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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. □

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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).

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Reuther, Walter Philip

REUTHER, Walter Philip

(b. 1 September 1907 in Wheeling, West Virginia; d. 9 May 1970 in Pellston, Michigan), local union president, labor leader, civil rights activist, antiwar activist, president of the United Automobile Workers, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and vice president of the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Reuther was the oldest of three sons of the German immigrants Valentine Reuther, a brewery-wagon driver and union leader, and Anna Stocker, a homemaker. In 1930, while he was a student at Detroit City College (now Wayne State University), Reuther helped organize the local Social Problems Club, an affiliate of the League for Industrial Democracy, which was itself an affiliate of the Socialist Party. Although he attended college, Reuther never graduated. From November 1933 until June 1935 Reuther and his brother Victor worked in the Gorky Auto Works in the Soviet Union. Their other brother, Roy, was also active in labor. Reuther led the first major auto strike in Detroit in 1936. That year he married May Wolf; they had two children. He continued working in labor, and in 1940 he headed the General Motors department of the United Automobile Workers (UAW). Badly beaten by strikebreakers that same year, Reuther sustained crippling injuries to his right hand. Two assassination attempts were also made on his life.

Reuther did much to earn respect for labor unions from management. His career focused on worker benefits, wage raises, guaranteed annual wages, profit sharing, pensions, and holidays. He also advocated civil rights, low-cost housing, health insurance, and environmental protection of air and water. Reuther participated in two marches for social justice and racial equality, the March on Washington and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He also supported the struggles of the Mexican farm workers in California, and he opposed the Vietnam War.

Reuther worked hard for civil rights within the automobile industry. In the early 1960s the workforce of the American automobile industry was about 13 percent African American, and in Michigan the figure exceeded 20 percent. While paragraph sixty-three of the UAW-GM contact gave foremen the power to transfer and upgrade production workers, all too often white supervisors continued to practice racism in not promoting a multiracial workforce. Many African-American autoworkers did not know that Reuther worked unsuccessfully for years to reform paragraph sixty-three. Just as many people in the civil rights movement expressed their discontent by forcing integration at lunch counters in North Carolina, African-American workers in Detroit often criticized the racism of the factory, and they blamed labor union leadership and leaders like Walter Reuther for not changing it.

George Meany, president of the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), did not endorse the 12 August 1963 March on Washington for freedom and jobs; the only AFL-CIO executive council members who did were A. Phillip Randolph and Reuther. Reuther himself participated in the March on Washington, at which some 200,000 people gathered to demonstrate their support for equality for all. Reuther not only participated in the march but also supported it by paying $16,000 for the public address system. Before the march Reuther and Randolph, along with the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Whitney Young, the executive director of the Urban League, met with President John F. Kennedy. They encouraged him to include a fair employment statute in the proposed Civil Rights Act. In later years the AFL-CIO took perhaps more credit than was its due for supporting the march and influencing civil rights legislation—in reality it was only Reuther who was present at the event.

With the help of Roy Wilkins, Reuther persuaded Randolph, who was the head of the steering committee, to add an additional Protestant, Jew, and Roman Catholic to this group for the Washington march. These additions shifted the social focus of the March on Washington away from racial equality and more toward the Kennedy administration's civil rights bill. Full employment for African Americans and a minimum wage of two dollars per hour were no longer the sole considerations. Attorney General Robert Kennedy's Justice Department wanted a peaceful march, and Reuther, who represented the UAW to both the Justice Department and the march steering committee members, did his best to make the demonstration fall in line with the administration's vision.

Reuther and the Justice Department both received unauthorized, advance copies of the speech of John Lewis, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In it he called for a revolution. When Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle (the Archbishop of Washington who was to offer the invocation at the march) read the speech, he refused to share the same platform with Lewis. With the support of the Justice Department, Reuther convinced Lewis and the other steering committee members that Lewis should rewrite his speech in a manner that would better support the coalition of labor and African Americans. Lewis rewrote the speech, toning down his criticism, and Reuther persuaded O'Boyle to give the invocation on that contingency.

In his own speech that day, Reuther called for full employment and full production for Americans during times of peace, just as in times of war. He criticized Kennedy for defending Berlin, which was at that time being supplied and supported by an airlift from the West, and not defending Birmingham, Alabama. Later that afternoon, when the march leaders met at the White House with President Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., modestly deflected Kennedy's compliment on his speech by praising Reuther's speech, but Kennedy noted that King's speech was the major one delivered that day.

Reuther did not always do all that should have been done for civil rights. In the 1950s Horace Sheffield and Willouby Abner, African-American members of the Trade Union Leadership Council, spoke out on the inability of a white man to advocate for African-American autoworkers. Reuther remained as opposed to the Trade Union Leadership Council as he did to the Dodge Revolutionary Union movement, because of the hard Marxist lines of both organizations. The top leadership of the UAW did not actively support Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, either, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Reuther made other efforts for civil rights, however, such as desegregation of the Memphis Harvester local and the inclusion of anti-discrimination in collective-bargaining contracts. Throughout his life Reuther strove to put labor at the center of the social movement for civil rights. As a labor leader who supported racial equality, Reuther was much stronger than Jimmy Hoffa—a convicted felon who was president of the Teamster's Union—David J. MacDonald, or George Meany. Unlike his contemporaries, he made labor the core of a dynamic social movement. For Reuther, unions had the power to change the world.

In another dispute with Meaney in 1968, Reuther led the UAW out of the AFL-CIO. The next year Reuther attempted, through his Alliance for Labor Action, to merge the UAW with the Teamsters Union, but he was unsuccessful. Reuther was killed on 9 May 1970 in a plane crash in Pellston, Michigan. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Reuther, perhaps more than anyone else, demonstrated that, through the labor movement, the improvement of the social conditions for all Americans, black and white, could be improved.

Biographical information on Reuther is in Frank Cormier and William J. Eaton, Reuther (1970); Jean Gould and Lorena Hickok, Walter Reuther: Labor's Rugged Individualist (1972); Irving Howe and B. J. Widick, The UAW and Walter Reuther (1973); John Barnard, Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Autoworkers (1983); and Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (1995). An obituary is in the New York Times (11 May 1970).

Larry D. Griffin

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