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Jerry Tucker


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.

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  • T.R. Donoghue

    I really respect your knowledge and your writing on union history. Question though, have you ever worked in labor?

    • Yes.

    • To be specific, I helped organize a union at the University of Tennessee that is now affiliated with the Communication Workers of America. I also worked for a brief time for SEIU.

      • T.R. Donoghue

        Thanks, I’ve been curious if here ever in the trenches with us.

        • I don’t actually think it matters much though. Would my analysis of labor history and issues be less legitimate if I hadn’t worked for labor? Is Farley’s analysis of the military less useful because he was never in the military? Or Lemieux’s understanding of law not valid because he’s not a lawyer? Certainly having worked for labor is a good thing on its merits, but I’m not sure it makes much difference on this point.

          • T.R. Donoghue

            Yes, I think someone with no actual experience in labor would have a handicap when commenting on the current state of labor, organizing strategies and internal union issues.

            • Murc

              By this logic, most of us aren’t allowed to have opinions on politicians, because we’ve never held political office.

              We’ve never been cops, so we can’t have opinions on police work.


              The strength of Erik’s work depends on the strength of his work and the rigor with which he conducts it. Period. He could be a secret robot from the future and this would still apply.

              • T.R. Donoghue

                Please re-read what I actually said and leave your ridiculous straw men out of this. I never said someone who hadn’t worded in labor couldn’t have an opinion, or shouldn’t have an opinion, or should be ignored or anything of the sort.

              • Joey Maloney

                Have YOU ever been a secret robot from the future, Murc? No? Then STFU.

            • I don’t agree, but your feeling is certainly shared by many people in labor. It’s an interesting question.

          • Linnaeus

            No, it doesn’t, but I kinda understand where T.R. Donoghue’s coming from. I’ve seen people in unions with very high-minded notions of union democracy and who voice constant mistrust of union leadership, but don’t seem to be interested in doing the day-to-day work to organize a union and keep it going.

            • T.R. Donoghue

              Yes, this is prescicely my skepticism.

  • cpinva

    you raise two interesting points:

    1. tucker was a committed anti-racist: it wasn’t until unions institutionally rejected racism (and eventually, sexism), and let prospective members know neither would be tolerated or defended, by the unions, that they really became powerful forces for all worker’s rights.

    2. “…..Tucker recognized is that the corporation is always the enemy of the worker”: this is true of the unions themselves. once union leadership became a full-time, professional activity, it became management, having far more in common with corporate management, than with the workers it represented. when the leadership stopped actually working the jobs it represented, and started spending its days in a suit & tie, rubbing shoulders only with lawyers and corporate management, it developed, by osmosis, the same attitudes as they, and the union membership became just another revenue stream.

    as to how to fix that problem, i honestly don’t know. it comes with the very goal of unions, a large membership, which, by its nature, requires a full-time leadership. corporations have the same problem, but their management isn’t required to give a shit about the workers, just profits. this leads to the other problems you identify because, the president of the UAW is no longer (and hasn’t been for decades) “one of the guys” on the line, more intimately familiar with their problems on the job, because they are also his/her problems on the job.

    • On point 1: Yes of course, but it’s also important to note that we still have to recognize the great value union added to society even when they were racist organizations. And also let’s not forget that it was not union leadership foisting white supremacy on its members. Rather, white supremacy led to the first real victory in the history of American organized labor (the Chinese Exclusion Act) and that was as grassroots when it came. When union leadership did truly lead on racial equality, such as Walter Reuther and the UAW, the pushback from the rank and file was huge.

      On point 2: I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that union members became just another revenue stream, though that attitude probably does exist among some on the financial side of things. I do think that most union leaders truly believe they have their members’ interests at heart. But too many also think that they don’t have to actually ask the rank and file that question.

      • LeeEsq

        I actually thing that Point 1 is somewhat debatable. The high time of union power in the United States was probably between the late Depression and the mid-1960s, before Civil Rights and other issues imploded the Democratic Party and their traditional sources of votes. During this time, the forces of racism in the United States were beggining to weaken but were still operating relatively strongly. As civil rights became more of an issue, anti-union forces were able to use it against unions, especially in the South.

    • Joe B.

      I think most, if not all, members of the UAW leadership began their careers working on the production lines. Bob King might be several decades removed from his experience of an entry level position at Ford, but he would know what it’s like to have been a typical member. That’s much more of an understanding of his organization from the bottom up than any CEO would have.

      • Joe B.

        By which I mean to say that King is no different to Rutherglen, or to any other leader the UAW has had.

      • Joe B.

        Reuther, dammit.

    • djillionsmix

      I’ve heard point 2 enough times to wonder whether its explanatory power for the problems of labor is overstated. Is it really more of a factor than the opposition holding the superior position in terms of political, financial and social power? Like when these things come to shoving it’s generally one side that gets to call in the national guard, it’s not a huge shock that’s the side that tends to win.

      I’m not saying it’s not a factor, like I agree with erik that “just another revenue stream” is a little harsh but if you’re in a position like that there’s an inevitable point where people stop being people and start being the idea of people, and people inevitably deal differently with the idea of people than they do with the actual people that they actually deal with.

  • AB

    There are plenty of examples of unions being more democratic and less progressive, something left critiques of unions like this tend to conveniently ignore. Decentralized and democratic unions can at times be more exclusionary and more inward-looking.

    Also, just because your analysis says that moving from the Wisconsin protests to the recalls was wrong, doesn’t mean it was an undemocratic decision. You are assuming somehow that the protestors share your view with no evidence I can see. From my experience people on the ground were hungry for the recall fight.

    I generally agree that unions need to emphasize democracy and even more so grassroots action, but the tendency to reduce everything wrong about unions to be about union democracy oversimplifies the issue and is idealistic. Its become an easy way for criticizing unions for not being militant or not making the decisions the person making the critique would have made.

    I also don’t know where your evidence comes from that union leaders don’t spend enough time listening to the rank and file, or if they spent more time it would somehow have led to your preferred strategic outcomes.

    • Sly

      There are plenty of examples of unions being more democratic and less progressive, something left critiques of unions like this tend to conveniently ignore. Decentralized and democratic unions can at times be more exclusionary and more inward-looking.

      That is certainly a possibility, but is it more probable that a decentralized and democratic union becomes exclusionary, or that a centralized and undemocratic union becomes exclusionary? Where is the greater correlation?

      I bring this up because I think its fair to say that the building trade unions have been the most consistently exclusionary unions throughout America’s labor history, and that it’s also fair to say that they are more centralized and less accountable to their members than others.

    • John

      I definitely agree that there’s no necessary correlation between union democracy and radicalism or militancy — there’s always a balance to be struck between direct democracy and having elected representatives from union ranks make decisions that often have to be made quickly, especially in emergency situations. That said, I do think there is a real problem with not enough direct democracy being exercised in many unions, so the larger point is well-taken.

      But as someone active in a WI union, I also have to say I found the post’s glib, all-too-easy (and depressingly common among “left” labor commentators) summary of WI disheartening: “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.” This seems to assume other options were (a) feasible and (b) likely to be successful. (It also ignores or is ignorant of the fact that labor supported a more pro-union candidate in the primaries, and didn’t have perfect control over whether recalls were going to happen at all, since a lot of private citizens were already making it happen.)

      What was the other choice than recalls? A giant strike or civil disobedience of some kind? Neither of those was likely to happen with the WI rank-and-file as it was (I’m sorry to say it, and I’d like it to be different). And I’m not convinced such actions would have done other than convinced the public that unions WERE, in fact, spoiled little children who didn’t realize how good they had it. Certainly I doubt they would have convinced Scott Walker and the state legislature to turn around and rescind legislation they had just passed. (And remember, too, unlike in OH, WI doesn’t have the ability to pass referenda on individual acts of legislation — which might well have succeeded, had we had the option.)

      My larger point is that I’m sick and tired of seeing left labor commentators, whom I like and identify with, offer up the same thoughtless mantra that the recall strategy was automatically a bad idea, without ever feeling like they need to know something about the state of WI public employee unions’ rank and file, or to even have to speculate about the possible negative effects of radical action. This goes to T. R. Donoghue’s point in comments above, about how it helps to have actually been active in a union before making such commentary. Some humility would help here.

      • Bruce Vail

        Well said.

        The Walker fight was a fight that needed to be made. It was too bad we lost, but that doesn’t mean the fight was unnecessary or ill conceived.

        Let’s remember that in Michigan this year.

  • wengler

    I don’t know what can save unions, but I see a lot out there that are destroying them.

    One of the worst current practices is tiering. This is basically granting new hires none of the rights that current union members had when they first were hired. Here in Illinois new public school teachers are almost always pushed into a defined contributions pension plan unlike the defined benefits plan of current teachers. And surprise as the state legislature right now are doing their best to steal those pensions in the last days of a lame duck session, there is very little union push back. Because many of them, getting robbed up front through an unsustainable 401k, don’t care.

    • mpowell

      I have wondered about this. How older union members expect this to go well for themselves, I have no idea. If you want your union to be strong in 10-20 years when you need your pension to be protected, give the younger members the same deal that you have. And if that means you have to give up some of what you currently have, that’s probably a better idea than undermining the ongoing strength of the union by shafting the younger folks.

      • Marek

        Let’s not forget who’s doing the shafting here. It ain’t the union members…

  • anon

    Thanks for this. I had never heard of Mr. Tucker, despite being a fellow Saluki.

    I won’t have time to finish this until later, but I love this:

    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.

    • One of the Blue

      I’ve taught work-to-rule. One thing I heard back from rank and file numerous times is that it’s wicked hard to keep up. Union members, even those who are justifiably angry with the company want as badly as any other worker to do the best job they can, and work-to-rule cuts very much against this feeling.

  • Keaaukane

    You unionized Glenn Reynolds?

  • I am pretty sure my father invented the word “bogosity” in 1964.

  • Shava Nerad

    It might be worthwhile to recognize that a democratic process is no guarantee at all of progressive results:

    http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/linkbackups/huac_blacklist.htm#SAG & the Blacklist

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