Book Review: Reuther, Victor G. “The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW / A Memoir.” Canadian Edition, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1976
Victor Reuther was an outstanding communicator. He wrote a good book detailing the roles of Roy, Walter, and himself in the American labor movement. Whether one thinks, as nearly all UAW members do, that Walter was very close to God himself; or if one thinks that Walter Reuther was largely responsible for turning the American labor movement toward a very sorry period for working people; one still has to admit that the Reuther brothers had exciting lives and etched deep marks into history.
Historians can use Victor’s memoir to bolster either the dark or the illustrious view of Walter Reuther.
I knew Victor because he helped my local union in a contract fight between March, 1984, and July, 1985. I emceed a fund-raising dinner and introduced Victor as the main speaker. I spent some time with Victor at the UAW’s Black Lake educational center and took advantage of an occasion to interview him about the past. In answering my most critical question, Victor told me that the communists had to be ousted in the UAW because they “had a separate agenda.”
Over the years, I have had occasion to talk to many knowledgeable history buffs and UAW members about the Reuthers. Even the ones who have a dark view of Walter Reuther’s historical role nevertheless agree that “Victor was the best of them.”
Here is a little bit of the narrative of the book: the Reuthers were raised as democratic socialists. In the early 1930s, Walter and Victor took a bicycle tour of Europe which included a stint in a Russian auto manufacturing plant. They returned to America just as the sit-down strikes began sweeping the nation. Walter won a seat on the executive board of the UAW.
Victor had a key role in the great Flint sit-down strike that established the UAW and won their landmark contract with General Motors. He drove the sound truck and was, thus, the chief orator during the entire fight. Walter distinguished himself with a proposal to use auto plants for airplane manufacture during the Second World War.
At the end of the war, Walter led an anti-communist faction to victory in the UAW. He remained President for more than two decades. Victor took on international affairs for the increasingly powerful union. Walter eventually took over the CIO and led it into the merger with the AFL. Walter was an important part of many important policy decisions in the labor movement. Roy rounded up votes for UAW political candidates. He died a natural death in the 1960s. Walter died in an airplane crash in 1971. Victor retired in 1972 in order to write this book.
To his great credit, Victor includes detailed accounts of the AFL-CIO’s deep involvement with the ugly deeds of the Central Intelligence Agency. They helped overthrow democratic governments and install dictators regularly, and Victor writes it down.
UAW members think that Walter Reuther created the UAW and led the strike at Flint. He created pensions, health care, and unemployment insurance. He raised the standard of living for auto workers and, consequently, for the entire nation.
Reuther’s detractors, like me, think that he turned the American labor movement away from its natural inclination to fight the bosses. As a social democrat who was neither a coward nor a traitor, he was probably the best of the entire layer of opportunists who took advantage of the government’s harsh anti-labor turn and unprecedented prosperity after the World War. As social democrats, the Reuther brothers helped destroy the most progressive elements in the American labor movement and, working in harmony with the government, throughout the industrialized world.
Reuther’s detractors think that employer-provided health care and pensions were a giant step backward from a national health care program and improved Social Security – both of which had been CIO policies. Reuther’s detractors think that the CIO’s commitment to civil rights was destroyed during the witch-hunt and, even though the Reuthers were the best of them, union leaders essentially gave up on progressive politics.
Reuther’s detractors think that, at best, none of them were historically better than their good friend Hubert Humphrey, the “happy warrior” of cold war fame.
I think that Victor meant his book as a tribute, but he was a straight talker and a gifted communicator.
I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” talk show at 9AM Central Time every Saturday. I podcast “Workers Beat Extra” on Soundcloud.com. If you are curious about what I really think, you can check out my personal web site
Some of My Notes:
Pg 110 Estimation of USSR. “Historians will probably debate for centuries whether so vast a country could have made the transition from feudalism to an industrial state without great sacrifice of individual freedom. But in the thirties, we were constantly disheartened at the price that was paid, while at the same time we were astonished at the progress manifest not only in factory production but in the rise of the standard of living.”
Pg 144 VP Wyndham Mortimer went to Flint to bring the auto workers together as Local 156. His mimeographed leaflets were too advanced for Flint, Reuther says, so a delegation from the local asked that he be replaced by Bob Travis. Travis then asked Roy Reuther to help him organize Flint. This contradicts Mortimer’s book mightily.
Pg 145 Kraus Henry, started the Flint Auto Worker. He wrote his own history of the union
Pg148 Mortimer And Homer Martin asked Victor to come to Flint to join staff. He did it on Jan 1, 1937, the day after the Fisher Body sit-down began. Quite a bit about how inadequate and traitorous Martin was
Pg 151 Travis “The great contribution of Bob Travis cannot be underestimated. He inspired confidence and loyalty everywhere he went. Though not an effective public speaker – he left the orator to Roy and me –…” // Carol Travis said that Victor complimented Travis’ speaking style. In Victor’s account, the ruse that Travis used to win an important GM department was brilliant. He doesn’t mention what Carol told me, which was that Victor was not party to this strategic decision//
Pg ? Bill Mckie mentioned as a close adviser to Walter. McKie had been fired from Ford and used an assumed name. There is another book on Mckie
Pg 209: Homer Martin in cahoots with Harry Bennett, the hoodlum running Ford’s anti-union gangs
Pg 211 “It was not until March 1941, however, that the death blow was given to Bennett and his antiunion army. By direction of the Supreme Court and the NLRB … “ //He credits some lawyer with this great achievement, but doesn’t mention Nat Wells, the lawyer who got the goods on Ford in Dallas. I have Wells’ remembrances//
Pg212: Ford agreed to checkoff for his own reasons
Pg236: CP blamed Reuthers for not wanting merit pay. Browder attacked both brothers for opposing the war effort. Said that Vic was consistently anti-war, but that Walter flip flopped as his ambitions suited.
Pg 237 Color barrier: “I remember that 2,400 Packard workers went on strike when three black girls were hired, after consultation with the UAW, the War Production Board, and the War Manpower Commission. Our International officers stood firm, and the strike was ended with those three girls still on the job and many other blacks on the employment muster.” //There is another account of an anti-black strike at Studebaker. UAW broke the strike and stood up for civil rights//
Pg 246 6 hour day: “[Walter] saw an urgent need for a thirty-hour week with the take-home pay of a forty-hour week:…” //This slogan was in UAW conventions up until 1957 and then disappeared//
Pg 247 Socialist Plan: /post war/ “The government-owned war plants should be leased to private industry, but with guarantees from those industries that would protect both labor and the consumer.”
Pg292 Texas “The UAW turned to two highly qualified investigators…Heber Blankenhorn… “When Blankenhorn was with NLRB, he almost single-handedly broke the case in Texas involving the violence provoked by Harry Bennett and His Ford Service Department.” //not Nat Wells?//
Pg293: Reuther shootings. Vic lost an eye, Walter nearly lost an arm. Vic complains mightily that police did not investigate underworld connections of auto companies. All they wanted to do was investigate communists.
Pg 295 Vic overseas. //in 1950??// “…a year after I had been shot…I was then back in full swing and had ahead of me many missions overseas.” //Victor’s role was to build “independent” (read anti-communist) unions in Europe.
Pg 308 pensions
Pg 312 Social Security increase. Pensions asked for in 1950
Pg 315 Sub Pay Supplemental unemployment benefit plan: Walter wanted this because auto work was intermittent. They got it I think in 1955
Pg 321 Democracy
Pg 325 Meany “…imagine Walter’s horror when in February 1970, he read the Washington Post headline ‘Meany would end union votes for ratification of contracts.’” //Victor has a lot of disparaging things to say about Meany and the AFL-CIO that he ran for many years//
Pg 327 flower funds OK
Pg 328 Trotskyites tolerated at UAW Convention
Pg 331 ICFTU founded 1949. Walter was an early delegate. AFL and CIO both in it //It was set up deliberately to counter the World Federation of Trade Unions, which included unions from socialist nations//
Pg 341 Walter explained to Truman why German industry had to be rehabilitated instead of being deprived. One of his arguments, “A major goal of your foreign policy is to prevent the spread of Communist totalitarianism and to preserve and strengthen democracy throughout the world.”
‘pg 357 Health Care “The success of the British National Health Service was to have a deep effect on Walter. Some years later a national committee of distinguished health experts drafted, under Walter’s chairmanship, the basic elements of what has become the Kennedy-“Gorman-Griffiths Health Bill.”
Pg 358 Environment, internationalism, and disarmament
Pg 366 Merger “Though the merger actually failed to strengthen the labor movement…” Victor thinks the merger of CIO with AFL was “premature”
Pg367 Meany bragged about spending so much on foreign affairs while only 2-3% expenditures were for organizing in U.S.
Pg 392 Peace corps Walter had proposed Peace Corps at least 7 years before Kennedy did it. Walter said, “The more young Americans are sent to the places in the world where people are hungry… the fewer of our sons we will have to send with guns to fight Communism on the battlefields of the world.”
Pg 411 CIA “The seduction of the AFL-CIO by the Central Intelligence Agency” poem. Victor actually details the involvement of the labor federation with the CIA. There are dollar amounts, names of conduits, and quite a bit of how it all worked.
Pg 423: “Thus the AFL-CIO became, quite literally, a disbursement agent for the State Department.”
Pg 426: “It was not until he fully understood the corrupting role of the AIFLD in Brazil, and heard Meany hail the overthrow of the Goulart regime, that Walter understood what he had, in all conscience, to do.” //I think this might have been 1964// Victor asserts that UAW’s international work was never financed by govt but came from the interest on the strike fund. The AFL-CIO was using government funds for their “international work.”
Pg 429 Democratic Party: Roy said that they never intended to capture the Democratic Party
jPg 449 “The Reuthers, all of us, had had a long and close friendship with [Hubert] Humphrey over the years.”
Pg 452: [Walter] countenanced the vigorous antiwar views of Emil Mazey, Paul Schrade… and me.”
Pg 488: Appendix B “Agreement between the AFL-CIO and the State Department.” Details allocation of $1,300,000 from named unions to American Institute for Free Labor Development, African-American Labor Center, and the Asian American Free Labor Instruments for “strengthening free trade unions throughout the world.”
Pg 490: Appendix C: Budget for AIFLD
Pg491 Appendix D: Memo to Atty Gn RF Kennedy prepared by VG Reuther, WP Reuther and Joseph L Rauh Jr. Explains the danger of the radical right in America. This was the days of Goldwater and the John Birch Society.