Remembering Jerry Tucker
Jerry Tucker, a hero in the troublemaking wing of the labor movement, passed away from pancreatic cancer on October 19. Labor Notes asked three people who had worked closely with Jerry why he will be so widely missed and what are the lessons for those who will continue his legacy.
Remembering Jerry Tucker
by Mark Dudzic
It was the mid-1980s. Deindustrialization and globalization were becoming permanent trends. They combined with a nasty recession to generate massive plant closings. Ronald Reagan’s firing of 12,000 air traffic controllers and the failure of the entire labor movement to respond had unleashed an orgy of union-busting.
The scenario went like this: First they insulted you by demanding massive concessions. Then they refused to bargain in good faith. Then they provoked you into striking. Then they used the courts and the NLRB to run scabs through the lines, transfer work to other plants, or permanently shut down.
The results were grimly predictable. You either lost your job in a plant closing or to a “permanent replacement,” or you crawled back to work on the bosses’ terms.
Sounds pretty standard today, but in the mid-1980s it was downright shocking. Nothing in the previous 30 years of labor relations had prepared us for the ferocity of the attacks. The labor movement was completely disoriented.
Out of this chaos arose a consensus from national leaders. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” they told us. “We’ll never be able to win another strike, so our only hope is to cooperate with the bosses in advance. We can ameliorate the worst of their concessions and head off their union-busting by becoming junior partners on the shop floor and showing them the value of cooperation.” The United Auto Workers (UAW), once the standard-setter for wages, benefits and conditions for the whole working class, pioneered this approach.
Those of us who wanted to fight back felt helpless. The tactics honed in easier times—the wildcat strike, militant shop-floor resistance, a strategic strike against a single plant—were worse than useless against a determined union-busting employer. The bosses actually counted on these types of responses. They were part of their game plan.
Along came a guy named Jerry Tucker. “Don’t let the bastards provoke you into striking!” he counseled. “Stay inside. Learn to ‘run the plant backwards.’ Trust the knowledge and ingenuity of the rank and file to figure out how to make the plant ungovernable while mobilizing new forces and new allies to support you at the bargaining table.”
Jerry Tucker made his bones in the Moog Automotive campaign in 1981 where he led an “inside game” to win a decent contract for 1,200 workers. For those of us looking for a way to fight back, his methods were like a light in the darkness. I first read about Jerry’s inside game in a booklet published by the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department in 1985. It was incredibly empowering.
Over the years, hundreds of activists contacted Jerry for advice and support. Jerry patiently worked with each one to help them understand how to build power strategically to win their fight. This was truly his life’s work. He believed that change could only be driven by leaders organically connected to an educated and mobilized rank and file.
Jerry actively sought out those leaders. They were people like UAW activist Gregg Shotwell, who met Jerry in 2003. “Jerry never told me what to do,” remarks Shotwell, “but after talking with him I felt I knew what I had to do next. That’s the gift of a true organizer.”
Jerry’s fightback vision soon came into conflict with the leadership caucus of the UAW, which was consolidating around a partnership with the Big Three auto companies. He was a respected staffer and could have easily made his peace with the administration, but he did not go softly into the good night. In 1986 he ran against the administration and won election as a regional director (although it took a court order to finally get him installed)—something almost unprecedented in the history of the UAW. He helped to found the UAW’s New Directions Movement, a group that catalyzed a rank-and-file resistance movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Purged from the UAW, Jerry devoted his life to working with the “lost battalions” of the labor movement in their fights against concessions and union-busting. In the 1990s, his work with the Staley workers in Decatur, Illinois (at $100 a day—including expenses!) was a textbook case of how to run a strategic campaign. Their multi-year fight helped many in labor to conclude that a “new direction” was indeed necessary and helped spark a mid-1990s labor upsurge that launched a Labor Party movement and elected new leadership to the AFL-CIO.
Jerry’s belief in militant and democratic unions led to his long relationship with Labor Notes. He spoke at its conferences and was on its board for a time. He viewed it as one of the few institutions that could bring together the “best and the brightest” of the labor movement and was always on the lookout for the new organizing models and smart, committed activists who gravitated to Labor Notes events.
His emphasis on the need for education led him to found Solidarity Schools. He thought that worker education primarily consisted in helping workers draw conclusions from what they already knew about their world and weaving those conclusions into a strategic perspective. He never forgot to listen and learn from others’ experiences.
Jerry had a visceral understanding of how racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant prejudice divided the working class against itself. In everything he did, he insisted that the organizations and leadership that we build look like the working class in all its diversity. Likewise, he opposed the jingoism and knee-jerk nationalism that separated U.S. workers from their strategic allies in other countries. He spoke out against the scapegoating of foreign workers for the decisions of transnational corporations and was a stalwart supporter of U.S. Labor Against the War.
Stopped Right to Work
While he was known for his tough bargaining fights, Jerry also understood the political world. In 1978 he was appointed to lead what many viewed as a hopeless effort to defeat a right-to-work referendum in Missouri. He constructed a campaign where workers reached out to farmers and small businesses and framed the issue as a “Main Street” fight against big business. The initiative was overwhelmingly defeated.
Until his illness prevented it, he was working closely with activists in Wisconsin to help unions recover from the assault on public workers, starting on the shop floor.
Since 2009, I have had the privilege of working with Jerry in the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare, which he co-founded. He saw the healthcare fight as the linchpin of an alternative worker-oriented political economy. Jerry served as unpaid staff to the organization and his leadership, contacts, and respect helped bring a broad group of leaders to the table. Throughout our deliberations, Jerry always advocated for the long view: building a grassroots movement strong enough to confront the massed corporate power at the core of the healthcare system. He stressed connecting our campaign to the fights against concessions at the bargaining table and urged against “inside the Beltway” thinking.
Jerry had an abiding belief in the ability of working people to make a better world for themselves. Despite all the defeats and disappointments, he never deviated from that touchstone. In his recorded remarks to last spring’s Labor Notes Conference he said, “I have an uncompromising faith in the rank and file’s capacity to respond when the truth is shared and a two-way flow of strategic and tactical options is offered the base.”
But he was no idle dreamer. He loved to quote his old civil rights buddy: “Remember, son, they be scheming while you be dreaming.” Whether it was a blockhead on the plant negotiating committee or the president of a national union, he refused to suffer fools gladly. Yet he had infinite patience and regard for anyone who wanted to stand and fight for workers.
Those who knew and loved Jerry were impressed by his warmth and his wide-ranging involvements, from jazz to baseball.
We live and fight today because of Jerry’s vision and leadership. The world will miss him.
Mark Dudzic is organizer of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer and a former local union president.
Jerry’s family, his wife Elaine and his daughters Tracy, Nicole, and Cynthia, ask that those who wish to contribute in Jerry’s name do so to the Labor Campaign for Single Payer. We encourage readers to comment here and to see the postings on the funeral chapel’s site.
Remembering Jerry Tucker
Help Put the Movement Back in the Labor Movement
Become a Labor Notes Monthly Sustaining Donor
Monthly donors receive a free "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt and a subscription to our magazine. Donate Now. »
by Elly Leary
I first heard of Jerry in the mid-1980s. I was part of a progressive/reform caucus in UAW Local 422, the GM plant in Framingham, Massachusetts. Our caucus, the STANDUP, had, against all odds, elected a delegate to the UAW Convention. On the first night of the convention we got a very excited phone call: “You all won’t believe it. There is an entire region here running on exactly the same platform as ours! The leader is the assistant regional director, Jerry Tucker.” We knew we needed to find out more.
Jerry started as a rank and filer and then held just about every elected office inside the UAW: committeeman (steward), grievance chair, bargaining chair, local president, UAW staff in Region 5 and for the international in Washington, political director, assistant regional director and regional director (which made him a member of the international executive board).
But as impressive as those titles and duties are, that is not what made Jerry a visionary. Long before the union movement learned that you needed to be partners (as in equals) and in coalition with the community, Jerry figured that out in the mid-1970s bruising campaign to defeat right to work in Missouri. Jerry led this trailblazing effort on behalf of the UAW.
But Jerry is probably most famous for his contributions in creative strategies for worker power in contract struggles and for rank-and-file education.
Run the Plant Backwards
No doubt Jerry’s experience as a rank and filer gave him the insight that workers knew more about the production process than management. When workplace struggle, contracts, and lockouts loomed, Jerry pulled together the rank and file and had them examine in fine detail the production process. He would ask questions like, “Where are the possible bottlenecks in production?” “What are the crucial points in the production process?” “If we are to tame management by using our intimate knowledge of how work gets done, where is the tip of the spear?”
Jerry didn’t do for workers, but created space for workers to analyze and strategize about exploiting production vulnerabilities. Through this process, escalating as workers gained confidence and experience, Jerry got workers to “run the plant backwards.” Rather than striking, especially in times when scabs were prevalent and economic conditions poor, Jerry chose another strategy that asked workers to use their brains, not just their labor power. And get full pay for doing it.
Jerry’s other great contribution was in worker education. Learning from his mentor and friend Victor Reuther and the experiences of Brookwood Labor College (in the late 1920s) and the very early days of Highlander Folk Center (1930s), Jerry helped train many rank-and-file workers. Labor education wasn’t just learning to file grievances and how to lobby. For Jerry the essence was to help workers bring forward what they knew, reorganize it so that it could be part of strategic planning, and add a dose of a world view to put everything into context. A participant in any Tucker-inspired “Solidarity School” was at the same time a teacher, a facilitator, and a learner.
This was the cauldron in which the New Directions Movement, the progressive caucus within the UAW, was born in 1987 in Region 5. Unlike many other union caucuses, the NDM wasn’t satisfied with cleaning up the union and making it a hotbed of democracy; we wanted to rebuild the world, with workers in the driver’s seat. That meant taking on white supremacy, and patriarchy, and often xenophobia. Jerry was forced to take the role of standard-bearer in this immense and often dangerous effort.
Even with all these accomplishments, my favorite accomplishment of Jerry’s was that he was the only white player in the local Negro Baseball Sandlot league in St. Louis. Rest in peace, shortstop and playmaker. It will be a long time until someone like you comes along again.
Elly Leary was a member of two UAW locals and a leader of New Directions.
Remembering Jerry Tucker
by Dean Braid
I was first introduced to Jerry Tucker on January 8, 1989, at a huge rally in Pontiac, Michigan titled “A New Beginning.”
The UAW had begun to accelerate a historic change in direction with its relationship with management. The promise was that a new working environment named “jointness,” with equal sacrifice from management and union members, would let both entities win. This process had begun in the 1979 contract, and after 10 years of subtle changes, many rank-and-file and elected leaders felt we were going down a dangerous path that would ultimately destroy the basic principles the UAW was founded on.
Jerry was one of the speakers. He was former director of UAW Region 5. In 1986 his election had been stolen and a two-year legal battle had won a court-ordered new election which Jerry won handily. The rally’s final speaker was UAW founder Victor Reuther, who had joined the dissidents.
This was a new beginning for the UAW, to step away from the one-party system run by the Administration Caucus and to promote real democracy through honest debate. It was the beginning of a national movement within the UAW, to be known as the New Directions Movement. Jerry was the catalyst to bring these leaders together.
The first New Directions conference was held that fall, adopting a constitution. The common idea was that the UAW must turn away from cooperation and jointness if we intended to stop plant closings and outsourcing of jobs. (One of the highlights of the convention was the premiere of a new documentary, “Roger and Me,” by an unknown filmmaker from Flint, Michigan, Michael Moore.)
New Directions conferences continued for over 10 years. Each year Victor Reuther would help educate us. Victor had been alarmed by the cooperation-heavy Saturn agreement with GM in 1985 because members did not have the opportunity to vote on it. But when he heard of the illegal vote tampering against Jerry at the 1986 UAW convention, it forced him out of retirement to try to save his beloved UAW.
In 1991 New Directions drafted Jerry to oppose UAW President Owen Bieber for president. His platform called for a clean break from jointness and a solidarity-based strategy to protect workers and their communities.
In Labor Notes’ Troublemaker’s Handbook, I learned that Jerry Tucker had used “inside strategies.” It explained how to run a manufacturing plant backwards until the corporation met the demands of the membership. In a time when other union leaders were showing the losing results of concession bargaining, Jerry Tucker and these members, with inside strategies, were winning on shop floor rules and better contracts.
As joint UAW-management programs were watering down the education of rank-and-file members, Jerry set up Solidarity Schools that taught traditional UAW tactics.
In the mid-1990s, during the brutal A.E. Staley workers’ struggle, Jerry was hired as a strategic advisor. Not only did he educate members in the safety of their local union hall, but he also led militant rallies marching down the streets of Decatur, Illinois. I witnessed Jerry on the front line at the gates of the Staley plant when he and others were maliciously pepper-sprayed directly in their eyes by police in full riot gear. That day I saw how committed Jerry was to the rank and file and what they believed in. He literally put his life on the line.
It was a sad day for labor when Jerry lost his battle with cancer, but Jerry inspired hundreds of activists who will continue his work.
In the words of Victor Reuther and Jerry Tucker: carry on, brothers and sisters, carry on!
Dean Braid is retired from General Motors and is a former education director of UAW Local 599 in Flint, Michigan.