Walter Reuther was one of the most prominent labor movement figures of the 20th century, leading the United Automobile Workers union for decades.
Born on on September 1, 1907, in Wheeling, West Virginia, tool-and-die tradesman Walter Reuther traveled internationally before taking up leadership roles with the Automobile Workers Union, going on to head the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He became a major figure for workers' rights, winning substantial, revolutionary reforms for UAW members. He died on May 9, 1970, in a plane crash in Pellston, Michigan.
Background and Activism
Walter Philip Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, on September 1, 1907, to Anna Stocker and Valentine Reuther. His father was a unionist and socialist, and the young Reuther was inspired by the ideas shared. Taking up the tool-and-die trade, Reuther eventually moved to Detroit to work for the Ford Motor Company in the 1920s, also becoming involved in campus activism at Detroit City College with siblings Victor and Roy.
He subsequently traveled through Europe with Victor, including an extended stay working in the Soviet Union. He later became notably anti-Communist in his ideology. After Reuther's return to Detroit, he wed fellow activist May Wolf in 1936, with the couple going on to have two daughters.
Reuther took on leadership positions for the local United Automobile Workers chapter, eventually running the General Motors department of the organization by the end of the decade. In 1946 he became president of UAW and several years later won election to head the Congress of Industrial Organizations. A fierce orator, Reuther led strikes against Ford and General Motor and was instrumental in much of the major, humanistic reforms made for UAW members, such as health insurance, pensions and job security adjustments.
Attacks and AFL-CIO Merger
Reuther stayed the course in his vision, though union members were faced with violence as seen in 1937's "Battle of the Overpass," when organizers were beat down by Ford-backed personnel for handing out fliers. Reuther faced attempts on his life as well, with his arm severely damaged after a failed assassination plot in 1948. Victor was hurt badly from a later attack as well.
In 1955, the American Federation of Labor merged with the CIO; George Meany headed the new organization, with Reuther second in command. The two had highly antagonistic viewpoints, and Reuther and the UAW left the AFL-CIO in 1968. He subsequently formed the Alliance for Labor Action with the Teamsters.
Reuther was also known for his connections to the Civil Rights Movement, becoming a primary participant and speaker at the 1963 March on Washington.
Death and Legacy
On May 9, 1970, Reuther was with his wife and several other passengers on a chartered plane that crashed in Pellston, Michigan, killing all on board.
The Walter P. Reuther Library was established at Wayne State University as a labor archive resource, with a corresponding online site as well. Books on Reuther's life include The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (1995) by Nelson Lichtenstein and a 2004 memoir by daughter Elizabeth Reuther Dickmeyer. And Walter's grandnephew, Sasha Reuther, directed the 2012 documentary Brothers on the Line, which chronicled the stories of all three Reuther brothers and their leadership in the labor movement.