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Walter Reuther

(November 1950)

From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.6, November-December 1950, pp.176-182.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Walter Reuther, president since 1946 of the powerful and strategically placed CIO United Automobile Workers, is generally regarded as the most “up-and-coming” of the new generation of labor leaders who began their rise with the CIO. Of all who rose to prominence and leadership in the UAW’s early days – including some of not inconsiderable talents – not one has survived save Reuther. Homer Martin, Wyndham Mortimer, R.J. Thomas, George Addes, Richard Frankensteen and many others were forced out or dropped by the wayside. Reuther alone stayed on top. Today, he holds almost undisputed control of this key union in the CIO.

“Smart” and “shrewd” are adjectives frequently applied to Reuther. But for all his adroitness and cunning, he is by no means the “master of his fate” He has been shaped by powerful social forces, pressures and conflicts, particularly as these have affected and been reflected in the development of the UAW.

To understand Reuther’s aims, methods, role in the labor movement and the direction in which he is traveling, it is essential to understand the kind of union in which he grew up and on whose mighty shoulders he now stands. For whatever is “unique” about Reuther is due, in the main, to the fact that he has come out of what has been, and in some respects remains, a unique union.

The UAW has been described most frequently as “dynamic.” Until the past few years, this adjective was fully justified and even today, as a “settled” union with a hardening bureaucratic crust, the UAW still retains the sources of its dynamic character.

In its rise the UAW exemplified the spontaneous rank-and-file character of that titanic upsurge of industrial labor in the Thirties which built the CIO. The auto union’s militancy became a by-word. If the auto workers did not invent the sit-down strike, they nevertheless perfected it and their use of it in the 1936-37 General Motors strike inspired its spread into a national phenomenon. They developed the famous “flying squadrons,” those mobile shock troops of the picket lines which have become permanent institutions in many UAW locals.

This “dynamism” of the UAW was due not to fighting qualities exceptional to auto workers, but rather to the exceptional factors in the origin and traditions of the UAW. Its unique development was a direct reflection of its internal democracy, which permitted the workers’ native militancy to find expression and allowed their initiative to flower.

Democratic Traditions of the UAW

The independence of the membership, their insistence on “running the show,” revealed itself from the start when they fought the AFL bureaucracy’s attempts to impose outside leadership upon them. Without exception, the auto workers’ leadership has been raised from their own ranks. For most of its history, UAW conventions saw stormy revolts against any moves to strengthen the bureaucratic powers of the top leaders against the ranks.

They jealously guarded the right to maintain caucuses and the open factional struggles of tendencies in the UAW was a constant source of astonishment – and dismay – to the old-line officialdom who ran their own unions with an iron hand and never let anyone “talk out of turn.” All political views found expression in the continuous struggle for program and leadership. New ideas found a favorable climate and the membership was educated in progressive social and political views. Far from weakening the auto workers’ union, this internal democracy became the wellspring of its power and tremendous growth.

The UAW did not come by its militant and democratic traditions accidentally. Their foundation was consciously laid in the decisive early stages of the union by politically radical workers who were responsible for the first successful organization in auto and who led the auto workers to their initial victories.

The Toledo Auto-Lite strike in May 1934, a virtual mass insurrection which won the first major contract in the auto industry, set the pattern. This crucial battle was led by members of the American Workers Party, which a few months later merged with the Communist League of America (Trotskyist) to form the Workers Party (now the Socialist Workers Party). A year later Trotskyist’s played the chief role in organizing and leading the Toledo Chevrolet strike that established the first union beach-head in General Motors. In this strike the Trotskyists gave leadership to the opposition against the old-line AFL leaders whose policies of class-collaboration and reliance on government intervention were the chief stumbling-block to unionization of the auto workers.

Spearhead of Revolt

It was these Toledo auto workers, as the largest delegation at the UAW’s founding convention in August 1935, who organized and spearheaded a revolt against the imposition of Frances Dillon, AFL President William Green’s personal representative, as appointed head of the newly founded international. They submitted finally under threat of losing their new charter. But a year later – again with the Toledo delegation in the lead – the militants, organized as a caucus, overwhelmingly rejected Dillon and elected their own officers from their own ranks.

These first two conventions not only freed the auto union from the deadly grip of an established bureaucracy, but incorporated into the very structure of the new international the principles of democratic unionism. Thus, in 1936, when reactionary elements red-baited Homer Martin, who was subsequently to become the first elected president, the convention delegates rose up and wrote into their constitution those justly famous provisions against discrimination for race, creed, national origin and political beliefs. In 1941, Reuther’s faction was to make the first major breach in this democratic constitution.

The May 1936 convention provided a remarkable demonstration of advanced political consciousness when the delegates voted overwhelmingly for the formation of an independent farmer-labor party. Direct intervention by John L. Lewis was required to force the delegates to attach a rider to this resolution endorsing Roosevelt for re-election.

The crucial test of the fledgling union came in the 1936-37 battle with General Motors. Here again it was radicals who gave decisive direction to the struggle. In Flint, Mich., where the battle centered, Kermit Johnson and Roy Reuther, both socialists, and Robert Travis, a leader of the earlier Toledo Chevrolet strike and by 1937 with the Stalinists, were the chief organizers and leaders of the great sitdown that brought victory. Contrary to a persistent legend, Walter Reuther entered the picture only toward the end of the strike and played no important role in its organization, strategy and leadership. But he did give it valuable assistance at its most critical juncture when thousands of workers from Toledo, Detroit and other auto centers poured into Flint. Reuther led a large contingent of his big, newly amalgamated Detroit West Side local, of which he was president, to support the sit-downers.

In those days Reuther was not exceptional for militancy and political radicalism. Everyone spoke – or pretended to speak – the language of mass action, rank-and-file control and advanced social and political ideas. The union in which young Walter Reuther got his start breathed mass action and democracy. It was led by zealous young men, in many instances radical-minded, most of whom had earned their spurs on the picket lines. This union, moreover, was pressing toward far-reaching social and political goals.

For these very reasons, the top CIO leaders regarded the UAW as a “problem child.” They feared the spread of its example. What would happen to them if their members got notions about rank-and-file control, union democracy, modest salaries for officers, annual conventions, the right to caucus and to oppose the leadership? Moreover, the CIO leaders were schooled in class collaboration, believers in the conference table and government favors rather than in strikes and class struggle methods. The UAW, in their opinion, had to be “tamed.”

The new UAW leaders themselves were beginning to get a taste for power. Homer Martin, who was elected president in 1936, by 1937 saw himself in the role of “boss” of a big union. The Stalinists, with a strong machine, were pushing for control with a program to tie the union to Roosevelt’s coattails.

The CIO leaders and the Roosevelt administration feared above all that the UAW might get “out-of-hand” politically. They had received one bad shock at the 1936 convention. They did not want to risk any more, especially since Roosevelt was already moving on the course that was to lead this country into war. For American imperialism and its labor supporters, it was imperative to curb the militancy of this “dangerous and explosive” union, harness it with a conservative bureaucracy and stifle its internal democracy.

His Credentials

There were not a few candidates for the job – Homer Martin, the Stalinists and careerists of all stripes. But, in the end, the forces of conservatism found their man in Walter Reuther. He had the proper qualifications, the right combination of talents and an appreciation of the nature and complexities of the task.

He had youth, energy, drive and ambition in a union that was young, vigorous and aggressive. He had a sharp mind and a fluent tongue that could express his ideas forcefully and clearly, although he lacked distinction in thought or style.

The son of an old-time Debs Socialist, Reuther got his real start in the labor movement as a Socialist agitator, when, at the age of 25, he campaigned for Norman Thomas and joined the SP. His early Socialist training and background had prepared him for the union movement, taught him how to appeal to militant workers, gave him a broader conception of the social system. A radical background was a good credential to the workers who built the UAW. And it did his reputation no harm that in 1933, after he was fired for union activity in the Detroit Ford plant, he and his brother Victor took their small savings and went to Europe, working 16 months in an auto plant in the Soviet Union.

Not the least of Reuther’s talents was his skill at factional maneuver. In the factional game, he had the agility of a star half-back, quick to find holes in his opponents’ line, slippery in the open and adroit at pivoting and reversing his field. To reach his long-sought goal of the UAW presidency, he had to twist and straight-arm and knee his way through powerful opposition in a bitter factional struggle of 10 years’ duration.

Most of all, Reuther was completely identified with the auto workers. Following his return from Europe in 1934, he had plunged into the task of organizing the unorganized Detroit auto workers. By 1936, he was elected to the UAW’s national executive board at that year’s convention. By 1937, he had succeeded in amalgamating a number of small Detroit West Side shops into one big local, which gave him the original solid base in the membership on which he was to build his power.

Thus Reuther had grown up in the auto workers’ ranks and participated in their struggles. And he knew how to exploit this fact. No matter how high he rose above the ranks or how far he moved away from their aspirations and needs, he was always careful that it was not so high and so far as to lose connection with them. Other UAW leaders, as shrewd and talented as Reuther, lost sight of this fundamental fact and sooner or later came a cropper.

This history of Reuther’s rise to power is the history of the factional wars that raged inside the UAW from 1937 to 1947. There were no fundamental, well-defined differences in program between the contending leaders and there were many shifts and realignments in the unprincipled contest for posts and power.

Homer Martin made his bid for supreme control following the 1937 GM strike. He tried to curb “wildcat” strikes in GM with a letter to the company offering it the right to “discipline” participants in “unauthorized” walkouts. When his high-handed methods ran into opposition, he raised the hue and cry about “communists” and “socialists” and tried to change the constitution to give him more powers. He fired a number of organizers, including Walter and Victor Reuther. Ironically, a decade later in a period of strong reaction and witch-hunting, Walter Reuther was to put Martin’s program into effect with a vengeance, from one-man rule and “company security” clauses to redbaiting and expulsions.

Martin climaxed his headstrong course by suspending a majority of the Executive Board members. By 1939, facing defeat, he tried to take the UAW back into the AFL. But the overwhelming majority of the auto workers refused to go along. Martin split and drifted into oblivion.

The Opportunist Emerges

The period of the fight with Martin marked a decisive turning point for Reuther in a vital respect. It was then that he underwent and completed his political metamorphosis. Reuther never did have more than a sentimental attachment to socialism. He had a disdain for Marxist theory. He was a devotee of “realistic” politics, by which is usually meant opportunistic politics in which principles take second place to posts and immediate advantages. Once immersed in union maneuvers and the struggle for posts and power, Reuther’s socialism quickly melted away.

Even the light ideological baggage of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party hampered the young ambitious union leader. He figured to latch on to the political movement that offered the most promising and immediate rewards, the New Deal. In 1938 he decided to support Frank Murphy, a Democrat, for re-election as Michigan’s governor. At that time, the Socialist Party still maintained a policy of electoral independence and opposition to capitalist parties and candidates. But an amicable deal was cooked up. Reuther agreed not to embarrass the SP with a formal resignation at that time. Norman Thomas agreed to look the other way while Reuther jumped on the New Deal band wagon.

Another important aspect of Reuther’s political evolution was his collaboration with the Stalinists in the UAW, which did not end formally until 1939. His attitude toward the Stalinists then was in sharp contrast to his bitter hostility of today. It was the heyday of the Stalinist “People’s Front” and “collective security” program, when they .wooed Roosevelt and transformed him from a “fascist” into a “friend of labor.” Reuther could work with them then, although it was the time of the bloody Moscow Frame-up Trials and the betrayal of the Spanish revolution.

Significantly, his first clashes with the Stalinists were not over principles and program, but over union posts and advantages. He participated with them in the Unity Group caucus until late in 1938. But their conflict was foreshadowed at the April 1938 Michigan CIO convention. Victor Reuther was defeated for a post when the Stalinists failed to support him. This kind of blow is unforgivable to one who believes a good post is worth any number of principles. In due course, Reuther was to repay the Stalinists a hundredfold.

The 1939 Convention

The 1939 UAW convention, after Martin’s split, was no feast of harmony. On the one side was Reuther, who had the backing of the Socialist Party fraction, a number of powerful Detroit locals such as Hudson. Chrysler and his own West Side local, as well as partial support from the top CIO leaders. On the other side were the Stalinists, allied with a group of careerists, who had the stronger machine.

The Stalinist-Addes forces, despite their strength, were not anxious for any show-down fight that would put them at odds with Lewis, Murray and Hillman, while the latter wanted the semblance of “harmony.” They accepted the compromise offered by Hillman and Murray, Lewis’s representatives at the convention and agreed upon R.J. Thomas as president, whom Reuther himself supported. Hillman and Murray agreed that all vice presidential posts would be eliminated – Reuther’s included. Thus both the Stalinist-Addes and Reuther factions stepped back in favor of a man with no following at the time who had but recently jumped off Homer Martin’s band wagon.

In 1940 and 1941, when the Stalin-Hitler pact, the unleashing of the European war and the Finnish-Soviet war inspired anti-Soviet hostility in this country, Reuther became the leader of the most conservative elements in the UAW. He lined himself up in the CIO with Sidney Hillman against John L. Lewis and became the most open UAW supporter of the Roosevelt administration’s drive toward war. He became a vicious opponent of strikes and pushed Hillman’s policy of complete union submission to the war machine and government boards.

At the July 1941 convention of the UAW, Reuther’s faction commanded a majority. He took advantage of it to shove through the first anti-democratic change in the UAW’s constitution – a discriminatory amendment barring “communists” from elective and appointive offices in the International. Reuther tried to bar the delegates from the Stalinist-led Allis-Chalmers local of Milwaukee from being seated and smear their strike. He pushed through a resolution condemning the strike of the North American Aviation workers, which Roosevelt broke with the use of federal troops.

Stalinists Outdo Reuther

But fate proved momentarily unkind to Reuther. Hitler had marched against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and the Stalinists were not to be outdone in servile support of American imperialism and strikebreaking. The Roosevelt-Stalin war alliance was mirrored in the unity between the Murray-Hillman and Stalinist machines in the CIO to enforce the no-strike pledge and support of War Labor Board arbitration. Reuther was outflanked from the right.

Now he could only try to compete with the Stalinists in demonstrations of loyalty to the war government, support of the no-strike pledge, schemes for labor-management committees to improve the speed-up, and the notorious “equality of sacrifice” program for which the auto workers were induced to give up their overtime premium pay.

In order to preserve his faction and differentiate himself from the Addes-Stalinist group, Reuther found it more and more necessary to maneuver with the militants. At the 1943 convention, he found a means of hitting a blow at his opponents from the left. He led the fight against the Stalinist resolution for the “incentive pay” system and it was defeated. Almost everyone in the CIO, outside the Stalinists, opposed “incentive pay,” so Reuther took no risk. He joined with the Stalinists at the same convention, however, in reaffirming the no-strike pledge and complete submission to the war program.

On the slippery terrain of the war period, Reuther’s shifty foot-work brought him close to disaster. His prestige rank to its lowest point at the 1944 convention as the result of his shabby maneuvers over the no-strike pledge, during the stormiest debate in UAW history.

He first tried to prevent the resolution for unconditional repeal of the no-strike pledge from being presented with proposed rule to limit debate to a “majority” and a “minority” resolution, the Addes-Stalinist group’s and Reuther’s respectively, both reaffirming support of the no-strike pledge. The delegates howled this trick down and forced a Vote on all the resolutions.

Reuther’s resolution upholding the no-strike pledge contained a meaningless proviso, that between the end of the war in Germany (nine months off) and the end of the war in Japan the Executive Board be empowered to “authorize strike action” in plants “reconverted to the exclusive and sole manufacture of civilian production” (of which there were none).

Reuther was cut to pieces by both sides in the debate.

The opposition to the no-strike pledge, led by the Rank and File Caucus, in which the Trotskyists played a big role, piled up 36% of the votes. The “majority” resolution was defeated with slightly less than a majority. Reuther’s resolution was backed by less than 5% of the delegates. Reuther then joined with the rest of the leaders to squeeze through the unconditional no-strike pledge.

Reuther was an unabashed strikebreaker against “wildcat” walk-outs of the increasingly rebellious auto workers. He personally joined with Addes in attempting to break the 1944 Chrysler strike. His name was badly tarnished until the 1945-46 GM strike. Then, through this strike, at one stroke he was able to gain enough support from the militants, added to his caucus strength, to gather a narrow majority and win his longed-for UAW presidency.

Reuther and the GM Strike of 1945-46

The GM strike marked the big turn in Reuther’s fortunes. The initiative was first taken at a conference of 400 local union officials from two big UAW regions in Detroit on June 14, 1945. Against the opposition of the whole UAW International Executive Board, the conference went on record for a 30% wage increase and the holding of an NLRB strike vote. As director of the UAW’s GM Department, Reuther first tried to put the lid on the question of strike, although he covered himself with militant phrases. He stalled off strike action for months. Finally, on Nov. 21, he stepped to the head of the mounting movement and announced the strike was on.

Due to the “one-at-a-time” strategy Reuther had put through the Executive Board, the strike was to turn into a grueling 113-day battle. Reuther’s policy was to limit the strike to GM. The most advanced militants wanted to spread it to bring the full weight of the million auto workers to bear on the entire industry and force it quickly to terms.

Truman first unsuccessfully ordered the GM workers to go back without a settlement, then resorted to his “fact-finding” board procedure, designed to whittle down the union’s demands. Reuther complied with this procedure – the first time it was ever used. In the end, the GM workers’ endurance and fighting spirit, augmented by the strikes in steel an dother industries, won an 18½-cent raise.

Reuther had proved more quick to adapt himself to the resurgent militancy of the auto workers than had Thomas, Addes and the other UAW leaders, who gave the GM strike only indifferent support. The Stalinists, with whom the latter were tied at the time, were thoroughly discredited. Thus, riding the crest of the GM victory, Reuther ousted Thomas as president at the March 1946 convention.

But in the very moment of his triumph, Reuther dropped his “militant” mask. He conducted his campaign for the presidency on strictly clique lines. He was silent on all the basic issues, the Ford “company security” clause which he had approved in the Executive Board, the participation of union leaders on government boards. He concentrated on winning conservative elements, making unscrupulous deals for posts to gain the backing of Jim-Crow and even gangster types, like Richard Gosser of Toledo. He talked about “responsible” leadership – meaning one opposed to class struggle. His keynote was “unity,” an end to factions (all but his own. of course) and to what CIO President Philip Murray, in his’convention address, termed “internal bickering.” Reuther demonstratively promised he would be a “source of strength” to Murray, that timid apostle of “class harmony.”

Reuther Gains a Clean Sweep

The 1946 convention did not give Reuther all that he sought – complete rule. His faction was in a minority on the Executive Board – the delegates didn’t trust him with undivided power. By the next convention, however, he was able to make a clean sweep. This time it was not the militants who backed him. As in 1940 and 1941, he lined up the most conservative and reactionary elements, concluding an unsavory alliance even with the priest-ridden Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. The keynote of his program was anti-communism and red-baiting.

The reactionary trend was deepening in the country. Truman had proclaimed his “doctrine” of “containing Communism” everywhere in the world. Apathy and conservative moods dominated many workers and this was favorable to Reuther’s cause. He pushed through the resolution ordering the UAW officers to comply with the Taft-Hartley law and rode rough-shod over the opposition to take full control.

With the union reins firmly in his hands, Reuther has unfolded his real program for the union. Its essential features are centralizing of power and curbing of internal democracy; crippling of militancy; collaborating with the corporations in imposing long-term contracts; restricting real wage gains while boosting speed-up and man-hour output. The auto workers are being put on a “war footing.”

Reuther has ruthlessly pursued his drive to extirpate opposition. At the 1949 convention, his executive board secured powers to bring to trial and expel local union members. A campaign of local trials and expulsions has been instituted, since the start of the Korean war, against those accused of not supporting the war. Reuther has endorsed contracts permitting company managements to fire alleged “subversives.”

“Company security” clauses – the right of managements to “discipline” participants in so-called “unauthorized” strikes – have been incorporated, in one form or another, in all major contracts. The shop-steward method of settling grievances has been supplanted by the “impartial umpire,” who on all important issues rules in favor of the company.

In 1949, to head off a strike at Ford, Reuther picked up the recommendations of Truman’s Steel Fact-Finding Board and agreed to no wage increase in return for a pension limited to f 100 a month, including social security, payable to workers over 65 after 30 years of service. Reuther’s “pattern” undercut the demands of the CIO Steelworkers, who, after a prolonged strike, settled for a similar pension plan without wage gains.

A reputation has been fabricated for Reuther as a “slick” negotiator. Much light has been shed on this during the past three years. His “slickness” consists in wangling small concessions in exchange for yielding previous gains or surrendering the union’s major demands. Thus, in 1948, he agreed to a poorly worked out cost-of-living escalator clause, but gave away most of the GM workers’ demand for higher basic hourly pay. Also, for the first time he abandoned the one-year contract and signed a two-year pact.

The long-term contract has become the heart of Reuther’s policy of collaboration with the corporations and stripping the union of its fighting powers. This year Reuther introduced the 5-year contract, which binds the workers not to demand anything for five years and fixes a ceiling of four cents an hour annually for increases in basic wages. This policy, begun in GM, has been extended to Ford and other companies.

How Reuther Negotiates

How important a victory the corporations consider the long-term contract was indicated by the satisfaction expressed by GM President Charles E. Wilson, who pointed out that GM’s rate of man-hour output will increase for the next five years. He did not fail to hail Reuther for accepting “the principle of progress” and said, “The boys (Reuther & Co.) deserve a lot of credit.” Business Week summed up GM’s gain:

“GM has bought five years of labor peace. Its workers, with nothing to fight over for the next half decade save minor grievances, will almost forget they are union men. By 1955, UAW’s GM unit may no longer be a militant bargainer.”

At least, that is GM’s hope. And Ford’s.

How has Reuther been able to put over his reactionary union policy? He has depended heavily, of course, on such classic methods of the union bureaucrats as suppression of criticism and opposition, centralization of power in the top leaders, curbing rank-and-file militancy.

But Reuther does not rely solely on these crude methods. He understands the traditions of the auto workers and has respect for the volcanic forces latent in the ranks. Despite his earnest desire to establish himself as an effective moderator of the class struggle and to enforce the “rule, of the conference table” for the “rule of the picket line,” he has been compelled time and again in the years since 1947 to tolerate and go along with strikes. In 1948 the Chrysler strike had to be endorsed and in 1949 the Ford anti-speed-up strike broke over his head. This past summer a wave of strikes spurred Reuther to hasty negotiations for wage increases.

He has not dared to move as fast as he would have liked against opposition and has been forced to impose a certain restraint and caution on the most reactionary elements in the union who want to go “all-out” at once on the “commies” and the militants. When the company stooges and ACTU gang at the outbreak of the Korean war started hoodlum attacks on alleged “communists” in several auto plants, Reuther sensed that a big kick-back would ensue from the democratic-minded auto workers and issued a warning against such methods, advising the more “legal” means of formal trial procedures and expulsions.

Above all, in maintaining his hold on the ranks, Reuther knows how to cover himself with a mantle of “progressivism” and “social progress.” Of all the union leaders, he is the most adept at social demagogy. He does not even disdain to borrow slogans from the most anti-capitalist revolutionary source, the Trotskyists, when this serves his ends.

Thus, in the 1946 GM strike he picked up the “Open the Books of the Corporations” slogan from the Socialist Workers Party. It was an effective piece of propaganda in exposing the reluctance of GM to reveal its true profits. But Reuther turned the “Open the Books” slogan into a demand not for the unions right to investigate the corporation’s records, but for the government’s. After the strike, Reuther quickly dropped the slogan.

Reuther’s cost-of-living escalator clause was likewise borrowed from the Trotskyist program of the sliding scale of wages to adjust wage rates automatically to the rising cost of living. But in his hands it was used as a device to limit gains in basic real wages and to justify the imposition of long-term contracts.

Reuther’s reputation and the widespread publicity he gets, however, are based on more than his role and activities as a union leader. More and more he fancies himself in the part of a “social engineer” and “labor statesman,” as the prototype of the labor leader whose functions reach out to national and world affairs.

His reputation as an advanced “social thinker” and “bold planner” is based on the various schemes he has elaborated from time to time for dealing with important social and political problems. All his plans have one thing in common: their brief span of life. None has survived more than a few months.

Typical was his scheme to convert idle aircraft factories into the production of 20,000,000 pre-fabricated housing units in 10 years and thus solve both the acute housing problem and the growing unemployment that appeared in 1949. At that time Reuther sneered at the demand for the 30-hour week at 40 hours’ pay to meet unemployment and called it “idealistic and a dream at this time.” Today his own scheme is forgotten. He had no program of action to put it into effect and, besides, the aircraft plants are producing war planes for Truman’s tremendously increased armaments program.

Just after the Korean war began, Reuther came forth with his most grandiose scheme. It was nothing less than “A Total Peace Offensive” to “stop Communist aggression by taking the initiative in the world contest for men’s minds, hearts and loyalties.” This was to be accomplished through a program of “both” the “building of adequate military defense” and “launching total war against poverty and human insecurity” throughout the world. His main proposition called for the expenditure by the United States of $13 billion annually for 100 years (1950-2050) – a total cost of one trillion, 300 billion dollars – for economic and social benefits, part to be made available even to the Soviet Union. This vast sum was to be spent in addition to the then already staggering federal budget of $42 billion a year. This super-duper “Marshall Plan” was offered just when a CIO committee was bringing back from Western Europe a damning report on the original Marshall Plan which, they testified, had been a “miserable failure” so far as the workers were concerned and had only further enriched the wealthy.

Scarcely was Reuther’s new scheme in print, when Truman demanded and Congress enacted “supplemental appropriations” even larger than Reuther talked of. But the $18½ billion a year more that Washington is extracting from the American people is going exclusively for the “adequate military defense” (read imperialist war) part of Reuther’s program. What the American people and the rest of the world are going to get from the administration which Reuther supports is higher taxes, inflation, shortages, less housing, repression, military dictatorship, wage freezes, longer hours and finally the descent into annihilating atomic war.

An Apologist for Imperialism

Nevertheless this latest, stillborn “plan” of Reuther’s indicates how his mind operates and what his function as a labor leader is. He is aware that the American workers – including the auto workers – are very suspicious of the aims of American capitalism in the rest of the world and at home. They are wondering why Washington is supporting reactionary, anti-labor regimes in Europe and Asia, if its aims are so democratic. Is there to be another war to fatten the corporations and tear down labor’s living standards? Reuther is convinced that to get and keep the support of the workers for militarization, it is necessary to give the war program the cover of professed progressive social aims.

It is as an apologist and “left” cover for American imperialism and its war program that Reuther’s greatest significance lies. He is, in fact, the most aggressive and able representative in the labor movement of that most treacherous and deceptive tendency – social imperialism – represented in classical form by the European Social Democrats.

“Social imperialists” was the term Lenin applied to “socialists” who supported their own imperialist rulers in the First World War – “socialists in words, imperialists in deeds.” The present-day social imperialist does not even remain “socialist” in words, but, like Reuther, speaks of grandiose reforms for capitalism.

Reuther is the darling of the pro-war liberals and Social Democrats, who long ago recognized him as “our boy,” embraced, publicized and praised him. It is they – with Reuther’s conscious assistance – who have contributed most to the myth of Reuther as a new-type labor leader who combines aggressive militancy in union economic struggles with streamlined organizational efficiency and, most of all, far-seeing social vision. The real Reuther is a coldly calculating opportunist, able to play the “militant” one day and the “responsible” aide to the ruling class the next, who knows how to cater to the aspirations of the ranks with high-sounding “social plans” which he never follows through with a program of action.

As Reuther sits in his presidential chair at the UAW headquarters in Detroit, he can, see above him and before him the presidency of the CIO. Today he is widely spoken of as a likely successor to aging and ailing Philip Murray.

But he sees something more. Beyond the CIO presidency looms the prospect of political power in Washington.

Reuther’s ambitions are not so cramped as those of an old-type union leader like Murray. He represents a new and higher stage in the development of American labor. He does not want to limit his game to that of passive apologist for Wall Street’s brutal plans for world domination. He sees himself and the labor bureaucracy, resting on the tremendous organized power of the unions, as more than propagandists and “labor advisers” on government boards, as in the last war.

The Political Ambitions of a Reuther

He envisions himself and the labor bureaucracy cut out for leading parts in running the government and determining its policies. He does not think that a government of “dollar-a-year” corporation executives can command the loyalty of the workers and keep them in line. For this, he believes, the labor leaders will be needed in commanding government posts.

He has many times indicated his admiration of the British labor leaders who have been in control of the British government since 1945. And he has had before him the example of the Social Democrats in Western Europe who have held top posts in coalition capitalist governments.

He has toyed around with the idea of a “third party” and even spoke of it tentatively in 1948, but dropped it when Truman was nominated for president. He has been the chief labor figure in Americans for Democratic Action, a formation of pro-war liberal and Social Democratic elements, which is seeking to build itself as an organizationally independent wing of “progressive” capitalist politics.

Does Reuther dream of himself as the American Attlee who will some day save US capitalism from itself? If he has not permitted himself that hope, it is not because he feels unqualified.

But what Walter Reuther may become will be determined not by his individual desires and ambitions, but by the self-same forces in the class struggle that have carried him to his present prominence. The decisive factor in his further career will be the auto workers and the CIO movement as a whole. He must go where they go – or he will not go with them at all.

Reuther must always be mindful and watchful of those hundreds of thousands of workers in the plant of Detroit. Flint and a score of other industrial centers who hold his destiny in their mighty hands. They have made Reuther what he is; they can unmake him or cause him to modify his conduct tomorrow or the day after.

But it would be unrealistic to expect any basic change in the characteristics and role which he has displayed in his ascent to office and his activities in it. These have become second nature to him. When it comes to the showdown, Reuther for all his bold talk readily yields to pressures from the government and the corporations. That is why he cannot give the auto workers the leadership they must have to maintain their conditions and go forward. That is why the aim of the militants is not to “reform” Reuther but to replace him.

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Last updated: 21.12.2005