The Legacy of Labor Pioneer Walter Reuther

David Moberg

Walter Reuther, left, and Richard Frankensteen, after being beaten bloody by Ford Motor Company's anti-union thugs at the "Battle of the Overpass," an incident depicted in the new documentary Brothers on the Line. (Wayne State University Reuther Library Archives)

On the evening of May 9, 1970, a small plane crashed in north­ern Michi­gan near the Black Lake con­fer­ence cen­ter of the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers, killing all six peo­ple on board, includ­ing UAW pres­i­dent Wal­ter Reuther. The head­line of his New York Times obit­u­ary read, Union Pio­neer with Broad Influ­ence Far Beyond the Field of Labor,” and Busi­ness­week head­lined its assess­ment that Reuther’s Death Cre­ates a Vacuum.”

The remark­able and engag­ing doc­u­men­tary film, Broth­ers on the Line, com­plet­ed in 2012 but only recent­ly made wide­ly avail­able, tells a com­pelling sto­ry of Reuther’s influ­ence on both the nation’s labor-lib­er­al-left cir­cles and the dai­ly lives of aver­age work­ing men and women.

The film is an excep­tion­al­ly well-told account of the life and work of Wal­ter Reuther and his two broth­ers Vic­tor and Roy, is the first fea­ture film by Vic­tor Reuther’s grand­son, Sasha Reuther. Sasha was inspired to make the film not only by his desire to pre­serve his grandfather’s sto­ries of orga­niz­ing the Unit­ed States’ most impor­tant union in the country’s most impor­tant indus­try — and pre­vent­ing a cru­cial episode in his­to­ry from being lost to mem­o­ry — but also by such var­ied work­ing-class doc­u­men­tary films as Bar­bara Kopple’s Har­lan Coun­ty USA, Lor­raine Gray’s With Babies and Ban­ners: The Sto­ry of the Emer­gency Strike Brigade and Michael Moore’s Roger and Me.

Feel­ing that the sto­ry could inform and inspire new gen­er­a­tions of work­ers, Sasha Reuther used a wealth of pre­vi­ous­ly unknown archival footage about con­di­tions for work­ers in the boom­ing auto indus­try. It shows how the union was built and, at least for a few decades, how it dra­mat­i­cal­ly improved the lives and enhanced the pow­er of work­ers in auto­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ing and relat­ed indus­tries that the UAW organized.

Mil­lions of oth­er work­ers, many not in unions, also gained ground as their employ­ers felt com­pelled to approx­i­mate the pay and ben­e­fits that auto work­ers, steel work­ers and oth­er indus­tri­al work­ers won in their con­tracts. And per­haps even stranger in the mind of a 21st cen­tu­ry view­er, when no labor lead­ers play such a major role in Amer­i­can soci­ety, he gained the admi­ra­tion of many aver­age Americans.

But despite the admir­ing pub­lic — as the film’s inter­views, his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tion and rich archival mate­r­i­al make clear — many union mem­bers also thought that Wal­ter Reuther ruled the union through his inter­nal polit­i­cal cau­cus with too lit­tle respect for democracy.

Still, at the time of his death, Reuther was not only one of the nation’s most pow­er­ful labor union lead­ers — espe­cial­ly of the pro­gres­sive wing of the labor move­ment — but also a key fig­ure in near­ly every lib­er­al move­ment, includ­ing the Civ­il Rights move­ment, and an influ­en­tial mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic party’s pow­er elite, often sur­pass­ing the influ­ence of his labor rival, George Meany.

Meany was the much more con­ser­v­a­tive head of the AFL-CIO, the labor fed­er­a­tion that Meany and Reuther brought togeth­er in 1955 — and Reuther’s dis­con­tent with Meany and his more con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­tics were among the main rea­sons that he led the UAW out of the AFL-CIO in 1968

There have been many his­to­ries of the UAW and Reuther biogra­phies in print, the defin­i­tive major work being labor his­to­ri­an Nel­son Lichtenstein’s The Most Dan­ger­ous Man in Detroit. But even tak­ing into account how lit­tle atten­tion unions and work­ers get from film­mak­ers, it is strik­ing how few films have told even part of the dra­mat­ic sto­ry of the autowork­ers and their union.

The sto­ry of the three broth­ers who came to Detroit from a Ger­man social­ist fam­i­ly in West Vir­ginia makes a com­pelling nar­ra­tive, even if it inevitably short­changes oth­er indi­vid­u­als who con­tributed heav­i­ly to the growth of the UAW. But the film is not hagio­graph­ic: it includes crit­i­cism of both Wal­ter Reuther and his suc­ces­sors from sev­er­al notable rivals on Reuther’s left, such as for­mer region­al direc­tors Jer­ry Tuck­er and Paul Schrade, and even the longest-sur­viv­ing broth­er Victor.

And the film depicts the conun­drum that the Viet­nam War proved for Reuther. As crit­i­cism of the war grew, allies and even his cau­cus col­leagues bris­tled at his reluc­tance to speak out against it. A strik­ing excerpt of a taped con­ver­sa­tion between Wal­ter Reuther and Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son dur­ing the doc­u­men­tary sug­gests the mutu­al depen­dence between Reuther and John­son that both empow­ered and con­strained Reuther. 

Wal­ter,” John­son says to him on the phone call, I want to depend on you, but I just got to have you stand up when the going’s tough, because when you’ve got your back to the wall, I come to you and I stand there and when you’ve got your strikes you know that you’ve got a friend. … I want you to tell the rest of them I’m no god­damn fas­cist. I’m try­ing to set­tle this thing,” refer­ring to the war. Reuther replies that he told the UAW exec­u­tive board the day before: I believe this deep in my heart that nobody wants peace more than you do. You’re car­ry­ing the heavy bur­dens of office. God only knows it’s an impos­si­ble task.” Despite his per­son­al crit­i­cism of the war in Viet­nam, he stood by John­son even as the anti-war move­ment grew larg­er — a stance that many lib­er­al lead­ers main­tained through­out the war.

Sasha Reuther says he has been pleased with some of the reac­tions to the film, cit­ing, for exam­ple, an African-Amer­i­can high school student’s sur­prise after a view­ing that white peo­ple were sub­ject­ed to police beat­ings in their own fights for self-respect. And oth­er young peo­ple told him that the film helped them under­stand an old­er rel­a­tive and his or her devo­tion to their union.

The online dis­tri­b­u­tion of the film, as well as new avail­abil­i­ty in DVD, should help expand the audi­ence for the film. Sasha Reuther, who now works as direc­tor of a spe­cial unit of CBS News that is research­ing the news chan­nels archives to make bet­ter use of the archival mate­r­i­al it owns in dai­ly or spe­cial pro­gram­ming, says he would like to run the film on PBS. But the sta­tion has long been reluc­tant to run doc­u­men­taries fund­ed to a large degree by unions, as Broth­ers on the Line is, hop­ing to assure inde­pen­dence” — even though many busi­ness-linked fun­ders sup­port oth­er doc­u­men­taries with no difficulty.

Sasha hopes that these insur­gent episodes from the past will awak­en move­ments today, from the Fight for $15 and OUR Wal­mart to grad­u­ate assis­tant orga­niz­ing (some of it being done by the UAW). The creaky sounds and grainy grey images from one of labor’s hero­ic eras may ener­gize yet anoth­er gen­er­a­tion in the fac­to­ries — or ware­hous­es, docks, retail stores and oth­er work­places. Broth­ers and sis­ters on the glob­al com­mod­i­ty chain may find inspi­ra­tion in these ear­li­er broth­ers on the line.

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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