Walter Reuther was president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from 1946 until his death in 1970. Under his leadership, the UAW grew to more than 1.5 million members, becoming one of the largest unions in the United States. Reuther was widely admired as the model of a reform-minded, liberal, responsible trade unionist—the leading labor intellectual of his age, a champion of industrial democracy and civil rights who used the collective bargaining process and labor's political influence to advance the cause of social justice for all Americans.
Walter Reuther was born in Wheeling, W.V., on Sept. 1, 1907, the son of Valentine Reuther, a German socialist, and his wife, Anna Stocker. Reuther received an early education in socialism and union politics from his father. A visit to the prison where Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs was being held for his resistance to World War I made an indelible impression on the young Reuther, who became a committed Debsian socialist. Bored with his studies, Reuther dropped out of Wheeling High School at 16 and eventually became an apprentice tool-and-die maker. Fired for trying to organize a union, Reuther moved to Detroit in 1927, drawn by the Ford Motor Company's promise of high wages and a shorter workweek. He quickly established himself as one of the most skilled and respected mechanics at Ford's River Rouge plant. Working nights, Reuther earned his high school diploma at the age of 22 and took classes at Detroit City College (now Wayne State University), where he was joined by his younger brothers Victor and Roy.
The Great Depression consolidated the political and social activism of the Reuther brothers. Together with friends, they formed a Social Problems Club on campus and affiliated with the Socialist League of Industrial Democracy. They organized protests against establishing a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) unit on campus and against the segregationist policies of a local swimming pool leased by the college. In 1932, Walter campaigned for Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas. The following year, Walter and Victor began a nine-nation tour of Europe in Nazi Germany, ending it with a two-year stay in the Soviet Union, where the Reuther brothers worked at a massive automobile factory.
Reuther returned in 1935 and eventually decided to stay in Detroit, where he had fallen in love with May Wolf, a physical education teacher, Socialist Party activist and devotee of modern dance. Reuther and Wolf married in March 1936 after a brief courtship and raised two daughters together in the modest Detroit home they purchased in 1941.
Reuther began organizing for the UAW, the new auto workers union under the auspices of the Committee on Industrial Organization. Eager to make his mark in the labor movement, Reuther joined the fledgling UAW Local 86, representing employees at GM's Ternstadt parts plant, even though he was not employed by the company. Reuther was elected a delegate to the 1936 UAW national convention. His credentials were challenged daily by conservative delegates and, as a result, his name was constantly before the assembly.
Never shy and already an accomplished public speaker, Reuther emerged as the floor leader of the Michigan delegation and was elected to the UAW's national Executive Board.
Returning to Detroit a paid UAW official, Reuther set out to organize an amalgamated local on the city's west side. Within eight months, UAW Local 174, of which Reuther was the president, represented 30,000 workers and 76 shops. Reuther played a key role in planning the successful 1937 sit-down strike against GM in Flint, Mich., then joined others in the effort to secure similar UAW recognition from Ford. Reuther's organizing at Ford brought him national attention when newspaper photographers captured him being beaten bloody by Ford security men as he passed out leaflets outside Ford's River Rouge plant.
In 1939, Reuther became director of the UAW's General Motors department, and in 1942 he was elected the union's first vice president. During World War II, Reuther also served with the Office of Production Management, the War Manpower Commission and the War Production Board. As director of the UAW's GM division, Reuther won the respect of industry executives as well as the loyalty of the rank and file. When a wildcat strike movement swept GM's shops in 1944–1945, Reuther skillfully handled the crisis, championing the cause of the workers without running afoul of the government or the company. Then, in 1946, after the war's end, Reuther led a 116-day strike against GM, calling for a 30 percent wage increase without an increase in the retail price of cars, and he challenged GM to "open its books" to prove the demand impossible. GM refused both demands but did offer an 18 percent wage increase, which Reuther accepted.
In 1946, Reuther was elected president of the UAW. Although his postwar political agenda of national health care, economic redistribution and job security for all met defeat, Reuther continued to press these issues at the bargaining table. In 1948, GM agreed to a historic contract tying wage increases to the general cost-of-living and productivity increases. Over the next two decades, the union negotiated model grievance procedures, safety and health provisions, pensions, health benefits and "supplemental unemployment benefits" that enabled UAW members to earn up to 95 percent of their regular paycheck even if they were laid off.
An ally of the Communist Party in the 1930s, Reuther turned against the Communists in the 1940s, in part because he believed they subordinated the interests of the union and its members to that of the party and its Soviet sponsors. He supported the anti-communist provisions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and in 1948 was a founding member of the staunchly anti-communist Americans for Democratic Action. Reuther became president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1952 after the death of Philip Murray; he immediately joined with George Meany, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), to negotiate a merger between the two groups, which took effect in 1955.
Unwilling to surrender the presidency of the UAW to become an elected AFL-CIO official, Reuther instead opted to be director of the federation's Industrial Union Department (IUD). As head of the IUD, Reuther called for large-scale 1930s-style organizing drives and broad-based grassroots political action committees. He fought tirelessly for civil rights protections and an enhanced welfare state that would benefit all Americans. Reuther stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, and he met weekly with President Lyndon Johnson throughout 1964–1965 to discuss legislative and political initiatives.
In 1968, frustrated at what he perceived to be an unwillingness or an inability to seize opportunities for action, Reuther pulled the UAW out of the AFL-CIO. He formed a short-lived Alliance for Labor Action with the Teamsters, which had been expelled from the AFL-CIO for corruption in the 1950s. Before the new group could launch any initiatives, however, Reuther; his wife, May; and two others were killed in a private plane crash. Reuther left a legacy of reform-minded unionism, civil rights activism and social justice idealism upon which the labor movement continues to draw.