The Life of Walter Reuther
By Thomas Featherstone
Walter Reuther is often remembered as the most accomplished leader in the history of the American labor movement. A man of character, resolve and boundless energy, he sought to level the playing field for American workers. Through his efforts, millions of working families continue to enjoy a more secure future.
Reuther was ambitious, but took pride in being the nation’s lowest-paid union president. As head of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from 1946 to 1970, he held enormous economic power, but used it to better the lives of the union rank and file. As an advisor to four American presidents Reuther had political influence, but applied it on behalf of the disadvantaged. He spoke and lived his guiding philosophy: "There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to do it well."
The second of five children, Reuther was born on September 1, 1907, in Wheeling, West Virginia. He learned about social issues in family debates moderated by his father, Valentine, an active member in the Brewery Workers union. Walter Reuther recalled, "At my father’s knee we learned the philosophy of trade unionism. We got the struggles, the hopes and the aspirations of working people every day." The younger Reuther developed a commitment to address social problems through union and political action.
After an apprenticeship in tool-and-die work, Reuther left Wheeling in 1927 to find work in Detroit’s booming automobile industry and was joined later by his younger brother, Victor. A skilled worker, Walter easily found employment and eventually oversaw a team of die makers for Ford Motor Company. He characterized the industry at that time as a "social jungle" in which workers were "nameless, faceless clock numbers."
In 1932 Walter was fired because of his campaign work for Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas. The following year, Walter and Victor started out on a world tour, hoping to work at the Soviet Union’s Gorky automobile factory, which had been equipped by Henry Ford. While waiting for Soviet visas, the brothers stayed with relatives in Germany and learned firsthand of the Nazi domination of their parents’ homeland.
Once in the Soviet Union, the brothers and other foreign workers trained Russians in tool-and-die work at the Gorky plant. During their year at the factory, the Reuther brothers were impressed by Soviet industrial achievements. "We are seeing the most backward nation in the world being rapidly transformed into the most modern and scientific," Walter wrote in a letter to a friend. At the same time, he also became aware of the purges and repression under Stalin’s totalitarian regime.