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UAW Walter Reuther changed workers rights and pioneered civil rights



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Walter Reuther is known as the man who gave birth to the UAW, helped create the middle class and fought for civil rights.

He often paid a price for it. He was beaten senseless by company thugs on an overpass near Ford’s River Rouge Plant in 1937 for handing out flyers. He also survived two assassination attempts.

But he introduced the notion of profit-sharing to factory workers and he was a noted civil rights leader, even standing alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C. 

“His philosophy was ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ and we’re all here to help each other out, the goal is not to make a lot of money,” Bruce Dickmeyer, Reuther’s son-in-law, told the Free Press. “He never made more than $31,000 even when presidents of smaller unions were making over $100,000.”

Dickmeyer is married to Reuther’s daughter Elisabeth, who was born in 1947. Reuther’s other daughter, Linda, was born in 1942. Dickmeyer said he never had the chance to meet Reuther in person because he married Elisabeth in 1976 after Reuther died. But he and his wife wrote the book: “Putting the World Together: My father Walter Reuther the Liberal Warrior.” 

Despite his struggles to help others, Reuther “never sold out,” his family said.

“He never gave up his principles and even when he was shot or when he was beaten, it only strengthened his resolve to help the workers and the minorities and people who don’t have a voice in our society,” Dickmeyer said.

Reuther’s squeaky clean reputation lent integrity to the union he helped establish, a sharp contrast to the sweeping corruption that has been uncovered in the UAW in recent times amid an ongoing federal investigation. 

Reuther will have been dead 50 years on May 9. Here’s a look back at the man and his extraordinary life.

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Voice of working Americans

Most historians agree that in many ways Reuther was a man ahead of his time. 

He advocated for workers to have profit-sharing, which was a radical idea in the 1950s. He played a key role in the Allied victory in World War II by helping to retool factories to build bombers. He marched alongside Dr. King, supporting the civil rights movement long before other white leaders did. 

“He’s no doubt iconic,” said Marick Masters, a professor at Wayne State University who specializes in labor. “He provided progressive leadership that showed the union not only as a bargaining organization, but a leader of social change too.”

On May 9, 1970, at age 62, Reuther and his wife of 34 years, May, were killed in a plane crash near Pellston, Michigan. They were flying to the newly constructed UAW Walter and May Reuther Family Education Center in northern Michigan.

The untimely death cements his legacy with the UAW.

“From building the UAW into one of the most powerful unions in the country — essentially creating the middle class — from founding new methods of health care coverage, to establishing the United Way, and coordinating the very first Earth Day, the impact of Walter Reuther’s passionate efforts on behalf of working Americans is immeasurable,” said UAW President Rory Gamble. 

The epicenter of the world

Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, on Sept. 1, 1907. He was the second of five children. His parents, Valentine Reuther and Anna Stocker, taught him the importance of unions, social justice and political action at a young age, the union said.

In the town, railroad cars would pass through taking people north to jobs in industrial cities such as Detroit. Young Reuther noticed black people were made to sit in the train’s cattle cars, Dickmeyer said.

“One day, the three Reuther brothers told their father some of the white kids were throwing stones at those cars,” Dickmeyer said. “His father gave the boys a tongue lashing, saying, ‘If I ever see any of my sons do such a thing. …’ He felt it was an injustice to treat other human beings like that.”

In 1927, Reuther carried those values to Detroit where he came to work in the booming automobile industry at Ford Motor Company. He oversaw a crew of tool and die makers, one of the most skilled sets of workers at Ford’s River Rouge Plant. There, he got his first glimpse at working conditions inside the factories.

“They were beginning to tool-up the Model A Ford, which was going to replace the Model T. Reuther was at the epicenter of the industrial world, globally,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor and the global economy.

At the time, the Rouge Plant was considered “state of the art and the most highly integrated and advanced manufacturing facility” in the world, Shaiken said.

“But the conditions there were really tough and very brutal,” Shaiken said. “Both the conditions of the job and the discipline that Henry Ford imposed on his workers. You weren’t allowed to talk at Ford plants. You were being paid to work, not talk. The nature of the work, too, was dangerous.”

‘A deeply searing experience’

In the middle of Reuther’s budding career, the U.S. stock market collapsed in October 1929, sending the auto industry into a free fall. Unemployment in Michigan soared, creating desperation for autoworkers, who were left with “no safety net,” Shaiken said. It was common to see ex-autoworkers on street corners selling apples for spare change.

It was in this environment that Reuther chose to support the presidential campaign of Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party. Many of Thomas’ ideas formed a basis for Franklin Roosevelt’s initiatives later when Roosevelt became president, Shaiken said. 

Around this time, Reuther also became active in civil rights. He was attending Detroit City College, which is now called Wayne State University. He’d swim in a hotel pool near the campus that allowed students. The problem was it allowed only white students.

“He felt this was a great injustice,” Dickmeyer said.

So Reuther organized students to form a picket line around the hotel protesting the segregation. It worked, sort of. The hotel shut down the pool to all students, Dickmeyer said.

“Walter felt all were equal, and we were all children of God,” Dickmeyer said.

Meanwhile, Reuther’s presidential campaign work for Norman Thomas cost him his job at Ford in the summer of 1932. But right before Reuther was fired, there was a dramatic incidence of violence at the plant. 

Tens of thousands of autoworkers had been laid off. So in March 1932, a group led by the communist party that included autoworkers staged a hunger march. About 3,000 people showed up near the Rouge Plant, Shaiken said. 

“You’ve got wives and children, this was a peaceful march to present a petition at the Ford Rouge Plant requesting that people be put to work,” Shaiken said.

But Ford’s head of security then, Harry Bennett, had about 1,500 Ford service men, “a small army,” on hand at the plant, Shaiken said. A scuffle erupted and the Ford service men and the Dearborn police opened fire into the crowd. Four people were killed immediately; one died a week later. Many people were beaten severely, he said.

“It was a defining moment. Reuther was working at the Rouge Plant and would have been aware of this,” Shaiken said. “He knew how tough the place could be, but I think when you hear of and see people killed, that would have been a deeply searing experience for a 25-year-old Walter Reuther.”

Labor’s Magna Carta

A year later, in 1933, Reuther and his brother, Victor, traveled to the Soviet Union to work and to train Russian workers at the Gorky auto factory, equipped by Henry Ford, the UAW’s history said.

“You needed two things to get a job at Gorky: You needed to be breathing and having been in an auto factory,” Shaiken said.

Reuther was a natural fit. His years at Ford’s River Rouge Plant made him especially valuable at Gorky.

“The Reuther brothers wanted to see for themselves what the worker conditions were like in Russia because the ideology was that Russia was a worker’s state,” Shaiken said. “The reality they discovered was very different from that ideology.”

Reuther’s experiences in Russia and seeing the Hitler-controlled fascist state of Germany inspired his determination to return to the states and start organizing unions in 1935, said Shaiken. 

Around this time, the National Labor Relations Act was passed in Washington, D.C. Often dubbed, “labor’s Magna Carta,” the act gave workers the right to organize unions, Shaiken said.

So Reuther formed Westside Local 174 in Detroit, becoming its first president. From 1936 to 1941, he was instrumental in organizing the UAW at the Detroit Three. 

Ford digs in

But the battle to win unionization at all three automakers was epic.

In 1936, Reuther first started organizing GM. The workers feared if they went on strike, they’d be fired. Most of GM’s factory employees worked in Flint. So in December 1936, the union decided to have workers sit down on the job. The sit-down strike, which was settled in February 1937, resulted in GM acknowledging the UAW.

“That was a game changer,” Shaiken said. “Quickly thereafter, Chrysler was unionized and then the union assumed Ford would be next. Ford dug in like a ton of bricks and held firm against the union.”

Ford’s resistance would turn bloody. On May 26,1937. Reuther and two other UAW organizers put on suits and ties and went to Ford’s Rouge Plant. They walked on the bridge over Miller Road to hand out leaflets to workers. 

“A group of thugs from the Ford service department started walking toward them in a very menacing way,” Shaiken said. “The organizers were completely beaten up, one was thrown off the overpass, they had blood on them, it was ugly. One of them was Walter Reuther. That was defining for labor and for Reuther.”

The Battle of the Overpass is marked every May in Detroit.  

Assassination attempts

In 1938, as Reuther continued to try to organize the union at Ford, he experienced his first assassination attempt when gunmen tried to kidnap and kill him. The gunmen were never caught.

“He had a vision of a society where workers made a living and had a decent life for their families,” Shaiken said. “For some, that idea was profoundly threatening.”

It would take years and pressure from President Roosevelt before Henry Ford recognized the UAW in 1941.

Besides his union battles, Reuther was also pivotal in aiding the United States to victory in World War II.

Between 1939 to 1945 Reuther was director of the UAW General Motors Department, the union said.  Reuther helped to retool auto factories to build 500 Allied planes a day, a cornerstone of the Arsenal of Democracy that wins the war. 

Despite that, he was still hated by some and on April 20, 1948, Reuther was  shot at his home in Detroit.

For Dickmeyer’s wife, Elisabeth Reuther, the bullet blasts through the kitchen window are her first childhood memory of her father. 

“She was 9- or- 10-months-old. He had gone to the refrigerator and Walter turned to answer his wife, and just as he turned, the blasts went off,” Dickmeyer said. “Four of the slugs went through his arm and shattered the bone and others went into his back. Had he not turned, he would have died. She said she still remembers the sound of the blast.”

A year later, his brother Victor was shot in his home too. He lost his eye.

Birth of the middle class

Some historians say Reuther’s most important contribution came after the war.

“What came come out of Detroit in the post-World War II period is the middle class in the United States,” Shaiken said. “Automotive was a very productive industry and what the UAW did was link the idea of growing productivity to rising wages and growing benefits. That was a huge achievement.”

Reuther became president of the UAW in 1946 and transformed working in the auto industry from a low-wage, part-time job full of insecurity, to a job that paid a living wage. He achieved worker gains that were unheard of previously.

  • Enhanced job security
  • Vacations and benefits
  • Pensions and supplemental unemployment benefits
  • Profit-sharing

“Reuther’s vision was dignity on the job and security off the job,” Shaiken said. “He saw the UAW as representing its members, but fighting for workers across the world.”

Yet, at the time, some of Reuther’s ideas were seen as radical. For example, his advocacy of profit-sharing in the late 1950s.

“He was widely criticized by people on both the company side and union side saying profit-sharing was un-American,” Masters said. “He said it was very American that workers share in the profits of the company. It will help workers have an alignment to the company.”

Berkeley’s Shaiken added that Reuther argued that if workers are paid more in a highly productive industry such as autos, “they would have high-velocity purchasing power. That would benefit the economy and benefits all Americans.”

‘I have a dream’

A few years older than Dr. King, Reuther was a close friend to the famous civil rights leader, Dickmeyer said. He put his money into his convictions too. Reuther committed the union financially to King’s 1963 march in Detroit and he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“In 1963, Walter, Dr. King and the Rev. C.L. Franklin led 125,000 marchers down Woodward Avenue,” Dickmeyer said. “Dr. King had come to Detroit a week before and Walter gave him an office to use at Solidarity House. That’s where he penned most of the ‘I have a dream speech,’ ” which King delivered an early version of in Detroit in Cobo Hall the night of the march.

When Dr. King delivered the speech a few months later in August 1963, Reuther was on stage with him in Washington, D.C.

“Before the most famous speech of the century, ‘I have a dream,’ Walter Reuther gave a stirring speech to the crowd,” Shaiken said. “He believed in it deeply, that civil rights would benefit all UAW members and he believed in the values behind the march and he was willing to do whatever he could to help it succeed.”

Advocate for change

Up until his death in 1970, Reuther was a strong advocate of change.

  • In 1963, Reuther led the UAW to provide financial and logistic support for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in their struggle.
  • In the late 1960s, Reuther pushed for alignment with international trade unions.
  • He began his dream of a retreat center for worker education on workers’ rights and social justice near Black Lake in Northern Michigan.   
  • An environmentalist, Reuther helped fund and organize the first Earth Day, which was held April 22, 1970, just weeks before he was killed.
  • In 1995, Reuther was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, who said, “Walter Reuther was an American visionary so far ahead of his times that although he died a quarter of a century ago, our nation has yet to catch up to his dreams.”

Right up to his death, Reuther was critical of the AFL-CIO for not organizing minorities and workers in the South, Wayne State’s Masters said. He also disagreed with its support of the war in Vietnam.

At the time that Reuther passed away, the union was at the height of its power, Masters said. But there were the early signs of challenges.

“You saw the very beginnings of foreign auto companies, they were gaining some traction and he saw that as a call for alarm,” Masters said. “I think if he’d have been alive, the way the unions and the companies responded to that threat would have been different.”

Death of a visionary

Shaiken said he believes, had Reuther lived, the UAW might have had better success unionizing foreign automakers in the United States.

“He would have put a very high priority on organizing them. He would have made the automakers feel welcome, but he would have had a very central focus on that,” Shaiken said. “I don’t want to say it would have turned out any differently, but Reuther was particularly committed and visionary.”

Reuther never got to see his ultimate vision become a reality though. He and his wife died on his flight to Black Lake.

“It was his vision to have an educational center for workers, for union members and future leaders to learn, reflect and debate the ideas of the day,” Shaiken said. “Black Lake was a vital part of that. He died on the way to the place that would build the future for the union.”

More: Ruben Burks, voice of Flint and appointee of UAW’s Walter Reuther, dies at 86

More: We will remember: Tributes to a few of the metro Detroiters who died of coronavirus

Contact Jamie L. LaReau: 313-222-2149 or jlareau@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter.

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