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Walter Reuther: Labor's Conscience
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It was 40 years ago this month that Walter Reuther died in a plane crash. Forty years. Yet the auto workers leader remains an important inspirational figure - a man whose life holds crucial lessons for those who are today seeking to revitalize the American labor movement.

I came upon him late in his career, and to me as a young reporter he seemed verbose, distant and a little pompous: a do-gooder who didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't wench; who did only good things, and always in the artfully arranged glare of publicity.

He couldn't possibly be as good as those who had known the man for a long time claimed him to be. But they were right. Walter Reuther was an extraordinarily good man.

Until the very day of his death in a 1970 plane crash, Reuther acted as the conscience of organized labor -- a crusader struggling very, very hard against the stagnation he found in a movement he had helped found, lead, and, finally, had tried to reform.

Walter Reuther was the conscience as well of a lot of people who never paid union dues in their lives. I mean those who saw him as the embodiment of their hopes to change this imperfect society in ways that would better the lives of those at the bottom of its social, economic and political ladder. Reuther was their symbol and their champion, more so than any other leader outside of political office and the civil rights movement.

It was Reuther, as much as any union leader, who brought dignity and economic security to the mass of Americans, expanding the country's major concerns beyond the elementary economic concerns that preoccupied most people in the years before World War II.

Then, the children of working people wondered where their next meal was coming from. Now, they attend college and worry about other things -- including whether unions are still "relevant."

Reuther's specific contributions were many. There was the central role he played in establishing the United Auto Workers Union, over which he eventually presided. There was his role in forging together the country's industrial unions and in leading them, as president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in struggles for broad economic and social causes.

There was Reuther's exceptional success in negotiating better wages, hours and working conditions for the auto workers and in championing, for them and so ultimately for all workers, such pioneering concepts as the guaranteed annual wage.

There were Reuther's many efforts to shift the labor movement in new directions. His last attempt, and surely his boldest, came in 1969 when he led the United Auto Workers out of the AFL-CIO and into an "Alliance for Labor Action" with the then-unaffiliated Teamsters Union.

Reuther hoped the alliance of the country's two largest unions could begin carrying out the programs he had suggested repeatedly to the AFL-CIO, only to be rebuffed by AFL-CIO President George Meany and the other former American Federation of Labor leaders who dominated the federation. He hoped, too, that other unions would join the auto workers and Teamsters in their joint effort. Teamster leaders were at least as conservative as Meany and his colleagues, but they were eager to challenge the AFL-CIO and accepted Reuther's suggestions as a way to do it.

The alliance planned organizing drives among white-collar workers and other groups, particularly in the South, that the AFL-CIO had been neglecting. But the new organization hoped to go beyond organizing the unorganized, as important as that was. For Reuther was, as his brother Victor noted, "a social visionary who always related his trade union commitments to other broad social responsibilities which all Americans could share." The goals of the alliance were nothing less than a summary of the great needs of the country:

Helping build low-cost housing; developing new job training programs; unifying the poor and minority groups; improving education and health services; attacking racial discrimination, poverty, consumer fraud, the problems of the young and the aged, and urban decay, pollution and other environmental problems.

The alliance never really got going before Reuther's death and dissolved shortly afterward. Some of Reuther's fellow labor leaders had scoffed, in any case, that it was actually nothing more than an attempt by Reuther to satisfy the ambitions for broad union leadership he had been unable to realize within the AFL-CIO.

"Walter," they would tell you, "is just being Walter -- all talk and no action."

Well, they were right about one thing at least. The man could talk. Others were accustomed to it, after three decades of Reuther-watching, But he was new to me, and I marveled to see him hold audiences of thousands for an hour and more while speaking off the top of his head.

I especially remember a talk he gave in 1966, in a dilapidated little auditorium in Delano, California, where vineyard workers just a few months before had begun the strike led by Cesar Chavez that someday would capture the attention of the entire country.

I played the sophisticate and smiled knowingly over Reuther's wordy and dramatic promises to the farmworkers. But then came the terrible news, four years later, of a plane down in Michigan, and I thought back to that cold December day in the grape country.

I remembered what those words had meant to the penniless, obscure and powerless band of farmworkers who had gathered in the auditorium. There he was, one of the great leaders of America, promising to "stand with you until the end."

I may have been fooled, but the farmworkers were not fooled. They knew that Walter Reuther meant exactly what he said. He always did.

Copyright Dick Meister