TRADE UNIONISM: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
The most dangerous man in Detroit?
, April 17, 2010
US trade union pioneer Walter Reuther (1907-1970) was one of the most powerful figures of his generation. He pioneered in America the concept of a family wage achieved through collective bargaining by trade unions, and the ALP directly derives its "working families" political blueprint from American unionism. In this, the 40th year since Reuther's passing, some reflections on this great but neglected man's profound legacy seem appropriate.
Walter Reuther was a first-generation American, born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1907 to German Lutheran immigrant parents. His family was part of one of the last great waves of German immigration to America. The unforgiving Rhineland soil that his family had farmed for hundreds of years held no future for the Reuthers or for the hundreds of thousands of other Germans of their generation who sought a life of freedom and prosperity in the New World.
Reuther's father was a socialist who spent most of his life in working in lowly occupations. His union activism did him no favours with employers in this great age of American capitalism.
Two things are worth noting about America in this age.
First, while this great human flood of Europeans banded together on arrival into ethnic clusters for their mutual benefit, they were not transplants; they wanted to be Americans, and their children were Americans.
Second, this age of "robber baron" capitalists typified much that is exceptional about America. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie exploited a desperate immigrant workforce to amass a staggering fortune, and then gave a great deal of it away in charitable donations, particularly to public libraries. His largesse even reached as far as Australia - the State Library of Tasmania in Hobart records that Carnegie donated funds to help build this handsome structure. Any visitor to American cannot help but be stunned by the scale of charitable giving in America, which continues to this day.
As a founder of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Walter Reuther promoted and initiated the great unionisation drives of the 1920s and '30s that partially tamed American capitalism. He was almost assassinated three times before his death at the age of 63 in a plane crash, in circumstances that some view as suspicious.
Reuther was beaten to a pulp by Ford security guards in the "Battle of the Overpass" in 1937 in the drive to organise workers at the auto-maker's giant River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. The beating might have almost cost Reuther his life, but the Ford Motor Company - a generous but despotic employer - eventually became a union shop.
Reuther's achievements on behalf of the UAW earned him enemies.
George Romney, of the Automobile Manufacturers' Association, said in 1945: "Walter Reuther is the most dangerous man in Detroit because no one is more skilled in bringing about the revolution without seeming to disturb the existing forms of society." (Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit
(University of Illinois Press, 1997).
Reuther was, in his early life, a socialist. He did, for a period of several months, pay dues to the American Communist Party. But, as president of the UAW, he became an implacable opponent of communism both within the American union movement and internationally. The people Reuther associated with internationally - and this was significant for American unionism at the time - can best be described as social democrats, such as Willy Brandt, the West German political leader and mayor of West Berlin who later became chancellor.
In the context of American trade unionism, two things are worth noting. First, the autoworkers were part of the great era of industrial unionism and constituted one of the most influential organisations within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
American unionism had been, up until the early years of the 20th century, a craft-based movement. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), the dominant umbrella organisation, was based on skilled occupations. Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), the long-term AFL leader, saw advantages in the local unions that formed the industrial unions dealing direct with employers to reach a negotiated outcome. Industrial unionism, like the UAW, organised both the unskilled and semi-skilled.
Second, the CIO broke away from the mainstream of American unionism to organise workers in the new industries that arose out of 20th-century mass production, often referred to as Fordism. Within these industries, though, it was often craftsmen (such as Reuther, who was a tool and die maker - a highly skilled trade) who took leading roles.
Samuel Gompers distrusted political deals. He saw direct negotiation as the best means for workers to improve their standing. Reuther, however, did deals with companies, such as the celebrated challenge to General Motors (GM) to boost wages by 30 per cent without raising prices.
Reuther turned GM into a semi-welfare state, by, for example, having them pay healthcare as a non-cash (and at that time, affordable) incentive. But he realised that direct action on the industrial front would only take the average worker so far. Political action was needed, indeed essential, to spread the benefits of prosperity.
Reuther advocated government health care in the 1960s, achieved only now, half a century later.