Walter Reuther is often remembered as the most accomplished leader in the history of the American labor movement. A man of character, resolve and boundless energy, he sought to level the playing field for all working people. Reuther was ambitious, but took pride in being the nation’s lowest-paid union president. As head of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from 1946 to 1970, he held enormous economic power, but used it to better the lives of the union rank and file. As an adviser to four American presidents, Reuther had political influence, but applied it on behalf of the disadvantaged. He spoke and lived his guiding philosophy: “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to do it well.”
The second of five children, Reuther was born on September 1, 1907, in Wheeling, West Virginia. His father and mother, Valentine and Anna, raised their family to hold dear traditional values such as hard work and disciplined living. Valentine also taught them the essentials of unionism and social justice. “At my father’s knee,” Walter later recalled, “we learned the philosophy of trade unionism. We got the struggles, the hopes and aspirations of working people everyday.”
Walter Reuther left school at the age of 15 to take a tool and die apprenticeship at a local factory. In 1927, Reuther, like so many before him, journeyed to Detroit in the hope of finding more fruitful employment. He landed a job at the Ford Motor Company where he was quickly promoted to the task of supervising a group of die makers. Despite the demands of his job, Walter called upon his enormous energy and drive to also finish his high school diploma. These characteristics served him well his entire life.
In 1933, Walter Reuther and his youngest brother Victor left for a world tour and jobs at the Gorky automobile factory in the Soviet Union that had been equipped by Henry Ford. The two brothers worked in the plant teaching Russian workers how to make dies. They returned to Detroit just in time to participate in a new wave of automotive union activity.
The years 1936 and 1937 were pivotal both for the UAW and Walter Reuther. In March of 1936, Walter married May Wolf, an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers. Later that spring, Reuther was elected to the union’s Executive Board. In Detroit, Walter Reuther organized and became president of UAW Local 174, also known as the West Side Local. By the end of 1936, the stage was set for the UAW’s attempt to organize General Motors (GM), the largest corporation in the world. After a 44-day sit-down strike, GM signed an agreement with the UAW on February 11, 1937. Chrysler was organized in March. To many UAW members in the spring of 1937, it seemed that the entire industry would soon be organized.
“We’ll never recognize the United Automobile Workers Union, or any other union,” said Henry Ford in 1937. Walter Reuther would learn first hand how far Ford would go to keep that pledge. On May 26, 1937, Reuther and other UAW organizers went to the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn to pass out leaflets. There they were attacked and beaten by members of the Ford Service Department, Ford Motor Company’s private police force. Ford would not sign a contract with the UAW until 1941.
After the entry of the United States into World War II, Reuther spent increasing amounts of time as a behindthe-scenes consultant to the White House working to eliminate production bottlenecks. Reuther became a favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who often referred to him as his “red-haired engineer.” Walter Reuther was elected UAW President in 1946. In 1948 his life was nearly cut short by an assassination attempt, but he recovered and served for a total of 24 years. It can be difficult to follow all of the projects and ideas he worked on, but most can be placed in three categories: equity, justice and solidarity. At the beginning of the automobile era, most cars were hand-built by highly-skilled craftsmen. Mass production broke these complex jobs into many simple tasks performed by unskilled workers. Overworked and insecure, autoworkers produced great wealth while receiving relatively little in return. During his tenure as UAW president, there was a constant redefinition and expansion of what was fair and equitable for union members. Beyond all the improvements and innovations, perhaps Reuther’s most significant bargaining victory was the Supplemental Unemployment Benefit (SUB). SUB replaced most of the income workers lost during layoffs, taking some of the sting out of the cyclical nature of auto work. These many gains were hard-earned, and brought increased dignity and equality to the members of the UAW.
Walter Reuther knew the importance of everyday union issues. However, he also stated, “to make that the sole purpose of the labor movement is to miss the main target. The labor movement is about changing society.” To aid the cause of social justice, Reuther marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fought for universal health care and worked for open housing in America. He was also a cofounder of Earth Day, and as UAW president, provided funding and support to such groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. If the purpose of the labor movement was to change society, then Walter Reuther did more than his part to effect that change.
An online exhibit celebrating the life of Walter P. Reuther on the 100th anniversary of his birth can be found at: http://reuther.wayne.edu.
– Special thanks to Thomas Featherstone, AV Archivist, Walter P. Reuther Library.