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The Significance of Jerry Tucker

The October 19th passing of noted labor activist Jerry Tucker sent shock waves throughout the labor movement.

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.

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