The October 19th passing of noted labor activist Jerry Tucker sent shock waves throughout the labor movement. Whether one was a reform activist in organized labor or an activist within the emerging workers’ organizations outside of traditional collective bargaining, the name, work and reputation of Jerry Tucker was iconic.
It is important, particularly for younger activists who may not be particularly familiar with the life and work of Jerry Tucker, to appreciate the significance of his contributions.
Jerry was not only a partisan of trade union reform but suggested the need for a “labor reformation,” a term he popularized at the time of his run for the presidency of the United Auto Workers in the early 1990s. For Jerry, more than most labor leaders emerging on the national stage in the 1980s and early 1990s, the problems facing organized labor could not be placed into the simple category of insufficient attention to organizing. For Jerry, the entire fabric of late 20th century trade unionism had been called into question by, among other things, the reorganization of global and domestic capitalism. Thus, the response to this challenge necessitated not only structural changes, but a change in the essence of trade unionism.
Jerry Tucker became especially well known as a result of two major contributions in the 1980s. The first was his pioneering work on what later became known as “running the plant backwards,” i.e., a tactical approach of putting pressure on an employer without going on strike. Tucker emphasized the sort of internal organizational change that unions would need to undertake in order to carry out such an approach. It was not simply a matter of not going on strike and taking on certain symbolic actions but rather the engagement of the members in using their own knowledge to develop a program and then carrying out that program with increasing levels of pressure on the employer; pressure the employer least expected.
For many in organized labor this contribution made Tucker a hero, but his frustration and disagreement with the leadership of the United Auto Workers put him onto a collision course with the leadership of much of organized labor. Tucker and other reformers in the UAW constituted an opposition caucus known as New Directions. Building in workplaces around the country, New Directions set out to build a mass base to fundamentally alter the UAW. In taking on the challenge of reforming the UAW, New Directions differed from other union reform movements in that they had a broader social vision regarding their own role as well as the role that they sought the union to fulfill..
What Tucker, and other New Directions leaders, appreciated was that the UAW had ceased to be a vibrant organization representing the working class, but had instead become an institution of corporatism and conciliation. The UAW saw in “partnership” and “joint-ness” with the auto companies the salvation for the union, not to mention various benefits that many in the bureaucracy enjoyed as a result of their accommodation with management. Having abdicated Walter Reuther’s “social unionism”, which suggested that the union should speak out on broader issues, the UAW not only withdrew as a major force for external change but took an increasingly conservative stand with regard to representing their members, not to mention addressing the needs of potential members in non-union auto plants and auto parts plants. Despite the expansion of auto manufacturing in the South the UAW has been unable to organize auto workers in the South and has shied away from the approach toward organizing that Tucker and other New Directions partisans proposed. In the face of demands for concessions by the employers, the UAW generally collapsed even when they tried to paint the concessions and collapse in favorable terms. Tucker and the New Directions movement organized with the intent of reversing these tendencies. Their efforts, while valiant, were ultimately unsuccessful.
Tucker, after a failed effort to secure the presidency of the UAW, found a life outside of the UAW. Tucker was the movement’s strategist extraordinaire, spending immense amounts of time on labor battlefronts around the USA when called upon. Whether the Detroit Free Press workers, meat packing workers at the Hormel plant in Minnesota represented by Local P-9 (originally of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union), healthcare workers in St. Louis, or the Staley workers who faced a lockout, Tucker’s counsel and support was sought after by workers.
Jerry could be very opinionated at times, but what was striking was his ability and interest in listening. Jerry was always seeking new knowledge. As legendary as he was, he did not allow that fact to get in the way of his learning more from any one. He always wanted to hear from younger activists or those activists from struggles with which he was less familiar.
Jerry’s commitment to the education of worker activists was, perhaps, one of the other striking features of his work. Too many union leaders—and social movement leaders generally—assume that the mobilization of members is all that is necessary in order to revitalize the union movement. Tucker realized that a labor reformation can only take place when linked to a change in consciousness among the workers themselves. With this in mind, the New Directions movement, under Jerry’s leadership, began organizing schools for workers around the country. Dubbed “Solidarity Schools”, these multi-day programs introduced worker activists to the broader world of class struggle and what the two of us have coined as “social justice unionism.” The Solidarity Schools expanded beyond a base of auto workers and, in time, came to include workers from various sectors. They were rehabilitated by the Center for Labor Renewal, a network which Jerry co-founded in 2006.
A person, let alone a leader, of the stature and character of Jerry Tucker does not come around every day. Jerry commanded respect without being command-ist. He was visionary and inspiring, and absolutely audacious when it came to taking on opponents. But at the end of the day, he was one hell of a great friend and colleague. We count ourselves lucky that we had the honor of knowing him.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a racial justice, labor and international activist and writer. He is the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.
Fernando E. Gapasin is a labor and union movement activist, writer and labor educator. He is the co-author (with Bill Fletcher, Jr.) of Solidarity Divided.