The labor movement lost one of its most committed, enthusiastic, dedicated and contentious leaders last month with the death of Jerry Tucker, 73, a former director of United Auto Workers Region 5. He died of pancreatic cancer Oct. 19 in Barnes Jewish Hospital.
His death comes on the heels of the death of another Region 5 director, Jim Wells, who died in September.
Tucker was considered a zealot in his belief that cooperation with management was not the road to victory in labor struggles. He counseled, “no striking” but rather working-to-rule inside the plant to slow down production, and then not volunteering to help when things start to go wrong.
“Work-to-rule is not walking away from a fight,” Tucker would say, “but a different way to fight.” His goal: show the company that a business cannot be run without the knowledge and skills of the workers.
It was this confrontational approach that ultimately brought him into conflict with the leadership of the UAW nationally.
Starting as a rank and filer, he held just about every elected office inside the UAW: committeeman (steward), grievance chair, bargaining chair, local president, UAW staff in Region 5 and for the international in Washington, Region 5 political director, assistant regional director and regional director.
He was aggressive in support of workers’ issues, never giving an inch when he felt he was right, but always willing to listen to other viewpoints.
In the historic 1978 right-to-work (for less) campaign in Missouri, Tucker was at the heart of building coalitions with civil rights, religious, farm and labor groups.
His efforts, combined with those of many others in that fight, turned around an early two-to-one “for” the issue stance into a three-to-two defeat at the ballot box.
In 1987, Tucker formed a New Directions Movement, what he called a progressive caucus within the UAW. In 1991 he run for UAW president. He lost decisively.
But he never lost his spirit and his drive… or his influence with rank-and-file groups looking for new ways to combat the new management onslaught against unions.
On the Washington D.C. Labor Council’s website, Mark Dudzic, national coordinate of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare, where Tucker was a co-founder, said:
“Jerry would want us to take this moment to rededicate ourselves to the great crusade for social and economic justice for working people everywhere.”
The United Media Guild in St. Louis (formerly the Newspaper Guild) on its web site also paid tribute:
“The United Media Guild lost a valued colleague when labor activist Jerry Tucker passed… As a Guild consultant, he helped us build internal and external organizing campaigns to ward off ‘open shop’ language and gain fair contracts for our members at the Post-Dispatch. Jerry had a profound impact on many Guild leaders.”
Called a “troublemaker” or “rabble rouser” by some, it made no difference to Jerry. He considered it a badge of honor.
Even officially out of the UAW, he continued to work with unions in their local struggles with companies. He traveled the country and the world training workers how to empower themselves. His goal was to spread democracy in unions and the workplace.
Last year he helped train public employees in Wisconsin trying to reorganize in the aftermath of their uprising.
“Trust the knowledge and ingenuity of the rank and file to figure out how to make the plant ungovernable while mobilizing new forces and new allies to support you at the bargaining table,” was Tucker’s motto.
He was also co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal and the Solidarity Education Center, and on board of U.S. Labor Against the War and the Labor Campaign were among the many groups he either supported or helped to launch.
Tucker is survived by his wife of 43 years, Elaine Tucker, three daughters —Cynthia, Nicole, and Tracy —four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, a brother, and two sisters.