Walter Philip Reuther

American labor leader Walter Philip Reuther (1907-1970) pioneered in unionizing the mass-production industries. In a movement traditionally preoccupied with bread-and-butter goals, he dedicated his career to broadening labor's political and social horizons.

Walter Reuther was born on Sept. 1, 1907. His father headed the central labor body in Wheeling, W.Va., and the five children spent their evenings earnestly debating social problems. Walter left school at the age of 15 to work in a steel mill; 4 years later he moved to Detroit, resumed his schooling, and worked at night as a tool-and-die maker in automobile factories.

Reuther began preaching unionism before President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal put a legal foundation under collective bargaining. The result was Reuther's dismissal from the Ford Company in 1933. On a trip around the world he worked for over a year in a Soviet auto plant. Returning to Detroit, he helped build the United Automobile Workers (UAW), the union that became the launching pad for his influence in national affairs.

The dynamic redheaded Reuther slithered through national guard lines in the 1937 sit-down strikes at General Motors; he was beaten by Ford Company guards in a strike later that year. Even after the UAW was well-established, thugs made him a target. In 1948 a shotgun blast fired through a window of his Detroit home left his right hand permanently crippled. Later his brother, Victor, the union's education director, lost an eye in an almost identical attack.

Under Reuther's leadership the UAW grew to 1.5 million members. It pushed collective bargaining into innovative fields that provided workers and their families with cradle-to-grave protection as an adjunct of their regular pay. Perhaps the most spectacular success was a 1955 employer-financed program that gave auto workers almost as much take-home pay when laid off as when at work.

Reuther consistently fought corruption, communism, and racist tendencies within labor. Convinced in 1955 that the American Federation of Labor (AFL), led by George Meany, had also become a foe of such influences, he renounced the presidency of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to accept a secondary role in a merged labor movement. However, disenchanted by what he considered the AFL-CIO's standstill policies, he led his union out again in 1968.

The UAW joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the biggest American union, in forming an Alliance for Labor Action. Its aim was to organize the working poor, especially in ghetto areas, and crusade for far-reaching social reforms. This venture reflected Reuther's social vision, but it died a year after his own death.

Reuther always looked forward to transforming the economy along lines of industrial democracy and social justice. He authored dozens of "Reuther plans" for the solution of problems ranging from housing and health to disarmament. Yet he found himself increasingly isolated from the general labor movement. He was killed in an airplane crash in Michigan on May 10, 1970.


Further Reading on Walter Philip Reuther

A well-balanced study of Reuther is William J. Eaton and Frank Cormier, Reuther (1970). More specialized is Alfred O. Hero, Reuther-Meany Foreign Policy Dispute (1970). Older studies are Irving Howe and B. J. Widick, The UAW and Walter Reuther (1949), and the section on Reuther in Paul Franklin Douglass, Six upon the World: Toward an American Culture for an Industrial Age (1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Barnard, John, Walter Reuther and the rise of the auto workers, Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.

Carew, Anthony, Walter Reuther, Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press; New York: Distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Lichtenstein, Nelson, The most dangerous man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the fate of American labor, New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995.