President Franklin D. Roosevelt was impressed by Reuther’s aircraft proposal, which complemented his Arsenal of Democracy programs. Reuther gained a reputation for creative ideas and Roosevelt frequently consulted with his "young red-headed engineer" on wartime production problems. Reuther turned down an appointment with the high-profile War Productions Board to stay with the labor movement.
Walter Reuther was recognized as a labor leader of national stature when he led a strike against General Motors at the end of 1945. Autoworkers had seen their buying power erode during the war and Reuther demanded a 30 percent pay increase. He claimed GM could grant the pay hike without increasing car prices and challenged the corporation to open its books to prove it. The UAW and GM reached a compromise without opening the corporation’s books, but Reuther often returned to the theme that automakers had obligations beyond making money for their stockholders. They also had a duty to their employees and, ultimately, the American public.
After Reuther was elected president of the UAW in 1946, he began to guide the union down a new path and pledged to work for "a labor movement whose philosophy demands that it fight for the welfare of the public at large." Under his leadership, UAW members won unprecedented benefits, including enhanced job security, cost-of-living adjustments, vacations and health-care insurance. Supplemental unemployment benefits (SUB), introduced in 1955, helped to ease the economic pain caused by the cyclical nature of auto work. With SUB, workers on layoff continued to receive a paycheck, which equaled 95 percent of their regular take-home pay. Reuther hailed SUB as "the first time in the history of collective bargaining [that] great corporations agreed to begin to accept responsibility" for their workers during layoff.
None of the gains enjoyed by unionized autoworkers came without struggle. Strikes once again became a familiar part of the landscape during the Reuther era. A 1949 strike at Ford established the union’s right to have a voice in the speed of the assembly line. It took a hundred-day strike at Chrysler in 1950 to gain autoworkers a pension plan.
Reuther’s drive to change the nature of work in the auto industry resulted in strong and steady opposition. Future Michigan Governor George Romney, then with the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, called Reuther "the most dangerous man in Detroit" for the labor leader’s skill in "bringing about...revolution without seeming to disturb the existing...society." Ironically, the left wing of the UAW characterized Reuther as the "boss’s boy," ready to do the Big Three’s bidding.
There was also more sinister resistance. In 1938 gunmen barged into Walter Reuther’s apartment in an attempt to kidnap and murder the labor leader. The criminals were thwarted by the presence of a small group of Reuther friends and relatives. On April 20, 1948, Reuther returned home late, as he often did, from meetings at UAW headquarters. While eating a warmed-over dinner in his kitchen, he turned to answer a question from his wife, May. At that moment gunfire erupted and he was felled by a shotgun blast to his right arm. Had Reuther not turned, the shots would have killed him. Reuther’s assailants were never caught. Allegedly they had been hired by gangsters concerned about organizing attempts at the mob-dominated Michigan Stove Works. Reuther eventually regained limited mobility of his severely damaged arm but it pained him for the rest of his life.
Walter Reuther reached the height of national labor leadership in 1952 when he was elected president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO had originally been set up within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to organize mass-production industries such as automobile, rubber and steel. Under the leadership of John L. Lewis, the CIO split from the conservative AFL in 1937. Reuther, however, worked to negotiate a re-merger with the group, and in 1955 AFL President George Meany became the head of the new AFL-CIO. Over time Meany’s conservative leadership frustrated Reuther. "The AFL-CIO lacks the social vision, the dynamic thrust, the crusading spirit that should characterize the progressive modern labor movement," he said in 1966. Two years later Reuther withdrew the UAW from the AFL-CIO.