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Modest-living champion of organizing and civil rights took on auto industry and other causes at risk of life and limb

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George Romney, the former governor of Michigan, called Walter Reuther “the most dangerous man in Detroit.” According to Romney, this title was based on “Reuther’s skill in bringing about revolution without seeming to disturb the existing society.”

A highly respected, brilliant man and motivating speaker, Reuther always believed negotiating for the workers at the auto plants was for the betterment of mankind, not just the union. By the time Reuther was killed in a plane crash in northern Michigan in 1970 he had been the president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) for 24 years, and an early champion of civil rights and other liberal causes.

He was known across the globe from Tokyo to London to Mumbai, and was a close confidant of every president from Roosevelt to Nixon. But he had enemies as well, at least one of them going so far as to make an attempt on his life.

A socialist family

Walter Philip Reuther was born on Labor Day eve in 1907 in Wheeling, West Virginia. His strict but loving parents were both German blue-collar socialists who taught their five children the importance of speaking out, self-discipline and duty. Reuther said he was “raised in a kind of trade union atmosphere.”

Walter’s father had been a brewery union president at age 23. On Sundays after dinner, Walter’s father would begin discussion and arguments both pro and con on the big issues of the early century: labor’s right to organize, child labor, women’s rights, prohibition, military conscription. The four brothers — Ted, Walter, Roy and Victor — prepared at the public library and went at it intensely with shouting and gesticulating as the father guided and refereed.

Reuther’s father was blinded for two years in a freak accident, which motived 16-year-old Walter to drop out of high school and become a tool and die apprentice. He was a fast learner but was soon fired for trying to organize a union. He had heard about the high wages in Detroit plants and so decided to leave Wheeling and move to the city.

He arrived in February of 1927 and took a job with Briggs Manufacturing on Mack Avenue, then an auto body manufacturing company. Reuther learned Ford was looking for tool and die leaders to develop the new Model A. Applicants needed 25 years of experience. Reuther wanted Ford’s higher pay, but he was only 19 and looked even younger. Nevertheless he went to the Highland Park plant to apply, and convinced a hiring manager and later a foreman to give him a chance to prove himself.

As a tool maker Reuther was among the elite in factory labor, but he saw the hardships of many men and women at Ford’s Highland Park plant, who were frequently required to work long shifts up to 24 hours without overtime, or endure production line “speedups.” Injuries were common. Reuther himself lost some of his toes in Wheeling, when a 400-pound steel die dropped on his foot.

A taste of Russian factory work

As the Depression loomed, Reuther was laid off. He’d learned that Henry Ford had sold the old tooling for the Model A to Russia, for use in an auto plant in Gorky. Reuther wrote to the plant manager, a friend, that he and his brother were planning a trip to Europe. Since he knew the tooling, the plant manager promised to hire Walter and his brother Victor.

It was winter in Russia and they quickly learned the plant was not heated; the worker’s paradise was 35 below zero. Victor recalled teaching peasants to use precision instruments, then when he couldn’t stop shivering he would dash to a tiny heat-treat department which used furnaces to temper metal.

But the Reuthers were bothered by the Russian Communist government’s frightening control of the lives of the plant personnel, as Walter wrote in his memoirs of Russia:

“Several times while I was there, one family or another would appear for breakfast without the father or husband. They would sit at an isolated table, eyes red from weeping, faces distorted with anxiety and fear. Nobody asked them what was wrong; we all knew. He had been arrested in the middle of the night by Russian secret police and taken away for imprisonment or to be sent to a work camp in Siberia or even executed.”

After two years working in Gorky, the brothers had had enough. They gave away their tools and continued to travel for 18,000 miles across Iran, India and China, ending with a bicycle tour of Japan. Broke and exhausted, they found work and passage on a steamer to Hawaii and back to the U.S.

Depression pushes limits of Detroiters

In 1933 one-third of all wage earners had been totally or partially unemployed for four years in succession. There were more than 200,000 Detroiters on city relief rolls. The suicide rate had risen precipitously. Every day there were some 4,000 children standing in bread lines. A doctor at Receiving Hospital told newsmen an average of four persons a day were brought in “too far gone from starvation for their lives to be saved.”

The Depression had dramatically changed Detroit, and Reuther felt certain that labor was ready for unionization. On returning to Detroit in 1935 Reuther learned he had been blacklisted by Ford’s labor boss, Harry Bennett. It included all Ford plants and their suppliers. While unemployed, based on his previous work at Ford he was given membership in the young UAW, local 86. In March 1936 Reuther was selected to represent Local 86 at the UAW’s second annual convention. He was given five bucks to fund his trip and hitchhiked to South Bend, Indiana.

Since he couldn’t get into plants, Walter asked his brother Victor to help out. Victor took a job as a punch press operator at Kelsey Hayes brake drum and wheel plant in Detroit, a company Walter targeted because it was notorious for low pay and speeding up the production line. In December of 1936 Victor shut down the production line and called, “Strike! Enough of this speed up!”

Victor shouted to workers to sit down. The personnel director demanded the men get back to work. Victor told him only Walter Reuther could get the men back. Unsure, the manager sent a car to bring in Walter, who signed up workers to the UAW and set up a meeting with management for the next morning, but that never occurred. So Walter told the men to sit down, preventing management from taking out equipment by blocking entrances. The strike lasted 10 days and was the UAW’s first major victory with an automotive plant. Walter’s UAW local jumped from 200 members to 35,000 in one year.

The fight with Ford

Highland Park was civilized, but the Rouge was a jungle.” — Walter Reuther

A much bigger strike was just starting at GM in Flint that would establish the UAW and modern industrial unionism in America. While Reuther and his brother were involved in the 1936-37 strikes against GM and Chrysler, his real opponent would be the Ford Motor Company.

In their book “The Fords,” David Horowitz and Peter Collier wrote that the UAW plan to organize the auto industry was moving swiftly but “it was clear Henry Ford would be by far the most difficult and dangerous target of all.

“Henry’s reaction to the labor movement was to make the Rouge into an industrial concentration camp overseen by Harry Bennett’s army of Service Department men. They followed men into washrooms to make sure they didn’t talk about union matters; they demanded that someone walking from one place to another tell them where he was going and why. Smiling was frowned upon. Workers learned to communicate without moving their lips, in what became known as the ‘Ford whisper’…. Anyone even suspected of being a UAW sympathizer was not only summarily fired but usually beaten up as well …. Henry Ford vowed to fight the UAW to the bitter end.”

On May 24, 1937 Walter Reuther took out a permit from the City of Dearborn to distribute literature on an overpass that workers walked across outside Gate 4 of the Rouge plant. On the afternoon of May 26, Reuther with UAW organizer Richard Frankensteen gathered with newsmen, representatives of the Civil Liberties Committee of the U.S. Senate, a Chicago clergyman and human rights activists that Reuther had invited.

Harry Bennett went into action with 150 men, many of whom were former boxers, wrestlers and known Detroit hoodlums, one of whom shouted that this was private property and they had to get the hell out. Reuther and the others turned to leave but were blocked, then attacked. Reuther was hit with a blackjack, lifted and dropped on the concrete repeatedly, kicked down stairs and stomped. After finishing up with Reuther and Frankensteen, they moved over to the minister, who had his back broken and managed to save himself by hiding under a parked car. The women were dragged by the hair, knocked to the ground, and punched.

All this would have been a perfect outcome for Bennett, except the media witnessed the whole event. Detroit News photographer James “Scotty” Kilpatrick shot the beatings and hid the photographic plates under the back seat of his car, giving blank plates to the security goons when they advanced to destroy them. The photos went out on the wire, and “The Battle of the Overpass” swung public opinion in favor of Reuther and the union.

For three more years the UAW and Reuther tussled with Bennett. Finally on April 1, 1941, Bennett fired eight workers for signing with the UAW, and 1,500 workers sat down in solidarity with the fired workers. Reuther and other UAW leaders hurried out to the Rouge and when they got there 50,000 workers blocked entrances and set up pickets.

Henry Ford, then 75 years old, finally consented to a National Labor Review Board to recognize the union. His mind still fixed on the glory days of the $5-a-day wage, he claimed it was the greatest disappointment in his business career.

“My God, May, I’ve been shot!”

Walter Reuther, nicknamed “Red” because of his red hair, was not tall but he was physically fit, never drank nor smoked. He eschewed the lavish union leadership lifestyle and disliked conventions or hanging out in places like Miami. He and his wife and two daughters lived in a small house on Detroit’s west side at 20101 Appoline. His modest habits annoyed other union leaders.

E.L. Dayton wrote in his 1957 book “Walter Reuther, the Autocrat of the Bargaining Table,” that “Someone has called him a young man in a hurry, and there is a sense of urgency about him. He is coiled like a spring, about to fly off somewhere.” He seemed to have unlimited energy and when negotiating for the UAW he liked to jab and heckle his opponents to unnerve them. William Clay Ford, who went through negotiations with Reuther, considered him an “unprincipled demagogue.”

In 1946 the UAW elected Reuther president. As his fame and power grew, so too did his list of enemies.

On the evening of April 20, 1948 an assassin sat in the bushes in back of Reuther’s house. Reuther was having a late-night dinner and as he turned to get something from the refrigerator a 12-gauge shotgun’s deafening blast exploded through a rear window and threw him to the floor in a pool of blood. The blast shattered the bones in his right arm so badly he thought it had been shot off. Another slug went into his back and out through his stomach.

His panicked wife called the police and an ambulance. He was rushed to New Grace Hospital. For years afterward he squeezed a red rubber ball to strengthen his arm and grip. In his spare time he played tennis and built furniture and he needed his grip for both.

The world of unions and organized labor could be violent so the suspects were many. Death threats to Reuther were common. The attack was never solved.

After Reuther survived the attack the UAW moved the Reuther family out to Paint Creek, then a wilderness area outside of Rochester where they kept armed guards watching the house 24 hours a day, and UAW guards drove Reuther to work in an armored Packard. He never drove again.

Reuther expands his causes

“To Reuther, perhaps more than any other national union leader, a labor union is not just a bread and butter organization. He views the union as an instrument for social betterment, committed to fight labors battles in the political arena as well as at the bargaining table.” — Detroit Free Press, April 4, 1965

One of those causes early on was civil rights and racism; he took the podium with the NAACP in downtown Detroit to speak for peace during the Detroit race riots of 1943. It was Reuther who called for the first civil rights meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1949 for civil rights legislation.

One of the most outstanding examples of Reuther and the UAW’s financial might came after Dr. Martin Luther King’s march in Alabama, when 800 followers of King were jailed. King needed $160,000 to get those people out of jail and he turned to the White House for help. Attorney General Robert Kennedy called Reuther for the cash, who told his people, “Give it to them.”

In 1963 Reuther campaigned hard within the UAW to send representatives to the “Walk to Freedom” march in Detroit. The stream of 125,000 people would become the largest civil rights demonstration to date in the nation’s history, and Reuther formed a line of leadership with King, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, C.L. Franklin, Michigan Gov. John Swainson and others.

Reuther had become internationally famous; however, his strong liberal politics were getting pushback from the right wing and within the ranks of the UAW itself.

“Looking back on their 30 years of evangelizing for equality, and to a national presidential election where racial issues are sure to stand out, top UAW officials are deeply worried about blue collar bigotry in their own back yard.”

— Wall Street Journal, May 10, 1968.

Condolences from across the globe

On Sunday May 10, 1970, Reuther and his wife May left Metro Airport on a six-passenger Lear L23 jet around 7 p.m. on a rainy, cloudy night, heading to Emmett County Airport near Pellston, Michigan, where a UAW car was to drive them to Black Lake. The plane, flying low through the clouds to make its approach, clipped the tops of trees, nosedived and burst into flames about a mile from the airport. There were no survivors. Some have speculated that the jet’s altimeter had been tampered with.

Reuther’s daughter, Elizabeth Reuther Dickmeyer, wrote that condolences arrived from across the globe, including President Richard Nixon; Willy Brandt, chancellor of West Germany and friend of Reuther’s; and Golda Meir from Israel. Some 3,400 attended the funeral at Ford Auditorium.

In 1961 Martin Luther King wrote to Reuther: “As I have heard you say, the true measure of a man is where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy; when the only consolation he gains is the quiet whisper of an inner voice saying there are things so eternally true and significant that they are worth dying for, if necessary.

“You have demonstrated over the years that you can stand up in moments of challenge and controversy. One day, all of Americans will be proud of your achievements, and will record your work as one the glowing epics of our heritage.”

For further reading

  • “The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit,” by Nelson Lichtenstein
  • “Putting the World Together - My Father Walter Reuther: the Liberal Warrior,” by Elizabeth Reuther Dickmeyer
  • “The Fords - An American Epic,” by Peter Collier and David Horowitz
  • “Sit Down: the General Motors Strike of 1936-1937,” by Sidney Fine
  • “Once in a Great City - A Detroit Story,” by David Maraniss
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