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

By Nelson Lichtenstein | Go to book overview

8
500 PLANES A DAY

The plane, from certain points of view, is only an automobile with wings.

- Walter Reuther,"500 Planes a Day-A Program for the Utilization of the
Automobile Industry for Mass Production of Defense Planes,"
December 1940

Little more than a week before Walter Reuther and Charles E. Wilson signed the 1940 General Motors contract, Nazi troops marched into Paris. The world was at war, and it would remain so, hot or cold, for the remainder of Walter Reuther's life. In the UAW virtually all activity—from the summer education camp agenda to the negotiating strategy at one of the big automakers— took on a political coloration that linked the internal life of the union to the great world historical conflicts that racked the middle decades of the twentieth century. Strikes, wage demands, organizing drives, political endorsements, and the scramble for office were measured by a yardstick that stretched all the way from the body shops of Flint and the toolrooms of Detroit to the White House, the Kremlin, and the battlefronts of Europe and the Far East.

Walter Reuther had an acute understanding of this new world. Indeed, the word Reutherism first surfaced in the early 1940s, an addition, albeit of a minor sort, to the great "isms" of the era: Communism, Fascism, Socialism, and Americanism. Like any highly charged ideology, Reutherism had no fixed meaning, but in its most dynamic phase, Reutherism articulated a union strategy informed by the recognition that in an era of wartime mobilization and postwar tension the state would serve as a battleground between the working class and its adversaries.

-154-

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