Walter Philip Reuther was an American labor union leader for the United Automobile Workers. His leadership was not only influential to those in the auto industry, but his influence spilled over into politics, more specifically the Democratic Party. Although he was a socialist at one point, Reuther would lean toward liberal opinions, eventually joining the Democrat Party.
1. Workplace Differences
Reuther first worked for the Ford Motor Company but was laid off during the Great Depression. He went with his brothers to Europe and found employment with an automaker there. He was shocked to discover the differences that existed in the workplace when he compared the American automaker to the European automaker.
2. Returning to the United States
Unhappy with the lack of political freedom in Russia, Reuther returned to the United States where he found employment at General Motors and became an active member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW).
3. Socialist Party Member
Reuther was a Socialist party member although he said that he never became a communist though he may have paid dues to the communist party between 1935 – 1936. He was accused of being a communist on a number of occasions but remained steadfast explaining that his associations were with anti-Stalinist Socialists.
4. Joining the Democratic Party
Reuther was an active member of the Socialist Party, even running for election in the Detroit City Council, though he was not elected. He did find that he agreed with most of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing to eliminate inequality so Reuther joined the Democratic Party.
5. President of Union Local 174
In 1936, Reuther became president of the tiny Local 174 Union. The union consisted of 100 members who spoke for the over 100,000 autoworkers at the time. Sit-down strikes were organized and the success of these organized events contributed to the strength of the UAW.
6. Injuries and Assassination Attempts
Reuther led several strikes was eventually hospitalized after being beaten by strike-breakers. Reuther survived two assassination attempts, three attempts if you count the first plane accident that Reuther was involved in. Reuther’s right hand was permanently crippled in one of these attacks.
7. Opposition to Communism
As president, Reuther’s first order of business was to rid the organization of communistic principles and leaders. His opposition to communism would take him all over the world organizing negotiations and heading up a variety of different unions.
8. Union Leader
As union leader, Reuther was able to deliver union members contracts that offered higher hourly wages, employer-funded pensions, medical insurance, supplementary unemployment benefits and paid vacations. Reuther even tried to involve lowering the price of cars to the public into these working contracts. Reuther hoped that his success in making changes amongst the auto makers would help him to battle the injustices of the civil rights movement.
9. Support for Civil Rights Movement
Reuther strongly supported the civil rights movement. He participated in both the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs and the Selma to Montgomery March. He supported President Lyndon Johnson and met weekly with President Johnson during 1964-1965.
10. Death in Plane Crash
Reuther was killed in a plane accident that was eerily similar to another plane crash that he had been involved in and survived. The cause of both accidents was said to be a faulty altimeter but those close to Reuther are convinced that there was foul play involved, especially because the FBI refused to turn over their documentation of the crash after completing their investigation.