The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor

By Nelson Lichtenstein | Go to book overview
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5
THE WEST SIDE LOCAL

They picked me up about eight different times and threw me down on my back on the concrete and while I was on the ground they kicked me in the face, head and other parts of my body.

- Walter Reuther, May 1937

History sometimes turns on a narrow pivot. The deep structures of economic power and social consciousness usually constrain the opportunities and shape the choices men and women have to make. But there are also times when circumstances conspire to greatly diminish our usual sense of social inertia and institutional stasis, when tradition's chains begin to crack and old fears diminish, thereby making the world once again seem plastic and open, not just to an ambitious few of will and vision but to a multitude of ordinary people who burst forward onto the stage of history. In the auto centers of the American Midwest, such a time came late in the winter of 1937. Our attention has been rightly focused on Flint, Michigan, where UAW activists organized the great sit-down strike that forced General Motors to bargain with a multiplant union of its workers. Victory in this contest, or at least the appearance of victory, opened the floodgates to a great mobilization of workers throughout midwestern industrial centers. Beginning in February thousands who had once stood on the sidelines surged into the CIO, boosting UAW membership to more than a quarter-million. Overnight, the autoworkers' union became a powerful political and social force whose amazing success laid the basis for an even more bitter round of conflict, not only with capital but within working-class ranks as well.

-74-

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