Walter Reuther

Sunday Gazette-Mail
January 8, 1967

Walter Reuther

By Don Marsh

Detroit - It is altogether appropriate that Walter Reuther is entering a new year engaged in a controversy.

He is a controversial figure. "The name Reuther attracts lightning like a Franklin rod," observed author William Manchester. "Throwing it into a conversation is like tossing up a baseball bat on a sandlot: people choose up sides over it."

In a lifetime that has seen him rise from a lower middle class neighborhood in Wheeling to become one of America's most influential labor leaders, he has been beaten, shot, threatened and excoriated by extremists of both the right and left.

George Romney, who may be the Republican presidential nominee in 1968, once called him "the most dangerous man in Detroit."

To Nikita Khrushchev he was "the chief lackey of American capitalism." Reuther has amassed such a wealth of detractors that on one occasion he was simultaneously picketed by members of the John Birch Society and the Communist party.

Currently, he and George Meany, the aging but formidable president of the AFL-CIO, are engaged in an increasingly bitter exchange over labor's role in a democratic society.

As behooves a man "whose critics have accused him of almost everything but reticence," most of the public part of the debate has emanated from Reuther's United Auto Workers headquarters here. A few days ago, UAW criticized the parent labor organization for what it said was complacency for clinging to the status quo. The action was unprecedented in the 11 year history of the merger of the AFL and CIO.

"The UAW does have some fundamental differences with the AFL-CIO and the leadership of George Meany," Reuther said to a visitor in his paneled office at Solidarity House.

"This is not a matter of personalities. If this were just a clash between Mr. Meany and myself it wouldn't be worth 10 seconds of anybody's time. What is really involved here is the fundamental question of the role of the labor movement in a free society."

Reuther sees labor as an instrument for improving the lot of everyone, members and nonmembers alike. Another nickel in a pay envelope is only a part of the job and to him it is an increasingly minor part. "The labor movement is the only group in a free society that is committed basically to ethical and moral values that the church is committed to," he said. "Labor's early struggle was about those values in terms of the wage earner and his family. Now what we've go to do is give those values broader currency in terms of the whole community.

"The labor movement has to say something about, do something about, the question of education; it's got to do more about rebuilding our cities and creating the kind of total living environment that is worthy of free men. It's got to deal with the problem of pollution, whether air pollution or water pollution, because this relates to the environment in which man is going to live. It's got to deal with the question of natural resources; it's got to deal with the problem of Social Security. It can't just say, 'Well, we're taking care of ours. We're not concerned about the rest.' It's got to deal, I think, with more courage and compassion with the racial question. I don't think America can ever really be whole until we've solved the racial question.

"It's not enough just to pass a pious resolution. You've got to do something about it. And these are the areas in which I disagree with Mr. Meany. Mr. Meany does something, but never with the kind of commitment I think the labor movement has got to have. I believe the labor movement has to deemphasiize its more narrow economic role, of fighting for wages and hours and working conditions - although that is a continuing responsibility - but it has got to deemphasize that and put more emphasis on the broad needs of the community and become more an instrument for serving the broader community interest. That's philosophically where Mr. Meany and I disagree.

"Now Mr. Meany would say. 'Well, that's not true.' But it's a matter of emphasis. For example, when we had the great march on Washington I was very much involved in it. We called it the National Coalition of Conscience. All the church groups were deeply involved. It was a great moral question. Well, when I urged the movemenit, the AFL-CIO, to officially and formally participate, Mr. Meany opposed me. That's just one illustration.

"I think the labor movement has got to use its special leverage to move the whole community forward and share in the progress it makes. That's philosophical. I wouldn't waste 10 minutes of my life if the labor movement said, 'We just want ours and the public be damned.' I'd just say you go ahead and find yourself somebody who wants to lead a pressure group. I'm not interested. We've, got to make progress with the community and not at the expense of the community."

Reuther says his disagreement with Meany is not an indication that the UAW and its 1.5 million members may withdraw from the AFL-CIO.

"There's no question about that," he said. "We are not even considering it. What we have done is make it clear that we are going to exercise our right to express our views when we think the AFL-CIO is wrong."

Expressing his views when he thinks somebody is wrong is as much a part of Reuther as his red hair or his willingness to address an audience. Where he differs from most of those who ahare his views is in having the mind, the energy and the position to do something about what he thinks is right. Because of his vision of a better America in a better world, and because of the energy he has poured into making the vision a reality, he is the Sunday Gazette-Mail's West Virginian of the Year for 1966.

Reuther is an authentic West Virginian. He was born Sept. 1, 1907, in a red-fronted house in Wheeling's mill section, the second of Valentine and Anna Reuther's five children. He has three brothers: Ted, Roy and Victor, and a sister, Mrs. Eugene Richey, a nurse who lives in Massachusetts. His family shaped him. His grandfather, Jacob Reuther, emigrated to America in 1892 so that his sons would not have to serve in the Prussian Army.

"My grandfather was a very deeply religious man and he influenced my father. I think they were both what you would call Christian Socialists but not Marxist socialists. My father knew nothing about Marxism. To him, Christianity and brotherhood meant working for the good of the whole and putting the good of the whole ahead of one's individual or selfish interests. My father believed that the test of Christian values was whether you lived by them and not whether you just preached them on Sunday. I think it is fair to say that the four Reuther brothers got essentially a philosophical basis for what we're doing and it is built around a kind of broad concept of human brotherhood.

"We got this gospel preached to us that the measure of whether or not you lived a useful life is not determined by the size of your bank account or your ability to amass great material wealth. The real standard is your relationship to your fellow man and your willingness to make a contribution to his well being as well as your own. This was the kind of simple, basic Christian philosophy that we got and in heavy doses."

Valentine Reuther is still active at 86. He and Anna, 84, have lived at Bethlehem, a Wheeling suburb, for the last 40 years.

"I think the boys are doing good work," he said. "They were brought up in a religious home. We never sat down for a meal without saying a prayer and thanking God for his blessing."

One of Mrs. Reuther's memories of Walter as a boy was his desire for a paper route.

"I say you got to go to Sunday school and church first and you can have a paper route if you promise you won't skip. He got up early in the morning, sometimes at 5 o'clock to take care of his business." Walter is prone to let visitors know he had a perfect attendance record at his Lutheran Sunday school for seven years.

Ted - "the white sheep" - is the only brother who did not make labor a career. He is accounting manager at Wheeling Steel Corp., and has worked for the company more than 40 years.

"We used to have family discussions about social issues," he said, "My father was active in labor when we were boys. He was the youngest president of the Ohio Valley Central Labor Federation when he was around 23. Naturally, from this kind of background we learned labor problems."

Walter remembers the discussions. He also remembers singing.

"We used to take turns washing the dishes and we always sang," he said. "My mother and father would join us. They were both born in Germany and we used to sing folk songs in German and English. Sometimes, in the evenings, we'd sit on the porch or in the yard and sing."

The Reuthers were decent, hardworking people, but they were not prosperous. Valentine was earning $1.50 a day as driver of a wagon for Schmulbach brewery. At 16, Walter quit high school to become an apprentice tool and die maker and for three years he worked at Wheeling Steel for 40 cents an hour.

He came to Detroit in 1926 looking, he said, "like I fell off a green apple tree" and hoping for a better job. He talked his way into Ford Motor Co. as a tool and die maker and worked there for nearly seven years.

He continued his education in Michigan, first graduating from high school and then attending Wayne State University for three years. Victor and Roy joined him. In 1933, Roy was fired for union activity. He and Victor drew about $600 in savings from a bank a few days before it closed and started on a trip that was to take them around the world. For 18 months they worked in an automobile plant Ford had built at Gorki in Russia. The experience convinced their critics they were, at best, Communist sympathizers.

Reuther says it convinced him of the danger of totalitarianism. When Khrushchev visited the United States, Reuther arranged a meeting for him with labor leaders. A bareknuckle discussion took place.

"He asked me, 'How come I get along beautifully with the bankers and businessmen and you're challenging me?' I said, 'Well, it's because we know you better. We know why communism is dangerous and why we've get to fight it. It was after Mr. Khrushchev went back that he said I'm the chief lackey of American capitalism."

Walter and Victor returned to Detroit in 1935 and threw themselves into the labor movement. It was a time of vast social change. The late Rabbi Morris Adler said the yearning for a union was almost "a secular religion." Reuther said he felt "a sense of little people marching." He was a founder and first president of UAW local 174. He attended his first UAW convention with $5, the local's entire treasury. He hitchhiked to South Bend, shared a room with five other delegates and lived on hamburgers.

In 1936, he met May Wolf,a Detroit school teacher. When he learned she was organizing other teachers on the sly, a romance developed. They were married after a three months courtship. Mrs. Reuther quit her $60 a month teaching job and went to work as her husband's secretary at a monthly salary of $15. She endorsed her check to the union.

"I never knew people to eat less," she recalled. "I was so thin the mattress hurt my hips."

Walter became a leader of sitdown strikes, a UAW perfected technique. In 1937, he and other union men were beaten by toughs employed by Ford Motor Co. In 1938, two armed men attempted to kidnap him. Unknown to the assailants, the Reuthers were entertaining friends at a birthday party for Mrs. Victor Reuther. The presence of the unexpected guests frustrated the kidnaping attempt but not before one of the intruders said, "Let's just plug him here."

In 1939, he led a strike against General Motors that established UAW as bargaining agent for the corporation's employes. For several years, he was in charge of the General Motors department of UAW. In March, 1946, he was elected president of UAW. After a two year struggle, he won control of the union from elements he said were Communists. (The union's executive board, which was in enemy hands, petitioned congress to change the name of the Taft-Hartley Act to the Taft- Hartley-Reuther-Act. It was a trying period.)

Reuther scored an almost complete victory at the 1948 convention. He was re-elected president and his slate won 18 of 22 board seats. The victory was very nearly hollow. On the night of April 20, 1948, as he stood in the kitchen of his apartment, someone fired a 10 gauge shotgun through his window. His right arm was almost severed and he nearly died. A year and a month later, Victor Reuther was wounded as he sat in his front room. A pellet destroyed his right eye. Victor was philosophical.

"It's a good thing they didn't shoot out my tongue. I couldn't make a living."

The attacks caused major changes in Walter Reuther's life. He had carried a gun since the thugs invaded his apartment. Now the union supplied him with bodyguards and a bulletproof car. He moved his family into an isolated house about 25 miles from his office. Armed guards and watchdogs patroled a fence surrounding his property. Walter rebuilt the house himself. Originally it was a one room cottage. He did the work partly because he can't bear sitting still, partly as therapy for his injured arm. Doctors told him the wound might cause his right hand to become a claw. They were wrong. His right hand and arm are smaller than his left but they are functional.

"My wife and two daughters ate sawdust for a long time," he said.

Despite fears for his personal safety, and his worry about his family, he never considered quitting. His mother remembers sitting at his bedside and begging him to do something else.

"He could make a good living writing or speaking," she said. "I told him: 'Walter, please quit.' He said no. Even his wife, she calls me 'grandma,' said 'He can't do that.' I knew he couldn't but he was in such terrible pain."

Reuther became a national figure during this time. Always politically active, he became a leader of the liberal wing of the Democratic party, supporting, in turn, Roosevelt, Truman, Stevenson, Kennedy and Johnson. His identification with the party's liberal element - indeed, as almost its spokesman - caused him unexpected problems. The right wing, remembering his visit to Russia, accused him of planning to overthrow democratic institutions.

"I am in the unique position in American life where I am the hate man for the right wing and the hate man for the Communists all at the same time," he said. "It never bothered me. I don't think it is difficult to understand because both extremes always converge against the democratic middle. The Communists supported Hitler's rise to power. The extremes converge against the democratic middle because both are really in opposition to the democratic process. They are motivated by different values in their political behavior but their technique is the same.

"Why do Communists think I'm dangerous and why does the right wing think I'm dangerous? It's because I'm committed, I think, to basically trying to find a way to make our free society responsive to human needs and only as we make it more responsive can we make it work and succeed. And to the extent we make it succeed, we frustrate their hopes and their plans. The John Birch Society is really a kind of fifth column for the Communists and the Communists are really a kind of fifth column for the John Birch Society. They'd die if you tried to make them believe this but these are the facts of history - the extreme forces in any situation always converge against the middle."

Reuther is not a socialist. Neither is he an uncritical admirer of free enterprise. He believes in what he calls an economic mix. That is, free enterprise - "the market place" - should be given the opportunity and incentive for doing what it does best, as building automobiles. In other areas, such as education and housing, he feels that government and individuals have a role to play.

"I'm interested in providing all the incentives and all the encouragement to the market place but, having done that, there are unmet needs that society just can't turn its back on. And here again I don't go from the private sector to the government in one jump.

"There's an in-between area where I want to create nonprofit corporations in which individuals can work together to build bridges between the private sector and the government sector. I don't think any bureaucrat in Washington has all the answers and so it's a constant effort to create new social instruments to do these new jobs. "I'm always coming up with new ideas and that's why I'm a dangerous man I suppose. Well, if the price of leadership is your willingness to have bricks thrown at you, then I'm perfectly willing to have them thrown. I hope they're thrown at me for the right reasons from my point of view."

Reuther does have new ideas. At the moment, he is chairman of a citizens committee that is seeking to rebuild the core of Detroit. He is chairman of another committee that is seeking to improve techniques in the war on poverty. He is preparing a suggestion for Congress on how to improve Social Security benefits and he is interested in creating a technical committee to study the problems of house building and how to overcome them with modern technology.

"If we still built cars the way they build houses there would be only a handful of auto workers because there would be only a handful of people who could afford automobiles. An automobile would cost maybe $50,000 or $60,000."

Reuther's principal argument is that while everyone may not be created equal, everyone should have the right to develop his potential to the fullest.

"The limiting factor should be the individual's capacity, not an economic barrier."

He is searching hard for ways organized labor can help with development. That's the main reason he thinks union leaders who limit themselves to bread and butter issues affecting their members are mistaken. (Although UAW has no apologies on that score. Henry Ford recently observed that his company once made history by instituting the $5 day. "Now we're near the $5 hour.)

Reuther says the UAW has never asked for anything that would cause higher prices. In fact, he thinks that consumers should share equally with labor and management in profits caused by increased productivity.

At 59, he is as brisk, as articulate and as filled with zest as he's always been. William Manchester, the man who is writing the book about President Kennedy, found him different from other men "because his appetites are different."

Manchester's view is that Reuther finds in ideas "the exhilaration others get from cronies, liquor or tobacco, none of which appeals to him." Another man said of Reuther, "Ask Walter the time and he will tell you how to make a watch."

Murray Kempton, the newspaper columnist, said Reuther was the only man he knew who could reminesce [sic] about the future.

Reuther is something of an ascetic. He does not believe that labor leaders should be conspicuous consumers. His annual salary was raised to $28,000 over his protest. The principal reason was to permit the upper echelon of the union's staff to receive pay increases. Their salaries are prorate with his. He drives an Oldsmobile when he is on business. His personal car is a Valiant.

He never drank or smoke, he said, not for religious reasons but because he was something of an athlete when he was young and he never picked up the habits.

"I was a good basketball player although I was never very tall (5 feet 8 1/2 inches). I played center. I look at those guys now and say to myself, 'Where did they come from? I don't recall they were that tall when I played." His weight, which is between 158 and 160, had not varied for 20 years.

The three brothers are still together although Roy and Victor are more often in Washington than in Detroit. No one has accused the Reuthers of nepotism. Walter was the last member of the family to be paid by UAW. His daughters are grown now. One is teaching school. The other is a college student.

Reuther's life has been unusually successfull [sic] but it has had its frustrations. Many felt he wanted to be president of the AFL-CIO. It is unlikely he ever will be, certainly not if Meany has anything to say about it. He is as bouncy as ever but 59 is 59. A rule that he pushed through requires UAW officers to retire when they are 65. He may not be UAW president in six years, but, somehow, it is impossible to envision him in the role of retiree.

No matter what happens next, Reuther says he is satisfied.

"If you can leave behind you a world in which the human family has made some progress so that each new person will have a chance to achieve a sense of growth and fulfillment, the knowledge that you have made some small contribution toward making that possible is, I think, truly rewarding. Now obviously I think you ought to have enough income so that your kids can get the things they need, an education and so forth, but beyond that, what does one need? I sit with the wealthiest men in the world. I have respect for them. I think they have respect for me. But they are motivated, I think, by different things than I'm motivated by. I don't for one second get jealous of the fact that they've got $100 million and I've got considerably less than $1 million. They are motivated by what they choose to do with their lives and I'm motivated by what I choose to do with my life. But I do believe they are the poorer."


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