On January 11, 1937, two weeks into the epic sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, Michigan, a young socialist named Victor Reuther arrived in a rickety sound car at GM’s Fisher Body Plant No. 2. GM had just turned off the plant’s heat—it was 16 degrees outside—and cut off food to the sit-down strikers inside. Reuther, seeking to lift the strikers’ spirits, asked if they’d like to hear a song. “Can the music,” they cried, “get us some food.”
Reuther’s most important contribution to history came not as a street fighter but as a bureaucrat.
Young Reuther did as he was told. Quickly, he organized a group of pickets outside the plant to face down the company guards at its gates. Outnumbered, the guards retreated. The food was delivered, the strikers cheered. But suddenly, in squad cars and on foot, Flint’s police force surged up the street. firing tear-gas shells before them, the police scattered the pickets and seemed poised to tout the strikers inside.
It was the most desperate moment of the most important strike in American history. And at that moment, Reuther took to the microphone in his sound car and directed the counterattack. On his order, the strikers used makeshift slingshots to hurl heavy car-door hinges at the police; using the plant’s fire hoses, they poured freezing water down on the officers. Though the police began firing bullets when they ran out of tear gas, the sit-down strikers held firm. It was the first and last attempt to remove the GM strikers by force.
When Reuther died two years ago at the age of ninety-two, all the obituaries highlighted his heroic role at Flint. Given the high drama, how could they not? And yet by focusing so heavily on Flint, by intimating that the rest of his long life was anticlimax, the obituaries obscured Reuther’s real legacy. His most important contribution to history came not as a street fighter but as a bureaucrat.
Victor Reuther would hate being remembered as a bureaucrat. Given the term’s standard usage, he’d have every right to. Usually we think of bureaucrats as staid Republicans or, at best, stolid Democrats. We think of them building corporations, not battling them. But Reuther and the United Auto Workers didn’t tame the American auto industry in one furious battle at Flint. Rather, they did it through decades of painstaking labor, through the unavoidably tedious work of building a strong and sophisticated union; they did it, in other words, by building a bureaucracy.
Of course, the UAW was like no bureaucracy America had ever seen. Militant communists, committed socialists, and conservative Catholics all jostled for position in the union’s early years. Factions allied with one another one month and warred against each other the next. Reuther, the grandson of a German pacifist and son of a West Virginia socialist, thrived in the union’s political hothouse. Though only twenty-four when he began his work with the Auto Workers, Reuther was no political novice. In 1919, when he was seven years old, Victor’s father took him and his older brother Walter—who would become the UAW’s president—to visit Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs in prison. By the time Victor entered high school, his father was staging weekly political debates at home between the brothers. Those debates included another Reuther brother, Roy, who would go on to serve as the UAW’s political director.
By 1932, Walter and Victor had moved to Detroit and become active in the Socialist Party. That summer, Roy joined them in Michigan and all three brothers campaigned across the state for the party’s presidential candidate. Despite their best efforts, socialism’s proud red banner fluttered weakly that fall—the party’s standard-bearer won 2 percent of the vote in Michigan. Still, that 1932 drubbing offered the brothers another, more immediate opportunity. Soon after the election, Walter’s political activities got him fired from his job at Ford. That prompted Victor to quit his classes at Detroit City College, and in early 1933 the two left the United States to take a decidedly political tour of Europe. In England, they met with Fabian aristocrats and hard-left factory hands; in Germany, they commiserated with students struggling against the newly ascendant Nazis; and finally, in the Soviet Union, they spent a year and a half helping to launch production at the massive Gorky Auto Works. While they were overseas, Roy threw himself into the fight to organize America’s autoworkers. When Victor and Walter returned to the United States in 1935, they joined him in the defining crusade of their age.
For those of us fated to live on the American left, no decade excites the imagination like the thirties. Workers, prostrate as the Depression began, rose up against America’s discredited business class; even the president felt compelled to denounce the nation’s “economic royalists.” In no other era has the left had so much influence in American life. Proletarian novels were written and actually read. Yes, the plots were predictable and the characters wooden, but in the thirties there was real truth in those stories of teeming masses triumphing in glorious strikes.
Of course, America’s workers had won great labor battles before. In 1912, tens of thousands of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, famously demanded bread and roses, and briefly won both. But barely a year after that victorious strike, the mill owners had broken their union. The Lawrence strikers and the Wobblies who led them left behind some inspiring slogans but not much more.
What distinguished Victor from America’s sad sectarians was his ability to wed utopian dreams to practical plans.
Labor’s great achievement in the thirties wasn’t winning massive strikes, but consolidating the gains from those victories. Without the leadership of gifted organizers like the Reuthers, the members of the UAW and the decade’s other fledgling unions would likely have suffered the same fate as Lawrence’s mill hands. By the end of 1937, less than a year after the Flint strike, the U.S. economy had fallen back into the deepest trough of the Depression, and GM and many other manufacturers exploited the crisis to launch a counterattack against the fragile industrial unions. By the beginning of 1939, only 6 percent of the nation’s GM workers were paying dues to the UAW. Of Flint’s forty-two thousand GM workers, just five hundred were still UAW members in good standing—the same number as before the sit-down strike.
At that dark hour, Walter Reuther was picked to run the union’s GM department. (Things were so desperate in the UAW that Victor, the hero of Flint, had been purged from the national union during a 1938 faction fight and hung on only as a volunteer organizer at a Detroit local.) Walter moved quickly to centralize the chaotic structure of the GM department. With the auto maker refusing to recognize the UAW’s authority in its plants, union leaders felt they had to strike. Yet Walter knew the Auto Workers didn’t have the strength to sustain a companywide walkout. Instead, he convinced the union’s remaining members to conduct a “strategy strike” against GM’s tool-and-die plants in the summer of 1939. The company couldn’t retool for the 1940 model year without those plants and capitulated after four weeks. Reuther’s carefully conceived strike arguably saved the union.
After war broke out in Europe in 1939, all three Reuther brothers were appointed to defense production boards that the United States hastily established. Together with other labor leaders they used those bureaucratic posts to win some measure of justice for wartime workers. But while unions agreed to no-strike pledges that curbed their power during the war, businesses won cost-plus contracts that garnered them record profits. Victor grew increasingly frustrated with the profit-minded executives he served with on the defense boards, and soon after the war he argued that unions should stop “wrestl[ing] with business and government for a larger share of scarcity under a system of ‘free enterprise.’” Writing in late 1945 in the left-leaning magazine Common Sense, Victor said labor should press for new “forms of social ownership.” He admitted that the idea was “political dynamite,” but he believed that only such explosive thinking could “blast away the obstructions to economic abundance and insure the expansion of political democracy.”
It’s bracing to read those words now and realize they weren’t written by the delusional leader of a small socialist sect, but by a key official of the nation’s most important union. What distinguished Victor from America’s sad sectarians was his ability to wed utopian dreams to practical plans. And so, even as Victor wrote those bold words, he went along with other UAW bureaucrats in their decision to discipline rank-and-file members who’d been holding unauthorized strikes. Victor didn’t deny that the wildcat strikers had legitimate grievances, but he feared that their unplanned strikes would bankrupt the UAW and leave it unable to take on the Big Three in postwar contract talks.
Though the UAW ultimately fell short of achieving Victor’s social democratic dreams, we shouldn’t minimize the union’s postwar achievements. The UAW doubled the wages of American autoworkers in less than a generation, and did it in the face of brutal opposition. In 1948, Walter, then the president of the union, was shot and almost killed in his home. A year later, in a nearly identical attack, Victor almost lost his life and did lose his right eye. Though the evidence implicated mobsters with ties to Ford’s former security chief, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover blocked an investigation and the shooters were never prosecuted. Despite the attacks, the Reuthers continued with their work. Shortly before the attempt on his life, Victor had spent time in Europe spreading the gospel of industrial democracy. After recovering from the shooting, Victor went back. As the journalist Murray Kempton wrote, he worked as an “organizer not out for dues but to help restore the soul of European labor.”
Victor returned to the United States in 1953. Though he served in Washington as the director of the UAW’s international affairs department, he also advised Walter on domestic politics, and the two of them never stopped searching for ways to push America leftward. In 1961, Victor made time to meet with a University of Michigan undergraduate who led a tiny campus group called Students for a Democratic Society. After the meeting, Victor convinced the union to give $10,000 to SDS. A year later, SDS leaders would gather at a UAW summer camp in Port Huron, Michigan, to draft their famous manifesto—and another decade of left-wing ferment was launched.
Victor and the union were even more vitally involved in the civil rights movement. In the debate leading up to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Victor and other UAW officials frequently set aside their union work to lobby full-time for the bill. In 1963, the Auto Workers gave more than $100,000 to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help it prepare for the March on Washington. More than five thousand Auto Workers attended the march, the largest delegation from any group.
There’s a classic picture of the Reuther brothers taken at the UAW convention in 1937, just as they were emerging as leaders of the union. Victor, the youngest and tallest of the three, stands between Walter and Roy, both of whom sport broad, toothy grins. Victor’s lips, by contrast, are set in a wry smile. The older brothers have the look of eager warriors totally focused on the floor fights to come. But Victor’s heavy-lidded eyes seem to see something a little further in the distance. Even after his right eye was shot out, Victor’s vision always seemed a little stronger than anyone else’s in labor.
Let’s hope the latest wave of reformers can match the soaring rhetoric of that young socialist in the sound car at Flint.
What made Victor so special—what made him the exemplary labor bureaucrat—was his ability to see, as Walter sometimes didn’t, that unions themselves aren’t sacred, only their mission is. Walter built the UAW into a powerful economic engine for workers during his twenty-four years as president, but under him the union’s internal politics became rather machine-like, too. Though Walter tolerated no corruption, neither did he allow much dissent. Victor was one of the few people in the UAW who could challenge his brother’s thinking. Tragically, on the most disastrous issue of their time, the Vietnam War, Victor was unable to change it. Walter had strong reservations about the war, but he suppressed them and hoped that by maintaining his close ties to LBJ he could press for more liberal domestic policies. Instead, as Victor feared, the war shattered the liberal coalition the UAW had done so much to build, and the nation began its decades-long drift to the right. After Walter died in a 1970 plane crash, the founding generation of the union soldiered on for a few more years. But as they retired—Victor left in 1972—the union began to falter. By the eighties the Auto Workers were accepting one round of concessionary contracts after another. Today, the union’s leaders stare into the abyss and find the hapless executives of GM and Delphi staring back at them.
One can regard the UAW’s decline as proof of the pitiless theories of Robert Michels, the German sociologist who argued early in the twentieth century that every organization, no matter how democratic at birth, assumes an oligarchic form as it matures. Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy”—divined largely from his study of the German labor movement—described how even young revolutionary leaders “end by fusing with the old dominant class” they set out to topple. “It is probable,” Michels mourned, “that this cruel game will continue without end.”
But Victor refused to play by the rules of that game. Ten years into his retirement, when a group of dissidents challenged the UAW’s ossified leadership, Victor made the astonishing decision to go back to the barricades and join the reformers. Though Victor and his allies didn’t prevail against the UAW hierarchy, they did set loose a reform wave that continues to shape the labor movement to this day. Victor worked with the insurgents who brought democracy to the Teamsters union in the early nineties, and that victory made it possible to unseat the conservative leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995. Sadly, the progressives who replaced them have had no better luck in reversing labor’s decline. But now the labor movement is undergoing an even more searching round of reform. Let us hope that the latest wave of reformers are inspired by Victor’s example. Let’s hope they can match the soaring rhetoric of that young socialist in the sound car at Flint. And when today’s workers cry out for food, let’s hope that today’s reformers, like young Victor, have a plan to deliver it.