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Walter Reuther

Walter Reuther
Born Walter Philip Reuther
September 1, 1907
Wheeling, West Virginia
Died May 9, 1970(1970-05-09) (aged 62)
Pellston, Michigan
Occupation Labor union leader

Walter Philip Reuther (; September 1, 1907 – May 9, 1970) was an American liberal and supporter of the New Deal coalition, working to strengthen the labor union movement, raise wages, and give union leaders a greater voice in state and national Democratic party politics. During the 1960s he was a major supporter of the civil rights movement.


  • Early life 1
  • Union career 2
  • Role in the 1964 Chicken Tax 3
  • Death 4
  • Legacy 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia on September 1, 1907, the son of a socialist brewery worker who had emigrated from Germany. Throughout his career he was close to his brothers and co-workers Victor Reuther and Roy Reuther. Reuther joined the Ford Motor Company in 1927 as an expert tool and die maker.[1]:16 He was laid off in 1932 as the Great Depression worsened. His Ford employment record states that he quit voluntarily, but Reuther himself always maintained that he was fired for his increasingly visible socialist activities.[1]: 33 He and his brother Victor went to Europe and then worked 1933–35 in an auto plant (GAZ) at Gorky in the Soviet Union being built with the cooperation of Henry Ford. While a committed socialist, he never became a communist. At the end of the trip he wrote, "the atmosphere of freedom and security, shop meetings with their proletarian industrial democracy; all these things make an inspiring contrast to what we know as Ford wage slaves in Detroit. What we have experienced here has reeducated us along new and more practical lines."[1]:44 Reuther returned to the United States where he found employment at General Motors and became an active member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW).

Reuther was a Socialist Party member. He may have paid dues to the Communist Party for some months in 1935–36, and he has been reported as attending a Communist Party planning meeting as late as February 1939.[2] Reuther cooperated with the Communists in the later 1930s—this was the period of the Popular Front, and they agreed with him on internal issues of the UAW, but his associations were with anti-Stalinist socialists.[1]

Reuther remained active in the Socialist Party and in 1937 failed in his attempt to be elected to the Detroit Common Council. However, impressed by the efforts by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to tackle inequality, he eventually joined the Democratic Party.

Union career

In 1936 he became president of United Automobile Workers United Automobile Workers Local 174 (with 100 members), which on paper had responsibility for 100,000 auto workers on the west side of Detroit, Michigan. Reuther led several strikes and in 1937 and 1940 was hospitalized after being badly beaten by strike-breakers. He also survived two assassination attempts, and his right hand was permanently crippled in an attack on April 20, 1948.[3]

He had a highly publicized confrontation with Ford security forces on May 26, 1937, also known as the

Walter Reuther (right) conferring with President Truman in the Oval Office, 1952

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Reuther strongly supported the war effort and refused to tolerate wildcat strikes that might disrupt munitions production. He worked for the War Manpower Commission, the Office of Production Management, and the War Production Board.[4] He led a 113-day strike against General Motors in 1945–1946; it only partially succeeded. He never received the power he wanted to inspect company books or have a say in management, but he achieved increasingly lucrative wage and benefits contracts.[5]

In 1946 he narrowly defeated R. J. Thomas for the UAW presidency, and promptly he purged the UAW of all communist elements. He was active in the

Preceded by
R. J. Thomas
President, United Auto Workers
Succeeded by
Leonard Woodcock
Preceded by
Philip Murray
President, Congress of Industrial Organizations
Succeeded by
none (merged AFL-CIO was led by George Meany)
  • Obituary, New York Times, May 11, 1970
  • , WALTER REUTHER: Working-Class HeroTime Magazine
  • Walter Reuther at Find a Grave
  • NTSB Accident Report Number: NTSB-AAR-71-3
  • Walter Reuther interviewed by Mike Wallace on The Mike Wallace Interview January 25, 1958
  • The Reuther 100 Web site was established with IMLS grant money to commemorate the life of Walter P. Reuther on what would have been his 100th birthday.

External links

  • The Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs on the campus of Wayne State University contains numerous collections related to Walter Reuther, most notably the UAW President's Office: Walter P. Reuther Files, which "reflect all phases of his career as president, UAW West Side Local 174 (1936); UAW Executive Board member (1936); director, UAW General Motors Department (1939-48); UAW vice-president (1942-46); UAW president (1946-70); president, ClO (1952-55); vice-president, AFL-CIO (1955-67); and president, AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department (1955-67)."
  • Christman, Henry M. ed. Walter P. Reuther: Selected Papers (1961)
  • Reuther, Victor "The Brothers Reuther and The Story of the UAW: A Memoir" (1976)

Primary sources:

  • Barnard, John. American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers during the Reuther Years, 1935–1970. Wayne State U. Press, 2004. 607 pp.
  • Boyle, Kevin. The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945–1968 (1995)
  • Brattain, Michelle. "Reuther, Walter Philip"; Feb. 2000American National Biography Online Access Mar 21 2015
  • Carew, Anthony. Walter Reuther (1993)
  • Kempton, Murray. "The Reuther Brothers" in Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955, repr. 1998, repr. 2004)
  • Kornhauser, Arthur et al. When Labor Votes: A Study of Auto Workers (1956)
  • Goode, Bill. Infighting in the UAW: The 1946 Election and the Ascendancy of Walter Reuther (1994)
  • Parenti, Michael and Peggy Norton. The Wonderful Life and Strange Death of Walter Reuther(1996)
  • Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935–1955 (1995)

Secondary sources:


  1. ^ a b c d Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (1995)
  2. ^ Victor G. Devinatz, "Reassessing the Historical UAW: Walter Reuther's Affiliation with the Communist Party and Something of its Meaning – a Document of Party Involvement, 1939." Labour 2002 (49): 223-245. Biographer Lichtenstein responded that membership this late seems unlikely—Reuther was already criticizing the Communists (see "Reuther the Red?", Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2003). Devinatz concurs that he must have left the Party later in 1939. Reuther later insisted he was never a member; there is indirect evidence that he was a member of both the Socialists and the Communists in 1935–36.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Arthur Herman, Freedom's Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, (2012) pp. 116-17, 196-97, 231.
  5. ^ Michelle Brattain, "Reuther, Walter Philip"; American National Biography Online (2000)
  6. ^ Eric Arnesen (2007). Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History. Taylor & Francis. p. 1246. 
  7. ^ a b Brattain, "Reuther, Walter Philip"; American National Biography Online (2000)
  8. ^ Victor G. Reuther The brothers Reuther and the story of the UAW, p. 249
  9. ^ Mark Christopher Carnes, ed. (2013). The Columbia History of Post-World War II America. Columbia UP. p. 283. 
  10. ^ Krugman, Paul, The Conscience of a Liberal, W. W. Norton & Company, 2007, p. 111.
  11. ^ Matthew Dolan (September 22, 2009). "To Outfox the Chicken Tax, Ford Strips Its Own Vans". The Wall Street Journal. 
  12. ^ "The Big Three's Shameful Secret"., Daniel J. Ikenson, July 6, 2003. Archived from the original on 2012-07-31. 
  13. ^ a b c "Ending the "Chicken War": The Case for Abolishing the 25 Percent Truck Tariff". The Cato Institute, by Daniel Ikenson. Archived from the original on 2012-12-20. 
  14. ^ a b c Keith Bradsher (November 30, 1997). "Light Trucks Increase Profits But Foul Air More than Cars". The New York Times. Retrieved May 27, 2010. 
  15. ^ "Reuther Dies in Jet Crash With Wife and 4 Others".  
  16. ^ Pietrusza, David, 1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year That Transformed America, Union Square Press, 2011, p. 153


See also

Walter Reuther Central High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin is named for him, thanks to the UAW's significant presence at the city's former American Motors Corporation and Chrysler plants.

Reuther Middle School, part of the Rochester Community Schools in Rochester Hills, Michigan, is named for him.

A hospital in Westland, Michigan, is named for him.

Interstate 696 In Metro Detroit is named the Walter P. Reuther Freeway.

Walter Reuther is the namesake for the largest labor archives in the United States, home to over 75,000 linear feet of original documents related to the labor movement. The Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs is located in Detroit and is part of Wayne State University.

President Bill Clinton awarded Reuther the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1995 by .

Walter Reuther appears in Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.


Reuther had earlier survived an April 1948 incident in which he was hit by a shotgun blast through his kitchen window. Reuther happened to turn towards his wife, and was hit in the arm instead of the chest and heart. The crime was never solved.[16]

On May 9, 1970, Walter Reuther, his wife May, architect Oscar Stonorov, Reuther's bodyguard William Wolfman, the pilot and co-pilot were killed when their chartered Lear-Jet crashed in flames at 9:33 p.m. Michigan time. The plane, arriving from Detroit in rain and fog, was on final approach to the Pellston, Michigan, Pellston Regional Airport near the union's recreational and educational facility at Black Lake, Michigan.[15]


The Chicken Tax directly curtailed importation of German-built Volkswagen Type 2 vans in configurations that qualified them as light trucks—that is, commercial vans and pickups.[14] In 1964 U.S. imports of "automobile trucks" from West Germany declined to a value of $5.7 million—about one-third the value imported in the previous year. Soon after, Volkswagen cargo vans and pickup trucks, the intended targets, "practically disappeared from the U.S. market."[13] As of March 2013, the Chicken tax remains in effect.

In retrospect, audio tapes from the Johnson White House, revealed a quid pro quo unrelated to chicken. In January 1964, President Johnson attempted to persuade Reuther not to initiate a strike just prior to the 1964 election and to support the president's civil rights platform. Reuther in turn wanted Johnson to respond to Volkswagen's increased shipments to the United States.[14]

Reuther played a role in a historic episode during the early 1960s, known as the Chicken War. France and West Germany had placed tariffs on imports of U.S. chicken.[11] Diplomacy failed[12] and in January 1964, two months after taking office, President Johnson imposed a 25 percent tax (almost 10 times the average U.S. tariff)[13] on potato starch, dextrin, brandy, and light trucks.[13] Officially, the tax targeted items imported from Europe as approximating the value of lost American chicken sales to Europe.[14]

U.S. sales of VW vans in pickup and commercial configurations were curtailed by the Chicken Tax.

Role in the 1964 Chicken Tax

In his prime, Reuther was influential and powerful enough to frighten conservatives. In 1958, later presidential candidate Barry Goldwater declared Reuther a "more dangerous menace than the Sputnik or anything Soviet Russia might do to America."[10]

[7] Toward the end of his life, when he took the UAW out of the

Walter Reuther (second from right) at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Reuther delivered contracts for his membership through brilliant negotiating tactics. He would pick one of the "big three" automakers, and if it did not offer concessions, he would strike it and let the other two absorb its sales. Besides high hourly wage rates and paid vacations, Reuther negotiated these benefits for his union: employer-funded pensions (beginning in 1950 at Chrysler), medical insurance (beginning at GM in 1950), and supplementary unemployment benefits (beginning at Ford in 1955). Reuther tried to negotiate lower automobile prices for the consumer with each contract, with limited success.[8]

As a prominent figure in the anti-communist left, he was a founder of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in opposition to the communist-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions. He had left the Socialist Party in 1939, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s was a leading spokesman for liberal interests in the CIO and in the Democratic Party.[7]


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