UAW Pioneer and Fighter for Social Justice: Victor G. Reuther

Against the Current, No. 113, November/December 2004

Mike Parker

VICTOR REUTHER’S DEATH June 3, at age 92, was a personal loss-breaking one of the last connections to my parent’s socialist movement of the 1930s.  Victor was also the connection to the courageous and honorable men and women who made great sacrifices over 60 years ago to win union recognition and the contract gains that my United Auto Workers brothers and sisters now take for granted.

But Victor did not spend his life in nostalgia nor in trying to recreate a fabled past.  His life was one of dedication, imagination, struggle and personal responsibility.  He knew which side he was on, and throughout his life he was willing to stand on that side even at considerable personal cost.

While there is much to criticize in Victor’s long political and union history, the bottom line is that his commitment to the ideals of unionism brought him out of retirement and into battle when he recognized that the union he loved was losing its way.

I should not have been surprised that so many of my fellow UAW members had no idea who Victor Reuther was, or only vaguely placed the name.  After all, it would take 34 years of seniority to have been a member when Walter Reuther’s UAW presidency ended with his death in a plane crash in 1970.

Why remember the brother of a long-dead union president?  Two groups know why.

The first group consists of those few who still have a connection—direct or through history—to the organizing of the UAW in the ’30s.  The three youngest Reuther brothers, Walter, Roy, and Victor, were key to the union’s success.  Their father, Val Reuther, was a committed follower of Eugene Debs, and the sons grew up as socialists.

When they were young men, according to Victor, they made a pact to stay single so as not to be tied down and prevented from organizing.  This commitment lasted only a few years, but each found a partner who was herself a dedicated unionist and socialist.

The brothers made their life decisions based on what they thought would best serve the movement: how to train themselves, where they should live, what jobs to take.  These decisions led them to Brookwood Labor School, Detroit and the auto industry, and for Victor and Walter to a three-year world trip during which they set up the tooling shop of the new Gorky auto plant in the Soviet Union.

In much of this the Reuther brothers were not unique.  The seeming collapse of capitalism, the socialist vision, and the sense that people could make history moved many, both in and out of political groups, to make similar commitments, and many made similar contributions.  Like others, as historian Nelson Lichtenstein has observed, they came to see their socialist ideals embodied in the new CIO’s industrial unionism.

The Reuthers’ emergence as the leaders of the UAW was a combination of their being in the right places at the right time and of their own personal qualities of integrity, audacity, and commitment.  All three brothers played key organizing roles in the Flint sit-down strikes of 1936-37.

After helping lead the Kelsey-Hayes sit-down victory in Detroit, Victor went to Flint when the struggle broke out there.  Victor’s was the voice in the sound car that provided leadership and direction for both the strikers inside and the supporters who mobilized outside the plant in the famous battle of Bulls Run.

To avoid a GM-owned judge and prison for his role in the Flint struggles, Victor joined his wife Sophie, the UAW’s first woman organizer, in Anderson, Indiana in 1937 for another tough battle against corporate thugs, police, and public officials determined to wipe the union out.

In Detroit, Flint, and Anderson, the key to victory was a combination of a dedicated cadre of workers, community support, and good leadership that was able to exploit differences in the anti-union forces and win over more neutral elements.

Cold War Politics Throughout their lives, the three brothers worked together to build and advance the UAW.  Victor was generally regarded as the orator, writer and most left-wing of the three.  Walter left the Socialist Party in 1938, Victor and Roy in 1940, to support the war effort.

The Reuther brothers’ record in the 1940s and ’50s has decided blemishes.  They were caught up in the Cold War both at home and abroad.  They were instrumental in the expulsion and destruction of the Communist Party-led unions.

After World War II, Victor headed up the UAW and CIO international work.  He was enamored with the Marshall plan and a strong supporter of the West in the cold war.  Victor was a liberal Cold Warrior.  His arch-enemy was Jay Lovestone, a 1920s Communist Party leader who had gained control of the foreign policy of George Meany and the AFL.

For Lovestone, opposition to Communism was the only litmus test.  In 1966 Victor exposed the CIA ties and funding of the AFL-CIO’s extensive foreign operations, admitting that he had “naively” been involved in this two decades earlier.

In the ’60s Victor was one of the union leaders who early on actively opposed the Vietnam war and supported the Labor Assembly for Peace.

Dangerous Organizing Union organizing was a dangerous job.  The companies, their goons, and mobsters played for keeps.  In a failed assassination attempt in 1949, a shotgun blast shot out Victor’s right eye and smashed his jaw and collarbone.

Victor says in his memoir that before one of several reconstruction operations he told the oral surgeon, “They can take out my eye or take off my arm or leg.  But please fix up my tongue.  I have a living to make.”

Victor retired from the UAW staff in 1972 to write the book that he and Walter had planned.  The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW: A Memoir was published in 1976.  It is this part of Victor’s life, before his retirement, that obituaries and UAW press releases describe and which by itself is worthy of a well-regarded place in union history.

Out of Retirement

The second group of people for whom Victor was significant is those who were part of the struggle of the 1980s and 1990s to reclaim the labor movement, including the UAW.

In the ’80s Victor came out of retirement.  Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers union and the failure of the labor movement to mount a defense angered him.  The contract concessions that the UAW and the rest of the labor movement made in the early 1980s appalled him.

He argued that union leaders had no right to give up so easily what members had fought so hard to win.  In 1984 the UAW signed a special contract with GM’s new Saturn division.  Victor called it a betrayal of the union.

Most of all he was incensed that it was negotiated in secret, not made available to UAW members, and imposed on Saturn workers.  Victor believed this contract that enshrined labor-management cooperation would open the door to allow GM to retake UAW victories of previous decades.

Leaders in the UAW who were uncomfortable with the union’s direction began to secretly feed Victor information, and he began to be concerned about the state of democracy in the union.  He saw that the leadership had circled the wagons and become stagnant.  It resisted the rise of new, dynamic leadership, especially those who did not come up the old way.

Victor argued for recruiting women, people of color, and young activists into the leadership.  At least publicly, Victor attributed the failures of the UAW to its leaders’ being in office too long or forgetting where they came from.

Here his analysis was uncharacteristically shallow.  If he suspected that the policies of the Reuther leadership, the consolidation of internal power in Walter’s Administration Caucus, or the union’s adoption of the system of industrial jurisprudence at the expense of shop stewards had contributed to the bureaucratization, he did not say so.

Yet he was clear on the conclusions and he genuinely despised that bureaucratization and the hierarchy’s partnership with their corporate adversaries.  Victor saw that supposedly new strategies like partnership were really a throwback to the 1920s, were covers for giving up hard-won union victories, and would quickly cause the union movement to lose its way.

In a foreword to my 1988 book (with Jane Slaughter), Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept, Victor wrote:

The corporations are attempting to undermine the unity and solidarity of the workers on the plant floor and in the union to draw workers into a mythical partnership.  They offer the enticing illusion that the worker will have a voice in management…  The team concept is more than a mere gimmick; it is an attempt by management to control not only the worker’s behavior on the job, but also the worker’s feelings and thoughts.  The employer plays upon the worker’s desire to use his or her creativity and intellect….  Today the unions are ill prepared to defend themselves from so subtle and insidious a management strategy.  Our unions have grown more and more centralized and bureaucratic…  The revitalization and democratization of the unions is essential.

He was a strong critic of the growing “jointness” programs and their army of appointees that moved the union leadership closer to management while isolating it more from the membership.  Victor gave active support to Labor Notes, a cross-union network of activists, to the Association for Union Democracy, to Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which won major changes in the Teamsters and remains a powerful force for rank and file power there, and to the Canadian Auto Workers after they left the UAW.

New Directions

Most of all he became a leader of the New Directions Movement, a reform group in the UAW that peaked in the late 1980s.  But Victor was not primarily interested in criticism.  He was seeking an alternative and building the future.  To UAW leaders’ charges that he and New Directions were trying to turn the clock back to the 1930s, he responded in a Muncie, Indiana speech:

My God, Sophie and I and those gallant sit-down strikers in [Anderson, Indiana] had to face the hired Pinkertons of General Motors in the ’30s and the organized Ku Klux Klan, whom the personnel director of the Guide Lamp plant, according to Senate testimony, liquored up and said to march on the union hall—drive those outside agitators out of town….  They broke down the door, threw the typewriters and papers onto the streets and beat up the organizers.  This was the official act of General Motors, “our partner” of today.  I have memories.  I don’t want to go back to the thirties.  No one in their right mind wants to turn the clock back to those days.  But the alternative is not to permit this union of ours to become manipulated by the corporate structure.  The alternative is that we stand on our hind feet and be ourselves and insist on our rights.  (3/5/89)

What too many current UAW members do not understand is that the decline of the labor movement in the 1980’s was not inevitable.  The choice to partner with management was a conscious one, and it meant rejection of a different path that relied on solidarity, imagination, and the strengths of the members.

LTV: A Different Course

The alternatives were real.  Some UAW locals, particularly in Region 5, centered in St. Louis under the leadership of assistant regional director Jerry Tucker, were showing the way in militant and creative fightbacks.  While much of the labor movement was giving concessions, locals in this region were beating back the companies’ demands using contract campaigns and “inside strategies.”

A major struggle in Region 5 illustrates the crossroads the UAW faced.  In 1984 LTV demanded massive concessions at its large Grand Prairie, Texas aerospace plant.  When the local refused, LTV imposed the concessionary terms, which sound eerily familiar today: a cap on the cost-of-living allowance (COLA), a 20 percent co-pay on health benefits, and a permanent two-tier system with new hires capped at $7 an hour below the first tier.

Local 848, aided by Tucker, let the contract expire and responded with an inside campaign: working to rule, creating bottlenecks, refusing overtime and collectively confronting management, for 14 months.  The union demanded restoration of the takeaways.

Participation and morale were high, with 800 people typically attending the monthly organizing meetings.  The local was tracking LTV’s customers and knew the slowdown was forcing the company into a corner.  Over the months of struggle the company fired 65 workers and the union added a key demand: full amnesty.

In July 1985, Regional Director Ken Worley and UAW International Secretary-Treasurer Ray Majerus, head of the union’s aerospace department—neither of whom had previously been involved—notified Tucker and other reps that they had secretly settled the contract with top LTV officials on a North Carolina golf course.

They ordered the regional reps to sell the new contract.  It would restore some of the health coverage but conceded to the company on the other three issues, giving up COLA, allowing two-tier, and letting the fired workers hang in the wind.  They wanted the struggle to end.

Tucker ignored the instructions.  With the local bargaining committee he told the company there would be no settlement on the concessionary terms—the UAW had authorized a strike.

When the workers struck, the union’s information on how they had emptied the pipeline proved correct.  After two hours the company settled and the union won a decisive victory on all the key issues.  The fired workers returned as heroes.

In March 1986 leaders of the key locals in Region 5 asked Tucker to run for regional director against Worley, representing a movement for “new directions.”  Seeing the threat to their one-party control of the union, national UAW leaders mobilized to defeat Tucker.

Victor had recognized the need to put forward a popular alternative to the UAW’s direction.  He saw the new dynamism in Region 5, as well as some established oppositionist local leaders like Pete Kelly in the Detroit area, as the hope for the future.

He followed the LTV struggle closely.  He knew that supporting the insurgency would cost him in his relationship with the UAW leaders, but he never seemed to hesitate or equivocate.  He decided where he stood and traveled the country barnstorming for New Directions.

Victor contributed his spellbinding speeches (without notes), his sense of humor, and his knowledge of history.  But he also made cheese boards in his home workshop that were raffled off to raise money for the movement.

In 1988 and 1989 the UAW leadership responded with all guns blazing.  Two retired presidents, Leonard Woodcock and Doug Fraser, and three retired vice-presidents, Ken Bannon, Pat Greathouse and Irving Bluestone, issued a 12-page white paper to “halt the damage…  that Victor has been doing to our union.”

Their main claims were that Victor had never been involved in the hard work of bargaining, had no expertise in this area, and was now consorting with people who had opposed Walter Reuther at various times.  They, not Victor, represented the continuation of Walter’s policies.  They strongly defended the Saturn agreement as an advance in the UAW’s historic march for industrial democracy.

Dirty Tricks

Privately, the UAW staff spread more vicious attacks: Victor was said to be senile—a laughable charge to anyone who had a conversation with him or heard him speak—and just a giant ego who could not stand being out of the limelight.

Local leaders were told that they risked serious problems if Victor and Sophie were invited to union events.  That the leadership stooped so low was a sign of how much they feared New Directions and the inroads it was making in the ranks.  The story of New Directions in the UAW needs to be told in greater detail than is possible here.

Tucker had the membership and local leadership support to win the 1986 election but saw it stolen.  In 1988 the Department of Labor filed an unprecedented three suits, the courts finally forced a revote, and Tucker won easily.

In 1989 New Directions challenged for two regional director seats, including Tucker’s, and there were moves toward independence from the Administration Caucus in other regions and locals.

The UAW administration responded by pressing all staff to make $500 contributions to their campaign fund to battle New Directions—clearly a bigger enemy than the corporations.  Locals were threatened: support for New Directions might cause the corporations to close their plants.

New Directions lost, but made a very strong showing.  Victories could have set a different direction for the UAW, at a time when the union had much more power in dealing with the companies than it does now.

Resisting the Pressure After 1989 Victor maintained direct contact with dozens of local UAW activists and officers and was always ready when they requested help.  He was a regular speaker at conferences of activists and was always a source of excellent advice.  He was a brilliant and inspirational speaker, who provided lessons from history and common sense.

Though the UAW leadership was able to defeat the New Directions Movement, events of the last decade have demonstrated the truth of many of their warnings.  The UAW has continued to lose strength and the confidence of its members as its leaders rely more on and more on partnership.

Caterpillar decisively defeated the union in a head-on confrontation in 1994-95.  The union has yet to succeed in organizing any of the Japanese-managed auto plants that are setting the pace for the industry.  Perhaps ironically, the week that Victor died, the workers at Saturn voted for a new contract that ended the last significant vestige—a no-layoff clause—of the experimental Saturn contract.

Victor understood well the pressures on union leaders and the critical role of the rank and file.  In 1992, he spoke at TDU’s convention shortly after the reform movement in the Teamsters had defeated the mob-dominated old guard and elected Ron Carey as president.

Many were questioning whether TDU had accomplished its purpose and should now dissolve.  Reuther held his right arm up, indicating a leadership standing straight.  Then he explained how the pressures of the corporations, as well as the institutional pressures of the union, would act from one side to force that leadership to bend, illustrating with a push from his left hand.

What we need, he argued, is an active and organized rank and file to provide the counter-pressure—so our new leaders can in fact stand straight.  Slowly he returned his arm upright, as if driven by a powerful force.  In many ways his words were prophetic.  Victor acted his whole life on the understanding that social justice is a continuous struggle.  If you stop fighting for it, you lose it.  Our missing him is exceeded only by an appreciation for his life and what he has taught us.

ATC 113, November-December 2004