Reuther story gets new addition

The AFL-CIO has hailed the premier of a new documentary film titled “Brothers on the Line,” being shown at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival July 26-31 in Traverse City, Michigan. Roy, Walter, and Victor Reuther’s part in labor history is to be presented by Victor’s grandson, Sasha Reuther. If it breaks with the long established trend of mythologizing the Reuthers and everything they did, it may make a considerable contribution to understanding the problems of labor today.

I never met Roy or Walter, but I knew Victor in his late life. He was a fine, principled man, though I didn’t always agree with everything he said. He lent his tremendous skills, including most enviable oratorical abilities, to his principles. He was an outstanding speaker, he meant what he said, and he said what he believed, right to the end. I once asked the great Southern tobacco workers organizer, Jim Jackson, what he thought of the Reuther brothers, with whom he had been very familiar. He said, with emphasis, “You can be sure that Victor was by far the best of them!”

Contrary to the myths, the Reuthers did not found the United Auto Workers union. They didn’t organize General Motors. They didn’t personally lead the Flint sit-down strike, even though Victor was famous for his courage there, nor the great organizing upsurge of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO), 1935-1947.

What Walter actually did was red-bait his way to power in the UAW and CIO, put brakes on the militant post-war union uprising, expel the best unionists, extend the 1950s witch-hunt into America’s unions, lead organizing raids against more progressive unions, end some of the CIO’s most progressive programs, compromise with the historically less progressive American Federation of Labor (AFL), and launch several decades of business unionism that carefully avoided any semblance of participation by the ordinary rank and file.

Today’s sincere labor leaders are stuck with the task of trying to overcome those decades of rank and file complacency!

I once had occasion to ask Victor why his brother had taken up the anti-communist torch. Characteristically, he did not shy away from answering. He replied, “Because they had their own agenda, and it was not the same as the union’s.” It’s the usual excuse for red-baiting, but, in my opinion, he was sincerely telling the truth as he understood it.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Victor was probably the worst enemy that the top leaders of the UAW could imagine. He believed that they were short-sighted, too cozy with the companies, making too many concessions, and lax on democracy. He called the UAW a “one-party state,” with little chance for any new leadership not sanctioned by the hierarchy. When the Canadian UAW members decided to split away, Victor congratulated them and spoke at their first convention.

The picture above was taken as Victor and his wonderful wife, Sophie, were watching the vote counting at the 1992 UAW convention in San Diego. A few minutes later, his faction barely lost its last hope of penetrating the UAW leadership.

Not long afterward, Sophie died and Victor went to a senior citizens’ home, where he taught regular classes on labor history, telling the truth as he understood it, until he died seven years ago. If the new documentary shows Victor Reuther’s courage and conviction, it will certainly be worthwhile.

Photo by Jim Lane/PW