Walter Philip Reuther (/ˈruːθər/; September 1, 1907 – May 9, 1970) was an American labor union leader, who made the United Automobile Workers (UAW) a major force not only in the auto industry but also in the Democratic Party and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the mid 20th century. He was a socialist in the early 1930s and worked closely with the Communist Party in the auto industry in the middle and late 1930s. He was a leader in removing communists from the offices in UAW and CIO in the 1940s. By 1949 he had become a leading liberal and supporter of the New Deal coalition, working to strengthen the labor union movement, raise wages, and give union leaders a greater voice in state and national Democratic party politics. During the 1960s he was a major supporter of the civil rights movement.
Reuther was born on September 1, 1907 in Wheeling, West Virginia, the son of Anna (Stocker) and Valentine Reuther, a socialist brewery worker who had emigrated from Germany. Throughout his career he was close to his brothers and co-workers Victor Reuther and Roy Reuther. Reuther joined the Ford Motor Company in 1927 as an expert tool and die maker. He was laid off in 1932 as the Great Depression worsened. His Ford employment record states that he quit voluntarily, but Reuther himself always maintained that he was fired for his increasingly visible socialist activities. He and his brother Victor went to Europe and then worked 1933–35 in an auto plant (GAZ) at Gorky in the Soviet Union, which was being built with the cooperation of Henry Ford. 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." 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, and he has been reported as attending a Communist Party planning meeting as late as February 1939. 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.
Reuther remained active in the Socialist Party and in 1937 failed in his attempt to be elected to the Detroit Common Council. However, impressed by the efforts by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to tackle inequality, he eventually joined the Democratic Party.
In 1936 he became president of United Automobile Workers 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 strikebreakers. He survived two assassination attempts, and his right hand was permanently crippled in an attack on April 20, 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.
He is remembered for a famous exchange with a Ford executive when Ford was automating its production lines. Leading Reuther into a great hall filled with machines, with just one or two human workers programming them, an executive joked, "How do you plan to get these boys to pay your union dues, Walter?" Reuther looked around, shook his head, and said, "How do you plan to get them to buy your cars?"
After the bombing of 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 promptly he purged the UAW of all communist elements. He was active in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) umbrella as well, taking the lead in expelling 11 communist-led 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). Reuther tried to negotiate lower automobile prices for the consumer with each contract, with limited success.
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 with union organizers and finances, and his own continuing personal involvement. Reuther 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 1964–65. He was instrumental in mobilizing UAW resources to minimize the threat that George Wallace would win more than ten percent of union votes (Wallace won about nine percent in the North).
In his prime, Reuther was influential and powerful enough to frighten conservatives. In 1958, later presidential candidate Barry Goldwater declared Reuther a "more dangerous menace than the Sputnik or anything Soviet Russia might do to America."
Reuther played a role in a historic episode during the early 1960s, known as the Chicken War. France and West Germany had placed tariffs on imports of U.S. chicken. Diplomacy failed and in January 1964, two months after taking office, President Johnson imposed a 25 percent tax (almost 10 times the average U.S. tariff) on potato starch, dextrin, brandy, and light trucks. Officially, the tax targeted items imported from Europe as approximating the value of lost American chicken sales to Europe.
In retrospect, audio tapes from the Johnson White House, revealed a quid pro quo unrelated to chicken. In January 1964, President Johnson attempted to persuade Reuther not to initiate a strike just prior to the 1964 election and to support the president's civil rights platform. Reuther in turn wanted Johnson to respond to Volkswagen's increased shipments to the United States.
The chicken tax directly curtailed importation of German-built Volkswagen Type 2 vans in configurations that qualified them as light trucks—that is, commercial vans and pickups. In 1964 U.S. imports of "automobile trucks" from West Germany declined to a value of $5.7 million—about one-third the value imported in the previous year. Soon after, Volkswagen cargo vans and pickup trucks, the intended targets, "practically disappeared from the U.S. market." As of March 2013, the chicken tax remains in effect.
On May 9, 1970, Walter Reuther, his wife May, architect Oscar Stonorov, Reuther's bodyguard William Wolfman, the pilot and co-pilot were killed when their chartered Gates Learjet 23 crashed in flames at 9:33 p.m. Michigan time. The plane, arriving from Detroit in rain and fog, was on final approach to Pellston Regional Airport in Pellston, Michigan, near the union's recreational and educational facility at Black Lake, Michigan. The National Transportation Safety Board discovered that the plane's altimeter was missing parts, some incorrect parts were installed, and one of its parts had been installed upside down.
Reuther had earlier survived an April 1948 incident in which he was hit by a shotgun blast through his kitchen window. Reuther happened to turn towards his wife, and was hit in the arm instead of the chest and heart. The crime was never solved.
Walter Reuther appears in Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Walter Reuther is the namesake for the largest labor archives in the United States, home to over 75,000 linear feet of original documents related to the labor movement. The Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs is located in Detroit and is part of Wayne State University.
A hospital in Westland, Michigan, is named for him.
Reuther Middle School, part of the Rochester Community Schools in Rochester Hills, Michigan, is named for him.
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