Best known as president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union from 1946 until his death in a plane crash in 1970, Walter Philip Reuther (September 1, 1907–May 9, 1970) struggled during the Great Depression to find a focus for his considerable skill and energy before eventually immersing himself in the cause of organizing Detroit automobile workers. Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, Reuther left a tool and die apprenticeship in his hometown at age nineteen to seek work in Detroit. Despite his age, Reuther was highly skilled and gained a position of responsibility at Ford's Highland Park Plant. Reuther attended high school after work, and, with his younger brother Victor, took classes at Detroit City College (which became Wayne State University). Displaying his activist inclination and the influence of his Socialist father, Reuther fought to defend free speech rights at the college, opposed segregation at a pool near campus, and campaigned for supported Socialist Norman Thomas in the 1932 presidential campaign.
The Great Depression made employment insecure even for skilled workers like Reuther. With an uncertain future in Detroit, and lured by the prospect of a viable workers' state in the Soviet Union, Walter and Victor left Detroit in January 1933 for what would become an amazing journey of over two and a half years through Europe and Asia. The Reuthers arrived in Germany during the Nazi takeover, then bicycled around Europe for nine months waiting for their visas to enter the Soviet Union. Observing the rise of fascism only strengthened Walter Reuther's tendency to see the best in the alternative Soviet model. In the Soviet Union, the Reuthers worked on a massive industrialization project in Gorky and were moved by the cooperation they observed between management, union leaders, and the state, as well as by the spirit of Soviet workers. The Reuthers did not observe the most brutal aspects of Soviet industrialization—although they eventually saw enough to cause concern—and Walter's praise for the Soviet system provided fodder for both American opponents of unionization and, in the 1930s, conservative union rivals. Reuther's relationship with Communists and communism remains a topic of historical debate. Communists were vitally important to the rise of industrial unionism, primarily as organizers, and many UAW Communists had been close to Reuther. But Reuther's outspoken opposition to Communists in the UAW in the early Cold War era, whether principled or opportunistic, undoubtedly helped him become president of the union.
Upon returning to Detroit in 1935, Reuther joined a UAW local—without actually working in a plant—and was elected to the UAW executive board. In early 1936, Reuther married May Wolf, who was equally dedicated to organizing auto-workers. Later that year, Reuther helped organize a sit-down strike at Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company. The strike resulted in few tangible gains, but much favorable publicity, especially after the more successful sit-down strike at General Motors (GM) in Flint, Michigan, which began shortly after the settlement at Kelsey-Hayes. Reuther received national attention in May 1937 when he and three other UAW officials were savagely beaten by Ford security personnel in the famous "Battle of the Overpass." Photographers documented the attack, but it nevertheless took four more years for Reuther and the UAW to overcome Ford's resistance to unionization.
After supporting Norman Thomas for president in 1936, but seeing merit in Franklin Roosevelt's pro-worker rhetoric, Reuther ran unsuccessfully for the Detroit city council in 1937. None of the four labor candidates was elected, and Reuther finished third among them. Even in the late 1930s, Reuther was but one of many labor notables in Detroit, and he might today remain a somewhat obscure figure if not for his high-profile postwar career.
From 1937 to 1939, Reuther contended with the UAW's factional infighting and the severe recession that almost eliminated both automobile production and the union. Only 6 percent of the UAW's GM employees paid union dues in 1939. In May 1939 Reuther, as the new director of the UAW's GM department, helped the union regain strength by organizing a strike of skilled tradesmen, without whose labor the company could not produce any cars for the 1940 model year. GM was forced, once again, to recognize the UAW, just in time for the production boom that accompanied World War II. Reuther's fame grew proportionately throughout the next thirty years.
Barnard, John. Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers. 1983.
Barnard, John. "Rebirth of the United Automobile Workers: The General Motors Tool and Diemakers' Strike of 1939." Labor History 27 (1986): 165–187.
Boyle, Kevin. "Building the Vanguard: Walter Reuther and Radical Politics in 1936." Labor History 30 (1989): 433–48.
Boyle, Kevin. The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism: 1945–1968. 1995.
Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor. 1995.
Reuther, Victor G. The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW: A Memoir. 1976.