Term Paper: Walter Reuther's German Immigrant Father

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[. . .] Pragmatic and opportunist politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey presided over the Democratic coalition as well as the machinery of the state, and orchestrated the system to provide economic growth with moderate inflation. In 1964, for example, Lyndon Johnson requested that Reuther and the UAW restrict their wage demands to 3.2%, but in the rebellious conditions of the 1960s, union leaders like Reuther began to lose control over the grassroots membership just as LBJ lost control over the system as a whole. Workers were demanding more say over how the workplace was run, while corporate America was adamant that labor would have no share of management. Executives also suspected that "under conditions of high employment and rising social expectations," unions were losing their hold on the rank-and-file (Lichtenstein, p. 401).

For Reuther, support for Lyndon Johnson was critical to achieving his larger objectives of expanding the welfare state and changing the political system so it would be friendlier to labor interests. Of all politicians he had met, Reuther felt personally closest to Robert Kennedy, as did almost ever UAW official, and even regarded him as "less detached, more committed, more activist" than John Kennedy (Schlesinger 1978, p. 1919). Even so, Johnson won by a landslide in 1964 and secured larger majorities in Congress than at any time since the New Deal, leading Reuther to believe "that the realignment of the American political system was in the works" (Lichtenstein, p. 403). With the march on Selma, Alabama in 1965 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, he hoped that the conservative Southern whites would be pushed out of the Democratic Party and join the Republicans, which did in fact occur in the decades ahead. Reuther participated in the Model Cities program, which aimed to improve schools, housing and services in Detroit and other urban areas, at least until the funds dried up due to the Vietnam War. Because of the war, along with the white backlash against civil rights, LBJ's Great Society soon ground to a halt. Despite his misgivings, Reuther supported the war until 1968 because he wanted to pass as much of Johnson's domestic agenda as possible. Although workers generally disliked the antiwar protesters and counterculture, polls also showed they were consistently more dovish than the educated middle class (Lichtenstein, p. 405).

Reuther also clashed with George Meany over the Cold War and the CIA-funded American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). In 1962, he organized the Free World Labor Defense Fund to aid leftist unions in many countries, and was especially hostile to AIFLD when it supported CIA coups against leftist governments in Brazil in 1964 and the Dominican Republic in 1965. Although Walter criticized his bother Victor for publicly revealing the CIA connection, all these issues lead to his break with Meany and the AFL-CIO. He thought that big labor had become too conservative and complacent, rigid in its Cold War ideology, too limited in its organizing efforts and unable to make alliances with the larger progressive movement. Throughout the 1960s, Reuther made efforts to ally the UAW with the student and civil rights movements, and with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers in California, who received financing from the UAW. Indeed, he told the mayor of Delano, California that he had beaten Henry Ford in the past so the California growers would be no challenge after that (Lichtenstein, p. 410).

Walter Reuther was evidently uncomfortable as an Establishment figure, given that he had been a young radical and revolutionary in the 1930s and 1940s. Only after the turn toward conservatism in the Cold War did he make his peace with capitalism and the business elite, concentrating of winning improvements in wages, benefits and working conditions for UAW members and decrying his former socialist views. In this he was like many labor leaders in the 1950s, including Jimmy Hoffa and George Meany, who had all been more radical in the younger days. Reuther chafed against this Cold War consensus, however, and when the 1960s opened the door to a new generation of radicalism, Reuther supported it. This caused him to break with the more conservative AFL-CIO, supporting the civil rights, antiwar and farm workers movements, and finally coming out in opposition to the Vietnam War and a militarized U.S. foreign policy. Reuther had always had powerful enemies, including Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, and especially after 1968 when he was making a left turn, they may well decided to eliminate him once and for all.

REFERENCES

Barnard, J. (2004). American Vanguard: The United Auto Worker Union during the Reuther Years, 1935-1970. Wayne State University Press.

Carew, A. (1993). Walter Reuther. Manchester University Press.

Lichtenstein, N. (1995). Walter Reuther: The… [END OF PREVIEW]

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