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Walter P. Reuther, Labor Leader, Born

Marion S. Trikosko, photographer. President Walter Reuther speaking at a lectern at an United Auto Workers (UAW) convention, Detroit, Michigan. 1958. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Walter Reuther was born in Wheeling, WV, on September 1, 1907. As a teenager he was heavily influenced by Eugene V. Debs, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who ran for President of the United States several times as a member of the Socialist Party of America. Reuther quit school early, got a job, and in the late 1920s he moved to Detroit. After moving to Detroit he went to work at Ford's River Rouge plant. His brothers Victor and Roy joined him in Detroit where the three brothers became more involved in the socialism movement. They took a tour of Europe in the 1930s and ended up in the Soviet Union where they were able to see the workings of a Soviet automobile factory.

Reuther joined the United Automobile Workers (UAW) early after its founding in 1935 and wasted no time making waves. Soon he was elected to the UAW's national Executive Board and also organized, and became president of, UAW Local 174. He played a key role in planning the successful 1937 sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan, and then went to secure similar UAW recognition from Ford. George Romney, the former governor of Michigan is reported to have considered Reuther “the most dangerous man in Detroit.”1

He led UAW's General Motors department and became the UAW vice president. During World War II, he served with the Office of Production Management, the War Manpower Commission and the War Production Board. After the war, he led another successful General Motors strike and was elected the 4th president of the United Automobile Workers in 1946 where he served as president until his death in 1970.

In his early years he supported communism, but over time and after becoming president of the UAW, he became disenchanted and ultimately supported the anti-communist provisions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Reuther became president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1952, and joined with George Meany, then president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), to negotiate the merger of the two groups that culminated in 1955. He continued working with the UAW, but UAW relations with the AFL-CIO were rocky. In 1968, he pulled the UAW out of the AFL-CIO and formed the Alliance for Labor Action with the Teamsters, but this organization foundered when on May 9, 1970 Reuther and his wife were killed in a plane crash, and was ultimately disbanded in 1972.

Outside of his direct union activities, Reuther supported the Civil Rights movement, participated in the March on Washington, and served on the board of the NAACP. He also supported other unions' activities including Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers and, under his leadership, the UAW were big supporters of what became the first Earth Day in 1970.

His legacy lives on. The Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, was created in 1960 on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit. It houses collections of primary documents from the United Automobile Workers (UAW), National Association of Letter Carriers, AFSCME, United Farm Workers Office of the President, and more. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 by President Bill Clinton and TIME include him on their list of "100 Persons of The Century."

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  1. Bill Loomis, "Walter Reuther was labor legend on a global scale" Detroit News, September 2, 2017 (accessed August 3, 2023). Back to text