Even After Death, Jerry Tucker Inspires Labor Activists

Micah Uetricht

Jerry Tucker's time of advocacy is over, but the organizing strategies he pioneered are still very much alive in movements all over the country. (Brad Perkins / Flickr / Creative Commons)

In Jan­u­ary, an obit­u­ary of Jer­ry Tuck­er, who died of pan­cre­at­ic can­cer a year ago at age 73, char­ac­ter­ized the long­time labor activist as the man who could have saved orga­nized labor.”

Tuck­er might have balked at the sug­ges­tion that he him­self could have been the sav­ior of orga­nized labor. He fer­vent­ly believed that work­ers could save them­selves — through demo­c­ra­t­ic, mil­i­tant union­ism led by rank-and-file mem­bers. Ear­li­er this month, Tucker’s vision was remem­bered and debat­ed in his home­town of St. Louis, Mo., as about 100 union­ists from through­out the coun­try gath­ered at the Jer­ry Tuck­er: The Per­son, The Mis­sion, The Lega­cy” con­fer­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-St. Louis. 

The conference’s pro­gram spanned the inno­v­a­tive and suc­cess­ful union cam­paigns Tuck­er helped design and lead as well as sim­i­lar union cam­paigns today. Through­out the week­end, pan­elists spoke about his insis­tence on mak­ing the labor move­ment a force that advo­cat­ed for the entire work­ing class through coali­tion-build­ing with com­mu­ni­ty groups; his time as a dis­si­dent with­in his own union, the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW), with his chal­lenges to lead­er­ship to become more demo­c­ra­t­ic and to end col­lab­o­ra­tion with cor­po­ra­tions before becom­ing per­sona non gra­ta with­in it; and the cen­tral­i­ty of con­fronting sex­ism and racism with­in unions. 

A life on the barricades

After a night of per­son­al remem­brances of Tuck­er, the con­fer­ence includ­ed two days of pan­el dis­cus­sions by union activists, many of whom worked along­side Tuck­er, dis­cussing dif­fer­ent cam­paigns he helped design and their rel­e­vance for unions today.

One of Tucker’s first major vic­to­ries came in 1978, when he head­ed efforts against a busi­ness-led bal­lot ref­er­en­dum to bring right-to-work” to Mis­souri. Mike Can­non, Tucker’s long­time assis­tant at the UAW, recalled on a pan­el dis­cus­sion on the conference’s sec­ond day that labor wait­ed until the last minute to fight the cam­paign, just three months before a vote. But Tuck­er quick­ly pulled out all the stops,” Can­non said, over­see­ing efforts to cre­ate a mas­sive anti-ref­er­en­dum coali­tion with women’s, envi­ron­men­tal, senior cit­i­zens’, civ­il rights, con­sumer, and even farmer groups. More than 100,000 new vot­ers were reg­is­tered, Can­non said, and 24,000 vol­un­teers phone-banked and knocked on doors through­out the entire state. 

Despite being out­spent by near­ly 30 per­cent, the fevered labor-com­mu­ni­ty cam­paign actu­al­ly flipped the vote pro­ject­ed by polls just six weeks before­hand, win­ning three-to-two against right to work.” 

His vision led us to vic­to­ry in 1978,” Can­non said. The state remains free of the law today, though the Right may again attempt to pass the law in the near future.

Through­out the 1980s, work­ing for the UAW’s Region Five, which spans 17 states in the West and South­west, Tuck­er became a key strate­gist in pio­neer­ing win­ning work­er-led tac­tics like work-to-rule.” Employ­ers dur­ing this era often attempt­ed to pro­voke work­ers into strik­ing dur­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, assum­ing they could take advan­tage of labor law allow­ing for per­ma­nent replace­ment of strik­ers by scabs” to crush unions. Instead of walk­ing off, how­ev­er, work­ers employed the work-to-rule” strat­e­gy of stay­ing at work and fol­low­ing com­pa­ny reg­u­la­tions to the let­ter with­out doing any­thing beyond what was required of them — lead­ing to sig­nif­i­cant­ly less­ened pro­duc­tion while not tech­ni­cal­ly break­ing any rules. 

Cannon’s plant at the time, the Moog Auto Plant in St. Louis, resist­ed strik­ing in 1981the same year Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan fired strik­ing air traf­fic con­trollers—and ran a tight work-to-rule cam­paign. Even­tu­al­ly, the com­pa­ny basi­cal­ly said, we have no con­trol over our pro­duc­tion process what­so­ev­er,” Can­non remem­bered. We have no idea what’s going on in our own plant. What will it take [to set­tle with the work­ers]?” Moog had set out to destroy the union; instead, work­ers won a 36 per­cent raise over three years and ben­e­fit increases.

In 1993, Tuck­er helped run a sim­i­lar cam­paign at the A.E. Sta­ley corn pro­cess­ing plant in Decatur, Ill., where work­ers were locked out for two years in one of the key labor bat­tles of the 1990s. Art Dhermy, a for­mer Sta­ley work­er, described on a pan­el how the tac­tic Tuck­er helped design empow­ered him as a rank-and-file worker.

I saw the light at the end of the tun­nel. I could do some­thing. Me, the guy sit­ting on the [fac­to­ry] floor,” Dhermy said.

Work­ers like Dhermy were at the cen­ter of the Sta­ley work-to-rule fight, com­ing up with strate­gies, orga­niz­ing ral­lies, build­ing sup­port com­mit­tees through­out the coun­try, and con­duct­ing com­pa­ny research themselves.

At the same time Tuck­er was advis­ing work­ers at Sta­ley, how­ev­er, his own for­mer union, the UAW, was attempt­ing a work-to-rule strat­e­gy at an embat­tled Cater­pil­lar plant in Decatur. Though Tuck­er was an expert on the tac­tic, he was not asked to advise the cam­paign, because his chal­lenges to UAW lead­er­ship in the years before had made him a pari­ah with­in the union.

While on staff at the UAW Dis­trict 5, Tuck­er and oth­er union dis­si­dents cre­at­ed a reform cau­cus, New Direc­tions, to run for the district’s lead­er­ship in 1986. He opposed what he saw as the col­lab­o­ra­tionism and top-down char­ac­ter of the union’s lead­er­ship; staff posi­tions pro­vid­ed nice rock­ing chair oppor­tu­ni­ties,” he said in 1992, while work­ers … are pay­ing the price.”

Recount­ing the his­to­ry of the cau­cus on a pan­el titled Lessons from the New Direc­tions Move­ment,” Eric Mann, direc­tor of the Labor/​Community Strat­e­gy Cen­ter in Los Ange­les, described New Direc­tions as push­ing union democ­ra­cy in the mid­dle of a dic­ta­tor­ship.” Ille­gal maneu­vers by the old guard dur­ing lead­er­ship elec­tions at the 1986 union con­ven­tion led to Tucker’s slate los­ing; a drawn-out legal bat­tle even­tu­al­ly found the old guard guilty of wrong­do­ing, and the elec­tion was rerun, with New Direc­tions’ nom­i­nat­ed lead­ers winning.

Accord­ing to Tuck­er, UAW’s pres­i­dent at the time, Owen Bieber, refused to shake his hand upon his instal­la­tion as Dis­trict 5 direc­tor; instead, he imme­di­ate­ly informed Dis­trict 5 staff that they weren’t to take orders from [Tuck­er] — that they worked for him. And he would assure them that he would aggres­sive­ly cam­paign, as he expect­ed them to do, to remove [Tuck­er] at the fol­low­ing convention.”

True to Bieber’s word, the incum­bent lead­er­ship pulled out all the stops at the next union con­ven­tion, and Tuck­er was defeat­ed. Though Tuck­er ran a large­ly sym­bol­ic failed cam­paign for UAW pres­i­dent soon after­ward, he had become an out­cast with­in the union.

Tucker’s lega­cy lingers

Though Tuck­er was oust­ed from the UAW more than twen­ty years ago, his style of bot­tom-up, mil­i­tant union­ism may still be a threat to some fig­ures in the labor move­ment. On the con­fer­ence’s final day, Bill Fletch­er, a long­time union activist and a close friend of Tucker’s, claimed that before the con­fer­ence began, there were some efforts by union lead­ers to derail the con­fer­ence in its nascent stages, though he did not indi­cate who had made the threats.

There were peo­ple that were deeply wor­ried that Jerry’s life and work would so res­onate among the cur­rent and upcom­ing gen­er­a­tions,” Fletch­er said, that peo­ple may say the exist­ing or dom­i­nant form of trade union­ism is bogus, and needs to be chal­lenged, and we need to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. And these demons felt so strong­ly about it that they were will­ing to try to stran­gle this con­fer­ence to make sure it didn’t get off the ground.

It was at that moment that I real­ized that Jer­ry was very much still among us,” Fletch­er said. Con­fer­ence orga­niz­ers declined to com­ment on the alleged threats.

Indeed, it became clear soon into the con­fer­ence that Tucker’s life had a huge impact on past and present union­ists through­out the coun­try. Though his time of advo­ca­cy is over, the strate­gies he helped devel­op and the vision of union activism he fer­vent­ly believed in are still present in some con­tem­po­rary work­er-led campaigns.

Rasheen Aldridge, a 19-year-old St. Louis Jim­my John’s work­er who walked off the job along with oth­er St. Louis fast food strik­ers this May and received a schol­ar­ship in Tucker’s name, spoke on the pan­el New Voic­es, New Forms of Orga­ni­za­tion: Con­ti­nu­ities and Change.”

We’re not going to stop when we get eight bucks, we’re not going to stop when we get 8.50, we’re going all the way to 15 and a union,” Aldridge said, in tones Tuck­er sure­ly would have approved of.

And in a pan­el on the conference’s last day, Chica­go Teach­ers Union finan­cial sec­re­tary Kris­tine Mayle not­ed that the on-the-job mil­i­tan­cy and orga­niz­ing along­side com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers that Tuck­er advo­cat­ed for was also being car­ried out by Chica­go teachers.

I did­n’t know who Jer­ry Tuck­er was com­ing here, but I’d swear there must peo­ple with­in our union who did,” Mayle said. Because every­thing I heard yes­ter­day [dur­ing ses­sions on Tucker’s life] is what we’re doing in Chicago.”

A cen­tral belief of most of the conference’s atten­dees was that Tucker’s activism was a bright spot dur­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly dark days of Amer­i­can labor his­to­ry. At a time when the rest of labor was on the retreat, push­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with boss­es as the only way to weath­er the storm of post-1970s dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, Tuck­er ratch­eted up the lev­el of strug­gle. As labor increas­ing­ly became what Tuck­er called parochial and nar­row-mind­ed, focus­ing only on the con­cerns of its own work­ers, he pushed for a labor move­ment that rep­re­sent­ed the entire work­ing class. And when the top-down style of Amer­i­can union lead­er­ship sky­rock­et­ed, Tuck­er worked to build rank-and-file work­er-led pow­er, refus­ing to back down from con­fronta­tion even with lead­ers of his own union, which even­tu­al­ly led to his own exile. He deserves to be remem­bered along­side Moth­er Jones, Big Bill Hay­wood and oth­er rad­i­cal Amer­i­can labor heroes of years gone by. 

Today, as the move­ment teeters on the brink of extinc­tion, sim­i­lar bot­tom-up, mil­i­tant orga­niz­ing might be the only thing that can save orga­nized labor.

Jerry’s life was about over­com­ing fatal­ism and cre­at­ing struc­tures where [work­ers’] actions real­ly mat­ter,” said Sam Gindin, for­mer research direc­tor for the Cana­di­an Auto Work­ers, dur­ing a con­fer­ence ses­sion. Tuck­er, he said, rep­re­sent­ed the very best of the Amer­i­can work­ing class.”

The Inter­na­tion­al Union, Unit­ed Auto­mo­bile, Aero­space and Agri­cul­tur­al Imple­ment Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UAW) is a spon­sor of In These Times.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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