Walter Reuther – a Social Pioneer for Our Time

Posted by: on October 9th, 2020

Rare is the man who rises out of impoverished circumstances to challenge the greatest thinkers and politicians of his time.

Walter Reuther was born in 1907 to austere German immigrant parents who valued education and hard work. He was raised in Wheeling, West Virginia, but followed a jobs tip to Detroit Michigan where he became a skilled tool and die maker and later went on to become the President of the UAW from 1946 until his untimely death in 1970. During that time became known as “the most dangerous man in Detroit.” [1]

He marched in Detroit, Selma and Montgomery with Martin Luther King, he was personal friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, presented a plan to Franklin D Roosevelt to convert Ford Motors plants into a war time plant during WWII and developed the War on Poverty plan adopted by Lyndon Johnson. He never strayed from his values, he never gave in to the demands of those who wished to hijack his intellect and influence. His life was continuously threatened and cut short by a plane wreck that was not only tragic, but for many, suspicious.

Women’s Rights are Everyone’s Rights

I learned about the late Walter Reuther by a mentor mine, Pat Nelson, who had a personal story to tell about following him to the podium at a national meeting with UAW members.  

The way he tells it, the audience was mostly new members. Reuther delivered a talk about the importance of having a bigger vision of life than one’s current job and he encouraged plant line workers to think of their job like a steppingstone. He said look at who is coming up behind you and make room for them. More importantly (and the message I never forgot) he said UAW membership will cease to grow unless we become more inclusive. This was the early 60’s and Reuther’s message was not warmly received by the membership.

Pat said when he followed Reuther to the podium, there were two pieces of paper laying side-by-side. One said WOMEN’S in big letters and the other said RIGHTS.  I have thought about this story many times over the years. I have read numerous books on the life of Walter Reuther and I believe he was greatly inspired by the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements of the time and was probably thinking about how to address the sea of faces before him, male and mostly white, and bring them closer to his way of thinking.

Use Your Voice to Make a Positive Impact

No wonder Reuther took notice of my mentor, Pat. He was the youngest local President of one the largest UAW locals in the nation (an International Harvester Plant in Dayton Ohio) and was forging negotiating strategies no doubt inspired by Reuther. He fought for strike wage replacement benefits for part-timers, four day work weeks that would allow workers to go to school one day a week (and he set up cooperative programs with surrounding colleges) and the right for workers to negotiate limits to the environmental impact of the plant on community streams (where workers fished) and air quality. He filed innumerable grievances on dumping practices that led to him being placed on night shift to get him out of the way.

In short, he was a social pioneer way ahead of his time and a wellspring of encouragement for me and so many others.

Extraordinary change happens when we live a life that reflects our inner values and is channeled into energy that is used to make a positive impact. Like Reuther or Pat, we may see injustice and unrealized potential in the world around us and our challenge is to make our voices heard.

How many of us can relate to the challenge of seeing future potential and not knowing how to bring it into fruition?

Here are some takeaways for me:

  • Reuther understood that workers want to preserve their status as skilled craftsman and his focus was two-fold; allow them to have a voice in how to improve quality in the plant and also encourage them to mentor others in exchange for greater status.
  • Vision is possible from any stakeholder, including unionized employees, if given a voice.
  • Social equity and inclusive practices are pre-requisites for future growth and regeneration.
  • Likewise, exclusive practices will prevent an organization from realizing its potential.
  • Education and learning propel organizations members to grow and benefits both the worker and the organization.

“Walter Reuther was to black people the most widely known and respected white labor leader in the nation.  He was there when the storm clouds were thick.  We remember him in Montgomery.  He was in Birmingham.  He marched with us in Selma, and Jackson, Mississippi and Washington…Only yesterday there he was once more in Charleston, South Carolina, the leader of a million and a half workers giving personal support to a strike of only 400 black women…He was a big man, so of course he had enemies and detractors.  He had the courage to be with the minority when it was right.  He was a simple man in his personal life, a rare quality in these flamboyant times…but if his ways were simple, his ideas were grand.  He aroused the imagination of millions…” – Coretta Scott King at the Reuthers’ memorial service

Rev. Martin Luther King marches down Woodward Ave. during the Walk to Freedom on June 23, 1963.
WALTER P. REUTHER LIBRARY / WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY

[1] The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit by Nelson Lichtenstein was published in 1995, some 25 years after Reuther’s untimely and – at least to his family – suspicious death in 1970. The book is a 500-page account of Reuther’s life in the context of the American Labor Movement.

About Nancy J. Hess

I help leaders pioneer extraordinary change through high engagement and whole systems approaches that focus on HR and People.