From the Margins to the Middle: New Histories of Working-Class Activism in the 1970s

Endorsed by LAWCHA

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Labor and Working-Class; Postwar; Women's History


In his now decade-old Stayin’ Alive, Jefferson Cowie centered labor and working-class history in discussions of the 1970s. Building on the scholarship of the late Judith Stein and others, Cowie painted a picture of an energetic but embattled labor movement that fought valiantly against, before eventually succumbing to, the combination of globalization, deindustrialization, employer opposition, and cultural conservatism. It was a powerful account of working-class resistance and response to the forces of a neoliberal, postindustrial order and an instant classic, justly recognized with a bevy of prizes, including the OAH’s Merle Curti Award. Yet for all its merits, Cowie’s was also an account that turned largely on the experiences of a narrow slice of the American workers–(mostly) white men in core industries–steel, manufacturing, etc. For them, the 1970s may have been “the last days of the working class,” but for many others, those same years looked quite different—“the first days,” as Lane Windham put it, “of a reshaped and newly energized American working class” The four papers proposed for this panel extend and expand this crucial work by shifting focus away from the old industrial core and to the emerging service, public, and professional sectors. Emphasizing the interwoven challenges of racism, classism, and sexism, the papers individually investigate workers’ organizing efforts in settings ranging from domestic labor (Sherley) and child care centers (Modica) to mental healthcare facilities (Hower) and public historical sites (Ress). By foregrounding the experiences of workers challenging both racism and sexism, these papers both explore continuities with older modes of labor organizing and emphasize the new, often creative means workers used to improve their conditions within and, crucially, beyond, the workplace.

Papers Presented

“We’re Important, Too”: The National Domestic Worker’s Union and their Black Feminist Vision of Care

In 1968, domestic worker Dorothy Bolden founded the National Domestic Workers Union (NDWU), an organization dedicated to improving the working conditions and public regard for domestic work in Atlanta, GA. While domestic work had already begun to decline in Atlanta by the late 1960s, thousands of women still labored in the private homes of Atlanta’s white elite, washing, doing laundry, and watching children for poverty wages. Part worker center, part employment agency, and part advocacy organization, the NDWU combined one-on-one negotiation tactics between members and individual employers with city-wide policy campaigns to significantly raise members’ wages and win structural improvements that would serve not only domestic workers, but working-class Black women more broadly. While the NDWU made crucial contributions to the national movement for domestic workers rights, their sights were also set on improving the conditions of all the working-class and poor Black women living in Atlanta. This paper explores how the NDWU’s efforts to improve the situation of domestic workers was rooted in a far-ranging critique of how racism, sexism, and classism shaped Black women’s experiences not only performing domestic labor, but other forms of paid care work. This critique was not just focused on the realm of waged labor, but also connected the reproductive labor Black women performed for pay with the role care played in their lives at home.

Presented By
Eshe Sherley, University of Michigan

"'Praise the Welfare State': The Radical Imagination of the Boston Area Daycare Worker Union (BADWU)"

In the 1970s, as maternal labor force participation expanded across race and class, new child care centers popped up across the United States. Most of these centers were small shops, some non-profit, others for-profit. In nearly all cases, workers were woefully undercompensated. In Boston, a small group of daycare workers began meeting to discuss issues in child care employment, including low wages. They decided to form the Boston Area Daycare Worker Union (BADWU), one of the first daycare worker unions in the country. This paper explores their efforts to both organize daycare centers and raise the consciousness of workers about the value of child care labor. BADWU supported wall-to-wall daycare organizing that would include not only teachers and classroom aides, but cooks, bus drivers, and custodians. They also lobbied against cuts to welfare rolls and in favor of community-controlled schools and centers. While they were not able to organize as many centers as they would have liked, their records offer a window into the radical imagination of a group of daycare workers in the 1970s who envisioned a form of care worker unionism that would address the intersecting issues of racism, classism, and sexism in the lives of both daycare workers and the families they served.

Presented By
Justine Victoria Modica, Cornell University

“‘Out of Their Beds and into the Streets’: Public Sector Labor and the Politics of Mental Healthcare in the Long 1970s”

Using the case study of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), this paper explores workers’ responses to the transformation of mental healthcare facilities between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. Drawing on internal memoranda, public communications, legislative records, and organizing materials, it shows that AFSCME struggled to straddle its dual commitments to protecting and defending the narrow interests of its worker-members, on the one hand, and the broader social commitments it espoused in in its progressive politics, on the other. While the union confronted this challenge throughout the public sector, it was particularly pronounced in the rapidly changing area of mental healthcare, where top-down, federally-funded experiments in deinstitutionalization combined with bottom-up, patient-driven challenges to everything from the quality of facilities and the utility of particular treatments to the “presumption of continuing insanity” doctrine that underlaid a hospital’s right to hold patients against their will to radically alter the world of mental health work. The paper shows that these changes both galvanized workers’ organizing efforts and paralyzed the union’s subsequent range of action. While AFSCME’s membership in the mental health field soared, it struggled to articulate a coherent position on the policy changes or patients’ rights movements, frequently retreating to an indiscriminate dismissal of deinstitutionalization as a neoliberal retreat from public provision. In so doing, the union proved more effective at drawing attention to the corruption of these experiments than blocking them, leaving public workers even more vulnerable within increasingly discredited institutions.

Presented By
Joseph E. Hower, Southwestern University

The California Committee for the Promotion of History: From Advocating History to Organizing Historians

In 1977, a time when few worked on California history and even fewer seemed to care about it, a small, but dedicated cadre of historians came together to form the California Committee for the Promotion of History (CCPH). As the California arm of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (now the National Coalition for History or NCH), they advocated on behalf of history in California. By the early 1980s, as a jobs crisis in higher education persisted, they had rebranded themselves and took on a much more controversial issue: organizing historians working outside of academia. How do you organize a diverse and factionalized group of people who are employed across industries around the state, in private, non-profit, and public sectors at the local, state, and federal levels, and who may not all refer to themselves as public historians? As the CCPH shows us, not without much effort. Thus, this paper examines the development of the CCPH from an off shoot of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History which sought to promote California’s history both regionally and nationally, to one that dared to organize public historians. Their lessons are legion, and are essential readings for any group or persons looking to do similar work in the United States today.

Presented By
Stella A. Ress, University of Southern Indiana

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Natasha Zaretsky, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Natasha Zaretsky is Professor of History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her first book, NO DIRECTION HOME: THE AMERICAN FAMILY AND THE FEAR OF NATIONAL DECLINE, 1968-1980, was published in 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Her writings have also appeared in DIPLOMATIC HISTORY, THE NEW REPUBLIC, THE JOURNAL OF WOMEN'S HISTORY, THE JOURNAL OF SOCIAL HISTORY, AMERICAN QUARTERLY AND HEDGEHOG REVIEW. She is also the co-editor of the fourth edition of MAJOR PROBLEMS IN U.S. HISTORY SINCE 1945 and THE SIXTIES: A JOURNAL OF HISTORY, POLITICS, AND CULTURE. Her recent book, RADIATION NATION: THREE MILE ISLAND AND THE POLITICAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE 1970S explores how the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island illuminated key transformations in the US political culture of the late 1970s. It was published by Columbia University Press and was selected by Choice as an outstanding academic title for 2018.

Presenter: Joseph E. Hower, Southwestern University
Joseph E. Hower is an Assistant Professor of History at Southwestern University, a small liberal arts college outside of Austin, Texas. His work has been published in LABOR HISTORY, LABOR: STUDIES IN WORKING-CLASS HISTORY, the JOURNAL OF POLICY HISTORY , the JOURNAL OF AMERICAN HISTORY, and RADICAL HISTORY REVIEW. He is currently completing his first book, A REVOLUTION IN GOVERNMENT: JERRY WURF AND THE RISE OF PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS IN POSTWAR AMERICA, under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Presenter: Justine Victoria Modica, Cornell University
Justine Modica is a PhD candidate U.S. History at Stanford University, and a PhD minor in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In the 2021-2022 academic year, she is a dissertation fellow at the Center for Engaged Scholarship. Justine's dissertation is a history of child care workers and child care as a labor issue in the late 20th century. Justine holds an MA in History from Stanford University and a BA in History from Dartmouth College.

Presenter: Stella A. Ress, University of Southern Indiana
Stella A. Ress is an associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Southern Indiana where she teaches courses on US and Public History. She has published in the areas of girlhood, family history, and public history. She is also a co-founder of the Public History Workers Caucus.

Presenter: Eshe Sherley, University of Michigan
Eshe Sherley is a PhD Candidate in African American History and a member of the Certificate Program in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. She’s working on a dissertation about Black women’s care work organizing in late twentieth century Atlanta. She holds a M.A. in History from the University of Michigan and a B.A. in African American Studies from Yale University.