Victor Reuther


VOL. 114 NO. 2


When Victor Reuther died on June 3, at age 92, John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, eulogized him as "one of the most imposing and inspirational figures in the developmental years of the labor movement...." Reuther, he said, "ranks among our movement's heroes."

Sweeney also alluded to the sit-down strikes of 1936 -- 1937 to embellish his tribute to the last of the three Reuther brothers. The sit-down strikes caused General Motors, and eventually the entire auto industry, to accept the United Auto Workers Union as the exclusive bargaining agent for autoworkers. "Together with his brothers, Walter and Roy, he [Victor] built the UAW into a powerful force for social good," Sweeney said.

Ron Gettelfinger, president of the UAW, was no less effusive. "The entire UAW community is saddened by the loss of Victor Reuther, a pioneer of our union whose passion for social justice and talent as an orator energized and mobilized early sit-down strikers," he said.

Conspicuous by their absence, however, were tributes from such ruling-class sources as the president of the United States and the WALL STREET JOURNAL to match those given to Victor Reuther's older brother, Walter, 34 years ago.

When Walter Reuther died in an airplane crash in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon described his death as "a deep loss not only for organized labor but also for the cause of collective bargaining and the entire American process." President George W. Bush, however, had nothing similar to say about Victor Reuther, at least nothing that was appropriate for posting on the White House Web site.

THE NEW YORK TIMES and the WALL STREET JOURNAL did take notice of Victor Reuther's passing, as did the DETROIT FREE PRESS, the LOS ANGELES TIMES and many other news outlets. Most confined themselves to obituaries that highlighted details of his life, but none of these approached the tribute the WALL STREET JOURNAL had paid to brother Walter.

"At a time when many liberals were disenchanted with the labor movement," the JOURNAL lamented after the former UAW president's fatal plane crash, "the United Auto Workers president was a symbol of enlightened unionism and social activism that's not easily replaced."

Why the capitalist press did not dwell on Victor Reuther's passing as it had on his older brother may be explained by its preoccupation with the passing of former president Ronald Reagan; or it may be explained by the weakened condition of the so-called labor movement of today.

The reason for the Sweeney and Gettelfinger tributes to Victor Reuther may, on the other hand, may SEEM obvious to those whose understanding of American labor union history is founded on myth. One such myth surrounded the Reuther brothers' role in the sit-down strikes 67 years ago. Victor and Walter Reuther in particular were regarded as excellent orators, and both were UAW organizers when the most important of the auto sit-down strikes occurred in 1936 -- 1937. Their presence on the scene is indisputable, but their role in "organizing" and "leading" the workers who staged the strikes is not.

In truth, the sit-down strikes were spontaneous actions taken by desperate workers whose collective intelligence and class instincts led them to adopt what, to them, was a new tactic. No one "organized" them and no one "led" them. Other workers, in Europe, in the rubber plants of Ohio and in smaller auto parts plants in Michigan, already had tried them with some success. The autoworkers were disgusted with the ineffectual American Federation of Labor, and the newly organized Congress of Industrial Organizations was fully prepared to take advantage of their rival's discomfiture and the workers' discontent.

General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and the other major auto-producing companies of the period, were fiercely determined to keep the unions out of their largest assembly plants. It was a tumultuous time, however, with the country locked in the depths of the Great Depression and the ruling class having good reason to fear that working-class discontent would mature and grow into something more ominous for them than simple trades union demands for better wages and working conditions. Alfred M. Sloane, president of General Motors, demonstrated his understanding of the larger issues and stakes involved in the sit-down strikes. In January 1937, when workers were occupying GM's Fisher 2 plant in Flint, he placed a full-page advertisement in Detroit area newspapers in which he asked: "Will a labor organization run the plants off General Motors Corporation or will the management continue to do so?"

Some workers also understood the implications staying put inside the production plants, rather than onto the streets where they would be vulnerable to attack by company goons, scabs, police and the National Guard. The leadership of the UAW and the CIO also understood the situation. At one point, CIO President John L. Lewis blustered about joining workers at the plant to die fighting off the National Guard that the state's governor had deployed at the insistence of the auto companies. What he was after, however, was "recognition" of the UAW-CIO and a "collective bargaining" agreement with GM and the other auto-making companies.

The stakes were high and the companies did not flinch at violence. The Reuther brothers were young organizers sent in by the UAW to take charge of the strike. "On Jan. 11, 1937," according to the DETROIT NEWS, "the Reuther brothers organized a sit-down strike at the GM Fisher 2 plant in Flint. After a pitched three-hour battle with police, in which strikers were gassed and shot with buckshot, the workers routed the police with water hoses and make-shift industrial-sized slingshots, hurling two-pound metal hinges...."

Perceptive readers may stop to ask: "What's wrong with this picture?" The answer, of course, is that the battle did not take place INSIDE the plant where the sit-down strike was on, but OUTSIDE -- and that's where the Reuther brothers were. The "Battle of the Overpass," as the DETROIT NEWS called it, took place all right, and Walter Reuther subsequently received a severe beating at the hands of company stooges and scabs, but that had nothing to do with ORGANIZING or LEADING the sit-down at GM Fisher 2.

Truth is that despite John L. Lewis' blustering, the leadership of the UAW-CIO OPPOSED the sit-downs because they alienated the companies and complicated rather than helped UAW-CIO efforts to lead GM to the bargaining table. Homer Martin, UAW president at the time, made this clear in January 1937 when the "Battle of the Overpass" occurred, when he said: "We have never given anybody orders to sit down." Truth is that Victor Reuther and his brothers were UAW organizers sent in to take charge of the strike by leading workers into channels that the UAW-CIO leadership regarded as more constructive. The Reuther brothers failed at that. What brought the automakers to heel was the knowledge that the only way to dislodge the workers was to send the National Guard into the plants. A major bloodbath seemed to be in the offing, but the possible consequences such a massacre would have for the auto capitalists and their precious system posed a risk that was too big to take.

The sit-down strikes were "successful" in two important respects. They forced the auto industry to recognize the UAW as the "bargaining agent" for auto industry workers, which was the end all and be all of what the UAW and the CIO were after. That, in turn, gave the U.S. Supreme Court the "courage" to outlaw sit-down strikes as a "high-handed proceeding, without shadow of legal right." In short, the sit-down strikes were intolerable violations of capitalist private property rights, and with the tacit if not explicit consent of the CIO and UAW, the court mustered up the nerve to deprive workers of an important and effective tactic in their struggles with capital.

The UAW-CIO "leadership" quietly accepted this, and Victor and his brothers went on to lead the UAW down the, to capitalists, acceptable path of "collective bargaining." Hence, the capitalist accolades for Walter Reuther 34 years ago. Hence, the tributes paid to Victor Reuther by John Sweeney and Ron Gettelfinger. Hence, the deplorable condition the labor movement finds itself in today and why it must be rebuilt, from the ground up.

Victor Reuther and his brothers were men of unquestionable personal courage. Victor and Walter Reuther in particular suffered greatly from the brutal beatings they received during the sit-down strikes, and both survived attempts at assassination in later years.

We may readily concede that the three brothers were sincere and honest men at the time of the sit-down strikes, and perhaps until the end of their lives. They understood from first-hand experience just how ruthless capitalism could be.

Ultimately, however, they were reform-minded men whose activities during and after the sit-down strikes betrayed a fundamental lack of faith in the working class. They were self-professed "social democrats" who understood the fact of the class struggle, but who nonetheless rejected the revolutionary objectives of the socialist movement. These are facts, and it takes nothing away from their reputations as courageous men to recognize that, in the end, they accepted capitalism and rejected the underlying logic of a genuine labor movement.