Walter Reuther was an American labour leader who built the United Automobile Workers (UAW) into a successful and progressive union, which campaigned not just for higher pay, but also on civil rights, women’s rights, environmental concerns and a worldwide democratic trade union movement. Reuther was considered one of Time’s most influential 100 people of the century.
Reuther was born 1 September 1907 in Wheeling West Virginia. His parents were German-American, and his father was a committed union organiser and socialist. His father encouraged his children to take an interest in progressive and socialist ideas. As a child, the young Walter accompanied his father to visit the Socialist leader Eugene Debs who was in prison for opposing the First World War. His father also taught his children to oppose racial discrimination. One day, local boys were throwing stones at black men being transported in an open railway wagon. His father told Walter and his brothers, you must never treat human beings unfairly because of the colour of their skin.
In 1927, he left his home town to work in Detroit. He gained a high-paid job at the Ford Motor Company. He soon became viewed as one of best-skilled mechanics – despite his young age and lack of experience. While working during the day, he enrolled at Detroit City College to further his education. While at college he organised a protest against segregation at a local hotel which only allowed its swimming pool to be used by white students and not blacks.
The arrival of the Great Depression and mass unemployment of the 1930s led Walter to become more politically active. He supported the candidacy of Socialist Norman Thomas for the 1932 Presidential election, and he tried to organise trade union activity. Henry T. Ford was vehemently opposed to ever accepting unions in his factories, and so in 1933, Reuther was fired – implicitly for his left-wing political activism.
Without a job in the US, Walter and his brother Victor embarked on a world tour. They arrived in Germany shortly after the Reichstag fire and saw Nazi Stormtroopers beat and arrest political opponents. They then travelled to the Soviet Union, where they spent 16 months working in factories which were trying to learn the techniques of mass-production pioneered in America. At the time, Reuther was sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, but he later said that he became frustrated by the inefficiency of the Soviet system and lack of freedom. The world tour also took them to Asia and Japan before arriving back in the US. The world tour widened gave Reuther a more internationalist outlook, and he felt he taught him that:
“all people long for the same basic human goals of a job with some degree of security, greater opportunity for their children, and of course, freedom.”
Trade union success at UAW
Back in the US, Walter returned to Detroit where he became a leader of the UAW trade union. At the time, the union had very few members and were not properly recognised by the motor companies. Reuther led workers on strike at Kelsey Hayes. The strike was motivated by an intolerable increase in the speed of the assembly line. The workers struggled to keep pace, and accidents with loss of limbs were becoming frequent. In 1936, Walter led the workers in a sit down strike until management agreed to meet. After ten days, the motor company gave in and agreed to many of the union demands. It was a big victory for the UAW and membership soared from just 200 to 35,000 by the next year.
In 1936, workers at General Motors in Flint, Michigan went on strike to force employers to recognise the union. Walter organised a sympathetic strike in Detroit at a plant which made car parts for GM’s Cadillac. Despite fierce clashes between police and striking workers, the unions were successful in forcing GM to recognise the car workers union.
The strikes led by Reuther and others also elicited the support of many ordinary people. The Great Depression was a time of turmoil, with many living in poverty. When police started to use violence against pickets at a Chrysler strike in 1937, 150,000 local citizens came out to support the strikers. Reuther was an excellent speaker and gaining the sympathy of the wider public was important for shifting the balance of power and forcing the motor companies to recognise unions.
The last motor company to resist unionism was Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford was resolutely opposed to dealing with unions, and he employed Harry Bennett to enforce his rule with violence if necessary. In 1932, Bennett’s armed men and shot five workers dead at the Ford River Rouge Complex.
In May 1937, Reuther began handing out leaflets on public property outside the same Ford River Rouge Complex. The leaflets said “Unionism, not Fordism.” Reuther had publicised his campaign, and many journalists came to witness the event. Bennet’s men ruthlessly beat Reuther and kicked him down some steps. They then proceeded to rough up other union men and women. They tried to confiscate the cameras of the press, but one camera was sneaked out. The bloodied picture of Reuther was published in Time Magazine and became national news. The event became known as the “Battle of the Overpass”, and it shifted sympathy to the right of workers to unionise. It was also a period of real personal risk for Reuther. In 1938, gunmen barged into his home in an attempted murder. The attempt was thwarted by Reuther’s friends and relatives.
After four years of intense political pressure, Ford made a u-turn and agreed to allow unions the right to organise and collectively bargain with the company.
500 Planes a day
In 1940, the US was officially neutral in the Second World War, but US industry was supplying planes and material for Britain who stood alone fighting Nazi Germany. Reuther felt the US could do much more to provide military hardware. He made a claim that automobile production could easily be modified to produce aircraft and provide Britain with 500 planes a day.
“In London they are huddled in the subways praying for aid from America. In America we are huddled over blueprints praying that Hitler will be obliging enough to postpone an “all out” attack on England for another two years until new plants finally begin to turn out engines and aircraft. We believe that without disturbing present aircraft plant production schedules we can supplement them by turning out 500 planes a day of a single standard fighting model by the use of idle automative capacity” (500 Plane speech)
President Roosevelt was intrigued by Reuther’s plan, and he invited him to to the White House to discuss the plan. However, the main motor companies opposed the Reuther plan because they preferred purpose-built plants and they were not happy a union leader was making suggestions about production. The plans did not happen until after Pearl Harbour when America joined the war. Former car plants were then successfully converted to produce wartime equipment and planes.
During the war, Reuther was very supportive of the war effort and discouraged strikes amongst union members. However, after the war ended, he led demands for a 30% increase in wages to reflect the loss in real wages over the war period. The company refused but after a 113-day strike the company agreed a record 18.5 cent an hour rise. Reuther also encouraged motor car companies to meet consumer demands. A UAW pamphlet entitled “A Small Car Named Desire,” urging Detroit to build cheap, Volkswagen-like compact cars, affordable to car workers.
On 27 March he narrowly won a vote to become President of the UAW. He narrowly defeated incumbent President R.J. Thomas who was a Communist. Reuther was now one of the most visible union leaders in the country. Despite supporting the Socialist Party in the 1930s, Reuther turned against Communism, citing his experience in the Soviet Union and lack of freedom within Communism. He was also impressed with how F.D Roosevelt was seeking to tackle inequality and he joined the Democratic Party.
In fact, Reuther became staunchly anti-communist and his election led to a deep rift between rival factions within the UAW. However, after his narrow election win, the power and influence of the Communists in the US labour movement soon fell dramatically as the Cold War made Communism the ideological enemy of America. Reuther set up the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions as a counter-point to the Communist-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions.
“For centuries man has been struggling to divide up economic scarcity and the communists have built their dogma and their propaganda upon this fact. American labor rejects the communist concepts of the class struggle, for we believe that the new tools of economic abundance offer free labor and free management the challenging opportunity within the framework of our free society in creating and sharing economic abundance.” Labor Day Address 1 Sep 1958
However, despite his anti-communism, he was still viewed with suspicion and a dangerous progressive figure in American politics. In 1948, there was another attempt on his life. He was shot with a double-barrel shotgun and only narrowly survived after being hit in the arm and stomach. The next year his brother Victor was also shot and only narrowly survived. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, always tried to denigrate Reuther as a Communist and refused to investigate the shooting. Both shootings were never solved.
In 1952 he was elected president of Congress for Industrial Organisation (CIO). In 1955, the CIO merged with the American Federation of Labour (AFL). George Meany became president of the AFL-CIO and Reuther was appointed vice-president. Reuther and Meany often clashed with Reuther believing Meany too conservative.
Reuther was influential in expanding the role and scope of union activity. He didn’t want to just campaign for higher wages for automobile workers, but he saw the union movement as an opportunity to promote progressive political change in the whole of society. He felt that the car unions should express solidarity with struggles for civil rights and women’s rights. On a number of occasions, Reuther fought for equal pay for women workers. Reuther was also a prominent supporter of Martin Luther King. He joined King on civil rights marches in Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery and was a board of directors for the NAACP. When King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, Reuther raised the $160,000 for protestors to be released. In 1963, Reuther was a key figure in organising the March on Washington. It was his suggestion to hold the march by the Lincoln memorial – rather than directly outside Congress. He even paid for a sound system so that the speeches could be heard.
Reuther and the UAW brought 5,000 members to the rally. Reuther was the most prominent white speaker at the event. He said
“The job question is crucial; because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.” (1963, Speech)
In 1965, Reuther expressed solidarity with striking agricultural workers in California, led by Cesar Chavez. Reuther visited California and helped give national prominence to the strike and campaign to boycott grapes until workers gained union recognition. Reuther said
“This is not your strike, this is our strike!”
Reuther also offered financial support to the strikers and encouraged Robert F. Kennedy to support the strikers. The 1965 Delano grape strike was a major landmark in improving wages and conditions for agricultural workers.
Reuther became an influential figure on the left-wing, liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He advocated for civil rights and also a welfare state and greater health care provision. During the 1960s, he frequently met with Lyndon Johnson to discuss upcoming legislation.
“There’s a direct relationship between the ballot box and the bread box, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.”
Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the United Auto Workers, Vol. 22 (1970)
Reuther was opposed to the Vietnam War and yet unwilling to speak against Johnson. He didn’t want to antagonise the president who had the power to introduce domestic change. Reuther was also an early environmentalist. In 1965, the UAW held a Clear Water Conference and corresponded with Johnson to pass legislation to reduce pollution. Walter also supported the Clean Air Act (1963 – something opposed by the big four car producers Shortly before his death on 22 April 1970, Reuther and the UAW helped to organise the first Earth Day and gave $2,000 of support. The UAW also helped with the administration and even published materials criticising pollution-belching cars. Reuther wrote
“The labor movement is about that problem we face tomorrow morning. Damn right! But to make that the sole purpose of the labor movement is to miss the main target. I mean, what good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it? What good is another $100 in pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke?” (Gist.org)
Death and conspiracy
On 9 May 1970, Reuther died in a plane crash near Michigan, along with his wife, bodyguard and three others. After surviving two previous assassination attempts, there was speculation it may have been an assassination. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the crash and they found the cause of the Pellston crash to be a combination of the pilot’s inability to judge the aeroplane’s altitude and bad weather. One and a half years before the fatal crash in October 1968, Reuther and his brother had been in a very similar situation. Both Reuther and his brother Victor were almost killed in a small private plane as it approached Dulles Airport. On that occasion, there was also a faulty altimeter.
He married May Wolf, a physical education teacher in March 1936. They had two daughters and lived in a modest Detroit home they purchased in 1941.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Walter Reuther”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 2 August 2019. Last updated 2 August 2019.
Quotes of Walter Reuther
Speech at March on Washington 1963
“We must determine now—once and for all—whether we believe in the United States Constitution.”
“We can make our own freedom secure only as we make freedom universal so that all may share its blessings. We cannot successfully preach democracy in the world unless we first practice democracy at home. … There is no halfway house to human freedom. What is needed in the present crisis is not halfway and halfhearted measures, but action, bold and adequate to square American democracy’s performance with its promise.“If we fail, the vacuum created by our failure will be filled with the Apostles of hatred, who will search for answers in the dark of night, and reason will yield to riot, and the spirit of brotherhood will yield to bitterness and bloodshed, and the fabric of our free society will be torn asunder.”
Irving Bluestone, a colleague of Reuther in the UAW was standing near the platform. He recalls two black women talking.
“Who is that white man?” the first asked.
“Don’t you know him? That’s Walter Reuther. he’s the white Martin Luther King.” Eric.ed.gov
“I’m proud to belong to the NAACP because it is made up of people who are dedicated in a great crusade to make America true to itself… Make America live up to its highest hopes and aspirations.”
“The free world must provide the kind of bold and realistic leadership that will tap the great spiritual reservoir of the human family and get people and nations working and marching together in the positive and rewarding tasks of peace inspired and motivated by their common hopes and common aspirations.” Labor Day Address 1 Sep 1958
“American democracy is on trial in the eyes of the world… We cannot successfully preach democracy in the world unless we first practice democracy at home. American democracy will lack the moral credentials and be both unequal to and unworthy of leading the forces of freedom against the forces of tyranny unless we take bold, affirmative, adequate steps to bridge the moral gap between American democracy’s noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights.”
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