Higgins Labor Program Brings Labor Union Activist to Campus

Lane Windham, labor activist and Georgetown University Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor associate director, recently delivered a “History@Work” lecture in Andrews Auditorium at Geddes Hall. She discussed the ramifications of the changes in organized labor in the latter portion of the 20th century and offered reasons for its decline.

Windham began by saying that she believes the past decade has been transformational for the labor movement. “Historians will tell you that change is constant,” she said, “but there are eras where change is sometimes faster, or very filled with meaningful and impactful change. We are living through an era that’s like that, and it started with the recession.”

Windham also offered her take on the current state of the nation’s rapidly changing political economy, saying that the United States economy has become “winner-take-all capitalism,” and that “extreme right-wing views, not only in the U.S., but around the world… are in some ways a real threat to democracy.” In describing the root of this economic situation, Windham said that this was “the end result of 40—maybe even 50—years of policies that have ignored working people’s basic needs.” 

Bridging to the main focus of her talk, she compared the current situation facing organized labor to the situation in the 1970s.. She stated that the current era is one in which the public has developed a greater sense of rights-consciousness; the working class makes additional demands for equality, particularly around topics of race, gender, and immigration status. She described a phenomenon in which today’s labor movement has returned to discussing socioeconomic class:“we’re living in an era where working people are challenging the status quo. We’re talking about class again. For years, when I worked as a Union organizer in the movement, we didn’t talk about class—nobody used the word—and now we are finally talking about it again.”

At the beginning of the 1970s, she stated, workers enjoyed relative prosperity. Real incomes in the United States had doubled since the early 1940s, income inequality was at a relative low, and one-quarter of working people in the United States were members of a union. That relative prosperity began to change, she argued, due to adverse global economic conditions that affected employers. In the 1970s, she said, “there was far more global competition and the U.S. companies began to face a crisis of profit. There had been slowdowns [in the economy] before, but it turns out that this wasn’t one of those cyclical ones. Instead, the ‘70s shift was the birth of what I call the ‘New Economic Divide,’ that we are still living with today.”

Windham stated that specific differences between the recovery in the 1970s and prior recoveries harmed to workers due to a diminution of wage increases and a decline in unionization.  “Wages stopped rising with productivity,” she said, “working people never shared in later recoveries. Union membership began to decline—by the mid 1980’s, private sector union membership had been cut in half to 14%. Today, private sector union membership is 6.3%, which is basically the same level as it was in 1900.”

The conventional wisdom for the reasons of the decline of unions, per Windham, was that they had become too large and bureaucratic; the general interest in union membership had declined among working people. This wisdom, Windham said, was misguided. “This really didn’t seem right to me,” she said. “I’ve actually been a union organizer, and I knew that not everybody wanted a union, but a lot of people did. The problem was that it was really hard to form one.”

In order to research the specific causes for union decline, Windham looked at the results from National Labor Relations Board elections, the elections in which private sector workers vote on whether or not to form a union. She examined the total number of votes in these elections and the breakdown of these votes by how many voted in favor of forming a union and how many voted in opposition to forming a union. She said that at NLRB elections, in the 1970s and 1980s, the portion of votes in opposition to forming a union rose significantly. She attributed this to several factors, such as employers becoming more willing to break the law to suppress unionization efforts and employers using globalization as a means to stir up opposition to unions amongst workers who feared for job security. These efforts led to a decreased interest in unionization, spurring the decline of unions that has continued through the present day.

While traditional union efforts have declined, Windham hopes to spur other forms of labor organizing. She is a founder of WILL Empower, an organization whose goal is to mobilize women of all backgrounds to guide a diverse and vibrant labor movement. While she stated that she believes that unions will continue to be important, the future of the labor movement may very well come from non-union organizations—and she hopes to help steer the formation of labor’s newest advocates, activists, and organizers.

Michael Dugan is a junior majoring in computer science and economics. He is a proud resident of the great state of New Jersey, and he is an emphatic supporter of Taylor Ham.  Send him bagel recommendations at mdugan1@nd.edu.