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Walter Reuther, “Social Unionist”

Martin Glaberman is professor Emeritus of Social Science at the College of Lifelong Learning at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Nelson Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (New York: and Chicago: Basic Books, 1995), 575 pp., $35.00, cloth.

A New York Times obituary for Sophie Reuther on February 23, 1996, declared her husband, Victor, a co-founder of the United Auto Workers. So now the myth that Walter Reuther founded the UAW is extended to include his brother. Unfortunately, the new biography of Walter Reuther by Nelson Lichtenstein will do very little to squelch the myth; this despite the fact that the book documents Reuther’s career, warts and all.

Let’s begin with the title. “The most dangerous man in Detroit” is a quote from George Rodney when he was head of the Automobile Manufacturers’ Association and his main job was to fight the propaganda wars against the union. The statement was pure fiction. Much closer to the truth was an editorial in the reactionary Detroit News, published on Reuther’s death. The News, which had fought Reuther throughout his career, was concerned that the union might not find a new president who was as effective as Reuther in controlling and disciplining rank and file auto workers.

The book is full of self-serving quotations from Reuther and others that are accepted at face value. There is a very superficial understanding of the auto industry, of life in the union and on the shop floor, and of the left. The huge number of quotations and citations tends to conceal a high degree of inaccuracy and misunderstanding. He lumps the socialist Upton Sinclair with Huey Long and Father Coughlin as “corporate radical.” (p. 113) He calls C.L.R. James a Trotskyist long after he broke with Trotskyism. (p. 434) When the facts are hard to dispute, he invents facts. For example, after documenting Reuther’s support of the right-wing hawks in the Democratic Party during the Vietmam War, he invents Reuther’s “dovish instincts” (p.404) as a counterweight.

An interesting example of Lichtensteins’s style is how he treats the controversy about whether Reuther was ever a member of the Communist Party. He cites the sources, but can’t bring himself to say that Reuther was a member. He says he “may” have been (p. 54) or refers to a “possible brief membership.” (p. 55) In fact Reuther was a member of the CP (for less than a year). Nat Ganley, a leading CP militant in the UAW—commenting on a book manuscript to his comrades at International Publishers—said he was a member. “I collected his dues.” But he recommends that that fact be deleted from the book—which it was. The book was Brother Bill McKie, the biography of an important CP organizer at the Rouge plant. When I discovered this in Ganley’s papers in the Wayne State University Labor Archives, I reported it in a small article. At the time, I didn’t think it was all that significant, but I have since modified that view. My experience in getting it published was at least as interesting as the facts themselves. Labor History, the liberal, pro-labor academic journal, refused to publish it on the grounds that it was terrible news, “if true,” and they could get sued! This was in the 1970s about something Ganley had written in the 1950s about a relatively brief event in the 1930s. Who in the world was going to sue? Ultimately the piece was published in Radical America.1 After its publication I learned that Ganley’s widow, Ann Ganley, had tried to steal the documentary evidence from the Archives. In fact, she did steal it—but I had made photocopies of the material and was able to restore it to the Archives at their request.

I can understand the concern of both the friends and enemies of Reuther about publishing that information. In the 1950s Reuther swore before a Congressional committee that he had never been a member of the CP, apparently sure that his former comrades would not betray him. He, of course, did not return the courtesy.

Lichtenstein distorts one of the most crucial events in the great GM Flint sitdown strike, the taking of Chevrolet Plant 4. As he describes it, Genora Johnson took the plan of her husband, Kermit Johnson, to the SP caucus, where it won support despite Reuther’s opposition. To begin with, the plan originated with workers in the plant (for whom Lichtenstein, like Reuther, displays contempt). Kermit brought the plan to the SP caucus. Lichtenstein ignores why it became the crucial turning point in the strike. The shutting down of the great Fisher Body Plant 1 stopped Buick production, although the Buick complex was not struck. But the occupation of the smaller Fisher Body Plant 2 did not stop Chevrolet production because Chevys were still being assembled in other parts of the United States. The strike had reached an impasse. The state had tightened military controls and there was no sign of a breakthrough. Plant 4 was the only Chevy motor plant in the country. So long as it worked, motors were being shipped and Chevys were being assembled and sold. The taking of Plant 4 put a stop to the production of GM’s mass market money maker. Shortly afterwards the company sued for peace.

Involved in Lichtenstein’s failure to note the importance of this action is his tendency to exaggerate the ability of GM and the other auto corporations to use their financial and industrial weight to short circuit labor militancy. He reports that GM has, since the Flint strike, provided double and triple sources for crucial components. The limitations of that policy should have been evident to anyone writing in 1995 when small strikes at GM and at Chrysler shut down substantial proportions of corporate production. Aided by the so-called “just in time” method of production, a few thousand workers making brake parts in Dayton, Ohio, have brought virtually all of GM’s North American car and truck production to a halt. But Lichtenstein will probably still keep looking for reasons why worker militancy doesn’t work.

Lichtenstein reports that after Reuther became UAW president he “beefed up the union’s Engineering Department, where Robert Kanter…taught autoworkers time-studydy techniques with which to counter company foremen and engineers.” (p. 289) When I was a committeeman at the Detroit Fruehauf Trailer Co. plant we learned never to call in the union time-study people. Lichtenstein seems to think that the problem with time study was company cheating. The problem with time study is that it sucks every free second out of the worker’s life. The union time study man would invariably confirm the company time study. When local people complained, the union administration would tell them that they should have known better than to allow the time study in the first place-this in a period when the shop floor power of workers were being eroded by growing bureaucratization.

This is one of Lichtenstein’s major points. “As Reuther put it in the summer of 1937, after the issue of wildcat strikes at GM had embroiled the union leadership in bitter controversy: `We want a disciplined organization. We believe that in a union, as in an army, discipline is of first rate importance. There can be no question of that whatsoever.'” (p.11) The book documents the erosion of steward systems and their replacement by the more bureaucratic system of full-time committeemen, with officers in the factory, distant from the workers they represented. The binding concept of the Reuther administration in power was Unity in the Leadership, Solidarity in the Ranks. It was a concept that did not brook dissidence or rank and file militancy. It led to the creation of what Frank Marquart, a Reuther loyalist until he died, but one who didn’t lose his objectivity, called “one-party government.” Lichtenstein is defensive about this. “In the postwar era all the big trade unions were one-party regimes, none more so than the industrial unions that bargained with the firms in America’s oligopolistically structured industries. But Reuther could never rule by fiat alone.” (p. 303) What is that supposed to mean? No dictator rules by flat alone!

An example of fiat: Reuther ordered an administrator put over at Flint’s Chevy Local 695—the crime: the local’s newspaper published a list, without comment, of all the grievances rejected by local management, referred to the union’s appeals committee and left to lie dormant. This is one of the reasons for the widespread hostility to Reuther in Flint, the heart of the GM empire. Lichtenstein attributes this to factionalism. It goes much deeper. Sometime around 1950 Kermit Johnson, who by then had been blacklisted by GM but kept his ties to his old local, invited my wife to accompany him to a meeting of Local 659 at which Reuther was supposed to speak. About half way through the meeting Kermit walked to the front of the hall, faced the audience with his back to Reuther, and began to lead everyone in the singing of Solidarity. Furious at being drowned out, Reuther left the meeting and never returned to speak in Flint again. For a stunt such as that to be possible, a lot more than factional differences had to be involved.

What is involved at bottom is what Lichtenstein admires as “workplace jurisprudence,” designed to replace what he calls the parochialism of worker militancy. He has different catchy names for what went on such as the “Faustian Bargain” and the “Treaty of Detroit.” On the one hand it replaces worker power on the shop floor with “jurisprudence.” Lichtenstein is surprised when, just as Reuther won Supplemental Unemployment Benefits, workers at Ford and GM went out on wildcat strikes instead of celebrating Reuther’s victory. What they were striking about were the thousands of unresolved grievances at single plants after termination of the contract. Not won, not lost, left in limbo. Lichtenstein thinks that worker grievances are parochial. Of course, a single grievance is usually parochial. But a thousand grievances? Not quite the same.

Why couldn’t shop floor jurisprudence settle grievances? Because it wasn’t supposed to. It begins with the Wagner Act, the so-called Magna Carta of labor. It was a response to the radical working class victories of 1934, a socialist-led strike at Toledo Auto-Lite, a Trotskyist-led strike of Teamsters in Minneapolis-St. Paul, a Communist-led strike on the San Francisco waterfront. In addition there was the massive Communist-led textile workers strike which was defeated. The Wagner Act was the beginning of the legal system designed to take power out of the hands of workers and place it in the hands of committeemen, lawyers, and judges. In subsequent years, with Taft-Hartley, Landrum-Griffin etc. it got worse. It became the basis for the social compact, the exchange of money and fringe benefits for a disciplined working class. As C.L.R. James put it, “The bureaucracy inevitably must substitute the struggle over consumption, higher wages, pensions, education, etc. for a struggle in production. This is the basis of the welfare state, the attempt to appease the workers with the fruits of labor when they seek satisfaction in the work itself.”2 The problem, however, is that this involves a contradiction. The only reason that the bourgeoisie has to accept this deal is a militant working class. But if the union bureaucracy devotes itself to stifling the militancy, or if an extended period of high levels of unemployment makes that militancy risky, or as a consequence, right-wing anti-labor governments begin to undercut the basis of the social compact; what is left? What Reuther left the UAW? Lichtenstein thinks that Reuther left the labor movement a legacy that could be the basis for a revival. Reuther’s legacy (although surely not just his) is the “give it up before they take it away” theory of struggle. If you don’t want to depend on the workers, then you must depend on the state. You must tie yourself to the best deal you can get from a bourgeois party. And then wonder why the workers don’t follow.

Currently there is a lot of discussion about the need to leave business unionism and return to social unionism. What tends to be forgotten was that Walter Reuther was the social unionist par excellence. He always had a plan. He always got involved in social issues outside of narrow union concerns. But it was all rhetoric. He could not deliver. Case in point: the question of race, which so pleases the reviewers of this book.

The powers of self-deception are enormous. Lichtenstein documents Reuther’s history as a consistent defender of what we would call institutional racism. He fought against adding blacks to the UAW Executive Board. He was one of the first to use what is generally acknowledged as the racist term, “reverse discrimination.” He marched in civil rights demonstrations and gave union money to the appropriate organizations. He functioned as a representative of the Kennedy and L.B. Johnson administrations whose main activity was to limit militancy as much as possible. What neither Lichtenstein nor anyone else seems to notice is that where Reuther had the power in his own union, he did nothing to end job discrimination and segregation. What was done was done by civil rights movements winning anti-discrimination legislation. Lichtenstein, like a lot of others, blames the rank and file. That, too, is a myth that needs to be destroyed. The rank and file didn’t hire union staff. The rank and file didn’t pick administration caucus candidates. I hope this is not the kind of social unionism that leftists today are trying to revive.

Douglas Fraser, former UAW President, wrote a rave review of this book for the UAW magazine Solidarity,3 not noted for being accepting of disagreement and dissidence. Who knows? This book may become the bible of the labor bureaucracy.

Notes

  1. “A Note on Walter Reuther,” Radical America, Vol. 7, No. 6, Nov./Dec. 1973.
  2. C.L.R. James, State Capitalism and World Revolution, (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1986), p. 41.
  3. Jan./Feb. 1996.
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