On Walter Reuther: Legends and Lessons

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Michael Goldfield

The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit:
Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor
by Nelson Lichtenstein
New York, Basic Books, 1995, 575 pages, $35 hardcover.

IT HAS BEEN over a year since a coalition of most public sector unions and some industrial unions elected former Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President John Sweeney and his slate as the new leadership of the AFL-CIO. In so doing, they overthrew the old-line craft-centered leadership of former President Lane Kirkland.

These changes in leadership represent not merely a change in constituency, but also in style. They have also placed the question of a revitalized labor movement in the air in a way that it has not been for decades. It thus behooves those of us who have been critical of the established union leadership to be clear on what a minimal strategy for labor union renewal would look like.

Some of the lessons of what to do and what not to do can in part be found by analyzing other waves of labor organizing, especially the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s which led to the formation of industrial unions. Much, of course, has changed since that time; the specific characteristics of the present conjuncture are important to recognize. We now live in a much more global economy; the developed economies are in the midst of a decades-long stagnation after a lengthy post-World War Il boom.

The economic structure of the domestic economy has likewise changed substantially–service industries have risen in the proportion of workers they employ, while manufacturing has declined; shifts have taken place by region, education, and occupational structure. The composition of the workforce is more heavily female and non-white. Yet much remains the same, as capitalists supported by the government still attempt to extract more profits from the labor of large numbers of workers, while shifting as much as possible the burdens of life onto the unemployed and increasingly nonunion workers.

Thus, the lessons of the past still have some relevance. Much of the debate on the left about the 1930s and 1940s concerns the viability of the strategies and practices of various left groups and individuals, the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Party, the Socialist Party, the perspectives of individual radicals including A.J. Muste, Ralph Helstein, and Myles Horton.

The principles that many of us look to, if not their exact meaning and implementation, are easily summarized as 1) tactics of mass mobilization, the development of union democracy; 2) commitments to broad working-class solidarity along at least three important dimensions: racial egalitarianism, perhaps the defining feature of what is progressive in this country; equality of the sexes, a principle more prominent now than a half century ago; international solidarity which necessitates a break with U.S. foreign policy, its interventions, its occupations, its opposition to popular struggles, its support for repressive regimes; and, of course, support for struggles abroad; 3) working-class organizations independent of the government (be they regulatory agencies, the police and security apparatus, or labor boards) and the companies; 4) political action, independent of corporate-controlled parties, including the Democrats.

Each of the forces and groups during the 1930s and 1940s had certain strengths and weaknesses by these criteria. The most important of these groups to understand is the Communist Party, which as the Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon notes, “entered the thirties-the period of great radical revival-as the dominating center of American radicalism. It had no serious contenders.” (Cannon, 1979:93)

The Communist Party (CP) was the largest, most influential group, and had the biggest impact on the character of the labor movement, and it makes no sense to talk generally of the left or to exaggerate the influence and possibilities of other groups.

The CP, however, was also the most contradictory of all left groups. Buffeted by their role in defending and deferring to the twists and turns of the Soviet regime (playing the role of “border guards” to use Trotsky’s poignant term), the CP was often uncritical in its support for President Roosevelt and at most times vehemently opposed to third party efforts. During World War Il, they were in most places-although, as recent scholarship now shows, not all-opposed to rank-and-file militancy.

At other times, however, they were often at the forefront of mass mobilizations and the use of innovative, militant tactics.* Their commitment to defending the rights of African-American workers and their successful, often herculean, efforts at building the most racially egalitarian organizations put them far ahead of other left groups on this score, winning them overwhelming support of Black workers in virtually every union. Although the CP had its blemishes, in comparison, most left groups were, to put it politely, racially obtuse. And given the centrality of racial issues to U.S. life and working-class strategy, it behooves us not to belittle this aspect of the CP, and the degree to which we can learn from their efforts.

The Communists, as the dominant left group, set the tone of struggle and debate within the CIO left. The Trotskyists remained a politically unified tendency with a loyal group of followers, engaging in certain exemplary struggles (of which the Minneapolis Teamster organizing was the most important) and providing a powerful critique of the CP from the left. Still, the withering opposition they faced from the CP made it difficult to achieve sustained growth and gain significant working class leadership except during some brief periods or in certain local struggles.

The extreme antagonism the Trotskyists faced from the CP, however, combined with a lack of appreciation for the importance of the race question, occasionally led them into dubious political activities, of which their support for the hard-core racist sailors union (SIU-SUP) against the racially progressive, CP-led maritime union (NMU) was perhaps the worst.

In contrast, the Socialist Party (SP) by the 1930s was a highly fractured formation. It included right-wing supporters of Homer Martin, whom Nelson Lichtenstein characterizes as appealing to racism, anti-communism and parochialism (ATC, 62:30), as well as leftist followers of the religious pacifist Norman Thomas, who were to the left of the CP on the popular front and other issues. Yet, despite certain dynamic features of SP work including some of their unemployed organizing, the Southern Tenants and Farmers Union, and occasional working class influence as in Flint the SP as an ideological current and viable organization had largely disintegrated before the 1930s.

One sign of the state of the SP is that many SPers during this period not only began to cooperate with the CP, but left their organization to join the Party. One impressive bellwether was the switch of Meta Berger, the grand old lady of the SP, a maverick leader in her own right and the widow of former SP leader and Wisconsin congressman Victor Berger. Intellectuals also joined the CP, rather than the SP, for as John Dos Passos said in 1932, joining the SP “would have just about the same effect on anybody as drinking a bottle of near-beer.”

Many SP working-class leaders also became CPers. One of these seems to have been Walter Reuther, although Nelson Lichtenstein equivocates on this matter probably more than the evidence requires. The SP, of course, was not alone in its losses. Prominent Wobblies joined, including Vern Smith, Bill Dunne, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Harrison George, as well as “Big Bill” Haywood, the most prominent IWWer, who was exiled in Moscow. The CP even recruited secondary leaders of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), including Steve Kingston, Louis Campbell, and William Fitzgerald. (See my 1980 and 1985 articles on the CP for more details and references.)

In attempting to sort out the strategies of different groups during the 1930s and 1940s, their strategic orientations, and the lessons to be learned from each, there is a further argument about the road to be taken that seemed to have been long buried, at least on the left.

The claim, frequently made by liberal anti-communists of the late 1940s and since, is that there existed an independent, democratic, civil rights-oriented alternative to both the CIO Right and the CP-led forces. That alternative was Walter Reuther and the United Auto Workers (UAW), at least the UAW that he and his allies came to dominate and control in the late “1940s.

The argument in support of Reuther was first suggested by some on the non-Communist left, but soon disavowed. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), allied with Reuther’s caucus, supported him in his successful 1946 bid for UAW president, but quickly determined that they had been mistaken. The Workers Party (WP) continued to support Reuther and his group in the 1947 election, in which the Reuther caucus came to dominate the whole union apparatus and soon purged all their opponents from staff positions. [The SWP and WP were the two parties that arose from the split in the Trotskyist movement in 1940 ed.]

Numerous non-Communist leftists abandoned their groups and became part of the Reuther machine. Such alliances and political abandonment were a feature of the period and took place in many venues. Former SWPer and later NAACP labor secretary Herbert Hill, for example, supported Phillip Murray and the steel workers in their openly racist assault on the CP-dominated majority-Black Mine Mill locals in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1949 and 1950, an alliance he now says he regrets.

Yet the claim that Reuther and the UAW represented a militant, democratic, anti-racist, sociably conscious, liberal-left alternative to the CP continued for many decades to be a staple of liberal anti-communist ideology. It was argued forcefully by Irving Howe and B.J. Widick in 1949 in their book The UAW and Walter Reuther, in which they made statements about the support of the Reuther caucus and its commitment to anti-racism that bore little relation to the facts.

Now a far more subtle new book by Nelson Lichtenstein makes similar claims, although his support for the Reuther thesis is more nuanced and qualified. Lichtenstein acknowledges some–though hardly all–of the more unsavory features of the Reuther regime, but in the end sees him as perhaps the best of the possible.

For those of us who were active during the 1960s the claim has a preposterous quality. On the defining issues of the day, including the War in Vietnam and civil rights, Walter Reuther did not seem to be on the right side. He supported the war throughout the 1960s. The UAW in contrast to several other “liberal” unions-only changed its position in 1970 with the massive bombing of Cambodia. Though he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., Reuther opposed SNCC and SDS, played a major role (as Lichtenstein documents) in undermining the 1964 Democratic Party challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and considered DRUM (the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) a terrorist organization (434).

On the other side of the balance sheet, the UAW international was a crucial supporter of the early American Federation of Teachers and the United Farm Workers organizing campaigns, as well as giving highly visible support to the Memphis sanitation workers, the Charleston hospital organizing, and other labor/civil rights struggles, especially in the South.

One should, however, be clear at the start about Lichtenstein’s stance. Despite numerous caveats and qualifications, Reuther for him was a “farsighted laborite” who would “champion a broad coalition of industrial workers and middle class consumers” (247).

He was the “contemporary unionist who most clearly represented that meeting of organized power and social vision so vital to the creative future of America’s working-class movement” (270). Even in the 1960s, “Reuther was at heart a moralist whose chest still burned with a passion for social justice” (365), who “positioned the UAW at the left margins of conventional politics” (303). Reuther had been “the boldest spirit in the leadership of the industrial union movement” (280), and on and on.

In this account some of the constraints Reuther faced were of his own making (part of what Lichtenstein calls the “Faustian Bargain”). Yet, the most important ones were the supposed difficult objective conditions that workers, the left and organized labor confronted from the late 1930s through the post-World War II era. There were, Nelson Lichtenstein argues, really few other choices to be made, at least on the largest issues.

A clear understanding of this question is crucial for determining what types of strategies should be followed in the present period (certainly not an easy one for present militants, no less for leftists) if the labor movement is to be revitalized. A serious examination would require a broad comparison of the rich range of union and left practice during the 1930s and 1940s, not merely the unsupported assertion that the difficulties were insurmountable.

Despite later attempts by Walter Reuther and his circle to deny it, he spent the early years of his auto activism in the 1930s as a pro-Soviet working-class radical. With his brother Victor he worked as a toolmaker in the huge Russian Gorky auto works, from late 1933 to mid-1935. (See Lichtenstein’s Chapter 3, “Tooling at Gorky.”) The two sent back effusive letters about the Soviet Union, one of which seems to have been signed, “Yours for a Soviet America,” the third period slogan of the U.S. CP.

Upon returning, Walter Reuther spoke, often sponsored by the SP, in glowing terms about the Soviet Union. His stance led him to be readily accepted by the CP, who promoted him. With their dominant influence in auto worker circles, and Reuther’s clear talents, the CP sponsored and ensured his rapid rise in the early union.

A long political letter to his brothers in 1938, which analyzes both the union and general political situation, shows him vividly as a leftist cadre with a clear strategic orientation toward the union (precisely of the type he was to denounce a few years later). The letter was removed from Detroit’s Wayne State Reuther Archives at one point, later to be replaced by a diligent scholar who had copied it before it was stolen (Boyle 1989).

William Weinstone, the head of the Michigan CP, claims to have personally recruited Reuther and accepted his dues for at least a year, a fact fervently denied by his supporters, but which would be unsurprising, given his political trajectory and the times. In any case, Reuther’s early beliefs and activities seem those of a sincere leftist, who despite his personal ambitions, was not merely the political opportunist that he was later to be described. In the politics of the union, Reuther was one of the radicals.

All this began to change around 1938, when Reuther formally resigned from the SP and began to distance himself from the CP Howe and Widick speculate that Reuther at this time made a clear choice between becoming a union leader and building the socialist movement, although there is no evidence for this claim. Nor did identification as communists or socialists keep numerous other leftists from playing leadership roles in their unions, including the United Electrical workers (LIE), Fur and Leather workers, Mine Mill, Food and Tobacco, Packinghouse, the maritime union, and the West Coast longshoremen.

As Lichtenstein notes, Reuther after 1938 began to group around him most of the more reactionary elements in the union, especially those opposed to the Communist-supported Unity group, elements that would continue to be the bedrock of his support. These forces included the former supporters of ex-President Homer Martin, conservative Catholics who would eventually be grouped around the right-wing, virulently anti-communist Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, and (although Lichtenstein rarely mentions this) the most racist forces in the union.

Reuther’s transformation was evolutionary, not abrupt. In 1939, he led the GM tool and die strike, an archetypical mass mobilization. He reinvigorated the women’s auxiliaries in working class districts and called out the flying squadrons in Pontiac and Cleveland to end the possibility of scabs crossing striker lines. Twelve thousand workers picketed GM headquarters.

Yet this was to be the last time Reuther committed himself to the mass mobilizing strategy that had proved so central to so many CIO organizing campaigns. By 1940, as Lichtenstein notes, Reuther “was repudiating the factory-centered militancy he had advocated two years before” (143-4). As the top GM negotiator, he led the way in giving up the dense steward system that was the key to mobilizing and representing workers on the shop floor, a stance that led to demands from important GM locals that he be removed. (180)

Lichtenstein tends to excuse this and other Reuther turns as concessions to reality, in this case a necessity for preserving the union in the face of the unyielding, enormous power of GM, part of the “Faustian bargain,” he made to advance the union. (182) Yet this apologetic assertion is belied in part by the refusal of radicals in other industries-including the CP-led farm equipment union (FE), facing among other companies the intransigent, well-organized, and deep-pocketed International Harvester Company, and the radical-dominated packinghouse workers-to give up either extensive steward systems or numerous job actions as a continuing tactic.

Reuther, whatever his external politics, went through an important ideological conversion, which Lichtenstein notes. Reuther became a devotee of a corporatist approach to labor-management relations, supporting the system of labor-management collaboration (instead of conflict) and grievance arbitration, long advocated by the clothing workers’ Sidney Hillman.

Reuther had little confidence that workers on their own could stand up to GM without aid from the federal government. Lichtenstein seems to agree, since he sees no contradiction between this new perspective and Reuther being at the same time, “the boldest spirit in the leadership of the industrial union movement.”

I see things differently. There were strong dividing lines from the very beginning of the CIO that would have important implications for the future of the labor movement. The differences that were most important were not over something called “social unionism,” of which Reuther was one of the quintessential representatives, and which he smoothly coupled with and used as a convenient cover for his corporatist approach. Rather, they revolved around divergent strategies, which differed on two central tenets.

First was the issue of mass organizing, mass mobilization, and union democracy. These were characteristics of the 193i4 strikes [mass working class mobilizations in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco, respectively led by Trotskyists, independent revolutionary socialists (“Musteites”) and Communists, which paved the way for the CIO upsurge-ed.], but also of the continuing activities of the packinghouse workers, longshore, food and tobacco, mine mill, the mineworkers at times, the organizing campaigns of the rubber workers, the oil workers, and the early Steel Worker Organizing Committee (SWOC).

The alternative corporatist approach rejected mobilization, depending for union success on cooperative relations with companies and reliance on courts and government agencies in curbing employer “excesses.” This approach was to be found early in the CIO, not merely in Hillman’s clothing workers and the needle trades generally, but in the practices of the steelworkers once they became a formal union, and the failed campaigns in southern textile in 1938 (led by Hillman).

It also characterized the abortive 1946-7 southern organizing campaign known as Operation Dixie, whose failure cannot be attributed–as Lichtenstein attempts–merely to anti-communism, factionalism and race-baiting. This corporatist approach (of which Reuther, Lichtenstein convincingly demonstrates, was an early adherent) was to become the orientation of all the CIO Rights, eventually dominating the whole CIO with several notable exceptions.

The second difference was over questions of solidarity and egalitarianism, the most central of which was over questions of racial discrimination. On the issue of equality for women workers, most unions including the majority of left unions, with several important exceptions, were at best obtuse. The Rights, as I have argued at length elsewhere, were in general quite backward on these issues, not by some abstract criterion but in comparison to a number of other local and national unions and fractions. (See my 1993 and 1994 articles.)

As already noted about the corporatist strategy, and as I will argue further with respect to race, Reuther and his faction were already on the wrong side of the defining issues of the C10 by 1940, despite their formal commitment to “social unionism.” Let us examine the UAW’s policy on race, particularly after the Reuther caucus took over, because it crystallizes a number of key issues in which we are interested.

Lichtenstein claims that Reuther was a devoted champion of civil rights for Blacks. All the instances to the contrary he excuses or finds inconsistent with Reuther’s beliefs. The book is filled with such claims as the following: “He understood, as so many did not, that for labor’s voice to carry real weight he had to reshape the consciousness of millions of industrial workers, making them disciplined trade unionists, militant social democrats, and racial egalitarians.” (300)

Now it is important that we apply realistic criteria in any evaluation of the stance of the UAW under Reuther. Reuther was the president of a left-leaning union with a substantial Black membership. Comparisons with out-and-out racists like southern Dixiecrats or J. Edgar Hoover, or even George Meany who was the representative of largely conservative white craft unionists, will tell us nothing. Nor will the invoking of some abstract standard which could be met by no one. Rather, one should look at what other contemporaries were able to advocate and achieve.

Let us begin with the evidence that supports the claim that Reuther was a “racial progressive.” It is undoubtedly true, as Lichtenstein claims that “Reuther spoke out against racial discrimination as much as any leading figure in the UAW.” (208)

Reuther had close working relations with the NAACP and the Urban League, engaging the UAW in joint projects with these civil rights organizations (including lobbying for the passage of Fair Employment legislation), and donating large amounts of money, especially to the NAACP This alliance had some small number of successes in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Reuther-backed National Committee for Fair Play in Bowling, for example, forced the all-white American Bowling Congress to open up its membership to Blacks (Wigderson 1989:347-8).

Although the UAW under Reuther tried to quietly convince Detroit area employers to hire more Black workers, they were largely unsuccessful. Reuther was also unsuccessful at getting bars and restaurants around Detroit area auto plants that refused to serve Blacks to change their policy. The only recorded successes were  those of left-wing locals that took some form of direct action (Wigderson 1989: 349-50).

The UAW did not always go along with its allies in their lobbying efforts, as when they refused to support the congressional amendment by Adam Clayton Powell that federal school aid should only go to non-segregated schools. In general, however, the UAW under Reuther was a reliable ally of those civil rights organizations that advocated legal methods, lobbying and quiet persuasion, and opposed mass mobilizations and direct action.

Within the union, on the other hand, Reuther showed little interest in the issue of racial discrimination, for a number of reasons which Lichtenstein attempts to explain and then excuse.

First, there was his SP background: “Reuther and other old Socialists were slow to understand the extent to which a radical shift in race relations had become as much a precondition to the transformation of society as it would be a product of their revolution.” Reuther, forever obtuse to the issue, described Blacks who supported the CP as stooges, and privately questioned whether any Blacks were qualified to hold high UAW posts. Second, Lichtenstein explains that the lily-white workforce at GM led to little pressure on Reuther over civil rights and little concern over the issue. (209-210)

These may be partial explanations but do not hold water as excuses. While the SPers were in general bad on questions of race, ranging from the benign neglect of Debs (highlighted by Lichtenstein) to the outright racism of Victor Berger and CIO henchman like Adolph Germer (which he fails to note), some SPers during the 1930s did break with this tradition, including several from the South.

Myles Horton, for example, was deeply committed to racial egalitarianism and ran the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, from this perspective. The SP-initiated Southern Tenant and Farmers’ Association was built on interracial premises.

Yet the fairest yardstick is that of the CP, whose practice on racial issues was in sharp contrast to Reuther’s. On the one hand, they put a priority on the organization of Black workers, building many of their organizations around African-Americans and their demands. Yet even in overwhelmingly white venues, they promoted Black leadership, attempting to mobilize white workers in support of demands for racial equality. The NMU, with a ten percent Black membership, had Ferdinand Smith as secretary-treasurer, the highest ranking Black CIO official. Largely white FE locals were often civil rights-oriented and promoted Black leadership.

The deeper reason for Reuther’s backwardness on racial issues had to do with the nature of his caucus and the politics it reflected, even as he sometimes tried to place a more progressive face on it. It was no accident or anomaly that Blacks in the UAW (before the Reuther caucus gained complete control) supported his opponents in overwhelming numbers.

Nor was it an accident, as Lichtenstein quotes the 1941 observation of Black Trotskyist E.R. McKinney, that “virtually all the most blatant and hidebound reactionaries flocked to the Reuther banner.” (208) Reuther consciously allied himself with the most racist forces in the union: the episodically militant white skilled tradesmen, the racist and FBI-linked Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, the provincial and backward former supporters of Homer Martin, loyal, gangster-tied officials like regional director Richard Gosser of Toledo (an alliance Lichtenstein mistakenly tries to excuse by noting the CP-tolerated numbers rackets at the Rouge).

In view of the nature of his political support, it was not at all surprising that Reuther opposed attempts to promote Blacks to leadership positions. Reuther had made important political choices. Other union leaders and even some leaders within the UAW made other choices. Not only the aforementioned NMU, but the Food and Tobacco union (FTA, which trained and promoted a Black female as well as Black males to the executive board), Mine Mill, FE, and Packinghouse (UPWA) among others, attempted to further empower Black workers by promoting militant African-American leaders.

Lichtenstein in his apologies for Reuther fails to make comparisons with other unions of the time. Had he done so, his praise of Reuther would have to have been more tempered.

Numerous examples of lack of concern for racial issues by the Reuther-led UAW abound. Lichtenstein notes few of them. Some of the most telling comparisons exist between the FE and UAW, which often had locals in the same industry and even the same company.

In one instance, made well-known in an important thesis by Toni Gilpin, the FE and the UAW had neighboring units in the same Louisville, Kentucky plant complex. In Louisville, the FE represented 6,000 production workers, approximately 14% of whom were Black; the UAW represented the 1500 workers in the adjoining foundry, half of whom were Black. The FE local had large numbers of Black leaders, fought to integrate locker rooms, washrooms, the cafeteria, to upgrade Black workers, and even to integrate parks and hotels in Louisville.

The UAW local did none of this, and as of 1953, there was no evidence that civil rights was an important issue there. The locker rooms in the foundry, unlike in the main plant, still were designated “White” and “Colored,” with as of then no protest from the local (Gilpin 1992; Goldfield 1993, 1994). Instead, the Reuther forces put their attentions elsewhere, sending hundreds of organizers to raid FE locals. On one afternoon in 1949, for example, close to 100 UAW organizers, including three executive board members, participated in leafleting the FE-represented East Moline International Harvester plant (Gilpin 1992:240).

And it should come as no surprise (although little of these accounts appear in Lichtenstein’s biography) that the Reuther executive board supported local racists, or that their local supporters were frequent opponents of struggles against racial discrimination.

In my old International Harvester local organized by the UAW, for example, the left CP-led caucus, with the support of the majority of the Black workers in the plant, fought to open assembly and machining jobs to Blacks who had previously been relegated to janitorial and toilet cleaning jobs. They were opposed in this struggle by the local Reuther supporters. Such incidents were, of course, far from atypical.

Even where CPers were not central, however, the Reutherites were often bad on racial issues. One of the most disturbing things about Lichtenstein’s biography is the omission of important material (relatively well-known among twentieth century labor historians).

Lichtenstein discusses the conflicts of Reuther with AFL-CIO president George Meany in 1962, with Reuther proposing to add Packinghouse leader Ralph Helstein to the executive board. He also asserts that Reuther, after becoming president of the CIO in 1953, called off the campaign against Communist-led unions (although this would have come as big news to the FE). Lichtenstein claims that Reuther refused to support right-wingers in the packinghouse union and certified the top leadership as “free from communist domination or influence.” (324)

Yet that is far from the whole story. For seven or eight months before they were given the anti-communist clean bill of health, the packinghouse union had been totally disrupted by Reuther subordinates, as the CIO national office, with Reuther’s consent, gave strong support to racists in important locals, even counseling them at one point to withhold dues and disaffiliate. This caused “considerable damage” to the union, dividing many locals and causing others to disaffiliate (Halpern 1991:174-5).

In sharp contrast, the more racially egalitarian unions consistently attempted to limit and undermine the influence of racists at the local levels. This is readily apparent from the activities of the UPWA and Mine Mill leadership. I know of no examples where these in contrast to the Reuther-led UAW, conciliated, much less supported racists at the local level.

Instead, a number of the left unions threw their support behind the concentrations of Black workers and attempted both to empower them and support their demands for racial equality. The contrast is immense. There are numerous further examples; one could go on at greater length, although the point should he clear.

Because Lichtenstein leaves out some of the worst instances of Reutherite racial practice and fails to acknowledge the deep ideological and structural roots of such practice in the leadership group (and to contrast this with a number of other unions), he is continually amazed when Reuther does not even act like a racial liberal.

Adlai Stevenson, for example, was a noted bigot whose racial policies were largely determined by his attempts to conciliate southern Dixiecrats. Reuther was a fan of Stevenson “but incredibly, he never raised the issue of how Stevenson stood on FEPC or other civil rights questions.” (320) Most of us are less shocked than Lichtenstein by this omission. Even George Meany, one should note, publicly chided Stevenson over civil rights.

A similar situation existed with John E Kennedy as civil rights groups and even the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) attacked him for his hesitancy on racial issues. (363) And on the Vietnam war, Lichtenstein asserts that Reuther was completely taken in by President Lyndon Johnson: “Toward Johnson himself Reuther’s self-deception was uncharacteristically softheaded” (405).

Now, I do not wish to imply that Lichtenstein’s book is not interesting or filled with important nuggets of information or even at times insightful analysis. His discussion of the 1937 Detroit mayoral and city council elections is illuminating and convincing (89-91). His discussion of the importance of the UAW flying squadrons is useful (100), as is his analysis of the development of right-wing backlash in certain newly organized auto locals.

Yet, in addition to the serious omissions which I have already noted, the book is filled with a number of surprising factual and interpretative errors. Some of them are, of course, minor, like his getting the name wrong on Irving Bluestone’s wife Zelda who he calls Thelma (420) or describing UAW Local 6 leader Robert Stack as a Reutherite who became a UAW staffer. (491) Some are also matters of interpretation, as when Hubert Humphrey is described as a “liberal tribune,” rather than as a pro-war Democrat whose earlier career involved the final undermining of the Minnesota Farmer- Labor Party.

Other errors are of larger importance, as when Lichtenstein describes heavily white working class Macomb County as having become “one of the North’s more reliably Republican districts.” (443) Rather, in Macomb, the home of the Reagan Democrats, many white workers broke with Democratic candidates on the national level explicitly over racial issues (although they voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, while still supporting Democrats (like liberal congressman David Bonior) at the local level. These are hardly the characteristics of the really reliable Republican districts that one finds in many affluent suburbs.

In his attempts to ascribe failures of southern organizing during the late ly4Os to objective conditions (leaving no place for misleadership) he mischaracterizes southern politics. Regional liberals were not “snuffed out” during this period, but lasted well into the middle 1950s, when the massive resistance to civil rights and the White Citizens’ Councils finally defeated them. (257)

Ultimately, Nelson Lichtenstein’s book is not merely a partial apology for Walter Reuther, which will win him no friends in Solidarity House, where the remaining Reuther devotees have no stomach for a defense that includes even some warts. Rather, it is also about a deep pessimism about the possibilities for change, and for workers to play a large role either at the workplace or in the society in general. What makes Reuther, despite his flaws, the best of the possible, is ultimately that not much is possible from Lichtenstein’s perspective.

The historical issues are of direct relevance for us today. While such debates can indeed become “antiquarian,” one’s evaluation of labor leaders like Reuther suggest a lot about what strategies one thinks are important. There is a great deal of pessimism in some quarters today, with some arguing that the left should support liberal Democrats or even Bill Clinton.

Because much of the old AFL-CIO leadership was and is so sclerotic, there is a temptation to welcome all new ideas and militant talk. Because labor and other mass movements are so weak, there is a tendency to underestimate the importance of mass struggle. And when many white workers are succumbing to narrow, defensive, racist strategies, there is an inclination on the part of some to think that such stances will never change.

Thus, an important corrective is to look at those numerous times in our history when the situation was quite different. And when we attempt to evaluate the best strategies for revitalization of the labor movement, it is good to know, in an older vernacular, which approaches and leaders were part of the problem and which were part of the solution.

*The most penetrating analysis of the CP’s complexities (including both their perfidies and strengths may be found in Cannon’s writings; for further details see also my 1980 and 1985 articles.


Boyle, Kevin. 1989. “Building the Vanguard: Walter Reuther and Radical Politics in 1936.” Labor History 30:3.

Cannon, James, 1979. The History of American Trotskyism, New York, Pathfinder Press.

Gilpin, Toni. 1992. “Left by Themselves: A History of the United Farm and Metal Workers Union, 1938-1955.” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University.

Goldfield, Michael. 1980. “The Decline of the Communist Party and the Black Question in the U.S.” Review, of Racial Political Economics 12:1.

_____, 1985. “Recent Historiography of the Communist Party, USA.” In the Year Left, edited by Mike Davis, Fred Pfeil, and Michael Sprinker, London: Verso.

_____, 1993. “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism During the 1930s and 1940s.” International Labor and Working Class History 44.

_____ 1994. “Race and the CIO: Reply to Critics.” International Labor and Working Class History 46.

Halpern, Eric, 1991. “Interracial Unionism in the Southwest” in Organized Labor in the Twentieth Century South, edited by Robert Zieger. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Wigderson, Seth, 1989. “The UAW in the 1950s.” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Wayne State University.

ATC 67, March-April 1997