Alec MacGillis’ profile of the recently deceased union activist Jerry Tucker has led to a lot of discussion in labor circles over the last week. Tucker was an activist for a different kind of union, one that eschewed the board room and the lawyers for direct action, worker empowerment, and union democracy. In other words, MacGillis wonders if Tucker is “The Man Who Could Have Saved Organized Labor.”
Tucker himself was quite an amazing individual. A committed anti-racist, Tucker led what was seen as an impossible but successful campaign to defeat a right to work law in Missouri in 1978. He promoted work-to-rule tactics, which are ways workers can slow down production or otherwise drive employers crazy without breaking the contract or the law. He won struggle after struggle, becoming a hero for those wanting a rejuvenated and active labor movement. For all of this, Tucker was loathed by many leaders of the United Auto Workers, his home union, because work-to-rule and direct democracy challenged bureaucratic union structures and the AFL-CIO’s preferred strategy of working out issues with lawyers in Washington and the state capitals.
As MacGillis states, what Tucker recognized is that the corporation is always the enemy of the worker. When union leadership wanted to be chummy with politicians and corporate bosses, Tucker understood that the only real bulwark for long-term union success was the kind of mass mobilization and individual empowerment for the collective good that spawned the great period of American unionization in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.
That lesson is just as strong today. Union executives, even of so-called progressive and organizing-centric unions like SEIU, are as wary of grassroots organizing and union democracy as they were in the George Meany and Lane Kirkland eras. It’s hardly surprising that the big union stories of 2012 have followed a track of success for grassroots movements and failure for institutionalized structures. The Chicago Teachers Union was the big win last year precisely because of its extremely democratic nature. The Madison protests showed the power of militant grassroots protests. The decision to channel those protests into the recall Scott Walker campaign was a giant mistake, especially when the Democratic candidate to replace him wasn’t even strongly pro-union. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO found itself completely taken aback by the Michigan right to work law and from what I can tell, nothing on the ground is happening there to challenge this.
In short, for American labor to revive itself, we need more Jerry Tuckers and less Andy Sterns.