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Reuther, Victor George

Reuther, Victor George

(b. 1 January 1912 in Wheeling, West Virginia; d. 3 June 2004 in Washington, D.C.), trade union organizer and director of the international affairs department of the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

Reuther was born near the steel mills of Wheeling, West Virginia. He was one of four children of Valentine Reuther, a driver for a brewing company who was active in trade union and Socialist politics, and Anna (Stocker) Reuther, a homemaker. Reuther’s two brothers, Walter and Roy, also were labor leaders, but Victor was considered the most intellectual and left leaning of the three. After graduation from Wheeling High School, Reuther briefly attended the University of West Virginia and Detroit City College (later Wayne State University). His commitment to social change was evident while he was studying at Detroit City College. In the early 1930s he attempted to block the establishment of a Reserve Officers Training Corps unit on the campus.

Reuther left college to join his brother Walter in trying to organize industrial workers in automobile plants. During this period Reuther’s concerns for economic and social justice were reinforced during a visit to Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York. Brookwood’s progressive workers’ education program, which trained organizers who were concerned with social issues, suited Reuther’s leftist views. While at Brookwood, Reuther worked with the residential labor college in assisting the newly formed Emergency Peace Campaign. Along with Tucker P. Smith, the college’s director, Reuther traveled around the eastern part of the United States speaking about the importance of world peace to steelworkers, autoworkers, glass workers, rubber workers, and members of the central labor hierarchy. In the summer of 1936 Reuther helped Brookwood create the first workers’ antiwar summer school, which trained union leaders in peace education for their fellow unionists and in drafting plans of war resistance for labor. At Brookwood, Reuther met the social activist and union organizer Sophia Goodlavich. The couple married on 17 July 1936 in Peekskill, New York; they had three children.

Before going to Brookwood, Reuther accompanied his brother Walter on an extended trip through Europe and Asia in 1933 to 1934. The long-contemplated trip was precipitated by Walter’s being blacklisted after leading a failed strike at the Briggs Manufacturing Company in Detroit. While in Germany the Reuther brothers served briefly as couriers in the underground resistance. After leaving Nazi Germany in November 1933 the Reuthers worked at the Gorki automobile works in the Soviet Union. Although upset by the repressive nature of the Stalinist regime, both brothers retained their basic sympathy for the Soviet experiment. Their trip concluded with stops in Siberia and Japan.

When they returned to the United States, the Reuther brothers found themselves in the middle of efforts to unionize the mass-production sector. The newly established UAW of America began a major push to organize workers. Reuther landed a job as an assembly line worker at the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company, a Detroit automobile parts maker. He joined UAW Local 174 and thrust himself into the confrontational struggles of organizing industrial workers in the automobile plants. At the same time the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a new federation representing industrial workers, welcomed the UAW into its fold.

On 11 January 1937, in what became known as the Battle of the Running Bulls, Reuther was instrumental in organizing a sit-down strike at the Fisher Body Plant No. 2 in Flint, Michigan. His experience at Brookwood had taught him to consider nonviolent alternatives in the struggle for unionization. Despite threats by the General Motors back-to-work movement called the Flint Alliance, by police, and by National Guard troops, Reuther and other strike organizers took turns at the microphone in a sound truck directing the movements of the sit-downers and pickets. Police who tried to force their way into the plant were repulsed by a deluge of cold water from a plant fire hose and by two-pound steel automobile hinges. A month later General Motors signed a contract with the UAW. Described by the union organizer Rose Pesotta as “tall and lanky, with reddish brown hair and a humorous twinkle in his eye,” Reuther had planned the successful strategy for the 50,000 strikers.

Before and after World War II Reuther helped shape the UAW educational programs. He established labor institutes and radio and film production units. He was directly responsible for setting up the union’s drama school and summer camps. During the war Reuther represented the labor movement as a member of the federal War Manpower Commission. He also served as codirector of the UAW war policy division. In 1946 Reuther supported his brother Walter’s bid to become union president. In a bruising election the non-Communist faction managed to elect Walter president and Victor educational director. As president with the support of his brothers, Walter carried out a vigorous anti-Communist offensive within the UAW and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. As the result of their actions the brothers became targets of assassination attempts. On 20 April 1948 Walter was nearly killed. A shotgun attack crippled his right arm. A year later, after returning from Europe, Victor was struck in the face and neck and blinded in his right eye after a shotgun blast was fired into his living room.

From 1955 until his retirement from union activities in 1972 Reuther was director of the UAW international affairs department in Washington, D.C. He was instrumental in helping the union in Western Europe fend off Communist infiltration. He was directly responsible for arranging a private meeting between President John F. Kennedy and the union leader of the Social Democratic Party in Italy. After the meeting the Social Democrats ended their coalition with the Italian Communist Party. Reuther managed to establish ties with non-Communist labor movements led by Harold Wilson of England and Willy Brandt of West Germany. On the national level Reuther supervised legislative affairs for the UAW. During this period both of his brothers died, Roy in 1968 and Walter in a plane crash in 1970.

When he retired Reuther received the UAW’s highest honor, the Social Justice Award. He then devoted his hours to writing his memoirs, published in 1976 as The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW. The work is still considered one of the most authoritative biographies of the American labor movement. It is especially detailed regarding the bloody confrontations of the industrial organizing drives of the Great Depression.

Despite official retirement Reuther found it difficult to stay on the sidelines. Foreign competition from overseas automobile manufacturers and the hostility of the administration of President Ronald W. Reagan toward organized labor energized him. Reuther became a fierce critic of the 1985 agreement between the UAW and the Saturn Corporation. The contract led to the elimination of seniority rights and mandated that union officials act as both union representatives and supervisors. Reuther began publicly criticizing UAW officers for making too many concessions to corporate interests. By the late 1980s he was helping the union’s New Directions campaign raise money to run candidates against the current leadership. In the 1990s Reuther served as an informal advisor to the Canadian Auto Workers Union president Buzz Hargrove. Because of his outspokenness regarding the tribulations of the union movement, Reuther was a frequent guest speaker at conferences of the Association for Union Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and the Canadian Auto Workers Union. Although he spent his last years in a nursing home in Washington, D.C, Reuther remained committed to world peace and labor union solidarity. One year before he died Reuther lent his name and support to a group of trade unionists opposed to the war in Iraq. Reuther died of renal failure and pneumonia at the age of ninety-two. He was cremated, and the ashes are buried in the family plot at Black Lake in Onaway, Michigan. Reuther’s contribution to early twentieth century industrial organizing drives was summarized as follows by Ron Gettelfinger, the president of the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America: “During his years as a trade union activist Victor displayed great personal courage and endured great personal risk for the right of workers to organize.”

The Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, contains a comprehensive collection of papers related to the Reuther family and the UAW. The best memoir is Victor Reuther, The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW (1976). Other works detailing the role of the Reuther brothers, especially Walter, and the UAW are John Barnard, Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers (1983); Dudley Buffa, Union Power and American Democracy: The UAW and the Democratic Party (1984); and Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (1997). Reuther’s role in workers’ education is described in Charles F. Howlett, Brookwood Labor College and the Struggle for Peace and Social Justice in America (1993). A recollection of Reuther’s central role at the Battle of the Running Bulls is Rose Pesotta, Bread upon the Waters (1944). Important works describing the General Motors sit-down strike are Sidney Fine, Sit-down: The General Motors Strike of 1936–1937 (1969); Sidney Lens, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns (1973); and Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941 (1969). Obituaries are in the Detroit News (4 June 2004), New York Times and Daily Oakland Press (both 5 June 2004), and Labor Notes (30 June 2004).

Charles F. Howlett

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