Skip to main content
Select Source:

Walter Philip Reuther

Walter Philip Reuther

American labor leader Walter Philip Reuther (1907-1970) pioneered in unionizing the mass-production industries. In a movement traditionally preoccupied with bread-and-butter goals, he dedicated his career to broadening labor's political and social horizons.

Walter Reuther was born on Sept. 1, 1907. His father headed the central labor body in Wheeling, W.Va., and the five children spent their evenings earnestly debating social problems. Walter left school at the age of 15 to work in a steel mill; 4 years later he moved to Detroit, resumed his schooling, and worked at night as a tool-and-die maker in automobile factories.

Reuther began preaching unionism before President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal put a legal foundation under collective bargaining. The result was Reuther's dismissal from the Ford Company in 1933. On a trip around the world he worked for over a year in a Soviet auto plant. Returning to Detroit, he helped build the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the union that became the launching pad for his influence in national affairs.

The dynamic redheaded Reuther slithered through national guard lines in the 1937 sit-down strikes at General Motors; he was beaten by Ford Company guards in a strike later that year. Even after the UAW was well-established, thugs made him a target. In 1948 a shotgun blast fired through a window of his Detroit home left his right hand permanently crippled. Later his brother, Victor, the union's education director, lost an eye in an almost identical attack.

Under Reuther's leadership the UAW grew to 1.5 million members. It pushed collective bargaining into innovative fields that provided workers and their families with cradle-to-grave protection as an adjunct of their regular pay. Perhaps the most spectacular success was a 1955 employer-financed program that gave auto workers almost as much take-home pay when laid off as when at work.

Reuther consistently fought corruption, communism, and racist tendencies within labor. Convinced in 1955 that the American Federation of Labor (AFL), led by George Meany, had also become a foe of such influences, he renounced the presidency of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to accept a secondary role in a merged labor movement. However, disenchanted by what he considered the AFL-CIO's standstill policies, he led his union out again in 1968.

The UAW joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the biggest American union, in forming an Alliance for Labor Action. Its aim was to organize the working poor, especially in ghetto areas, and crusade for far-reaching social reforms. This venture reflected Reuther's social vision, but it died a year after his own death.

Reuther always looked forward to transforming the economy along lines of industrial democracy and social justice. He authored dozens of "Reuther plans" for the solution of problems ranging from housing and health to disarmament. Yet he found himself increasingly isolated from the general labor movement. He was killed in an airplane crash in Michigan on May 10, 1970.

Further Reading

A well-balanced study of Reuther is William J. Eaton and Frank Cormier, Reuther (1970). More specialized is Alfred O. Hero, Reuther-Meany Foreign Policy Dispute (1970). Older studies are Irving Howe and B. J. Widick, The UAW and Walter Reuther (1949), and the section on Reuther in Paul Franklin Douglass, Six upon the World: Toward an American Culture for an Industrial Age (1954).

Additional Sources

Barnard, John, Walter Reuther and the rise of the auto workers, Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.

Carew, Anthony, Walter Reuther, Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press; New York: Distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Lichtenstein, Nelson, The most dangerous man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the fate of American labor, New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Walter Philip Reuther." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Walter Philip Reuther." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walter-philip-reuther

"Walter Philip Reuther." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walter-philip-reuther

Reuther, Walter Philip

Walter Philip Reuther (rōō´thər), 1907–70, American labor leader, b. Wheeling, W.Va. A tool- and diemaker, he became shop foreman in a Detroit automobile plant, meanwhile completing his high school work and attending college. Discharged because of his union activities, he and his brother Victor spent some years (1932–35) in Europe (including the Soviet Union) and in East Asia. Active in the organization drives (1935–37) of the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) and in the sit-down strikes, he became director of the union's General Motors department (1939) and union vice president (1942). In World War II, he favored active support of the war by labor and evolved a plan for airplane mass production in automobile plants.

In 1946 Reuther was elected president of the UAW and also became a vice president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO; see American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations). After 1945 he led the auto workers in several major contests for wage increases and social welfare programs, while gaining undisputed control of the UAW. His importance as an anti-Communist labor leader grew. He was severely wounded by an unidentified assailant in 1948, as was his brother Victor the following year. Reuther succeeded (1952) Philip Murray as president of the CIO. An engineer of the merger (1955) of the CIO with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), he became a vice president, a member of its executive board, and head of its industrial union department.

In the following years, Reuther had many disagreements with George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO. For example, in 1963, Reuther strongly supported the civil-rights march on Washington, but the AFL-CIO executive board, led by Meany, would only express sympathy with civil-rights objectives; the board refused to endorse the march itself. By 1968, after a dispute with Meany over the direction and structure of the labor movement, Reuther led the UAW out of the AFL-CIO. In 1969, Reuther attempted an ill-fated merger with the Teamsters Union (a union he had been instrumental in having removed from the AFL-CIO in 1957); known as the Alliance for Labor Action, it was dissolved, after his death, in 1972. Reuther was killed in a plane crash. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1995.

See F. Cormier and W. J. Eaton, Reuther (1970); J. Gould and L. Hickok, Walter Reuther (1972); J. Barnard, Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Autoworkers (1983); N. Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (1995).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Reuther, Walter Philip." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Reuther, Walter Philip." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/reuther-walter-philip

"Reuther, Walter Philip." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/reuther-walter-philip