"WHAT WOULD WALTER DO?"
In the quarter-century since the death of Walter Reuther, the fortunes of the American trade union movement have fallen more sharply and more continuously than at any time since late in the nineteenth century. The proportion of wage earners enrolled in organizations that claim to bargain for their members has declined from 30 percent to less than 17 percent, and in the Rust Belt industries where the CIO once claimed supremacy, a wave of layoffs, plant closures, and outright deunionizations has stripped millions of workers from labor's roll. The UAW lost six hundred thousand in the years after 1979, and like many other trade unions, it negotiated a series of concessionary labor contracts that actually reduced wages and benefits to its members and the millions more whose incomes were linked with the union sector. For the vast majority of Americans, real wages have been flat and good jobs hard to find during the last two decades. 1
In these difficult times, veteran autoworkers have been wont to ask, "What would Walter do?" His soul cannot be queried, but the complex and powerful legacy of his leadership remains a tangible presence not only within the UAW's high councils but for all who see the labor movement, as Reuther did, as an essential lever with which to reshape society. For a dozen years after his death, top UAW leaders were men who had worked with Reuther on the most intimate terms; thereafter, the new generation who took command were quick to proclaim themselves part of the Reuther tradition. 2