MotorCities National Heritage Area



Born in West Virginia in 1907, Walter Reuther worked in Detroit from 1926 to 1933. Fired by the Ford Motor Company, he and his brother Victor left the city for a bicycle trip across Europe that included a stint working at an auto plant in the Soviet Union. Reuther returned to the U.S. in 1935 and became involved with the new United Auto Workers union. His main efforts at the time were in Southwest Detroit, where he helped organize auto parts plants and became the first president of UAW Local 174, which represented them. Reuther was one of four UAW organizers who in May 1937 were brutally beaten by Ford security personnel on a bridge leading to the Rouge Plant, adjacent to Southwest Detroit. Two years later, as head of the UAW’s General Motors Department, Walter was in large part responsible for the success of the 1939 Tool & Die Strike there. 


He won the presidency of the Union in 1946, guiding the union to the zenith of its influence, both in Michigan and in Washington. During the boom years following World War II, he helped secured a series of innovative contractual gains. He was a leading voice in the progressive faction of the Democratic Party and advisor to both President Kennedy and Johnson. He championed what today is known as single-payer national health insurance. He also forged a close working alliance with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, providing crucial support for the 1963 marches in Detroit and Washington. He served until 1970 when he and his wife, May, were killed in a plane crash.

"Walter Reuther is the most dangerous man in Detroit because no one is more skillful in bringing about the revolution without seeming to disrupt the existing forms of society."

-George Romney, former Governor of Michigan and auto executive

Click here to view:

Remembering Walter and May Reuther, a Walter Reuther Library special post commemorating the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that took the lives of the Reuthers and

They Sat Down and Rocked the Boat: Walter Reuther’s Blue-Collar Revolution, journalist Tim Kiska’s The Detroit History Podcast 30-minute feature highlighting Reuther’s career

Recommended Readings: 

Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Nelson Lichtenstein, (University of Illinois Press, 1995).

American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers during the Reuther Years, 1935-1970, John Barnard, (Wayne State University Press, 2005)

The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism 1945 - 1968, Kevin Boyle (Cornell University Press, 1995)