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 former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 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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