Jerry Gordon, December 23, 1928–October 28, 2016
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 almost 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 later 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 the 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!
Jerry Gordon: A Personal and Political/Trade Union Biography
by Bonnie Gordon
Jerry Gordon was born in 1928 in Miami, Florida. His father was an attorney and his mother a home maker. While a senior at Miami Beach High School, a friend introduced him to a publication called “In Fact,” a muckraking journal put out by George Seldes, designed to expose falsehoods in the media. This began his life-long commitment as a political activist and advocate of socialism.
Gordon attended the University of Florida, graduating in 1948 with high honors and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Gordon attended Harvard Law School for one year but dropped out and worked several years in auto plants and on other jobs. He moved to Toledo and worked at Willys Motors, where he was a member of UAW Local 12. Soon after being hired, he was drafted into the army where he served for seven months in the Combat Engineers before being discharged for refusing to fill out an army questionnaire relating to political affiliations and activities. Upon discharge, he returned to his job at Willys Motors and ran for a full-time union position, losing by one vote. During an economic downturn in the early 1950s, he was laid off and returned to Cleveland, where he became a full-time organizer for the Labor Youth League, a Marxist youth group.
When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and Stalin’s crimes were revealed, he broke all ties with the Communist Party, while remaining a dedicated socialist for his entire life.
From 1956 to 1966, Gordon worked at the George R. Klein News Company in Cleveland as a computer programmer, leading a union organizing campaign there, which resulted in the warehouse and office workers voting to join Teamsters Local 521. He was elected chief steward.
Gordon was also active in civil rights struggles and walked picket lines in support of the Freedom Fighters’ struggle to end segregation in hiring at Central Cadillac in Cleveland. Years later, together with other activists, he helped form the Northeast Ohio Anti-Apartheid Committee (NOAC) which organized mass meetings, marches and rallies demanding an end to U.S. support for South Africa’s apartheid regime. A rally attended by several hundred people at the headquarters of UFCW Local 880 in Cleveland on October 11, 1985, to protest South African apartheid spurred the growth of NOAC.
After working as a volunteer Teamsters organizer in an unsuccessful attempt to organize Western Reserve University workers, in 1964 Gordon returned to law school, this time at Cleveland Marshall, and got his law degree in 1966.
In the succeeding years, while practicing law, Gordon represented several members of the Socialist Workers Party and others who were arrested in a police raid on the Party’s meeting hall during a social event. He challenged the constitutionality of Cleveland’s Disorderly Assembly ordinance under which they were charged and the Ohio Court of Appeals upheld his position, voiding the ordinance and dismissing all charges against defendants charged under that ordinance. He also represented the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in a challenge to Ohio’s election laws, seeking the right to write in the names of candidates. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the SLP’s favor, although it denied ballot status to that Party while granting such status to George Wallace and the Independent Party, which had filed a companion law suit.
In the 1960s, Gordon also became active in the Vietnam antiwar movement and was elected chair of the Cleveland Area Peace Action Council (CAPAC). While a member of the steering committee of the country’s central antiwar coalition at the time, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, he became convinced that in order to build the broadest and most massive antiwar movement possible, a new coalition was needed which could more effectively reach out to workers and the organized labor movement, together with students and other sectors of the population. Toward this end, he favored organizing mass demonstrations of a legal, peaceful, non-confrontational character to generate the largest turnout of those opposing the Vietnam War, in contrast to the emphasis the New Mobilization Committee was placing on civil disobedience and confrontational tactics.
Together with other activists and with the endorsement of CAPAC, Gordon joined in issuing a call for an open national antiwar convention which would create a new coalition encompassing these beliefs and orientation. The convention was held in Cleveland on June 19–21, 1970, with 1500 activists in attendance and it resulted in the establishment of the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC). Gordon was elected one of the coalition’s national coordinators and he became its principal spokesperson.
In 1971, Gordon ended his practice of law and became a full-time organizer for NPAC. On April 24 of that year, NPAC organized the largest antiwar demonstration in U.S. history. That action, held in Washington, DC, drew an estimated 750,000 people (for the details, see Fred Halstead’s book, “Out Now!” Monad Press, New York, 1978).
In later years, Gordon gave speeches on the Vietnam antiwar movement, one of which was published by The Greater Cleveland History Society (“Cleveland Labor And he Vietnam War,” November, 1990) and another of which was placed in the antiwar archives at Kent State University (“Reflections on War Resistance” delivered at Kent State as part of a panel discussion on May 5, 2000).
After the Vietnam War, Gordon became an International Representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Two years later, he took a similar position with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, which eventually became part of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). He was on the UFCW staff for the next 23 years, nearly all of them with the International Union. He retired at the end of 1998 after brief stints with two UFCW locals, one in Detroit and the other in Toledo.
During his 23 years with the UFCW, Gordon was active in many struggles, most of them outside of his duties on the job. An exception to this was the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), where he was able to get the UFCW to assign him to work full time for several weeks in an effort to get Virginia to ratify the ERA. A coalition called Labor for Equal Rights Now (LERN) was formed and organized a demonstration of about 1500 people in Richmond. But the Virginia General Assembly refused to pass the measure.
Gordon also opposed U.S. policies in the Western Hemisphere and helped organize the Emergency National Conference (ENC) Against U.S. Intervention in Central America/the Caribbean following the U.S.’s 1984 invasion of Grenada. He remained active in succeeding years as a coordinator of the ENC, the formation established by the conference.
In late 1990, Gordon served as coordinator of a Cleveland coalition formed to prevent the U.S. from waging war against the people of Iraq. When the U.S. government launched air and missile strikes on Iraq on January 16, 1991, the coalition called for mass demonstrations in the streets of Cleveland and hundreds of people turned out. The coalition charged that the government’s actions were in the interests of big oil, not the American people. But despite widespread popular opposition in the U.S. and throughout the world, the U.S. government unleashed its military might and the Iraqi people were subdued within a few weeks.
During the 1990s and thereafter, Gordon was actively involved in building Labor Party Advocates, a forerunner of the Labor Party, which was established at a national convention of 1400 delegates in Cleveland in June 1996. Thereafter, he was elected chair of both the Ohio State Labor Party (OSLP) and its Cleveland chapter. He continued serving as OSLP chair until his death.
The Labor Party was particularly active in advocating a national health care program guaranteeing everyone quality coverage from birth to death through a not-for-profit and publicly funded single payer system. A letter by Gordon calling for such a program was featured in the March 12, 2001, issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Gordon was for many years a supporter of Socialist Organizer, a socialist organization based in San Francisco, and he frequently contributed articles to their publication, The Organizer. This included a series of articles on the Detroit newspaper strike that began in 1995 and ended five years later in a disastrous defeat for the workers. Gordon was actively involved in the strike and represented UFCW Local 876 on the steering committee of the Action Coalition of Strikers and Supporters (ACOSS), a group promoting solidarity in support of the strikers. The Organizer published his articles analyzing the strike in a pamphlet titled “Overview of the Detroit Newspaper Workers’ Strike—Some Lessons for the Labor Movement.” So far as is known, this is the only published overall account of the strike. It appeared under Gordon’s pen name, Jack Richards.
Gordon was also a supporter of Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ), a militant group based in North Carolina, whose main objective is organizing unions in the South. That goal plus promoting the cause of independent working class political action constituted the program of the Workers Unity Network (WUN), a formation which Gordon and Saladin Muhammad, national chair of BWFJ, together with others, brought into being around 1994. WUN advocated formation of the Labor Party and successfully fought to strengthen that Party’s program in support of the Black freedom struggle. WUN dissolved soon after the Labor Party was formed.
In February 2001, Gordon was part of a small group of Clevelanders, who formed the Single-Payer Universal Health Care Organizing Committee, later renamed Single-Payer Action Network Ohio (SPAN Ohio). SPAN became the organizing center in Ohio for supporters of a single-payer universal health care system. In 2003, the group reorganized itself and became a statewide coalition. Gordon was elected secretary of the coalition. The Ohio AFL-CIO and UAW Region 2-B affiliated with it, along with many other unions, physicians, nurses and other health care providers, community organizations, women’s groups, clergy, businesses, and single-payer activists. In 2004, SPAN launched an initiative petition campaign in an attempt to put single-payer universal health care on the Ohio ballot. [To date the requisite number of signatures have not been collected.]
In late 2002 when the U.S. government threatened war against Iraq, Gordon joined with Cleveland-area activist Greg Coleridge, director of the Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee, to form the Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition, which sought to prevent an attack against Iraq, and, when it happened, to demand the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country.
In January 2003 a group of trade unionists established United States Labor Against the War (USLAW), which ultimately won the affiliation of 190 labor organizations in support of its program of immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq. One of USLAW’s most notable achievements was its successful campaign to get the national AFL-CIO to take an antiwar position, resulting in a resolution adopted by that body in June, 2005 urging the government to “bring them [U.S. troops] home rapidly” from Iraq. Representing the OSLP, Gordon was elected to USLAW’s national Steering Committee and pressed the group over the next several years to endorse and build national antiwar demonstrations demanding “Out Now From Iraq!” regardless of which of the major national antiwar coalitions was calling the action.
In early 2008, Gordon joined with a few other people to form a new national antiwar organization initially called the National Assembly to End the Iraq war and Occupation and later the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations. At its founding conference June 28-29, 2008 in Cleveland, he was elected the group’s national secretary. The National Assembly called for immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, massive demonstrations in the streets, and unity of the movement.
In 2011, at a time when Wisconsin's public unions were under assault by Go. Scott Walker, Gordon joined with others in calling an emergency conference of trade unionists held in Cleveland March 4–5, 2011, to advocate a more militant and robust fightback against what the group referred to as the many-sided attacks against labor and the working class as a whole. The major strategy advocated was united, massive mobilizations in the streets. The outcome of this conference was the formation of the Emergency Labor Network (ELN), with Gordon elected as secretary. This network gave way to the Labor Fightback Network (LFN), formed at a conference held at Rutgers University in New Jersey on May 10–12, 2013, with Gordon again serving as secretary.
The LFN was active on many fronts, including opposing U.S. wars and occupations, so-called “free trade” pacts, organizing the South, fighting voter suppression, building the August 28, 2013, March on Washington commemorating 50 years since Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech,” supporting public education, solidarity with unions under attack, jobs for all, a single-payer health care system, etc. The network increasingly emphasized the need for labor to break with the Democratic Party and—together with its community allies—run independent candidates for pubic office as a key step forward to establishing a workers party based on the unions and progressive community organizations.
Gordon is survived by his wife, Bonnie, whom he married in 1971, and by three children from a previous marriage, Pamela Granovetter, who resides in Cincinnati, Ohio; Richard Gordon of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota; and Gary Gordon of Boca Raton, Florida. He is also survived by a sister, Barbara Jonas, of Miami Beach, Florida; a brother, Murray Gordon, of Miami, Florida; and five grandchildren.
A Celebration of Jerry Gordon’s Life
Jerry Gordon Memorial Fund
To honor Jerry Gordon’s life and work, his friends and comrades have launched the Jerry Gordon Memorial Fund, to raise money to continue the project to which Jerry devoted the last years of his life, the Labor Fightback Network. The Jerry Gordon Memorial Fund’s initial goal is to raise $5,000, and we hope that many of you will contribute as much as you can to it. You can contribute online by clicking here or you can mail a check, payable to Labor Fightback Conference, to:
Labor Fightback Conference
P.O. Box 187
Flanders, NJ 07836