Coincidentally, I have been reading Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the last days of the working class (J. Cowie 2010) which looks at the changes in labour relations that occurred between the 1960s and 1980s (i.e. the assault on the ‘Keynesian’ social contract by the US working class, the rightward shift of sections of the white working class in the late 70s, and the struggles over ethnicity and gender).
In one of his case studies, Cowie looks at the formation and rise of a ‘pink collar, class-conscious feminism’ amongst women clerical workers. This led in Boston to the formation of ‘a womens’ rights organisation on the job for women office workers’ called 9to5. Here is the section:
The organization began not as a union but as a simple citizens’ advocacy group, which Nussbaum found to be too “ephemeral.” As she explained, 9to5 would “organize groups to confront their bosses over maternity rights or discrimination and, inevitably, the boss would respond with, ‘Well, that’s very interesting. We’ll get back to you.’ And then they never got back to us. And that’s when we began to understand. We said, ‘We need something that forces them to get back to us. There should be a law about this.’ And then, of course, we found out that there was a law. It’s called the National Labor Relations Act, that if you organize a majority of people in the workplace, then the employer is obligated to bargain with you.” When they approached a list of unions with their ideas of chartering their own local to organize women clerical workers, however, their ideas were met with indifference or hostility. “When we started,” explained Nussbaum, “the union people scorned women. They didn’t care to take the time with us women, who didn’t know anything about unions.”
Nussbaum’s original attitude toward unions tells much about the New Left’s and the women’s movement’s hope for organized labor as the agent of historical transformation. “It never occurred to me that unions were a force for social change…. That was the milieu. That wasn’t where the impetus for change was coming in society, and that’s why it didn’t occur to us that that’s where it should be.” Eventually, the advocacy group 9to5 became Local 925 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a once sleepy union that would go on to become one of the few sources of growth and dynamism beyond the 1980s. The local, recalled Nussbaum, “had an organization that had the character and concerns of the working women’s movement but the power of a trade union.” The initial promise may have been great, but as Nussbaum lamented, “We never knew what hit us. We got smashed over and over. These businesses had not traditionally been unionized, and they were damned if they were going to be the first ones in the new wave.”