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Walter Reuther's German immigrant father was a socialist, pacifist and labor leader who did not wish his sons to fight in the Prussian Army, which is why he came to the United States in 1892. He brought up his sons in the socialist-labor tradition, and the entire family supported Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas in the years 1900-32. During the Great Depression, Walter and Victor Reuther traveled the world for three years. They were in Germany in 1933 when the Nazis took over and witnessed first hand the suppression of the labor and left-wing movements there, as well as the attraction some of their own relatives felt for Hitler and the Nazi regime. In 1933-35, the lived in the Soviet Union as "well-paid" foreign workers for ford, and unlike most Russians were allowed to travel freely around the country (Carew 1993, p. 12). After visiting Japan, the returned to the United States and became organizers for the new United Auto Workers in Detroit, and remained with that organization for the rest of their lives. Walter Reuther was quite a radical figure during the 1930s and 1940s, and even imagined a socialist America in which the labor movement managed industry. During the Cold War years, however, he seemed to be a more conservative and establishment figure, especially in the 1950s, although in the next decade he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements and again began making radical criticisms of American society and its foreign policy/. In fact, this may well have led to his death in 1970, although there had also been attempts to assassinate him in the past, especially in his younger years.
Walter Reuther was killed in a plane crash on May 9, 1970 under peculiar circumstances in which the National Transportation Safety Board found that the control instruments had probably been tampered with. Walter and Victor Reuther had been in a similar crash in Washington in October 1968 in which the altimeter malfunctioned. Victor was always certain that both of these crashes were "not accidental" (Parenti 1996, p. 193). Both Reuther brothers, especially Victor, were always on the Left of the Democratic Party and concerned themselves and the UAW with a wide variety of domestic and international political issues. They were "militant, incorruptible, and dedicated to both the rank-and-file and a broad class agenda" (Parenti, p. 193). When they visited the Soviet Union in 1933-35, the FBI circulated a forged letter with the line "Carry on the fight for a Soviet America," which they never wrote. When they organized the sit-down strikes against the auto industry in 1937-41, they were often targeted for violence by Henry Ford and his security chief Harry Bennett. In May 1937, Reuther and other UAW organizers were attacked by Bennett's goon squad, and beaten up and thrown down several flights "while the police stood by doing nothing" (Parenti, p. 194). In April 1938, two men who had been employed by Bennett tried to abduct Walter Reuther from his house, and were later acquitted by a jury controlled by the Ford interests. Ten years later, someone fired a shotgun through his kitchen window and "he suffered chest and arm wounds and never recovered the full use of his right arm and hand" (Parenti, p. 195). In 1949, the Detroit police made threatening phone calls to Victor, and shortly afterward he was shot in the head, losing his right eye. There were no serious police or FBI investigations of any of these crimes.
Given the causes that Walter Reuther supported, he made many powerful enemies over the years. He was an early backer of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, for example, and the UAW provided considerable financial assistance to these efforts in the 1950s and 1960s. He "pioneered a variety of innovative programs, including employer-funded health and pension plans, cost-of-living allowances, and a guaranteed annual wage," and favored national health insurance, public housing, nationalization of monopolies and redistribution of wealth (Parenti, p. 197). Reuther was one of the strongest advocates of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and after 1968 became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Big business interests, Southern racists, Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover all had good reason to hate and fear Reuther, who was also a political ally of John and Robert Kennedy. His union improved the lives of workers and "and enhanced their sense of humanity as they created, participated in and controlled a powerful, effective, democratic organization" (Barnard 2004, p. 1). Hoover always believed he was a Communist and spent forty years trying to collect damaging information "using undercover informants and illegal bugging equipment" (Parenti, p. 198). At the very least, Hoover accused the Reuther brothers of attempting to lead the U.S. In a "Fabian socialist" direction, which in his mind was hardly any different from Communism (Carew, p. 86). Barry Goldwater, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce frequently made similar charges, at least in the days when the UAW was a real political power. As late as 2006, conservative writers like Karl Tobien were still charging that Reuther had been a Communist Party agent even before he visited Russia in 1933 and that "his sympathetic views toward Communism and socialism are well-known and documented" (Tobien 2006).
Joseph Rauh, a close friend of Reuther's and a leading UAW attorney, prepared a secret report for the Kennedys warning that radical Right elements had infiltrated the military and intelligence agencies and were a potential danger to democracy in America. Moreover, it found that Hoover had basically turned a blind eye to all this and refused to take any action against these groups. Reuther disagreed with the conservative George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO from 1955, on many levels, particularly for allying with the CIA and taking government funds to "bolster conservative, anticommunist unions in other countries" (Parenti, p. 200). He withdrew the UAW from the AFL-CIO in 1968 and allied with the Teamsters Union, becoming a leading opponent of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War, as well as the whole military budget and aggressive foreign policy of the United States. A few months before his death in 1970, the Nixon White House requested his FBI file, for reasons that have never been explained. Victor Reuther believed his brother had been assassinated, and was highly suspicious that Nixon, Hoover and "right-wing corporate groups" had arranged it. From the 1960s onward, there was a common suspicion that the deaths of JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Reuther and other liberal-left leaders may well have been "part of a broader agenda to decapitate and demoralize the mass movements of the day" (Parenti, p. 206).
On the other and, Walter Reuther also said in 1966 that the UAW and organized labor had become part of the American Establishment, which had definitely not been the case thirty years before and would not be thirty years later. On in the relatively brief period from 1945-75 had labor been truly cheated as least a junior partner of the ruling elite, perhaps too much so for Reuther towards the end of his life. Countercultural and New Left radicals in the 1960s certainly regarded Reuther as an Establishment figure who had never even formed a labor party when he had the chance and often "charged him with hypocrisy and opportunism" (Lichtensten 1996, p. xi). He had been more radical in the 1930s and 1940s, even insisting on nationalization of the auto industry with labor being given a share of the management, but these idealistic visions faded during the Cold War and Reuther accommodated himself to improving wages, benefits and working conditions rather than a broader agenda of restructuring the American capitalist system. In the 1950s, he denied that he still believed in socialism at all and asserted that "government should take on only those projects that industry can't do" (Carew, p. 85). By the 1960s, American capitalism was in its "high noon," with a full employment economy fueled by Vietnam, the space program and government Keynesian policies, while wages and profits were higher than at any time since 1945 (Lichtenstein, p. 346). Although largely forgotten today, there were more wildcat strikes and work stoppages in 1964-73 than at any time since 1946, as workers defied their union leadership and sought to maximize their gains during the great boom.
Auto industry profits were higher in the 1960s than ever before, and virtually no one as yet suspected that the oil shocks and surge in imports in the 1970s and 1980s would nearly destroy the American car companies. Unlike Western Europe, the U.S. had a very limited welfare state, with medical care and retirement benefits tied to union contracts -- which after all had been negotiated by men like Reuther. These had brought a generation of labor peace, though the Treaty of Detroit and similar agreements, but had also placed an "enormous burden" on collective bargaining (Lichtenstein, p. 347). Within this social democratic consensus, the function of the midcentury Democratic Party…[continue]
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