Reuther made sure that the workers enjoyed economic benefits as well as job security, pensions, vacations, and most important of all supplemental unemployment benefits. He was successful in the campaign for wage increase. Reuther managed to bargain for a great wage for workers at GM in 1948. He managed an accord where GM had to increase annual wages per annum and had it tied up to a cost of living allowance. This is one reason why the working and living standards of workers were improved. He also pressed for workers early retirement. According to him, workers should be retired after 30 years of service. It is sad that the current generation takes these benefits for granted.
They benefited from healthcare programs, profit sharing, severance pay, plans for legal assistance, increment in vacation time, holidays and rest time. They were also given profit sharing benefits too.
Supplemental unemployment benefits were implemented so that a worker could receive most of his income during a layoff. Reuther managed to rejuvenate the auto industry. It was known as a high risk industry earlier. However after Reuther came on board the labor union, the auto industry was changed from an insecure low wage job to a well paying and secure job. It wasn't easy to achieve all these goals. There were a lot of struggles during his tenure. A lot of strikes were observed in the industry.
Reuther was loathed by the auto industry due to his work in the labor union. He received a lot of threats in his life. Reuther was nearly kidnapped and killed by gunmen in 1938. He was not so lucky when he was shot in the arm in 1948. This left his right arm immobilized for the rest of his life.
The height of his powers came when he was elected as the president of the congress of industrial organizations in 1952. He then proposed a merger with the American federation of labor. The deal was finally completed in 1955. However this merger did not last for long. The AFL was headed by George Meany while Reuther took on as the head of the industrial union department. Reuther did not agree with Meany's conservative leadership and policies. This led to Reuther withdrawing the UAW from the AFL-CIO in 1968.
According to Vanessa Tait Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor From Below, Reuther challenged Meany to call a special convention so that the UAW could unveil its agenda for revitalizing the labor movement. The AFL-CIO refused to follow his instructions. That was when UAW decided to distance itself from the AFL-CIO. She further goes on to write that the UAW formed the ALA and invited other unions to help organize millions of unorganized workers. They were also to help the poor and unemployed.
Besides being an advisor to the presidents, he was also a leader in the Democratic Party. He was a staunch supporter of the civil rights and liberties program. Reuther also believed that social security benefits should be tied to the worker's pensions. He proposed that if the amount of social security payment were higher then the auto companies had less to contribute. This was a very successful proposal as congress passed the first social security increase in 12 years. It improved the economic prospects of millions of people who were not connected to the union.
Walter Reuther was a supporter of the civil rights movement. He was a friend of DR Martin Luther king junior. He was often seen marching with civil rights activists. He even used the UAW to proved funding for the freedom marches in Detroit and Washington in 1963. Reuther also provided great funding for the United Farm Workers.
Reuther knew that the labor situation was not so great internationally. He set up ties with multiple organizations worldwide. Reuther even traveled to a lot of countries so he could meet representatives of their unions. He founded the international confederation of Free Trade Unions. The UAW was made an affiliate of that. In a way Reuther managed to globalize the labor movement and bring them closer.
Reuther was a strong advocate for worker education. He announced the construction of a worker center in the 1960s. This would provide workers with union education and provide their families with a recreational spot. However Reuther and his wife were killed in an air crash on way to the center on May 9, 1970. The cause of the plane crash was never known.
According to Carroll Thompson, a dialogue was held between Reuther and G.M. leader Harry Coen during the 1946 wage negotiations:
Reuther: I think when monopolies like the aluminum industry, owned 85 per cent nowadays, and magnesium, when the monopolies jeopardize the safety of the country, they can no longer be trusted in private hands to use them for a profit. That is my private philosophy.
Coen: It colors all your thinking.... You can't talk about this thing without exposing your socialistic desires.
Reuther: If fighting for a more equal and equitable distribution of the wealth of this country is socialistic; I stand guilty of being a socialist."
According to Carroll Thompson, Another interesting exchange of words took place when Reuther asked GM for a wage increase without increasing the cost of the cars. This is what he had to say
We are convinced," he declared, "as a result of our arithmetic, based on published facts about the auto industry, about General Motors' past performance, about costs, prices, profits and the certainty of a market for capacity production for the next three years, that General Motors should and can pay 30 per cent higher wage rates without increasing prices and at the same time make profits higher than the prewar level."
Thompson says that when General Motors' protested Reuther replied simply: "Open the books."
According to Thompson, Reuther explained to a government fact-find board that:
We have made the fight... To get the company's books and records not because we want to indulge in the pleasure of going through their books.... But the company wouldn't take up the challenge and wouldn't argue the facts, so the only way we could meet that problem is to say "Open the books" because we knew that if they did open the books the figures and the arithmetic would confirm the union's economic conclusions."
Reuther made this speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (28th August, 1963) (Walter Reuther by Lichestein)
I am here today with you because with you I share the view that the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for equal opportunity is not the struggle of Negro Americans but the struggle for every American to join in.
For 100 years the Negro people have searched for first-class citizenship and I believe that they cannot and should not wait until some distant tomorrow. They should demand freedom now. Here and now.
It is the responsibility of every American to share the impatience of the Negro American. And we need to join together, to march together, and to work together until we have bridged the moral gap between American democracy's noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights. American democracy has been too long on pious platitudes and too short on practical performances in this important area."
Walter Reuther was a man ahead of his time. He was a man of great vision. The labor unions should be grateful that he has left behind a great legacy. He shaped up the labor unions in the state they are today. It is unfortunate that a lot of them don't realize how difficult it was back then. Reuther's hard work and struggle has made life easier for them. There are a lot of benefits they receive. There were a lot of problems in the beginning. There were also problems with the other trade unions. However matters got resolved in the end. Not only was he a man of courage and wisdom, but he was a man with great integrity and style. He was one of the few rare white people who believed in equality amongst all races. There shall never be a man like him to be born again in this world. It is sad that he departed from this world before he managed to accomplish all his goals.
Walter Reuther:greatest men of this century, Irving Bluestone, Time Magazine, 2000
From the Ashes of the Old, Chapter 1, Stanley Aronowitz,1998
The most dangerous man in Detroit:Walter Reuther, Nelson Lichtenstein, 1995
30 Years Later: Remembering the Big Marches, Ebony, 1993 the making of union democracy, social forces, 1997