Victor Reuther: 1912-2004

Victor Reuther died June 3. The youngest Reuther brother was a key organizer of the Flint sit-down strikes of 1936-37 that helped found the United Auto Workers.

Shortly before, he had gone to work in a big Detroit parts plant staffed mostly by women, with the expressed purpose of organizing. There he kicked off a sit-down strike that tripled wages, using his gifts of oratory to convince workers to stop production. He was 24 years old.

In Flint, Reuther tirelessly staffed the sound truck that kept up communication between the workers inside the occupied factory and their supporters outside. Police attacked the sit-downers with tear gas and bullets, and workers fought back with homemade slingshots.

As the UAW became established, Reuther became education director and then director of international affairs. He spent the early 1950s in Europe working for the CIO.

But after a career in the UAW’s Washington office, Reuther found it necessary to come out of retirement to help rebuild the union movement that he loved so much.

‘GAINS TOSSED AWAY’

Reuther’s antennae went up in 1985 when he learned of the UAW’s unpublished agreement with the Saturn Corp. That contract disavowed seniority and committed union officials to act as both union representatives and supervisors. “I spent my whole life in the UAW and I am not accustomed to sitting on the sidelines and seeing gains made at great cost after great struggle over many long years just tossed away,” Reuther said. “I can’t remain silent.”

Reuther then lent his name, his passion, and his oratorical skills to the New Directions Movement within the UAW, the rank-and-file movement that tried—unsuccessfully—to deflect the union from its downward spiral into “jointness.”

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Reuther saw that the leadership had circled the wagons and become stagnant. In a foreword to Labor Notes’ 1988 book, Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept, he wrote: “The unions are ill prepared to defend themselves from so subtle and insidious a management strategy. Our unions have grown more and more centralized and bureaucratic…The revitalization and democratization of the unions is essential.”

The UAW responded by denouncing Reuther. When he and other New Directions leaders spoke at the 1989 Labor Notes Conference, protesters bused in by the UAW picketed outside.

Reuther inspired listeners at conferences of the Association for Union Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and the Canadian Auto Workers as well. He was a brilliant and inspirational speaker of the old school—polished phrases, no notes, lessons from history, and common sense.

He told the Labor Notes Conference, “The men and women who fought for industrial unionism 50 years ago would be proud of those who are attending the Labor Notes Conference today. You are taking a stand for strong unions, justice and solidarity, as we did 50 years ago.”

Throughout, Reuther remained down-to-earth. When we asked his co-workers to comment on his legacy, his friend Jerry Tucker replied, “Vic would be the first to say, ‘Let’s get the point out that you have to stand up for what you believe and bosses are never to be trusted. That would be more than adequate.’”

A memorial service will be held Monday, July 19, 4-6pm at the All Souls Memorial Episcopal, 2300 Cathedral Avenue NW, Washington, DC. Speakers will include Jerry Tucker and Presidents Ron Gettelfinger of the UAW and Buzz Hargrove of the CAW.