Walter Reuther

Walter Reuther

:"For the Baseball player Walter Ruether, see Dutch Ruether."

Walter Philip Reuther (September 1, 1907May 9, 1970) was an American labor union leader, who made the United Automobile Workers a major force not only in the auto industry but also in the Democratic party in the mid 20th century. He was a socialist in the early 1930s; he became a leading liberal and supporter of the New Deal coalition, then in the 1940s became a leading anti-Communist and supporter of the Cold War and the Vietnam war.

Early life

Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, the son of a socialist brewery worker who had immigrated from Germany. In his entire career he was close to his brothers and co-workers Victor Reuther and Roy Reuther. Reuther joined the Ford Motor Company but was laid off as the Great Depression worsened. He and his brothers went to Europe and then worked 1933-35 in an auto plant at Gorky in the Soviet Union. While a committed socialist, he never became a Communist. At the end of the trip he wrote, "the atmosphere of freedom and security, shop meetings with their proletarian industrial democracy; all these things make an inspiring contrast to what we know as Ford wage slaves in Detroit. What we have experienced here has reeducated us along new and more practical lines." [Lichtenstein, "Most Dangerous Man" p 44] Unhappy with the lack of political freedom in Russia, Reuther returned to the United States where he found employment at General Motors and became an active member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

Reuther was a Socialist party member; he may have paid dues to the Communist Party for some months in 1935-36; he has been accused of attending a Communist Party planning meeting as late as February 1939. [ Victor G. Devinatz, " [ Reassessing the Historical UAW: Walter Reuther's Affiliation with the Communist Party and Something of its Meaning - a Document of Party Involvement, 1939] ." "Labour" 2002 (49): 223-245. There is a report of the meeting, clearly unauthorized, which lists Reuther as a member; it misspells several names, mentions some unnamed attendees, and its account of the internal politics of the UAW is disputed. It exists in the papers of one of Reuther's rivals, Jay Lovestone, who saw many more Communists than other evidence suggests; the writer was presumably spying on the meeting for him. Lichtenstein responded that membership this late seems unlikely; Reuther was already criticizing the Communists (" [ Reuther the Red?] ," Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2003); Devinatz concurs that he must have left the Party later in 1939. Reuther later insisted he was never a member; there is indirect evidence that he was a member of both the Socialists and the Communists in 1935-6. ] Reuther cooperated with the Communists in the later 1930s; this was the period of the Popular Front, and they agreed with him on internal issues of the UAW; but his associations were with anti-Stalinist Socialists. [Lichtenstein, "Dangerous Man", "loc. cit.".]

Reuther remained active in the Socialist Party and in 1937 failed in his attempt to be elected to the Detroit City Council. However, impressed by the efforts by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to tackle inequality, he eventually joined the Democratic Party.

Union career

In 1936 he became president of tiny local 174 (with 100 members), which on paper had responsibility for 100,000 auto workers on the west side of Detroit, Michigan. Reuther led several strikes and in 1937 and 1940 was hospitalized after being badly beaten by strike-breakers. He also survived two assassination attempts, and his right hand was permanently crippled in an attack on April 20th, 1948.

He had a highly publicized confrontation with Ford security forces on May 26, 1937, also known as The Battle of the Overpass. By this time, thanks to the sit-down strikes, UAW membership had exploded and Local 174 was a power inside the UAW. As a senior union organizer, Reuther helped win major strikes for union recognition against General Motors in 1940 and Ford in 1941.

After Pearl Harbor, Reuther strongly supported the war effort and refused to tolerate wildcat strikes that might disrupt munitions production. He worked for the War Manpower Commission, the Office of Production Management, and the War Production Board. He led a 113-day strike against General Motors in 1945-1946; it only partially succeeded. He never received the power he wanted to inspect company books or have a say in management, but he achieved increasingly lucrative wage and benefits contracts. In 1946 he narrowly defeated R. J. Thomas for the UAW presidency, and soon after he purged the UAW of all Communist elements. He was active in the CIO umbrella as well, taking the lead in expelling eleven Communist-dominated unions from the CIO in 1949.

As a prominent figure in the anti-Communist left, he was a founder of the Americans for Democratic Action in 1947. He became president of the CIO in 1952, and negotiated a merger with George Meany and the American Federation of Labor immediately after, which took effect in 1955. In 1949 he led the CIO delegation to the London conference that set up the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in opposition to the Communist-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions. He had left the Socialist party in 1939, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s was a leading spokesman for liberal interests in the CIO and in the Democratic party.

Reuther delivered contracts for his membership through brilliant negotiating tactics. He would pick one of the "Big three" automakers, and if it did not offer concessions, he would strike it and let the other two absorb its sales. Besides high hourly wage rates and paid vacations, Reuther negotiated these benefits for his union: employer-funded pensions (beginning in 1950 at Chrysler), medical insurance (beginning at GM in 1950), and supplementary unemployment benefits (beginning at Ford in 1955). Ruether tried to negotiate lower automobile prices for the consumer with each contract, with limited success (The Brothers Reuther, P. 249).

Toward the end of his life, when he took the UAW out of the AFL-CIO for a short-lived alliance with the Teamsters Union, and marched with the United Farm Workers in Delano, California, Reuther seemed to be dissatisfied, looking for the ability to challenge the injustices that had made the union movement so vital in the 1930s. He strongly supported the Civil Rights movement; Reuther was an active supporter of African American civil rights and participated in both the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs (August, 1963) and the Selma to Montgomery March (March, 1965). He stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. while he made the "I Have A Dream" speech, during the 1963 March on Washington. Although critical of the Vietnam War, he supported Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and met weekly with President Johnson during 1964-1965. He was instrumental in mobilizing UAW resources to minimize the threat that George Wallace would win more than 10 percent of union votes (Wallace won about 9 percent in the North). Reuther, his wife May, architect Oscar Stonorov, and also a bodyguard, the pilot and co-pilot were killed in a chartered Lear jet while en route to the union’s recreational and educational facility at Black Lake, Michigan.

In October 1968, a year and a half before the fatal crash, Reuther and his brother Victor were almost killed in a small private plane as it approached Dulles Airport. Both incidents are amazingly similar; the altimeter in the fatal crash was believed to have malfunctioned. When Victor Reuther was interviewed many years after the fatal crash he said “I and other family members are convinced that both the fatal crash and the near fatal one in 1968 were not accidental.” The FBI still refuses to turn over nearly 200 pages of documents involving Walter Reuther’s death, and correspondence between field offices and J. Edgar Hoover.

Walter Reuther appears in "TIME" magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.


* is named the "Walter P. Reuther Freeway".



econdary sources

* Barnard, John. "American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers during the Reuther Years, 1935-1970." Wayne State U. Press, 2004. 607 pp.
* Boyle, Kevin. "The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968" (1995)
* Kornhauser, Arthur et al. "When Labor Votes: A Study of Auto Workers" (1956)
* Goode, Bill. "Infighting in the UAW: The 1946 Election and the Ascendancy of Walter Reuther" (1994)
* Lichtenstein, Nelson. "The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor" (1995)
*Parenti, Michael and Peggy Norton. "The Wonderful Life and Strange Death of Walter Reuther."(1996)
* Zieger, Robert H. "The CIO, 1935-1955" (1995)

Primary sources

*Christman, Henry M. ed. "Walter P. Reuther: Selected Papers" (1961)
*Ruether, Victor "The Brothers Ruether and The Story of the UAW: A Memoir" (1976)

External links

* [ Obituary, NY Times, May 11, 1970]
* [ NTSB report on crash]
* [ THE TIME 100: BUILDERS AND TITANS: Walter Reuther]
* []

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