The Book of the Week is “The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor” by Nelson Lichtenstein, published in 1995.
Born in September 1907 in West Virginia, Walter Reuther was of German ancestry, raised Lutheran. He quit high school to learn the tool and die trade. In February 1927, he and a friend moved to Detroit for better pay and hours. He eventually made his way to Ford Motor Company, where he quickly rose through the ranks before the Great Depression hit America.
In the early 1930’s, Ford opened a plant to manufacture its Model “A” in the Soviet Union. Americans who believed in socialism were aware that the Stalin-led Soviet government ruled via one party– the Communist, and was perpetrating human rights abuses. But they liked certain economic aspects of its experimental “Five Year Plan.”
Beginning in early 1933, Walter and his brother Victor bicycled a distance of approximately twelve thousand kilometers during the nine months they were meeting with their European political contacts in various countries. In spring 1933, they were already seeing Fascist oppression in major German cities. In late 1933, they began working in a few Soviet industrial complexes to see labor and political conditions for themselves.
By the late 1930’s, the famine caused by Stalin’s disastrous agricultural-reform program prompted peasant-farmers to go to work in the factories that made steel, cars and tractors. In mid-1934, since they were foreigners and skilled middle-managers (training workers in tool and die making), Walter and Victor were permitted to travel between Stalingrad and Moscow to visit construction projects, collective farms and tractor factories. They were chaperoned by Party bureaucrats. They got special treatment, so perhaps they did not see the abuses suffered by unskilled workers. Their experiences led them to believe that the Soviet system was far less of a police-state than Germany’s.
Walter and Victor wanted to believe so badly in a Soviet workers’ paradise that they rationalized away the serious problems (such as impossible-to-meet production quotas, and reports of fancifully high numbers of vehicles manufactured). In 1934, on supervised tours, the brothers also took a look at labor conditions in China and Japan. October 1935 saw them return to the United States.
On May Day of 1936, in major cities across America, various political groups were speaking in the public square with the goal of unionizing workers; some of them– the Socialists, Proletarian and Communist parties– united to form a Popular Front (the joke in Spain was, “the girl with the Popular Front”).
By the mid-1930’s, the auto industry (which included carmakers, parts suppliers, tool and die makers, etc.) consisted of about a half million union members, thirty thousand of whom were in the United Auto Workers (UAW), a national union. In autumn 1936, Walter became a member of that union’s executive board. He planned and got employees to execute work-stoppages and sit-down strikes in order to get the big automakers like GM, Ford, Chrysler and Dodge to grant collective bargaining rights exclusively to the UAW. Other workplaces such as U.S. Steel were inspired to take such actions, too.
Ford was particularly hostile in its anti-union activities, as it had an in-house security department that spied on workers, fired some, and used violence against photographers. GM took measures to protect against productivity losses by rotating its parts suppliers and building new plants in different locations.
In the late 1930’s, Walter launched propaganda campaigns with the distribution of leaflets, and ran pro-union candidates in local political elections in Midwestern cities. In October 1945, he knew that his UAW workers couldn’t win their strike on just solidarity and militancy. He needed support from other ordinary Americans and the federal government. In January 1946, union workers in a bunch of other industries struck, too; electrical, meatpacking, steel milling, and iron mining.
By the late 1940’s, the power of the unions and corruption in government skyrocketed, so that organized crime used bribery, patronage-contracts and and physical violence in order to rule the “… construction industry, short haul trucking, East Coast longshoring , and the bakery and restaurant trades.”
It is a little-publicized datum that in 1962, president Kennedy granted a cut to all taxpayers that favored corporate America, which also got tax breaks. The rich got richer. That same year, members of the UAW executive board included 21 Caucasians, and one African American, whom they knew wouldn’t buck the status quo.
By then, Walter, a liberal, realized he had been incorrect in thinking that the American labor movement would eliminate discrimination in the workplace when the unions and the economy were strong. But he was still stubborn in insisting on an all-or-nothing egalitarianism. Others of his political ilk, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson were willing to compromise with the Dixiecrats (Southern Democrats who opposed civil-rights legislation) to make a little progress rather than none. The following year, Walter had become more flexible, as he was friendly with JFK and his brother.
In July 1967, the race riots in Detroit resulted in the deaths of 43 people and $250 million in property damage. The mayor, and the governor of Michigan assigned a 39-member panel of leaders and influencers in the community to suggest solutions for quelling hostilities. Various actions were taken; among the major ones:
- throwing money at low-cost housing;
- hiring of black workers at Ford and GM; and
- throwing money at black community groups
but nothing seemed to help. The automakers moved their plants from Detroit to Troy and Dearborn.
Read the book to learn a wealth of additional information on Walter’s trials, tribulations, triumphs, and disputes with the AFL and CIO (unions competing against, and with different views from, the UAW); the growing-pains of the labor movement– how it was affected by: the WWII years (hint– the government ordered it to make war weaponry), political elections, regulation of pricing / wages / production in the steel industry, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War; how and why different automakers’ compensation structures changed, and much more. See this blog’s post “See You In Court” for more information on the pros and cons of unions in America.