By Thomas Bias, National Secretary, Labor Fightback Network
In the predawn hours of October 28, 2016, Jerry Gordon, who had served as National Secretary of the Labor Fightback Network from its founding until August of this year, passed into eternity. He had devoted nearly all of his eighty-eight years to the struggle of the working class for peace, justice, human rights, and a decent standard of living. He was an uncompromising fighter against racism, imperialism, and all forms of sexism. Most importantly, Jerry put his principles into action, organizing coalitions based on principled unity which brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. He taught a whole generation of young activists not only the importance of united-front action but how to make it happen in the real world. He will be sorely missed.
In the months and weeks ahead, many words will be written and spoken which will share the events of Jerry’s life and work—activity in the labor movement, civil rights struggle, and peace movement going back six decades. As Jerry’s friends and comrades commit their memories to paper—or electronic word-processing files—we will share them here in the weeks and months to come. At this time, I can only share my own reminiscences.
I first encountered Jerry Gordon in 1970 at a national conference of the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. The event was in Cleveland, Ohio, where Jerry lived for most of his life. Jerry was the keynote speaker. He was introduced as a labor lawyer, and he looked the part! He was dressed appropriately to appear in court—quite a contrast to us scruffy students, most of us barely out of our teens. I later found out that Jerry was exactly the same age as my own mother. The speech that he gave, however, was as fiery and militant as anything I had heard in the struggle—and by this time in my life I had heard a lot! He wasn’t afraid to call the Nixon administration’s Vietnam policy by its right name: imperialism. He didn’t shrink from calling for mass action by the student youth, working people, and military personnel, rather than relying on the good intentions of politicians trying to get elected to office.
Over the next five years, Jerry, along with his close associate Jim Lafferty of Detroit, worked tirelessly to bring disparate forces to unite around the demand that the United States withdraw its forces immediately from Vietnam, and—after May 1970—from Cambodia and Laos as well. After the massive student uprising of May 1970, sparked by the invasion of Cambodia and the National Guard murders of four students at Kent State University in Ohio and of two students at Jackson State University in Mississippi, Jerry and Jim, along with Ruth Gage-Colby of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and John T. Williams of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, led the formation of the National Peace Action Coalition. This coalition brought a combined total of a million people into the streets in Washington and San Francisco in April of 1971. For the first time, unions and labor officials were breaking with the pro-war policies of AFL-CIO President George Meany. Jerry Gordon was one of the best networkers I ever saw—and that was before we even had the term “networking”—and he knew to whom to reach out. He started with people he knew in Cleveland and people in the Amalgamated Meatcutters and Butcher Workmen’s Union, the union he represented, and worked from there. It became clear quickly to the warmakers that organized action in opposition to the Vietnam war could not be limited to the student youth, and if they did not want a deepgoing social explosion, they would have to bring the war to a close quickly.
Jerry Gordon played a direct and in many ways decisive role in forcing the United States to get out of Vietnam short of victory. It wasn’t Jerry as a single person who made the difference: it was his leadership in building a united and principled coalition for immediate U.S. withdrawal, based in the people—the working class, the student youth, and the GIs. It was his refusal to compromise his principles in the interests of getting someone elected to office; it was his insistence that the antiwar movement had to reach out to organized labor as that one social force which had the power to shut down the American economy and force an end to the war, if it came to that. The warmakers understood, and they made sure that it didn’t come to that.
I got to know Jerry much better personally in the 1980s and later, working with him in opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America and then in the efforts to stop Bush 41’s Gulf War and then Bush 43’s Gulf War. But those fundamental principles of coalition-building hadn’t changed. Jerry stood by them in every struggle: principled unity, the central role of labor, mass action by the people, rather than favors from the politicians. That’s what I learned from Jerry Gordon, and they are lessons I will never forget as long as I live. And Jerry Gordon was a working-class leader and a fighter for social justice, whom I will never forget as long as I live.
Jerry Gordon, ¡presente!