A Response to Reviewers

Against the Current, No. 69, July/August 1997

Nelson Lichtenstein

AGAINST THE CURRENT has published two reviews of my recent biography of Walter Reuther. The first, by Jane Slaughter (ATC 64), is generally appreciative; the second, by Michael Goldfield (ATC 67) is an attack, emphasizing what he considers my apologia for Reuther’s persistent and systemic racism.

Jane Slaughter liked my book, or rather she particularly savored those sections — and there are plenty — where I take Reuther to task for his abandonment of a militant brand of shop-floor unionism, for his alliance with a repressive warfare state, for his collaboration with the corporations, for his failure to defend civil rights activists at several pivotal moments, and for his seduction at the hands of the Democrats. This is not the whole story, but she certainly recognizes that I wrote a critical biography of Walter Reuther.

Given this understanding on her part, Slaughter is irritated no end by the biography’s very last paragraph. There at the conclusion of 445 pages of text I imply in fairly strong terms that if Reuther were alive today he would oppose the union’s labor-management partnership schemes, including what Slaughter calls “the famous love-in” at General Motor’s Saturn factory in Tennessee.

As she puts it: “But everything Lichtenstein has written up to that point suggest the opposite: that Reuther not only would have championed labor-management cooperation, he would have convinced himself that it fulfilled his lifelong dream of justice for working people. And he would have been ruthless in crushing anyone in the union who argued otherwise.”

Well, Jane Slaughter is right, or rather, she is right that this biographer had no business saying what would be the contemporary politics of a man dead for more than a quarter century. Even as I wrote those last sentences, giddy with the relief that this project was finally nearing an end, I knew those judgements were a stretch.

But I was myself rather irritated that top UAW officers, as well as elder statesmen Doug Fraser and Irving Bluestone, repeatedly enlisted the Reuther persona in their effort to sell “jointness,” “teamwork,” and the entire pseudo-democratic rhetoric of contemporary industrial relations as but the latest stage in the UAW’s tradition of progressive trade unionism.

I therefore added those last few sentences to give some ammunition to those in Labor Notes and the New Directions caucus who were critical of UAW collaboration with the corporations. Perhaps they too could now invoke the Reuther legacy in their fight against a wrongheaded leadership program.

But if it is impossible to enlist Walter Reuther in the labor movement’s contemporary debate, does this mean that his life is irrelevant to us today; or perhaps even more pointedly, does it mean that there was little progressive in his life and work upon which militants of the 1990s might reflect?

Jane Slaughter’s reading of my biography seems to argue in the affirmative: After a few years of youthful radicalism, Reuther’s career becomes pretty much a negative reference point. I think this consigns his leadership rather too quickly to the dustbin of history, but before I argue otherwise, it’s time to take note of Michael Goldfield’s long review, which finds my book little more than a defense brief for a racist trade union leader.

Why Reutherism Mattered

Goldfield does not understand the methodology that stands behind my biography. He would have us believe that Reuther was merely a transparent hypocrite, virtually from the day he left the orbit of the Communist Party until he was killed in an airplane crash more than 30 years later.

Indeed, if you follow Goldfield’s argument, one could hardly fathom why, for at least two generations, American radicals and radical-minded historians have devoted so much attention to the UAW and its leadership.

If Reuther were the easily understood racist or the crude bureaucrat that Goldfield makes him out to be, then we’d take as much retrospective interest in his career as we do in that of Daniel Tobin, who presided over the Teamsters during the Roosevelt years, or David J. McDonald, whose presidency of the Steelworkers in the 1950s has been virtually forgotten.

Yet even the most bitter opponents of Reuther and his leadership knew that the UAW president was a formidable opponent, not only because he was devious and powerful, but because through his ideas, programs, and rhetoric he represented himself as a vanguard element of the liberal-labor-left as well.

Indeed, this was the key to much of his genuine popularity, both among autoworkers and the larger liberal public. He buttressed this ideological leadership within an increasingly crude bureaucratic fortress, and the combination made him virtually untouchable for the long years during which he led the UAW.

Goldfield seems to think that the only thing that mattered about a trade union leader was the ideology the individual advanced. By this standard the Communists rate high on his scale, because they did understand the centrality of racial issues to the advancement of the working class struggle, while Reuther gets numerous well-deserved demerits.

Any effort to explain historical context, to understand why Reuther was something less than a consistent, forceful racial egalitarian appears to Goldfield an apologia or an excuse. He presumes that trade union officials can simply impose, or project, their social ideology onto a workforce regardless of the structure of the industry, the social character of the workers, the politics of the era, or the opposition of management.(1)

It is because of this historical methodology on Goldfield’s part — little more than a mechanical sort of liberalism — that he finds so objectionable my repeated assertions that Reuther and his circle were progressives; that they were in fact the “boldest spirits of the industrial union movement.” Such an assessment is designed not as a final judgement, but as part of a larger, more far-reaching argument designed to probe their ultimate failure.

The Meaning of Reuther’s Failure

Despite their own sincere progressive rhetoric, Reuther and his circle — mainly of ex-socialists — played a disastrous role in helping shift to the right the politics of the UAW and all American liberalism, because they themselves were unwilling to make the hard choices and take the political risks that might have opened up a new set of political opportunities. Their failure was not personal, but political and strategic.

Goldfield can’t seem to grasp this. Here, for example, is the way he fires one of his off center arrows: “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.'”

This “claim” comes at the start of Chapter 14 (“An American Social Democracy”), which is devoted to a long assessment of why Reuther’s left-liberal ambitions were so thoroughly crushed. Indeed, in the very next paragraph I put forward the theme of that chapter and the book:

“But Reuther’s political and social ambitions would be frustrated in the 1950s, and not only by his adversaries. His tragedy was that of a man imprisoned within institutions, alliances, and ideological constructs that were largely of his own making. Reuther was trapped, first by the poisoned legacy of an obsessive anti-Communism, then by an alliance with an unreformed Democratic Party, and finally by the transformation and demobilization of the UAW itself.” (300)

And I conclude this chapter with a devastating 1963 quote from Harvey Swados: “One cannot complain, as one might with almost any other union, of an absence of intellect, or a lack of application of that intellect to the problems of our age. What one can say, I think with justification, is that the UAW leadership no longer takes its own demands seriously.”(326)(2)

Goldfield’s stolid failure to understand the book is most graphically clear when he attacks me for my treatment of UAW racial discrimination, which he claims I attempt to “explain and then excuse.” But any fair reading of those chapters of my book devoted to Reuther’s understanding of the UAW racial divide will find a damming portrait.

Yes, I “explain” why Reuther’s socialist background and experience at “white” General Motors made him tone deaf and organizationally blind to the vanguard character of racial politics in the labor movement. What’s wrong with that?

And according to Goldfield, “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.”

But of course, I did not need to compare Reuther to the leaders of the Farm Equipment or Packinghouse Unions (although they are in the footnotes). I could make a far better comparison between Reuther and his factional opponents, which seems the appropriate matchup. Here is the way I describe the background to the 1943 convention debate over whether or not an African-American should be put onto the UAW executive board.

“Unlike the Communists, who had already forged a multi-generational relationship with many of the most activist elements of the black community, 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. Thus the Reutherites often saw a special focus on the particular disabilities under which black Americans labored as tangential at best, even divisive and demagogic within a union context. Reuther explained his own policy as an ‘appeal to Negroes, not as racial nationalists, but as unionists and fellow Americans. In polemical debate, the Reutherites were wont to describe blacks in or allied to the Communist Party as ‘stooges’ manipulated by clever party operatives. Privately, and sometimes in public, Reuther questioned whether any blacks were ‘qualified’ to fill high UAW posts.” (212)

“On both sides racial progressives dominated the public discourse, but hidden just below simmered a vast cauldron of prejudice, resentment, and belief in the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow America . . . two white delegates, one from (Reuther’s) Local 174, let loose with outright denunciations of ‘social equality’ between the races. The debate seared a racial divide into the UAW body politic. From this point on at least 90 percent of all African-Americans active in the union aligned themselves with Reuther’s opponents.” (211)

Is That an Apologia?

Goldfield just can’t seem to get it into his head that much of my book, especially that after 1948, is a sustained attack on the Reutherite bureaucracy and its program. He denounces a Reutherite raid on the East Moline Harvester locals in 1949; so do I, and we both use as a source the same fine dissertation by Toni Gilpin.(3)

Goldfield continues, “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.” But that is the burden of much of Chapter 17 (“Uneasy Partners”), where I explain that Reuther’s disastrous failure to forcefully integrate the skilled trades or put an African-American on the UAW executive board arose precisely out of his fear that to do so would put him at odds with key local union officers or regional directors who defended the racial status quo.

Reuther, Liberalism and Civil Rights

Goldfield is sometimes just sloppy, if not simply dishonest, in his quotations from my book. Here for example is the way he takes me to task over a 1952 political incident:

“Because Lichtenstein leaves out some of the worst instances of Reuherite 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.”

And here are several sentences taken from the two paragraphs in my book out of which Goldfield fashions his distorted accusation:

“Like so many liberals, Reuther was captivated by Adlai Stevenson’s eloquence and genuinely impressed with his defense of civil liberties while governor of Illinois. But on the core issues of American social politics, Stevenson’s candidacy represented a retreat from even Truman’s equivocal brand of Fair Deal liberalism. Stevenson did not favor the repeal of Taft-Hartley, opposed national health insurance, and believed that civil rights legislation should be left to the states so that the federal government did not ‘put the South over a barrel.’ As John Kenneth Galbraith noted, `He ran for President not to rescue the downtrodden but to assume the responsibilities properly belonging to the privileged.”

“‘This man, now clearly a candidate, presents us with a problem,’ Don Montgomery (the UAW’s Washington lobbyist) wrote to Reuther just before the 1952 Democratic National Convention. As part of an ADA delegation, Reuther met with Stevenson for three hours on July 12, but the meeting proved a fiasco. Reuther was enthralled by Stevenson’s patrician manner, but incredibly, he never raised the issue of how Stevenson stood on FEPC or other civil rights questions. ‘Walter was so mesmerized by this guy . . . his beautiful English and his beautiful common sense that he forgot to ask,’ remembered Joe Rauh with astonishment. But it was more than a lapse of memory, for neither Reuther nor the ADA was willing to draw the line on such issues.” (320)

But enough. The book contains a sustained critique of Walter Reuther, his leadership, his ideology, and the men and women who advised him.

So why did I write it? Well, Reuther was the leader of the most important union in the most important industry during the era of labor’s greatest strength in the 20th century. And he did grapple with many of the key issues that have confronted trade unionists and
socialists in his time and ours.

Reuther understood that the trade union movement had to win some kind of influence over corporate investment, product, and price decisions. His strategy — corporatism — may have been self-defeating, and his reliance on the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations a mistake, but Reuther’s capacity to even raise the issue did in fact make him, for a brief moment in 1945 and 1946, “the most dangerous man in Detroit because no one is more skillful in bringing about the revolution without seeming to disturb the existing forms of society.” (The quote is from George Romney, then a spokesman for the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.)

In a brief letter in ATC 66 and in a longer review in Monthly Review, Martin Glaberman takes exception to my use of this Romney quote.(4) He describes it as “fakery” because the perspective of auto industry management was more accurately expressed by Chrysler Corporation’s Virgil Boyd right after Reuther’s death in 1970: “It’s taken a strong man to keep the situation under control. I hope that whoever his successor may be can exercise equal internal discipline.”

Like Goldfield, Glaberman too misses the point of my book. Does a quarter-century of political and economic conflict and accommodation mean nothing?

In 1946, at the height of the UAW’s long postwar strike against General Motors, Reuther was indeed dangerous to the industrial status quo.

Against the determined opposition of both the CIO high command and the Truman Administration he had campaigned against the no-strike pledge, had pushed through the UAW’s aggressive GM strike program, and had linked union fortunes with a laborite, late New Deal liberalism that still sought a fundamental reform of American capitalism. Every liberal and leftist outside the orbit of the Communist Party backed his strike and his subsequent campaign for the UAW presidency.

The failure of that strike gambit and its consequences, which includes the negation of much that was progressive in Reuther’s early union leadership, constitutes the heart of my book. Chrysler’s Virgil Boyd was right in 1970, but he rendered that judgement after a quarter century of water had flowed under the bridge.(5)

Why It Matters Now

It’s impossible to discuss the Reuther legacy outside of an evaluation of the changes taking place in the contemporary AFL-CIO. During the last year I have been one of the leaders of the campus-based movement to organize a series of teach-ins with the new leaders of the AFL-CIO. In fact, I’m probably the country’s expert on this particular phenomenon since I’ve played a big role in putting together two of them, one at Columbia University in October 1996, and another at the University of Virginia in February 1997.

In both instances top AFL-CIO officials shared a platform with academics and left intellectuals, including Katha Pollitt and Cornell West (Columbia) and Barbara Ehrenreich, Julian Bond, and Tony Mazzocchi (University of Virginia).

These teach-ins are progressive and fruitful because we are projecting labor’s voice to new strata of the population and energizing a new set of activists, while at the same time opening up a broader dialogue over politics, strategy and social outlook.

One should have few illusions about what can be accomplished, however. In her recent “Sweeney: Pass, Fail or Incomplete?” (ATC 67) Jane Slaughter offers a sobering assessment of how limited or misplaced are the ambitions of the new AFL-CIO regime. In another context, Mike Parker described Sweeney’s approach as that of “bureaucratic militancy.”

I would not disagree, but I also endorse Slaughter’s conclusions: “The Sweeney slate’s victory has created openings for unionists who want more militancy and more power, because it has made the idea that something can be done. . . seem more viable. Labor activists at all levels . . . now feel that they can talk about what the labor movement needs.”

And this brings us back to Walter Reuther. Like Sweeney his leadership was shot through with contradictions and failures, personal, political and institutional. But in the whole sweep of his career Reuther opened up more space within the labor movement than he closed down.

In the 1930s it was the question of industrial democracy on the shop floor, in the 1940s the power of managerial capitalism, and even in the 1950s and 1960s, he pushed on the liberal side of most social policy issues. His socially ambitious rhetoric, so easily — and simplistically — ridiculed as one long exercise in hypocrisy, therefore established a standard by which a generation of radicals tested both his leadership and that of the unions in which they struggled.

To the extent that Sweeney does the same thing we have a more advantageous terrain upon which to fight.


  1. Goldfield has not always polemiticized in such a crude fashion. In a 1993 essay he wrote: “Structural characteristics play an important role in laying the basis for interracial unionism. Low-skilled work forces with high percentages of African-American workers — especially where they have crucial leverage within the labor process — are more likely to be organized on an interracial basis into unions that have varying degrees of commitment to racial egalitarianism.” Michael Goldfield, “Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism During the 1930s and 1940s,” International Labor and Working-Class History, 44 (Fall 1993), 26.
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  2. Harvey Swados, “The UAW: Over the Top or Over the Hill?” in Swados, A Radical at Large: American Essays (London, 1968), 88-89.
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  3. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, 310; Toni Gilpin, “Left by Themselves: A History of the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union, 1938-1955,” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1992), 167-215. Of the UAW-FE conflict I summarize, in part: “But aside from the capture of the big Peoria Caterpillar works — where the FE had been barred from NLRB ballot because its officers had not yet signed the Taft-Hartley affidavits — the UAW raid made little headway among workers at either John Deere or international Harvester, where small-town solidarity, a syndicalist tradition of shop-floor militancy, and careful attention to the grievances of African-American workers generated much rank-and-file loyalty to the embattled FE leaders.”
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  4. Glaberman’s review appears in Monthly Review 48:6 (November 1996) and my reply with his rebuttal is in Monthly Review 48:10 (March 1997).
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  5. If you are looking for someone who really does think that Reuther could have done nothing to staunch the devolution of the UAW, given the technics of production, the nature of the labor law, and the power of General Motors, read David Brody’s critical review of my book, “Making Sense of Reuther” in Dissent (Fall 1996).
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ATC 69, July-August 1997