wanted in. Growing up in the 1950s, she had watched her father leave each morning for his job at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Virginia. Yet she had never really considered that she might follow in his footsteps. By 1973, things had changed. That year the nation’s largest private shipbuilder for the navy started recruiting women for production jobs, keeping in step with the federal government’s new affirmative action guidelines. Hooks’s twin sister, Ann Warren, was among the first women hired. Separated from her husband, Hooks was raising two girls alone, and she knew office work would never pay as much as her sister’s blue-collar shipyard job. That’s how Hooks soon found herself hauling a toolbox down into the mouth of a nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser and embarking on her new shipwright career.

Her first assigned task was to clean metal scraps with a three-inch brush in the ship’s deep recesses, alongside another woman. “And I was shaking, tired, scared to death…. We sat there until I smoked my cigarette and drank a Pepsi and got myself calmed down.” Within a few weeks she began training as a crane operator, and held great pride in her eventual rise to a job that allowed her to drive the 150-ton, eight-story-tall giants with a pocket-size remote control.

Yet Hooks did not just want any job when she crawled down into that ship’s hold; she wanted a really good job. Though her shipwright position paid better than most jobs available to women, Newport News shipyard workers remained among the lowest-paid shipbuilders in the nation and their pensions were paltry. They began to organize a new union with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). One crisp and cold January morning in 1978, Hooks served as an official observer for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election at the shipyard involving nineteen thousand workers. Hooks ticked off the welders’, riggers’, and mechanics’ names from her polling station by the number 11 dry dock, offering a friendly nod and . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.