Walter Reuther: A Memorial

Labor historian Kim Baker submits his reflections fifty years after the untimely death of Walter Reuther, pioneering leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

A half-century ago, on May 9, 1970, America lost one of its greatest heroes, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, in the crash of a plane whose engine, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, was missing parts and had parts wrongly installed–including one part installed upside down.

This tragedy, and several similar tragedies, occurred amidst a time like today, when progressive reformers are battling valiantly to promote social justice in every area of economic life.  Therefore, it behooves us to take a fresh look at Walter Reuther and what he fought for, and to realize the large extent to which today’s workers and worker-justice activists are standing on Reuther’s shoulders.
Reuther, in turn, was standing on the shoulders of the workers and worker-justice reformers who preceded his rise to dominance as a leader in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during their organizing and 1935 founding.  Reuther and his fellow workers and activists saw industrial unionism as a direct outgrowth of a democratic-socialist vision for the United States, a vision in which workers and other Americans can thwart income inequality and play larger roles in determining their economic and political destinies.

One cannot fully understand worker justice in the 1930s and 1940s without exploring the extent to which unions in those decades were affected by the relationship between the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and its allies, and U.S. socialists and their allies (including the Catholic social-action movement).  Communists and socialists were bitter foes long before the 1930s, and except for a brief period of cooperation during the Popular Front era of the 1930s (cooperation which ended with the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939), UAW and other CIO unions were constant battlegrounds.

Communist workers everywhere had to follow a line of complete subjugation of worker interests to the war aims and foreign-policy objectives of the Comintern (the Communist Party globally), which still and always included world domination.  During World War II, CPUSA-led union factions hampered collective-bargaining activities (already hampered by corporate domination of wartime union-management relationships) by demanding no-strike pledges and extreme production speed-ups, and by downplaying workers’ concerns with low pay, meager benefits, lack of worker input, and unsafe working conditions.

From UAW’s founding, Reuther courageously led the union’s democratic-socialist coalition.  He was a member of the Socialist Party in the 1930s until 1938, when he joined the Democratic Party, and he played a major role in UAW going from 30,000 members in 1935 to 400,000 members in 1938.  He sought cooperation with the workers of every union faction, and was a veteran of the sit-down strikes and of the bitter three-year-long struggle to organize Ford Motor Company (featuring the famous photo of Reuther being bloodied by company goons).

Walter Reuther’s World War II innovations, however, most dramatically exemplify his leadership.  His defense-readiness plan was extremely effective, and could serve as a model for dealing with today’s coronavirus.  And most significantly, in June 1945 he filed a brief with all war-production agencies recommending that in postwar, “increased production must be supported by increased consumption, and increased consumption will only be possible through increased wages.”

Indeed, he made this recommendation part of UAW’s then-current round of negotiations with General Motors by proposing that the company’s workers be given a 50-percent wage increase and that it not be accompanied by an increase in the price of GM cars.  Reuther’s proposal did’nt go through, but it was a ground-breaking challenge to economic inequality in a ground-breaking manner and promises to play a key role in today’s crucial national debates.

Poet Robert Frost speaks of the importance of “the road not taken”; and America’s not taking the road championed by Reuther set a discouraging tone for the country’s postwar years, when labor had to yield to corporate dominance and the country entered an era of excessive consumer abundance.  Reuther was disappointed, but he still fought hard for worker justice (such as by supporting Cesar Chavez and farmworker organizing and by promoting public-sector unions), and he expanded efforts long made
on other social-justice fronts, including civil-rights struggles, Vietnam War protests, and a greater voice for young people.

Unfortunately, this road called for but not taken has received woefully insufficient attention in the few major biographies of Walter Reuther.  Nelson Lichtenstein, for example, in “The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit”, portrays Reuther after World War II as a champion of corporatism and consumer abundance, a portrayal which insufficiently accounts for Reuther having to row against the anti-labor current of that era and for his increased efforts in non-labor directions.  Also, Lichtenstein neglects the positive anti-Communism which Reuther displayed and which helped propel him to the UAW presidency in 1947, helping bring about CIO’s expulsion of 13 CPUSA-led unions in 1949-50.  Sadly, positive anti-Communism was soon replaced by the negative anti-Communism of the right wing and of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his ilk.

Ironically, during Reuther’s fight for his innovative challenge, James Matles, President of the CPUSA-led United Electrical Workers-CIO (UE), secretly negotiated with GM on behalf of the 30,000 company workers which it represented.  The UE-GM agreement unfortunately became a basis of the much weaker agreement which UAW eventually had to settle for.

In “The Wage Earner”, a highly-regarded Detroit labor newspaper, the paper’s editor, Paul Weber, commented in October 1945 on the Reuther challenge: “If Reuther succeeds in forcing GM, one of the country’s largest industrial empires, to redivide the fruits of its production, the day of gigantic profits in American business will be done … {T}he result may not be the end of capitalism, but it will certainly be the beginning of a new kind of capitalism.”

The actual result, as we know, was swallowed up in the machinations of runaway capitalists and right-wing politicians, who then gave us decades of assaults on worker’s rights to organize and bargain collectively–including, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan’s firing of 12,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association, or PATCO (see Collision Course by labor historian Joseph McCartin, Oxford University Press, 2011).  Such assaults continue today, but thanks to the renewal of the democratic-socialist vision for America’s future, Walter Reuther’s “road not taken” promises to become a wide highway of worker justice and of social justice in general.

 

1 reply
  1. Tom Conway
    Tom Conway says:

    Thank you for the remembrance of Walter Reuther. His legacy as a labor leader and civil rights champion should not be forgotten; indeed, it is needed now more than ever.
    I was privileged to attend Reuther’s memorial service on May 15, 1970 at Detroit’s Riverfront Auditorium. I was accompanying the Democratic candidate for Governor of Ohio, John J. Gilligan and campaign manager, Mark Shields (yes, the writer and PBS commentator). Coming a week after the Kent State massacre in Ohio, the services’ emphasis on the need to press for justice: economic, social and political seemed especially appropriate. The lesson and example of Reuther’s life has stayed with me these fifty years. Tom Conway.

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