Thursday, January 03, 2013


Michael Fiorello sent us an obituary for a true labor leader who most of us never heard of: Jerry Tucker.  This is from the New Republic.

I am linking to it for two reasons:

1.  The article makes it clear that Tucker was a hero for working people across this country.  He spent his life improving the lives of many union workers.

2. Since the UFT election upcoming in 2013, a debate is starting (please read the comments in the piece from our friend Chaz) over what social justice unionism means in the context of the UFT.  It is necessary for us to define what I prefer to call rank and file unionism as opposed to  top-down unionism (the current UFT leadership structure).

Here is an excerpt on Jerry Tucker from the New Republic piece by Alec MacGillis:

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.

Happy New Year everyone!


Anonymous said...

How nice to know that Chaz is voting for MORE.

ed notes online said...

I'm trying to figure out how to do social justice unionism when your product is a car. But give me some time.

Anonymous said...

Tucker managed to do it. working class solidarity carries over to many industries.