Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Reassessing the Historical UAW: Walter Reuther's Affiliation with the Communist Party and Something of Its Meaning -- a Document of Party Involvement, 1939

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Reassessing the Historical UAW: Walter Reuther's Affiliation with the Communist Party and Something of Its Meaning -- a Document of Party Involvement, 1939

Article excerpt

Walter Reuther's close connection to the Communists, including a possible brief membership, has a meaning and legacy that is of more than sectarian interest. To most of his conservative opponents, Reuther's sojourn in the Soviet Union and subsequent alliance with the Communists sustained the accusation that he was simply a red. To union activists this charge was something of an accolade in the mid-1930s, but a few years later, the suspicion among Reuther's left-wing rivals that he used the CP's influence to advance his fortunes in the UAW lay behind their frequent assertions that he was a political opportunist at the very birth of his union career. Nor did the issue fade even after his death more than thirty years later .... (1)

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WALTER REUTHER AND JOHN L. LEWIS are undoubtedly the two greatest union leaders of middle 20th century North American labour history. Although both of these two labour titans were autocratic leaders of their respective unions and trail-blazing pioneers, their rise to prominence in the us labour movement is due to different, albeit interrelated reasons. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers (UMW), broke from the narrow, craft-oriented American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1935 to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which immediately commenced to organize the mass of unskilled and semiskilled workers in basic industries, long ignored and neglected by the AFL unions. Reuther, who achieved the status of a United Automobile, Aircraft, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) vice president by the late 1930s and was director of the UAW General Motors Department during the World War II years, emerged as the UAW president after achieving a razor-thin margin of victory at the unio n's tenth convention towards the end of March 1946. At the UAW's 1947 convention, Reuther solidified his hold on the union presidency with the election of a staunchly Reutherite executive board and he remained UAW president until a plane crash took his life in 1970. As UAW president, Reuther's prominence lay in his pioneering of a vast array of fringe benefits for autoworkers -- from cost of living adjustments and pensions to supplemental unemployment benefits -- that many North American unionists now take for granted in their early 21st century collective bargaining agreements. (2)

Although Reuther successfully eliminated the US Communist Party (CP) from the UAW beginning in 1947, which became a precursor to the purge of the eleven CP-led unions from the CIO in 1949-1950, Reuther's relationship with the CP in the early tumultuous years of the UAW is a topic that has generated controversy among UAW scholars and Reuther biographers for more than five decades. Reuther's earliest involvement with radical politics dates back to the fall of 1930 as a student at Detroit City College (DCC), now Wayne State University, where he helped to organize the DCC Social Problems Club, a League for Industrial Democracy (LID) affiliate, which was, in essence, a branch of the Socialist Party (SP). Considering himself a Socialist at this time, Reuther actively campaigned throughout the nation for the SP presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, in 1932. Reuther's first exposure to CP politics may have come while working at Ford in 1931 when he joined the Auto Workers Union (AWU), a radical group that functioned within the CP milieu. Beginning at this time, Reuther developed an enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment, which may have been originally inspired by his close friendship with John Rushton, an older tool and die maker who was a Communist and had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1930. This enthusiasm for the construction of Soviet socialism resulted in Reuther, and his brother Victor, traveling to the Soviet Union and working in the toolroom of the Gorky Auto Works from November 1933 until June 1935. Upon returning to the US in 1935, over a period of several months, Reuther spoke quite favorably about his Soviet experience at meetings sponsored by either the Friends of the Soviet Union or the SP. …

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