A new unionism…and a few words on Jerry Tucker

I recently spoke in Western Massachusetts at a central labor council.  For those unfamiliar with organized labor, central labor councils are institutions that bring together labor unions in the same geographic area (such as a city or county).  As you can see in the speech I attempt to frame the issues facing the unions in terms that go beyond the sphere of collective bargaining.

Two days after this speech was delivered, my friend and mentor Jerry Tucker passed away.  I owe Jerry so much.  Jerry was one of those special people who both had a vision of a different and more audacious trade unionism, while at the same time being able to address the day to day concerns of workers.  For Jerry there was no Chinese Wall between the two.  I like to think that i have been building upon many of the ideas, strategies and proposals that Jerry advanced for much of his life.

I was asked, earlier today, about why much of the leadership of organized labor felt that it was appropriate to ‘exile’ individuals like Jerry Tucker [Note:  Jerry led a reform movement in the United Auto Workers.  He ultimately made a run at the presidency of the UAW and lost.].  I replied that it was due to the fact that so many of our leaders are content to fight the last war.  What i meant by that is that so many of our leaders in the union movement were trained in a specific form of labor unionism that focused on protecting what had been won by (and for) those who happen to be in unions.  Rather than the dynamic unionism of the 1930s and 1940s, the unionism that came to dominate, beginning in the 1950s, was one that assumed that there would be a routine in the relationship between organized/unionized workers and the employer class.  In that context, these leaders felt that they could conduct their struggles almost in a vacuum, and certainly in the absence of advancing the struggle for economic justice for the mass of working people.

The result is that by the 1970s, in the face of new strategies by the employer class and particularly those elements of the political Right that seek to eliminate workers’ organizations from the equation, there is a level of paralysis.  There is also fear that people like Jerry Tucker might just be right, i.e., that there is and has been a need for a labor reformation [Jerry’s term], and that their secure positions could be in jeopardy.  As a result, and please excuse me if this sounds cynical because i am not being cynical at all, a few too many leaders are prepared to lose…comfortably.  That is, they are prepared to fight battles in such a way that the risks are limited.  In my mind they have given up on the possibility that working people can actually win.

Jerry had a different view.  He understood the nature of the challenge and he was up to it.  He taught so many of us.  He never peacefully accepted ‘exile.’  Instead he helped to teach and inspire many of us to go forward as partisans of the cause for a transformed union movement that evolves into a genuine labor movement.

We will miss Jerry very much.

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