Reuther, Walter Philip

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Reuther, Walter Philip

Walter Philip Reuther (rōō´thər), 1907–70, American labor leader, b. Wheeling, W.Va. A tool- and diemaker, he became shop foreman in a Detroit automobile plant, meanwhile completing his high school work and attending college. Discharged because of his union activities, he and his brother Victor spent some years (1932–35) in Europe (including the Soviet Union) and in East Asia. Active in the organization drives (1935–37) of the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) and in the sit-down strikes, he became director of the union's General Motors department (1939) and union vice president (1942). In World War II, he favored active support of the war by labor and evolved a plan for airplane mass production in automobile plants.

In 1946 Reuther was elected president of the UAW and also became a vice president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO; see American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations). After 1945 he led the auto workers in several major contests for wage increases and social welfare programs, while gaining undisputed control of the UAW. His importance as an anti-Communist labor leader grew. He was severely wounded by an unidentified assailant in 1948, as was his brother Victor the following year. Reuther succeeded (1952) Philip Murray as president of the CIO. An engineer of the merger (1955) of the CIO with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), he became a vice president, a member of its executive board, and head of its industrial union department.

In the following years, Reuther had many disagreements with George Meany, the president of the AFL-CIO. For example, in 1963, Reuther strongly supported the civil-rights march on Washington, but the AFL-CIO executive board, led by Meany, would only express sympathy with civil-rights objectives; the board refused to endorse the march itself. By 1968, after a dispute with Meany over the direction and structure of the labor movement, Reuther led the UAW out of the AFL-CIO. In 1969, Reuther attempted an ill-fated merger with the Teamsters Union (a union he had been instrumental in having removed from the AFL-CIO in 1957); known as the Alliance for Labor Action, it was dissolved, after his death, in 1972. Reuther was killed in a plane crash. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1995.

See F. Cormier and W. J. Eaton, Reuther (1970); J. Gould and L. Hickok, Walter Reuther (1972); J. Barnard, Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Autoworkers (1983); N. Lichtenstein, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (1995).

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