I never met Walter Reuther, but as a youth growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, his name and voice seemed always before me. The content of his televised speeches and interviews was unexceptional, disappointing in some vague way, but his words demanded the attention of my parents and myself because we knew that this man was powerful in a way that other politicians were not. He commanded the big battalions at the very heart of American industry and politics. Even to small-town liberals in exurban Maryland, the United Automobile, Aircraft, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) seemed exciting and potent allies whose dramatic origins in the great sit-down strikes of the 1930s reminded us of labor's explosive capacity to reorder the world of work and politics. Undoubtedly, my very ignorance about what actually happened inside an automobile factory and the considerable distance between Maryland and Detroit made it easier to put Walter Reuther and his union in a wondrous light.
In graduate school at Berkeley, I learned a lot more about Walter Reuther, but not inside the classroom. In the New Left and among the older generation of radicals who offered guidance, the contours of his career were given a Talmudic reading. Was he a Communist during his two-year sojourn in Stalin's Russia? When and why did he abandon the socialist faith? Was the strike he launched against General Motors in 1945—for wage increases without a rise in the price of cars— a deployment in the United States of Leon Trotsky's ideas? Why did he not organize a labor party in 1948? Our New Left critique charged him with hypocrisy and opportunism, but harsh as it was, even this assault on his person and his politics