A Short History of Labor Reform
In 1985, I had a tiny role in a part of the revitalization of American labor. I’d like to get it written down.
After a wonderful upsurge that started around 1932, labor leaders lost their way in 1947 and became isolated. Fortunately the membership couldn’t be ignored for long.
The revitalization actually began well before my time, in the 1960s. It was an extension of the civil rights upsurge that began around 1954. African-American unionists carried the lessons and tactics of the civil rights movement into their unions. For the most part, they were rebuffed by their leaderships, but nothing is ever completely lost in the progressive movement. People learn. People remember.
The newest, possibly most important, twist in the labor reform movement happened in 2021 when over 60% of United Auto Workers members and retirees voted to do away with the old delegate system of electing top leadership and move to the more democratic “one member one vote” method.
It was a setback to the old Administrative Caucus that has dominated the UAW consistently since 1946. I think a look back at earlier reform efforts gives some perspective to today’s important developments.
REFORM IN THE MINERS AND STEELWORKERS UNION
Reform was strong in the Miner’s Union after Jock Yablonski and his family were murdered December 31, 1969. In the Steelworkers, reform was clearly on the agenda when Ed Sadlowski ran for president around 1975. I think Sadlowski might have been the first union candidate since 1947 to allow reds to help him campaign, and that was a very big deal. I campaigned for Sadlowski, but my real role in labor’s reform was a lot later and in my own union.
NEW DIRECTIONS IN THE UAW
For me, it was 1985-1992 and the New Directions Movement in the United Auto Workers. My part, and the origin of the New Directions Movement, started in the middle of a contract fight with LTV Corporation in Grand Prairie, Texas. The fight started in March, 1984. The first 9 months or so showed everything that was wrong in the UAW and in most of the labor movement.
Our union, Local 848, didn’t have a clue about carrying out a fight. The blame for that goes back to 1947 when the anti-union Taft Hartley law passed. It outlawed the most progressive unionists and left the opportunist “business unionists” in charge. Business unionists had no fight in them. They put their full confidence into working with management and gave up on informing and mobilizing their union members.
Local 848 members, like most Americans, had never fought for anything and certainly not for a contract. “Unionism” consisted of working with management for crumbs from their table, then working on a grievance procedure to keep them from stealing their crumbs back during the life of the contract.
But LTV was a profitable corporation when it offered giant takeaways in 1984 contract negotiations. The Assistant Director of UAW Region 5, Jerry Tucker, was experienced in plenty of fights – not necessarily in unions but in the civil rights movement. He pushed the Negotiating Committee to turn down the contract and design a new strategy for a fight.
Tucker called the strategy “Running the Plant Backward” or “Work to Rule” and called it a new strategy. History-conscious workers, of whom there were hardly any, recognized it as an old-fashioned slowdown. Union members were asked to do exactly what they were required to do and nothing else. “No contract, no overtime!” was our big slogan starting out. On May 21, four workers and I were fired for refusing to work overtime. Tucker had previously arranged to call a walkout when/if anybody got fired. Later, a few dozen more were fired, mostly for participating in the walkout.
Initially, it didn’t work at all. Our local union leadership hadn’t the slightest idea of how to run a slowdown. The membership certainly didn’t know. I don’t even think Jerry Tucker had a clear idea. The big walkout and rally on the day after we were fired netted no more than 300 workers. I counted them carefully. That was about 6% of the bargaining unit! I knew then that we were in a lot more trouble than anybody was saying.
The company implemented their “last and final offer,” which included their takeaways. Then they stopped collecting our dues for us.
WE HAD NO IDEA HOW TO COLLECT UNION DUES!
American unions in 1984 did not have the first clue on how to collect their own dues. They had “dues checkoff” from companies since before World War II. In 1941, Mr Ford voluntarily GAVE dues checkoff to the UAW, because he wanted the union to depend on him financially. It worked.
Local 848 made its biggest, nearly fatal, mistake as soon as it was clear that we had to collect our own dues. Leadership assumed that people would voluntarily come to the union hall and pay their monthly dues.
Let me pause to brag: I told them that people are not accustomed to paying their bills in person. I asked them to send out a monthly bill, but the Financial Secretary told me, “If they won’t come over here and pay their dues, they don’t deserve this union!” I heard that over and over again for the rest of the year while my union went broke. By Christmas, fewer than 20% of our members were caught up on dues. Insiders said it was 10%.
Our financial disaster was hardly the worst part of the story. Our program of “No contract, no overtime” fell flat on its face on the day I was fired. Even though I organized pickets every Saturday morning through that winter, our members grabbed up the overtime. Our top officers did, too. I found out later that the Chairman himself was telling top officers to work overtime!
My part, up to the end of 1984, had been to organize the 65 fired workers and keep them in the struggle. I had zero leadership role in directing the struggle, but I made sure that the firees were not forgotten by getting a big bunch of us to every meeting, by picketing the plant when people went in to work overtime, by publicizing our events, and by helping a series of publicity stunts to keep people thinking about our fight.
December was a miserable time for everybody, but especially for the 65 fired workers. Only about 30 of the 65 were doing anything to keep up the fight. News from the International Union was particularly depressing. Leadership told us that the International UAW wanted us to take the concessions and end the struggle, even if some of the firees were sacrificed. One “settlement,” we were told, was negotiated between our UAW International Financial Secretary and LTV management on a golf course!
President Carroll Butler and Assistant Regional Director Jerry Tucker weren’t giving up, but they were certainly ready for some new tactics.
THE LOCAL MAKES A TURN
Our local union leadership did a major turnaround in January. They decided to collect dues inside the plant. Elected union stewards were issued receipt books and every activist we could find was asked to help get the members to pay up.
It wasn’t just a financial decision, or a minor organizational change. It was a turn toward mobilizing the membership – exactly what the union movement hadn’t been doing since “business unionism” took over. It worked, too. Our “percent” of dues-paying members rose steadily from January until we won our victory in July.
As the receipts and cash dollars started pouring into the hall, we bogged down as accountants. Fortunately for the local, I had accountant training, computer training, and I could type. I rigged up a Commodore 64 – it had 64 kilobytes of memory – to two floppy disk readers and kept track of all dues. An extra benefit was being able to tattle on the elected leaders as to who was collecting their dues and who wasn’t. Every time Tucker visited, I could present him with graphs showing which departments and which job families were “on the program” and which weren’t.
By June, 1985, we still didn’t have an impressive “percent” in plain numbers, but my trusty little computer could show that we were pretty solid in certain critical units. For the first time in the entire struggle, we thought we might have the potential to shut LTV down. Leadership called a strike. Management asked for a settlement before we even went out, so the strike lasted only 11 hours!
On July 5, 1985, all the fired workers put on our union shirts and lined up at the LTV gate. We stayed in line while Chairman BJ Meeks took us, one by one, to our proper departments and let us go back to work. I posted a video of this. Our little battle was won!
I have a longer account of the 1984-85 struggle on http://lilleskole.us. On my “GeneLantz” youtube account, I have 52 videos about it. Each has “struggle” in the title.
Our victory was celebrated all through the union movement. I was given credit and a new nickname, “golden fingers” for my typing, accounting and computer work.
I guess that some of us thought we had really helped curve the union movement in a good direction, but we were disappointed in due time.
The most bitter part for me personally came almost immediately. When the 1985 contract was settled, I hoped to keep our super-active fired union members together. But we fell out over how to deal with demands from the International UAW. The new contract penalized the firees by withholding 3 months from our full back pay. We were told, though, that we would not have to pay back the strike pay that we had accepted while we were outside. It balanced out.
But the International UAW demanded that we pay back every cent, immediately! When I protested, a toady little International Rep called me a “freeloader!” I had been standing outside the plant and fighting for my union for one year, one month, one week, and one day; but he called me a “freeloader!”
The firees broke up over this demand. Some of them said they would never pay it because it was grossly unfair. Three of them even got out of the union and became scabs. Some of the better-off firees had the money and paid off right away. I circulated a petition to get a year’s delay while we paid it off in monthly installments, and that’s what I did. But I was not able to get the other firees on that program. We never pulled together again.
I resolved then and there to join a reform movement, if there was one. And there soon was. Riding on the success of Tucker’s “new” tactic at Local 848, he launched the New Directions Movement and ran for Regional Director.
He won that election, but the International was able to keep it all tied up in court, so that Tucker was only able to serve about 1 year of his 3-year term of office.
Meanwhile at Local 848, the International provided an even bigger problem. When we elected officers, we expected our top leaders who had worked with Jerry Tucker to win, to ride their popularity into re-election.
I remember that one of the people who was most against Jerry Tucker’s fightback program ran for local union president right after the 1985 contract was settled. His son was on the Election Committee. A particularly nasty cartoon was circulated against Carroll Butler, the President who carried us through the big 1984-85 fight. I called up the printer to see who had created such a nasty and underhanded attack. The printer told me candidly that it was an International Rep!
The good guys won the election, but, acting on a complaint from the losing candidate’s son on the Election Committee, the UAW International ruled the election illegal and made us hold it over. When a local is forced to hold an election over, the incumbents look bad. President Butler held his office barely, but Chairman BJ Meeks lost. We were furious! My notes at one meeting read, “BJ says int’l forced this local into another election… ‘you have not seen people as vicious as this International!’”
New Directions supporters started holding meetings around the country. At Local 848, we held our meetings after the official union membership meeting. I attended them and, compulsive note taker that I am, kept a lot of notes. I also attended several national NDM meetings.
We had some terrific supporters. Paul Shrader, a close assistant of Walter Reuther’s, supported us. Film maker Michael Moore, fresh from his success with the satirical movie about the UAW, “Roger and Me,” gave us $1,000 and a very nice endorsement speech. Our really big gun was Victor Reuther. The Reuther Brothers were associated with some of the UAW’s biggest historic successes. People told me that Victor was “the best of them.” He certainly stepped up to help Local 848 and was totally committed to New Directions.
Victor made speeches at fund raisers for us. I was pleased to serve as Master of Ceremonies at one of them. Victor also made cheeseboards that we auctioned off to raise money.
A related historic event occurred in the period. The Canadian section of the UAW, carrying some of the same reform program as New Directions, split off and formed the Canadian Autoworkers Union. Victor infuriated the International by speaking at their first convention.
Jerry Tucker always referred to New Directions as “the real Reutherites,” even though the Administrative Caucus (UAW leadership) we were trying to defeat had been set up by Walter Reuther. It was hard to argue with Jerry Tucker when he had the only surviving Reuther brother standing right there with him!
New Directions had a very clear program and solutions to the major issues in the union movement: outsourcing, runaway plants, whipsawing, ”team concept,” new technology, democracy in the union, and giveaway contracts. NDM especially hammered on the idea of “one member, one vote.” As everyone knows, we won that in 2021 in a government-supervised election. I’m glad to get it, but I’d rather that the members had chosen it by voting for New Directions 30 years earlier.
I can’t claim to have been a leader of New Directions. I certainly wasn’t, but I played a role. I tried to line up an obscure UAW Local in the Southern Part of Dallas. It was a battery plant with maybe 50-60 workers. I took the union president out to Steak and Ale at my own expense. I gave him a sales pitch for change, but he voted with the Administrative Caucus.
At Local 848, I wrote and distributed our own New Directions pamphlet called “The Arrow.” I still have a few copies. Jerry Tucker put out a 3-fold pamphlet with parts of the NDM program on it. I have a few copies, including one devoted entirely to “one member one vote.”
At one national meeting, we discussed going all-out to reform the UAW. The argument was over whether or not to run Jerry Tucker for International President. I remember speaking strongly in favor. In fact, I think I made the motion nominating him. Maybe I just motivated for the motion. I remember saying that if Jerry was willing to take all the chances for our cause, why would any of us want to stand in the way?
WHY THEY WERE/ARE AFRAID OF THE UAW INTERNATIONAL
Even though we like to think about the UAW’s great history in organizing and standing up for all workers, especially workers “of color,” the main business, practically the only business, of local UAW officers after 1947 was contract negotiations and enforcement. The International, with their expert reps, lawyers, and top researchers, usually dominated.
For example, take the problem of terminations. When companies terminate a UAW member, we grieve it. Usually, the company forces us to grieve it all the way to arbitration. The professional UAW International Reps and the legal staff, experts that they are, handle most of those arbitrations. Without them, local union officers would feel pretty helpless, and companies would soon be firing anybody they wanted to, especially union officers!
The International UAW sat on top of union democracy, too. I have been told that professional union business agents/reps are not allowed to attend union conventions, but in the UAW they sit right at your table and watch every move you make. Or, worse, they stand behind you. International Reps tell the members when to make a motion, when to make a second, and when and how to vote. Anybody who steps out of line is carefully noted, and they can expect trouble during their next elections, negotiations or arbitrations.
I attended my first convention during the New Directions period. Our International Rep sat at Local 848’s table through the entire convention. BJ Meeks and others bravely voted their own convictions, but the intimidation was heavy. Years later, I attended another national convention, and the International Reps orchestrated literally everything that happened.
Have you ever heard of the Praetorian Guard? They were crack soldiers who were charged with guarding the Roman Emperor after democracy had disappeared. They did a great job. That’s how I see the legions of International Reps in the UAW.
So, one may very well ask, how did UAW active and retired members work up the courage to defy the UAW International and vote for “one-member-one-vote” in 2021? Because the government ran the election and gave us a secret ballot. Secret ballot!
At the convention, Jerry Tucker failed to win the presidency. Our vote counters had expected it, but they were sure that we would win the directorship of Region 1 (mostly California). In an excruciating evening of hand-counting the votes, we lost that one, too. I took an historic picture of Victor and Sophie Ruther, glassy-eyed in defeat, as UAW President Owen Bieber announced the result.
The UAW then disbanded Region 1, so New Directions lost its strongest foothold. Anybody who had supported New Directions braced for the wrath of the UAW International, from Victor Reuther to the smallest.
As I was never in the circle of leadership, I don’t know what discussions and decisions came about, but I had a personal experience that pointed downward for me. Here’s how I remember it:
UAW Local 848 President Carroll Butler, the stalwart of our 1984-85 contract fight, one of the strongest supporters of New Directions, and I were standing on a hotel veranda looking out over San Diego. Out of the blue, he handed me two $100 bills. He told me to donate it at the next New Directions meeting. He wouldn’t be attending, he said, and he didn’t want anybody to know where the $200 came from.
In other words, one of our bravest and strongest men was disassociating from New Directions. That’s when I knew it was over. I kept trying, but the rigor mortis was already setting in. I still have a copy of a letter I wrote to Jerry Tucker dated October 29, 1992: “Dear Jerry. ND activities at Local 848 have stopped altogether.… Wish I had better news. In solidarity, Gene.” I didn’t get a reply.
SOME NOTES IN MY FILES. Folder dated 12/19/92 and titled “New Directions.”
3 copies of “The arrow.” I scanned one in Pictures/arrow1192.jpg
I scanned 4 photos: tucker-jerry, tucker-mrsjerry, reuther-victor,
I found a photo of Butler with Roy Kinney & Pancho. Another with Silva. They are in “pictures” now.
Copy of “The Arrow,” January 1991 //I wonder if that’s an error and it was 1992?// “Don’t blame Local 276!” about the whipsawing battle where GM in Arlington beat out Willow Run, Michigan. //I had completely forgotten that I wrote and published “The Arrow” to build New Directions in North Texas. It was a 1 page, letter sized, newsletter. Looks like my printer was a dot-matrix.//
Handwritten notes from 7/21/91 NDM meeting starting at 15:15. “There are 18 folks here.” “Dot goes to St Louis meeting next Thursday. Dick proposes that our cake sale money go to Dot for her expenses. Passes.” “Urges New Directions meeting at 2 on 3rd Sunday of August. Passes” 23 people here.
Handwritten notes from 8/18/91 “Joe Silva says agents in Local 148 are circulating an anti-Tucker leaflet that says Tucker negotiated a contract here that cut out overtime. Butler sent back a a letter pointing out that 1) we still have overtime 2) tucket didn’t negotiate it.” “BJ [Meeks] gives history of NDM: fightback at 848 was origin. Int’l made deals, agreed to give up COLA. Afterward, we decided int’l should be accountable, just as a local is… Not just Jerry Tucker… “Really what NDM is all about is fightback” –BJ Meeks.
“Dot reports on national coordinating meeting. Ken Fout of TDU, Ray Rogers [subject of movie Norma Rae], Dan LaBotz, Jane Slaughter all there helping to formulate ideas and experiences.”
“ND campaign platform 1) internal democratization & reform 2) collateral bargaining 3) organizing 4) pol action and relations with other unions 5) internationalism” “Vote was 14-3 in favor of a national candidate. 3 felt the movement had not come far enough along.” “Glen Plankett of Local 148 reports that they want no less than 7 days to review contract.”
“Nov 2nd in Detroit will be national meeting of ND” “Ralph says we must stop automatically endorsing democrats. Says reactionary Republican Dick Armey is the best rep he ever had.” “BJ mentions possibility of getting Arrow out through interplant mail.” (never happened)
Copy of “The Arrow”: October 1991 “Local 848 getting ready to win” includes a short article “New Directions national conference. UAW members are invited to attend the 3rd Annual National Conference of the New Directions Movement in Detroit November 1-3. “The discussion going on in the New Directions Movement is designed to reverse the general downward trend in strength of our international union. NDM has proposed positive solutions to problems of outsourcing, runaway plants, whipsawing, team concept, new technology, democracy in the union, and giveaway contracts. Registration for the conference is $35 per person. Hotel reservations have been arranged for $39 per night. Air fares are cheaper when reservations are made as early as possible. For more information call (3140 531-2900 (NDM office).”
Copy of “The Arrow,” November 1991 Headlines: “The Race is On! New Directions will challenge International in 1992!” It advertises a ND meeting at 848 on Nov 17 “after the membership meeting.” “Checks should be made to ‘New Directions’ and sent to PO Box 6876, St Louis, Missouri, 63144” //I could scan this//
Copy of “The Arrow”: May 1992 Calls for a May 17 NDM meeting on May 17 “after the union meeting.” Includes a call from Jerry Tucker to support 13,000 Caterpillar workers who had struck through the winter.
Excerpt from “A Troublemakers Handbook” named “Inside Strategies” The story of contract victories the UAW leadership does not want told.” Reprinted by New Directions Educational Fund. There are some quotes from Jerry Tucker. There are a lot of quotes from Joe Silva, who was always carried away with his fantasy version of what was really happening. It paints a much rosier picture of the struggle. In this version, everything we did worked great. In reality, it was a lot harder.
Inside strategies, in this version, were first developed by Tucker at Moog, then at Schweitzer and Bell Helicopter before it was successful at LTV.
A NDM three-fold leaflet. UAW a “one-party state.” “Steelworkers, Mineworkers, Mailhandlers, and now even the Teamsters have one-person, one-vote elections for national officials. Why not the UAW?”
Another 3-fold leaflet. This one has a quote from Vic: “Our union is drifting aimlessly. No longer democratic. Trapped in the corporate agenda. Unwilling to fight for our members today. The UAW needs new policies and new leadership. Through the fight for true democratic voting rights at the rank and file level, and for a true vision of a new direction, we can fulfill our historic destiny and restore real accountability and solidarity.” Signed “Victor Reuther, UAW Co-Founder”
This leaflet is all about “one person one vote.”
Three lightly printed sheets showing contributions to NDM from Elaine and me. Includes our $5/month contributions and my record on button sales.
Very lightly printed letter dated 10/29/92 from me to Jerry Tucker. “Dear Jerry. ND activities at Local 848 have stopped altogether. …one page single spaced… Wish I had better news. In solidarity, Gene”