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The Man Who Could Have Saved Organized Labor

It has been a dispiriting year for organized labor. Unions contributed greatly to the reelection of Barack Obama and the Democrats’ retention of the Senate, but were punched in the gut before they could savor the victories. Michigan’s Republican legislature and governor rushed a bill through the lame-duck session, making the birthplace of the United Auto Workers a “right-to-work” state. The move has inspired conservative legislators in several other states to follow suit, raising the possibility that a majority of the 50 states will soon be right-to-work, allowing workers to opt out of paying dues to unions even as they benefit from union contracts, and thereby further weakening an institution that has seen its membership drop from a third of the private sector workforce 60 years ago to 7 percent today.

Few have fought harder to keep labor from this plight than Jerry Tucker. An outspoken dissident, Tucker urged an alternate course for American unions for more than three decades, one with a broader progressive message and greater empowerment of rank and file workers. Despite his repeated successes in the field of action, Tucker was largely sidelined by the union establishment. Labor could desperately use Tucker's guidance today, but it's too late: He died in his hometown of St. Louis on October 19 of pancreatic cancer, at age 73.

Still, with the movement he loved in such dire straits, it’s worth reckoning with him and his legacy to ask: Could it have been different? And might it yet be? Tucker, who was born in 1938, bridged worlds apart. A bearish and bearded man, his blue collar roots were impeccable: He was the son of a tool-and-die worker and got his start with the United Auto Workers doing factory work for General Motors and Carter Carburetor. But he was also an unapologetic intellectual. He got a degree from Southern Illinois University; spent some early years hanging around the Beat scene in San Francisco’s North Beach; and, in the final chapter of his career, gave a big speech at the Sorbonne.

“Jerry was in some ways the Lord Byron of our movement -- this deeply committed, eloquent activist and fighter who had this impact on everyone he came in contact with,” said Bill Fletcher, Jr. a fellow unionist, now with the American Federation of Government Employees, who knew Tucker for 20 years. Raised in a segregated city, Tucker married a black woman and was the only white player in St. Louis’ Negro Baseball Sandlot League. “I rarely thought of Jerry as a white guy, and I don’t say this just because he was married to an African-American woman,” Fletcher said. “The fight against racism was part of who Jerry was. He was always quite self-conscious, and I mean this in a good way, of the privileged status he has as a white male in our society.”

By the mid-‘70s, Tucker was working in the UAW’s Washington office, watching as the tide started to turn against labor. Deindustrialization was accelerating, the business lobby was gaining might, and, even with Jimmy Carter in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress, pro-union reforms of labor laws were watered down and ultimately defeated (by two votes in the Senate, as Carter stood by). Pro-management momentum grew stronger with the election of Ronald Reagan and his crushing of the air traffic-controllers union, prompting many labor leaders to drop back into the defensive, accommodationist posture that has prevailed for most of the years since.

Against this stood Tucker. He didn’t care much for the Beltway – “he was definitely not your quintessential Washington labor guy,” said Joe Uehlein, who worked in the AFL-CIO’s industrial division -- and was glad to be dispatched back to Missouri, where he led a come-from-behind effort in 1978 to defeat a referendum to make his home state right-to-work. The referendum was leading in the polls by a 2-1 margin when he took charge of the opposition; he assembled a broad coalition, reaching beyond labor to churches, farmers and women’s groups, and defeated the measure by a 3-2 margin. “It was true mobilization – having unionists explain why unions mattered, go out into the community, with precinct captains all around the state,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of California-Santa Barbara historian. The victory left Missouri as a haven of union-friendly territory on the edge of an otherwise hostile South, and helped preserve it as a political swing state until just recently. For Tucker, the victory proved that even in an era of anti-union sentiment, direct appeals to middle-class interests could still hold sway. 

He brought the same lesson to UAW showdowns in the 1980s, working as assistant director for the region stretching from Missouri to Texas. Seeing how ineffective strikes were becoming -- employers were more than happy to take a strike and bring in replacements -- Tucker resuscitated the work-to-rule strategy, in which workers frustrate employers by slowing down operations all the while technically hewing to the letter of their contract. Work-to-rule appealed to Tucker because its success depended on the full understanding and empowerment of the entire workforce. In the most practical terms, this meant getting workers to grasp the “reverse engineering” of plant operations in order to identify the bottlenecks that would confound production without breaking the contract. At a time of precious few victories for unions, Tucker’s approach succeeded at one plant after another, two of which were documented in an AFL-CIO manual on the “Inside Game.” “We would organize a communications network on the shop floor, a 1 to 10 ratio, so everyone’s in the loop,” recalled Uehlein. “It would be putting out word for all different kinds of actions...And it did catch on in a pretty big way.”

At one of the victorious sites, the 500-worker Moog Auto Plant in St. Louis, managers expecting a conventional showdown shut off the power the night that the union’s contract expired in 1981. But at Tucker’s direction, employees reported for work the next morning and launched a six-month internal-pressure campaign: a “solidarity committee” came up with work-to-rule tactics and on-the-job protests, workers contributed a little from each paycheck to support colleagues who were fired or disciplined, and workers, white and black alike, skipped work January 15 to object to the company’s refusal to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. As the “Inside Game” manual recounts, the campaign reached its peak when several hundred tradesmen walked out in protest of supervisors’ refusal to deal with smoke and chloride fumes. Management finally came back to the table with a 36 percent pay increase over 40 months – and recognition of MLK Day. Word started to get around about Tucker’s success. As his obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it, “He said he had never lost a work-to-rule campaign, never failed to win a fair contract, and always got illegally fired activists their jobs back with back pay.”

But this approach also represented a challenge to union leadership. Whereas the traditional strike depended on the top-down command of union leaders, a robustly-deployed inside game depended on the engagement of workers, who knew the day-to-day operations of the workplace the best and had a better sense of how to confound them than their union superiors did. This was precisely why Tucker advocated for this approach: It was hugely empowering for workers to come up with their own tactics. Invariably, it made them more supportive of major actions--more willing to “up the ante,” as Tucker liked to say.

Not all union bureaucrats were willing to surrender that much control to the rank and file, though, which may explain why Tucker struggled to bring his approach to the national level -- to broaden it across the UAW, whose leadership he saw falling into demoralizing complacency under the guise of labor-management cooperation as the Big 3’s industry share and union activism faded in tandem. Tucker put himself forward for regional director at the 1986 UAW convention and was on the verge of winning when, as In These Times’ obituary recounts, “the union’s long-dominant administration caucus brought to the convention two union officers from a small Texas local who had not been elected as delegates to cast the deciding votes against him. Tucker challenged the election, and the Labor Department successfully sued to overturn it. He won when the balloting was held again in 1988, but a year later the administration caucus poured enormous effort into a campaign against him, and he lost.”

In 1992, he ran for president of the union as part of the insurrectionist, rank-and-file based New Directions reform movement. Fletcher, who reluctantly turned down Tucker’s invitation to be his campaign manager, recalls the vision: “He said to me that there needs to be a labor reformation...He was not simply talking about more militancy, he was simply talking about better tactics, he was talking about a rethinking of the role and mission of the union movement...It meant the centrality of the member...The rank and file needed real education, not simply training on filing grievances but helping people develop a progressive world view. Labor needed to be outspoken on a broader range of issues that went beyond the workplace.”

Tucker lost the long-shot bid, and was officially persona non grata. “He told me, ‘you’re going to get the word that we can’t talk anymore,’” recalled Uehlein. “The word came down very hard.” But his reputation had been established and his lone-wolf services were enlisted -- often over the objections of union higher-ups -- for a range of battles, most notably at the giant Staley agriculture processing plant in Decatur, Ill in the early 1990s. It was an epic showdown, with teargas deployed against worker protests. After first trying the work-to-rule approach, Tucker deployed a “corporate campaign” after the company locked out workers in 1993 – putting pressure on big Staley customers such as Miller beer, which responded to the union’s pressure by dropping Staley as a supplier. Tucker dispatched “road warriors” across the country to make the case for the workers’ cause and why it mattered to everyone else and raise money for the locked-out workers.

But to no avail. Staley’s owners, the huge British sugar conglomerate Tate & Lyle, wore the union down over time, aided by a lack of resolve at the upper levels of the newly merged international that housed the Staley workers. When workers voted to end the lockout after 30 months, with the corporate campaign on the verge of persuading Pepsi to drop Staley but with union higher-ups urging resolution, only 110 of 760 workers got their jobs back.

Meanwhile, Tucker had been taking on lower-profile fights for unions like the newspaper guild unit at the Post-Dispatch, where he was called in after the Pulitzer company hired anti-union lawyers to break the guild. There was no teargas here, but the tactics were similar – doing everything possible to get the broader St. Louis community to understand why the guild’s fight mattered to them, and to get it to exert pressure on Pulitzer. “It was: You can’t just stand in front of your building and yell about your company,” said Jeff Gordon, the leader of the guild local. “You’ve got to go out to other groups that would be concerned – faith groups, politicians. Any group where people assemble and care about your community, that’s where you’ve got to go and talk about it in terms they can appreciate….Get your people to get out and talk. It’s hard, but it convinced us to get off our butts.” The guild won, and the Post-Dispatch remains a union shop to this day.

Beyond these individual fights, Tucker kept up his broader campaign as a dissident reformer, helping found issue-based coalitions such as Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare and U.S. Labor Against the War and groups such as the Center for Labor Renewal, which held “solidarity schools” where Tucker preached his vision for the movement. He was unimpressed by upheavals in the upper echelons of the movement, such as the split of several large unions from the AFL-CIO in 2005, led by Andy Stern, leader of the Service Employees International Union. As Tucker saw it, this was merely a shuffling of deck chairs on a doomed liner--or rather, a shuffling of ship captains with little regard for empowering those in the decks below. As he put in his 2005 speech at the Sorbonne, at a conference on U.S. social movements, “Not part of the leader-led debate is the more fundamental question of the ‘culture’ of unionism in America today. Can the present debate really make a difference if it avoids an objective examination of what the labor movement should stand for – its larger social purposes, the education and activism of its base, and the democratic principles that must underpin its governance?”

The speech grew more fiery as he went on. None of the proposals from the big unions “raises the banner of a new social vision to counter the market-driven economic and political stratification of American life.” Looking back at labor’s decline, he declared that it “went through the 1970s looking more like a guest whose invitation to the ‘big party’ had been rescinded than the respected voice of the American working class.” Labor should have recognized the crisis of its declining membership and made a “significant effort to organize all people that are broadly included in the nation’s working class.” Instead, in the 1980s, union leaders were on “cruise control”: “rank and file workers were now under a relentless and accelerating attack, and the remote, relatively comfortable upper echelon could not feel the pain.”

By the speech’s end, Tucker turned sweeping: “Overcoming the crisis starts with the introduction of a new vision of a just society. A nascent left within labor and community organizations can help supply that vision and bring important organizing, strategic, and tactical, and coalition building skills to a resurgent struggle for justice. But the current labor leaders are debating process, not direction. Their arguments are narrow and bureaucratically ministerial. What’s also missing in today’s debate among the union heads is anger, a deep and resolute class anger. Some leaders seem more angry with each other than with the perpetrators of the crisis they claim to want to solve. Many are in denial. And much of the debate represents an exercise in unyielding parochialism.”

What labor needed is a “clear definition of our generic enemy. Some have named a few rogue corporations or particularly bad employers, but that does not describe the concerted nature of this sustained attack…Taking on Wal-Mart, and ‘Wal-Martization’ is worth doing, but it’s just one part of capital’s offensive. Ours is a crisis with a million victims. Those victims are being attacked by enemies – corporate and governmental – with a shared ideology. Labor should not shrink from condemning that ideology.”

Could Americans today really rally to such a message? Yes, he argued. “Today many American workers are cynical and collectively do have reduced expectations. They know all too well that their quality of life is under attack, and, for many of them, that unionism has not held up its end in the struggle….But that does not mean now…that the willingness to fight back, the urgency to resist injustice, and the desire for dignity have been driven from the consciousness of our sisters and brothers. They have it in them to engage in struggle when they perceive the struggle has immediacy in their lives, when the injustices are real, and when they know they will not be alone.”

Tucker gave a last iteration of his call to the Labor Notes conference this past May, which he addressed by video link after receiving the conference’s Troublemakers award. His face was hollowed by cancer, but he spoke emphatically to the camera: “The journey has been bumpy and the struggle for justice and working class dignity never takes a holiday. As an old civil rights veteran told me in the 1960s regarding our classist and racist enemies, ‘Always remember son, they be scheming while you be dreaming.’ It was true then and no less true today. The enemy of the working class is relentless and we have to be no less relentless in our response, and strategic. Beware of the false prophets in our ranks who call for accommodation and appeasement as an answer. Our ultimate strength is the organization of our members and the collective deployment of them strategically and tactically. An informed and well-organized rank and file is at the center of every victorious struggle. I have an uncompromising faith in the rank and file’s capacity to respond when the truth is shared.”

Tucker died five months later; he was advising unions up until his health collapsed at the very end. And it was hard not to hear the echo of his warnings in the news of the past few weeks: it was the home base of the union that cast him out, the UAW, that absorbed the right-to-work blow; one of the states where Republicans have been inspired to follow suit is Missouri, site of Tucker’s first big victory 35 years ago.

Counterfactual conjectures are just that, but one can’t help but wonder whether unions, and the country’s working and middle class, would be in any better position today had labor recognized earlier just how powerful the challenge to its existence was, how deleterious the consequences of its decline would be in contributing to the stagnation of wages and rise in inequality that have defined our economy for the past three decades. Indeed, it is not hard to see Tucker’s influence in the remaining pockets where labor does retain real influence, such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, on the west coast, and the Chicago Teachers Union, which employed an unusually rank-and-file-driven approach in its recent showdown with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Tucker’s vision was not without blind spots – he was too quick to dismiss the more mundane reforms that could aid labor’s cause, such as the long-stalled Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize but in all likelihood will require filibuster reform to ever have a prayer of becoming law. But Tucker’s legacy offers a reminder that ire over the plight of the struggling working and lower middle class – Mitt Romney’s 47 percent – need not turn to apathy or resignation. It can also serve to rally and bind. It may not be the labor movement as presently constituted that leads that rallying – that’s a subject for another day – but the ire and desire for a better lot will be out there among American workers, by the millions, looking for someone to harness it as Jerry Tucker never stopped trying to do for the past thirty-five years.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis