What can turn labor in a new direction?

Jerry Tucker, one of the most important voices for a fighting labor movement, died on October 19 after a long battle with cancer.

With roots as a rank-and-file member of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, Jerry challenged the leadership of the UAW International as it turned toward concessions and “partnership.” He ran against the leadership’s handpicked candidate for director of Region 5 and won—and he led the New Direction caucus that fought against the International's acceptance of concessions.

Jerry will be remembered for his contributions to the movement beyond the UAW, too--from leading the fight against anti-union "right to work" legislation in Missouri by uniting labor and community activism, to his efforts throughout his life to educate union members in the best tradition of the labor movement. In particular, Jerry championed the "in-plant" strategy for union workers to carry on the fight against employers from the inside.

SocialistWorker.org will run more tributes in the days to come, but here, we are republishing an April 11, 2008, interview, where Jerry talked to Lee Sustar about the situation of organized labor and his efforts to build the Center for Labor Renewal and extend the traditions of labor’s past to a new generation of activists.

Jerry TuckerJerry Tucker

IT'S NEARLY three years after the split in the AFL-CIO that resulted in the Change to Win coalition (CTW) forming. Both sides claimed to have the best strategy for organizing the unorganized. What do you think?

EVEN THOUGH Change to Win unions have brought in new members through some pretty expensive top-down organizing efforts, there is continued erosion, both in terms of membership, and the worth of unions in this country.

What I mean by that, of course, is the downward spiral at the collective bargaining table, and the inability of unions to meet the basic needs of workers on so many fronts--wages, health care, pensions, future protection for health care for retirees, and so on.

If unionized workplaces were succeeding in addressing the needs of union workers, then in many instances, nonunion employers would at least offer some additional support for workers' needs, just to keep them from pushing toward unionism.

So overall, none of the central claims made by the two federations warrant any kind of sense of accomplishment. And at their core, they couldn't, since, frankly, both are still operating in the old framework, which some would call business unionism--a culture of collaboration with the corporate community and employers in general.

WHAT IF labor gets its wish, and a Democratic president signs into law the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009. Would organizing be easier?

NO. I would take it back to labor's culture--its actual activity and what it represents to workers. Organized labor doesn't represent a movement at this point that workers can attach themselves to--where they feel a certain sense of upsurge or upward momentum.

The Employee Free Choice Act isn't a bad idea. To have that on the books to at least provide some process and clarity is not going to stifle further organizing. But the real question of what it's going to take to rebuild worker power isn't going to be invested in the Employee Free Choice Act.

A DECADE ago, the Teamsters strike victory at UPS was very popular. There were other wins for labor as well. Why didn't they become a springboard for further success?

AS OFTEN as those wins occurred, there were probably another 10 where the losses were profound: Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone, A.E. Staley.

Over the last 35 years, we've had a relentless assault by capital on workers, taking down what were thought to be the strongest unions. It's made the thought of forward momentum for labor seem pretty remote in the minds of most people.

Certainly, the UPS situation, which both strategically and tactically was well developed, should have and could have stood out as a model of the kind of leadership that labor should be giving to virtually any struggle.

But that didn't turn out to be--in part because the other unions, including the Teamsters following the administration of President Ron Carey, were less interested in taking the time and committing the energy to that kind of strategy.

It would have seemed so logical following the UPS victory for the AFL-CIO to call a national conference--not the top leadership, but the middle level, business-agent types--and then regionalize the conferences. They could have had a discussion about the strategies and tactics that went on during the successful UPS struggle. They didn't even think about doing that.

TODAY, THE economic model of the last 25 years is in crisis, and there's a widespread desire for change. Is this an opportunity for labor?

IT SHOULD be, and if there were a union leadership around, with half a progressive brain, it would be. The union leadership isn't likely at this point to have the ability to develop far-reaching, politically left-oriented solutions to the problems we're dealing with.

What's not obvious, although I think it exists beneath the surface, is the kind of alternative thinking that is derived from an alternative political conception of how society ought to be organized. We should be having a national discussion within the labor movement about replacing capitalism, and discussing ideas about community-controlled investment.

Therein lies the larger question: Where is the think/action tank within the existing labor movement and its assorted allies inside the working class at large that is, to use a modern cliché, thinking outside of the box about corporate capitalism and its hegemony?

WHERE DOES the Center for Labor Renewal fit into this picture?

I FIRST pitched the idea for the center in the period before the split in the AFL-CIO. I was with a group of academics at a labor studies conference. Someone asked my opinion, and I said that what we needed was an organized third voice in the debate. Change to Win and the AFL-CIO old guard were just rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

The group agreed that we needed that third voice. The idea was translated into the Center for Labor Renewal. It's not a cure-all of any kind. Hopefully, it might serve as something to give a slight prod or push to things that might be pulled together in larger formations, which ultimately will become part of the movement.

Among the things the center has dealt with is the question of immigration. We put together a statement and sent it to top labor leaders, to virtually every state labor federation and to all the main central labor councils. We heard nothing back from institutional labor. But we heard back, with a lot of significant appreciation, from immigrant rights organizations and workers centers.

More recently, we were active around the contact negotiations debacle in the UAW. It was obvious that there was going to be a massive shift of wealth from workers' pockets into the pockets of the owners through two-tier pay and the transfer of retiree health care to a union-controlled fund. There were a number of people in the UAW who worked hard to derail that, but they weren't able to succeed, although they came relatively close to a "no" vote in the Chrysler contract.

With that in mind, we have issued a statement on opposing the whole concept of two-tier work, not only in the auto industry, but in the whole country. This has been going on for some time, of course. But we're using the auto industry, because what happens in auto is usually more notable than a lot of other industries.

HOW CAN we bring younger workers into the best traditions of the labor movement?

THERE'S NO simple way to do this. It's not like fluoridation, where you can put it into the water and it's going to improve everyone's teeth.

I see the possibility of activism finding a new and regenerative potential. I very much want to invest the Center for Labor Renewal's energy into the already existing movement for a single-payer health care system. It has the potential to reframe class struggle in this country. Labor as a whole entity at the local level--central labor councils, for instance--are going to have to aid and abet the struggle against health care cost-shifting onto workers.

One idea we've floated in the Center for Labor Renewal is the creation of working people's assemblies, which goes all the way back to the Knights of Labor. It would broaden out beyond union membership, or the sectoral basis of union membership like manufacturing or service, into the broad category of working people--the working class. The struggle could then involve a much larger chunk of the populace.

Obviously, the center is designed to be a left formation, and we make no bones about that in our call. America needs a viable, vital left.

First published in the April 11, 2008 edition of Socialist Worker.