I got my break into construction from an older white Irish Catholic carpenter who had once been president of his union local, then struck out as a small contractor. He was doing what many of the guys aspired to, but few succeeded at. We (my female partner and I) picked up bits of laboring work on his jobs, but wanted to learn more. He agreed to give us an informal apprenticeship -- but he wasn't going to try to get us into the union. He'd been down that road with a couple of Black carpenters. He just didn't think he had the stamina to go through the abuse that would follow if he tried to sponsor girls! We learned well; my partner went on to become a civil engineer; I spent nearly 15 years working my tools and later organizing projects (that's where the class privilege I brought to the job came out). Other women, tougher than I, fought their way into the union, but soon union jobs became few and far between. Today a few big union jobs remain, mostly public sector contracts and housing when there is housing construction. Residential work is all non-union, mostly done by undocumented (though often skilled) immigrant laborers. Both who the workers are and how work is organized has changed profoundly since the 1970s.
Much of the first half of Cowie's history is about how the labor movement failed to navigate the transition from the heyday of working class organization under the New Deal through the racial and gender traumas and cultural changes of the '60s. Labor and its constituents apparently couldn't imagine that the bargain between workers and capitalists begun under FDR and surviving through the '50s might be a short-lived anomaly. So they flunked the measures that might have defended them.
Union leadership had bought into the notion that all they had to do was cooperate with companies to grow the whole pie and their workers could then bargain for a good share.
The early part of the decade saw several interesting labor eruptions whose exciting promise I remember well: the United Farm Workers grape and wine boycotts (full disclosure: I worked several stints for the UFW), the J.P. Stevens boycott of Southern anti-union textile factories, and also insurgencies inside big unions including Mine Workers and Steelworkers. But not only was the economy in deep trouble because of interruptions of oil supplies and the early phases of deindustrialization, but also, cultural winds made most unions look like strange fossils from another era to most of us young people. Cowie has retrieved a truly representative quote from Karen Nussbaum who was creating an advocacy organization for women clerical workers, "9to5."
That's exactly how many of us thought in that decade.
Cowie spells out an insight that I had vaguely grasped, but which helps explain why the "new social movement" folks couldn't even imagine making common cause with the labor unions.
The structure created by past political compromises (mostly at the expense of Blacks) had horrible political ramifications over the course of the decade, from the decision by the AFL-CIO's George Meany not to back Democrat George McGovern in the 1972 presidential vote, through the failed Carter presidency, and election of Ronald Reagan and his merry band of rich sponsors in 1980. I'll take up Cowie's insights into the political implications of that time in a second post.