The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW
In The Brothers Reuther, Victor Reuther has written a memoir of his illustrious family, an informal biography of his older and more famous brother Walter, and a short history of the United Automobile Workers’ Union (UAW). The death of Walter at the age of sixty-two in an airplane accident in 1970 ended the proposed collaboration on a book based upon their personal experiences as labor leaders. As a personal reminiscence, the book is instructive and evocative. But as biography and history, it adds little to the facts that have already been presented by labor historians and biographers such as Jean Gould, Lorena Hickock, Irving Howe, and B. J. Widick.
The four Reuther brothers were from Wheeling, West Virginia, sons of a poor German immigrant, Valentine, who had been a staunch supporter of the Socialist Eugene V. Debs. After Walter and Victor moved to Detroit, they followed in their father’s footsteps and became members of the Socialist Party. In 1932, when Walter was given a pink slip by the Ford Motor Company for campaigning for Socialist Norman Thomas for President, the brothers toured Europe. After visiting relatives in Germany and witnessing the evils of Naziism, the brothers worked for a year in the Gorky Auto Works in the Soviet Union. This Wanderjahr was an important educational experience for the brothers; years later this sojourn would be used by enemies of the Reuthers as proof of their Communist sympathies.
Returning to Detroit in 1935, Walter, now on the blacklist, joined the UAW and with Victor soon became involved in a number of important strikes—the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company strike in Detroit; the Anderson, Indiana, Guide Lamp and Delco Remy strike; and the Flint Fisher Body sit-down strike. Union success in these strikes led to the recognition of the UAW by General Motors in 1937. The union had clearly breached the wall of anti-unionism in the automobile industry.
The best-written and most fascinating part of Victor’s recollections involves that turbulent period of labor-management warfare of the 1930’s when physical courage became a prerequisite to labor leadership. The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world. The chapters on the fight with the Ford Motor Company graphically capture examples of this violence. The task of organizing General Motors had been difficult, but they as a company were relatively liberal. Ford was not so pliable. The Ford family held all the stock and Henry Ford made all the important decisions. Ford proclaimed in 1937 that he would never recognize the UAW or any other union. Besides expressing contempt for labor unions, Ford organized the Ford Service Department under Harry Bennett as an agency of systematic terror. Many of the Ford Servicemen were recruited inside the walls of the Michigan State Prison, and for a decade this 3,000-man force made war on the UAW. One of the most vicious assaults on union members occurred in May, 1937, at the main entrance to Ford’s River Rouge plant when Walter Reuther and some UAW officials passing out handbills were savagely beaten up by Ford’s goons. A year later, two hoodlums broke into Walter’s home and tried to kidnap him; in 1948 a shotgun blast almost ended his life. A year later, Victor was shot down in his home. Victor maintains that there was a lack of effort on the part of the Detroit police and the FBI to solve these assassination attempts. He believes that there was a link between the Ford Company, the Detroit police, and local criminal elements, though he offers no proof of this charge. Victor quotes J. Edgar Hoover who, when asked to investigate these incidents, replied that he wasn’t “going to send the FBI in every time some nigger woman gets raped.”
During the 1940’s, the Reuthers pushed for control of the UAW and, after overcoming some bitter internal political disputes, Walter in 1946 captured the presidency of the UAW and purged the left wing from the union. Time has not healed the bitterness for Victor. He still uses the old scare words “corporate stooge” to describe former UAW President Homer Martin, “Machiavellian union-splitter” to depict the former Communist Jay Lovestone, and “hardcore Communists” to describe the left-wing opposition. Victor partakes of the same verbal overkill of which he had accused his opponents. Indeed, Victor confuses the issues. For much of the pro- versus anti-Communist rift was in truth a pro- versus anti-Reuther struggle.
Perhaps Victor has forgotten that after 1939 the Communists were not an important element in the UAW; they were simply used as pawns in the struggle between the conflicting union groups. Reuther’s victory in 1946 was largely based upon the fact that the Cold War made the Communists available scapegoats. Victor neglects to mention the “red-baiting”...
(The entire section is 1989 words.)