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Remarks to Jerry Gordon Memorial Meeting, January 28, 2017

Honoring the Memory of a Remarkable Man

by Thomas Bias, co–Managing Editor, Labor Standard
National Secretary, Labor Fightback Network

Jerry GordonThis is a sad day for me. Even though Jerry had a long life and without doubt left this world a better place than he found it, I’m sad that he’s gone. I’m sad that neither I nor any other working-class activist will have the benefit of his counsel; I’m sad that the working class and community groups working for social justice will no longer have the benefit of his hard work. And I’m sad for the simple reason that I miss him. I have worked with him at one level or another for all of my adult life—actually, even longer than that. But, I am happy that Jerry was in this world; I’m grateful to him for the contribution he made to the struggle for social justice and for all the things I and hundreds of friends and comrades learned from him, and I’m especially glad that I got to know him as a friend.

I’m also disappointed that I cannot be with you all in person today to celebrate the life of this remarkable man. I made the decision to attend the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark as an elected delegate from my parish, and let me tell you why. As I write these remarks, Donald John Trump has been President of the United States for two days. To resist his racist, sexist, labor-hating agenda will require far broader involvement of people than we have seen in many years. We will need to bring into the struggle people who are not and never have been political activists. We will need to reach out to organizations in our communities with whom we have not worked before and appeal to their most basic moral values. In my church we pray for the President, no matter who holds the office. But our beliefs dictate to us that when a woman feels afraid to go into a supermarket because she wears the hijab that it’s the church’s business to stand up for her. It is our responsibility to be welcoming to the refugee, to feed the hungry, provide clothing for those in rags, and to give friendship to those who are incarcerated, and we understand that it is not enough to give from our own pockets. No, it is necessary to stand up for those threatened by racist violence, to work for an entire country and society that welcomes the refugee, feeds the hungry, clothes those wearing rags, and gives not only friendship but justice to those who are in prison. The Trump agenda goes 100% against these moral values; the question that we need to discuss is how can we bring the moral authority and the grassroots network of the faith communities to bear, not against Trump as a man and as the President, but against his anti-human public policies. We all need to be having this discussion, not just with the people we know and with whom we have worked for many years, but with our neighbors, our extended families, with the parents of our children’s classmates—those of us whose children are still children!—and, for those of us who are people of faith, with our fellow parishioners. That’s what I will be doing. I hope when all the meetings have concluded that I have been able to make a difference. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that Jerry Gordon shared these moral values and devoted his life to working to make them a reality. So I am sorry that I cannot be here in person, but I could not let this opportunity to network for social justice and human decency slip away.

Now, I don’t want to wear you out with a lot of talk here this afternoon. I want to say just a few things about Jerry that were important to me and that made a difference in my life.

First, my affiliation with the Socialist Workers Party during the 1970s is no secret to anyone. When I joined the Young Socialist Alliance in 1969 one of the first things I learned about was the power of mass action, especially when it unleashes the very real and invincible power of the working class. At that time the odor of smoke was still in the air from urban rebellions in places like Detroit and Newark, especially in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a genuine hero of our country and indeed of our world. The Vietnam war was raging, and opposition to it by then included large numbers of active-duty GIs and veterans. Trade union leaders were beginning to speak out against the war as well, breaking with pro-war business unionist leaders like AFL-CIO President George Meany. The Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance argued for a mass-action strategy to organize opposition to the Vietnam war—the principled demand of immediate U.S. withdrawal, non-exclusion in organizing, democratic decision-making, and action which could involve active-duty GIs and veterans and working men and women and their families.

But the SWP did not fight alone. Leading the campaign within the antiwar movement for principled unity, for inclusion of those social forces capable of forcing an end to the war, and non-exclusion and democracy were two organizers who spoke eloquently and gave 100% to build a coalition to make the mass actions happen. They were Jim Lafferty of Detroit and Jerry Gordon of Cleveland. I first heard Jerry speak when he gave the keynote address at a national conference of the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam at Case Western Reserve here in Cleveland in February 1970. He was clear and uncompromising. He told it as it was. Jerry was out front leading the fight along with Jim and people like Ruth Gage-Colby of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, John T. Williams of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Fred Halstead of the SWP, and other good people. That went on for three years until the U.S. bowed to the inevitable early in 1973 and signed a peace agreement with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front. Two years later, in 1975, the forces of the DRV and NLF put an end to the charade, marched into Saigon, and reunified Vietnam. The war was over. The mass-action strategy had been successful in contributing mightily to the victory of the Vietnamese people. And Jerry Gordon personally contributed mightily to convincing the antiwar movement that the mass-action strategy was the way to go. Jerry stepped up to the challenge of leadership, and he did not fail. The success of the anti–Vietnam war movement was due in no small measure to the leadership and work of Jerry Gordon.

The struggle against the Vietnam war was the dominant feature of the first half of my twenties. At the end of my twenties I had to walk away from the Socialist Workers Party, as did so many others of my generation—and those of the generation who had participated in the great struggles of the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1984 I joined a group of comrades who had been expelled from the SWP or who had resigned in disgust as I had. It was known as the Fourth Internationalist Tendency. We had a local organizing committee in Cleveland which included Jean Tussey, Jerry’s mother-in-law, and in 1989—I think it was—the Cleveland local organizing committee recruited Jerry to the F.I.T. It was during the next two years or so that I really got to know Jerry and to work with him directly, which I had not done during the years of the Vietnam war.

During those years, I was the National Administrative Secretary of the F.I.T., and we had a lot of difficult decisions to make, and a lot of changes in the world to understand. Those were the years when the Berlin Wall came down, of the students in Tienanmen Square in Beijing, the Solidarity Union in Poland, and ultimately, the end of the Soviet Union itself. Jerry and I often found ourselves on opposite sides of the debate. To this day I will stand by what I said back then—Jerry never convinced me. But as sharp as our arguments were, they were always respectful and comradely. I disagreed often with Jerry, but there was never one minute that I didn’t respect him and never one minute that I didn’t believe that he was sincere and had no hidden agenda. I know that Jerry respected me and those who agreed with me in the same way. I was not used to a political debate without name-calling, accusations of disloyalty, or threats of expulsion. Jerry earned my respect in those years, as sharply as I sometimes disagreed with him. That is the second point I want to leave with you about Jerry.

The economic crisis of 2008 through 2011 hit a lot of working people really hard. I was one of them. When a worker loses his job, his health insurance, and is in danger of losing his home, she or he needs friends and finds out in short order who those friends are. In my case, there were a number of friends who stepped up and did what they could. Jerry Gordon was one of them. I will never forget them and what they did, and I will be grateful to all of them—including Jerry—as long as I live. You know, we all remember Jerry as a forceful and strong leader and a tireless organizer, but he should also be remembered as a genuinely compassionate and caring human being. And that’s the third point I want to leave with you. So, Jerry, if there’s anything after this life, and if you can hear me, thank you. You made a difference to me.

As I write these remarks, fewer than twenty-four hours have passed since the largest day of mass-action protest in the history of the United States. The events of January 21 were a model of the kind of mobilization that Jerry advocated for as long as I knew him. Over three million went into the streets to stand up against President Donald John Trump and his threats to women’s rights on so many levels. If Jerry were here he would be challenging all of us to think out how we can build on the success of that great day. And isn’t that the best way to honor his memory? This summer the Labor Fightback Network—the last coalition that Jerry helped to organize—will be holding a conference to talk about just that. All of you are invited! Bring your thoughts; bring your experiences; bring your energy. The working class and indeed the entire planet need them. Jerry’s absence will be felt keenly. Let’s all join together to finish the work to which Jerry Gordon devoted his life. Jerry Gordon, ¡presente!