Walter Reuther (1907-1970)
UNITED AUTO WORKERSActive: 1935 – 1970
“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.”
Walter Reuther survived two assassination attempts and was beaten in 1937 by company security forces in the effort to get the Ford Motor Company to recognize the UAW.
Walter Reuther became president of the United Auto Workers in 1947 and at the age of 40 he was already considered an intellectual leader in the labor movement. In his new role as president of one of the most powerful unions in the country, he pushed the federal government to continue the Office of Price Administration after the war ended in order to prevent inflation and to ensure that Americans buying power did not erode. And he challenged the auto companies to release their books so the American people could see that they could raise workers’ wages without raising the price of their cars.
He may have grown up as a staunch socialist but he was an avowed anti-communist after having worked in the Soviet Union, training factory workers and seeing Stalin’s purges first hand. He joined the labor movement in the depths of the Great Depression after traveling around the world. He was joined on his trip by his brothers and they traveled through Germany, getting a front row seat to the rise of the Nazis, and they also traveled to Japan and China before getting jobs in the Russia. They worked for a year at a Ford-built plant in Gorky, training Russians to work in the factory.
Reuther was known for his creativity and out of the box thinking. He came to national prominence in 1939 by announcing a plan to refit idle auto plants to produce military aircraft to support America’s allies. The plan brought him to the attention of President Franklin D Roosevelt, who often consulted with him about production matters and even offered him a job on the War Productions Board, which Reuther turned down. He swiftly moved up in the union, becoming the head of the General Motors Division in 1939. After leading a successful strike at General Motors in 1945 to push for a 30% increase in wages to keep up with rising inflation, he was elected President of the UAW the following year. The UAW continued to use strikes to push for better working conditions and pensions, earning Reuther the moniker of “most dangerous man in Detroit.”
Reuther was elected president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1952 and began negotiations with the president of the AFL, George Meany, to bring the two labor organizations back together. Reuther rapidly grew frustrated with what he saw as a lack of urgency in fulfilling the labor movement’s progressive vision and withdrew the UAW from the AFL-CIO in 1957, two years after the merger.
When Reuther was elected president of the UAW, he pledged to help create “a labor movement whose philosophy demands that it fight for the welfare of the public at large.” As part of that pledge, Reuther was a steadfast supporter of the civil rights movement. The UAW provided financial assistance to the NAACP as they argued their case before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in addition to filing an amicus brief in support. And the UAW also assisted in the 1963 March on Washington of Jobs and Freedom by provided office space, staff and funding for the march. Reuther died in a plane crash along with his wife on their way to visit the UAW’s new education center in Michigan in 1970 at the age of 62. The Walter and May Reuther UAW Family Education Center was named in their honor.