A grassroots movement challenges Citizens United, corporate power, and…
Brothers On The Line
Narrated by Martin Sheen, Brothers On The Line is an award-winning documentary feature exploring the extraordinary journey of the Reuther brothers — prolific union organizers who led an army of laborers into an epic struggle for social justice. At the height of the Great Depression, a new industrial revolution came to life in Michigan’s colossal car factories. Taking a stand against oppressive conditions, young autoworkers Walter, Roy, and Victor Reuther faced intimidation and physical violence from “security” agents in their effort to coordinate sit-down strikes, the most successful occurring at the General Motors facilities in Flint. Their bold rhetoric and actions challenged the mighty automakers, won unprecedented quality-of-life gains, gave a voice to the rank-and-file, and established the United Auto Workers as one of the most powerful unions in American history.
On his ascent to the UAW presidency, Walter Reuther is hailed as a skilled negotiator and orator, with his brothers as advisors on community, legislative, and international affairs. The White House frequently sought the brothers’ counsel. The UAW provided support to a burgeoning civil rights movement and farmworker campaigns, forging a deep alliance with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Cesar Chavez. Meanwhile, a web of adversaries — company officials, conservative politicians, and organized crime — are threatened by the incendiary Reuther brothers and determined to silence them. Shotgun blasts shattered calm nights as assassination attempts severely injured Walter and Victor and shook the family to its core. With increasing clout on the national stage and dissent within the UAW simmering, the trio faced heart-wrenching consequences at the crossroads of their loyalty to lawmakers and militant rank-and-file roots.
Directed by Victor Reuther's grandson Sasha, and featuring evocative archival footage, a pulsating soundtrack, as well as first-hand accounts from labor, management, and political personalities including one of the last interviews with Senator Ted Kennedy, Brothers On The Line is a stirring personal story of sacrifice, perseverance, triumph, and tragedy. The odyssey of the Reuther brothers resonates far beyond their era. It remains an influential and often controversial 40-year crusade that contributed to building a robust middle class while compelling American democracy to live up to its promise of equality.
"Searing scenes...a concise and moving story...and it needs to be told to every generation." Steven Greenhouse, The New York Times
"Inspiring...If you want to know how we once created a 'middle class' - and what it will probably take to get it back - watch this movie. It is a great piece of filmmaking about an under covered part of our American history." Michael Moore, American documentary filmmaker
"Highly Recommended...Remarkable work that provides insight on both the national implications of the American labor movement from its inception, and the personal details of the lives of key players...A simply perfect assembly of historical evidence." Michael J. Coffta, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Educational Media Reviews Online
"This well-researched documentary deservedly celebrates the organization's positive impact on 20th-century history. Recommended." P. Hall, Video Librarian
"Very highly recommended for adult collections concerned with U.S. and labor history." Cliff Glaviano, Library Journal
"Technically superb...Presents the good as well as questionable aspects of the brothers' actions...An ideal film for use in economic anthropology, culture of capitalism, and the anthropology of work courses." Thomas Stevenson, Anthropology Review Database
"Poignant...Underscores just how far the auto workers progressed in American society...An emotional era when white labor leaders joined in allegiance with black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to combine their fierce dedication for broadening opportunities and advancing the political and social power that could be forged." Robert Lenzner, Forbes
"Brothers on the Line is an intimate and honest portrait of the Reuther brothers' deep commitment - visionary, courageous, passionate, shrewd, and ruthless - to organizing auto workers into the most powerful and influential U.S. labor union in the 20th century. This excellent labor history documentary includes a rich array of archival footage depicting daring and fearless industrial workers fighting to build working class power in the face of violent corporate repression. It a gem of an educational tool that is mandatory viewing in my labor history class - which my students confirm year after year." Gene Carroll, Cornell ILR School Worker Institute Fellow, and Adjunct Faculty, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies
"A story of the Greatest Generation, Brothers On the Line recounts the twentieth-century campaigns by American autoworkers to advance and secure industrial and social democracy in the United States. It is essential viewing at this time of labor's resurgence and working Americans' growing aspirations to redeem and build upon the democratic achievements of the New Deal and Great Society years." Harvey J. Kaye, Professor Emeritus of Democracy and Justice Studies, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Author, The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great
"A compelling and honest film that documents the creation of one of the U. S.'s preeminent unions and the integral role played by three courageous brothers in this monumental achievement. As both a stirring personal story and a thoughtful account of social unionism, Brothers on the Line can be used in both undergraduate and adult education settings to introduce students to important themes in U. S. labor and working-class history." Bob Bussel, Professor Emeritus of History, Labor Education and Research Center, University of Oregon
"Remarkable and engaging...An exceptionally well-told account." David Moberg, In These Times
"A time when a handsome, eloquent working-class leader-flanked by his indefatigable younger brothers-could go toe-to-toe with the bosses publicly and win on a regular basis, seems today more like fantasy than history. For that reason alone, Brothers On The Line deserves a wide audience." Jefferson Cowie, Dissent Magazine
"Brothers On the Line shows us that the struggle for workers' rights goes hand in hand with the battles for a more humane society...Among Walmart's more than one million American workers, there are many potential union leaders...Perhaps there are even three sisters who now work at Walmart and will become national leaders in this new wave of workplace organizing." Peter Dreier, Huffington Post
"Historically striking and fast-paced...I kept asking myself, 'Why don't I know about this?'" Alex Knotman, Eugene Weekly
"A touching homage to three working-class men who played an underappreciated role in every major social movement during 40 years of American history." Trey Pollard, Washington City Paper
"Nothing speaks to us greater than the role of the unsung hero...Brothers On The Line will leave you feeling inspired." Patrick Mitchell, The Film Yap
"This film is brilliant...A remarkable piece of history as well as a cautionary tale for our times." Thom Hartmann, The Big Picture
"Unabashedly truthful...A clarion call to all workers from whatever class they think they're from to decide which side they're on." Ron Verzuh, Labor Historian, Author, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for Its Life in Wartime Western Canada
"UAW Wisconsin stood with Brothers On the Line at the premiere last night in Madison. Proud and emotional night for us. Sasha Reuther tells a story in film like Victor told in voice. Thank you." John Drew, Regional Representative, United Auto Workers (UAW)
"A moving, insightful, and well put together documentary that anyone with an interest in history, civil rights, and documentary filmmaking should see, if only to see how much of a difference a few can make for so many." Patrick Samuel, Static Mass Emporium
"Inspiring...Reminds us of an important period in American history and teaches valuable lessons that today's labor movement must learn for its own survival." Mike Konopacki, Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
"This is an excellent introduction to the history of the UAW and the many contributions organized working people have made to American life. Brothers On the Line powerfully recounts not only the rise of the Reuther brothers, but the crucial role unions have played in the long and ongoing struggle to make the United States of America a nation truly of, by, and for the people." Jason Resnikoff, Assistant Professor of Contemporary History, University of Groningen, Author, Labor's End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work
"A gripping portrait of three fearless, visionary fighters for worker justice. Brothers On the Line reveals why millions of Americans turned to unions in the 1930s and how the labor movement they created moved the society toward fairness and equality. Evocative and thoughtful, this beautifully rendered history raises profound questions of how we can revalue work and restore shared prosperity." Dorothy Sue Cobble, Distinguished Professor Emerita, History and Labor Studies, Rutgers University
Reuther, Sasha (film producer)
Reuther, Sasha (film director)
Reuther, Sasha (screenwriter)
Roth, Nancy (film producer)
Reuther, Victor G (interviewee)
Sheen, Martin (narrator)
Cinematography by Joe Gabriel; editor, Deborah Peretz; original music by Michael Whalen.
Distributor subjectsNo distributor subjects provided.
BROTHERS ON THE LINE
Director/Co-Producer, Sasha Reuther
FINAL TRANSCRIPT – February 2012
Mike Wallace: Good evening. Tonight from Detroit, we go after the story of conflict between big business and big labor, between the automobile companies and the United Auto Workers…a struggle that promises to shape the future of our entire economic system.
“Which Side Are You On?” – Song
Detroit Factories – Current Day
(ON-SCREEN: “Detroit, Michigan – 2008”)
NARRATOR (Martin Sheen): Once a goliath of industrial innovation and the engine for a nation’s economy, the Motor City is now running on empty. But these hollow factories embody more than just the dramatic rise and fall of American auto. They were the incubators for a powerful social movement that extended beyond the members of a union and challenged the status quo. At the center of this struggle were three brothers whose progressive leadership inspired action and left an extraordinary though equally contentious legacy.
1920’s Industry/Walter Arrives/Factory Conditions
Kevin Boyle: In the early days of the 20th Century, the automobile industry is the most important industry in America…the most important industry in the world. This is an industry that didn’t exist in 1900. By 1920, it’s the dominant force in the American economy and the American economy is the dominant force in the world.
NAR: In 1927, Detroit’s metal foundries, part suppliers, and manufacturers were employing over 300,000 workers – one-fifth of the city’s population. Among the massive influx of new hires was Walter Reuther, a 20-year-old red-haired toolmaker fresh from West Virginia. That winter, Reuther landed his first job at the Briggs Manufacturing Company.
Walter: Most everybody that came to Detroit in that period always started out at Briggs and they only stayed there until they could get a decent job because it was considered a real butcher shop, ya know, just impossible. We worked thirteen hours a night with a 30 minute lunch period. And I worked there twenty-one nights in a row…Saturdays, Sundays and right through at thirteen hours a night. And it was big, rough heavy work.
Boyle: The discipline inside plants tended to be vicious. The plant manager would say to his foreman ‘give me as many parts as you can in X hours’ and his job was to drive workers as hard as he possibly could to do that. What workers found, and there were thousands and thousands of workers because it was a huge industry, is that they were killing themselves.
Great Depression/Tough Road to Unionization/Violence
Walter: I must have been a pretty good mechanic otherwise I never would have survived. Because the facts are, when I got to Detroit, things were very, very bad. The whole of Detroit was going through a great depression.
(ON-SCREEN: newspaper headlines reveal impact of the Great Depression.)
Lowenstein: There would be masses of men, and they were all men back then, at the gates every morning desperate for work. If they didn’t get an offer, they came back the next day. There were bonfires out there keeping them warm.
NAR: Those fortunate enough to hang on to their jobs were essentially slaves to the company. The American Federation of Labor, an umbrella organization of craft unions led by Samuel Gompers, afforded some protection to skilled workers. In the auto industry however, skilled workers only made up 10% of the workforce. The rank-and-file majority had no rights and Walter was compelled to do something. Joined by his two younger brothers, Victor and Roy, the trio began the risky effort of talking to these workers about standing up for their rights and organizing a union.
Boyle: Unionization really hadn’t made any headway at all in the mass production industries, which were the big industries. And they didn’t make any headway because the owners of those industries, Henry Ford is the classic example, were absolutely utterly opposed to any idea of unionization and did whatever they could to keep the unions out.
Kerwin: If people tried to organize a union, you could count on it that the company in one way or another would have a way of getting back at you. And of course, losing your job in the Depression was an important way. But having a gang of guys follow you home and beat the stuffings out of you, was another way…and then there were people who lost their lives.
(ON-SCREEN: newspaper headlines announce FDR presidency and Wagner Act.)
NAR: Before the ink was dry on the Wagner Act, organizers seized the opportunity. John L. Lewis, leader of the United Mine Workers, broke from the AFL to establish a rival federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO sought to unite all workers - skilled and unskilled, black and white, men and women - initially targeting two key industries: steel and auto.
Boyle: Lewis recruited this group of very young, very idealistic, working-class men and women to go out and actually do the job of unionizing these industries. But, you can’t just walk into General Motors one day and say ‘we’d like a union please’, that’s not gonna go anywhere. You’ve got to organize the workers in the factories. And that’s where people like the Reuthers came in. The Reuthers were raised in a German Socialist family and the lessons they took from that were that workers had a right to unionize, to represent themselves and their interests. And that what a union should do is it should try to make society more egalitarian, more open, more fair.
NAR: Raised in Wheeling, West Virginia, a small town of railroad tracks and mineshafts, the Reuthers were a close family. There were 5 children: eldest brother Ted, followed by Walter, Roy, Victor, and baby sister Christine. Their mother, Anna, kept the home and managed the finances while father, Valentine, worked as a beer wagon driver and union organizer for the Ohio Valley AFL.
Victor: We listened to many lectures from my father over dinner hours and on weekends about these social ills in the country: low wages, miserable housing, corporations that were quite vicious in their handling of trade union or labor problems. So this was really the beginning of developing an active involvement in social affairs.
Alan: My father and Walter and Victor were just so convinced of the righteousness of the union movement as a social movement. It was almost quasi-religious. So it was like, well this is sort of the revealed truth and obviously you would believe in that because that’s what’s right and just.
Boyle: By late 1935 all the way through 1936, the organizers like the Reuther brothers are working on the west side of Detroit, they’re working up in Flint, they’re trying to convince workers to join a union and in some senses, they’ve really hit a chord.
Lowell: People would approach you and tell you about the union…ask if you’d like to join up, you know…tell you what their aim was.
Conyers: I remember my Dad telling me you had to where your union button on the inside of your undershirt, because if they caught you wearing one, you were fired and frequently beat up.
NAR: In the fall of 1936, under the banner of the fledgling United Auto Workers union, local offices began to spring up in and around Detroit. Founder and president of West Side Local 174, Walter Reuther, with brother Victor by his side, sought to recruit members.
Walter: I became the head of the west side area of our union, informally. I operated as though I were the head of the union there although theoretically, I had no official basis for that, other than I was a young, aggressive guy with a lot of energy and a lot of idealism and a willingness to work night and day.
(ON-SCREEN: “Kelsey Hayes Wheel Co.”)
VGR: I hired in at Kelsey Wheel for 43 cents-an-hour and the Polish women who worked beside me got 32 and a half cents-an-hour because they were women and many of them produced a hell of a lot more work than I did, their fingers were more nimble.
NAR: The speed-up at Kelsey Wheel was brutal and took a terrible toll. You could lose a finger, Victor said, if you didn’t move in proper rhythm with the line. One day, the woman working next to Victor collapsed on the shop floor from outright exhaustion. From this incident grew an idea. In a bit of strategy and dramatics, Victor appealed to the woman to faint again on cue and this time, they would be ready. She agreed, and on December 10th as the morning and afternoon shifts overlapped, she made good on her promise and collapsed to the ground. Victor leapt to action, calling the workers to strike.
VGR: I had mounted a box of parts and that was my platform, and I began shouting at the top of my voice and machine after machine were shut down until there was silence in department 49 and the superintendent couldn’t get them to turn the machines back on again. Ah, there were a few on the fringes but they wanted to hear what the hell I had to say and I told it to them straight from the shoulder that this speed up had to stop, that the safety of each of us was threatened and by god we need a union!”
Kerwin: The plant manager came in and was indignant. He said, “Come down off of there.” Victor says, “You need to talk to the head of my union and his name is Reuther.” The plant manager called Walter who was waiting in the office by the phone and said “Come over here, I’ve got to get my people back to work” and Walter said, “fine.”
Victor: Walter gets up and starts finishing the speech I was halfway through and the superintendent grabs Walter’s leg and says, “Hey, you’re supposed to get them back to work!” Walter said, “I will but I gotta organize them first.”
(ON-SCREEN: union flyer listing strike gains and date, December 1936.)
NAR: While other strikes occurred during this period, the Kelsey effort was a triumph for the young team of organizers. But Kelsey Wheel was a simple parts supplier. The critical test for the United Auto Workers leadership would be to successfully challenge one of the mighty Big 3 manufacturers. While his brothers were making waves in Detroit, Roy Reuther was 60 miles northwest in Flint, center of production for the General Motors Corporation.
Flint Sit-Down Strikes
Roy: At that particular time, all of the Chevrolet motors were built at the Chevrolet 4 Plant in Flint. This was a one-corporation town, ya see. The sheriff and the police were bought and sold really over the years by General Motors.
Victor: There was this tenseness in the air. You had a climate of opinion deliberately built up by the corporation of bitterness and hatred against the union as an institution. These are outside agitators. They’re Communists. They’re intruders. They’re bringing strife and discord to our peaceful, happy community and so on.
Roy: But, speed-up, lack of a grievance machinery and the like, this whole feeling of insecurity and not knowing whether they had a job or didn’t have a job were the big motivations for organization.
Geraldine: My dad called home on the 30th of December and said, he was on second shift, and he said, “Ida, we’re on strike. It’s a sit-down. I’ll be home when it’s over.”
Doug: We cleared the plant out of all of the officials. Much to their chagrin, you know that we, the workers, were taking over their property.
Lowell: Then they started down the line, telling the people to shut their machines down. We’re on strike.
Doug: Everybody locked the gates, welded the gates, and took the plant over until they agreed to negotiate.
(ON-SCREEN: Union flyer “Speed-Up Threatens Your Job!”)
NAR: Roy Reuther devised key tactics for the strike strategy committee, while Victor kept up morale behind the wheel of a sound truck. Walter rallied his membership, and those of other union locals, for support. But with production held hostage, the industrial giant would not sit idly by.
Lowell: They turned off the water. They turned off the heat.
Victor: The police had gathered at the top of the hill. They had already accumulated quite an arsenal. They began in marshal fashion marching down the hill.
Roy: They tried to drive us out…and they shot tear gas into the plant and they sent their cops in there beating the hell out of these people.
Victor: The sit-down strikers had made some defense preparations. They had taken to the roof these pound-and-a-half hinges, which they made there, and they stretched inner tubes between two heavy steel poles so they could use them as a great slingshot.
Roy: It was a real confrontation and there was so much emotion. We had maybe three or four hundred people out here, marching and cheering them on. And we tell them, “hold in there!” And they were really holding.
Victor: That battle went on for some time. We had some people in the picket-line who showed incredible courage.
Doug: Governor Frank Murphy brought out the National Guard. He separated the police from the strikers.
Victor: Had he yielded to the enormous political pressure to use the troops to force us out, there would have been enormous bloodshed. The presence of Governor Murphy was crucial to our winning the strike.
Victor: The sit-down strikers prevailed and the first agreement with General Motors was signed.
(ON-SCREEN: Headline “After 44-day Occupation, Union Recognized”)
Union Victory/Family Business
Roy: They came out of the plant and people were dancing in the street. There was crying and joy and laughter and sort of a feeling of freedom.
Doug: Before the union, you couldn’t question, you couldn’t dissent, you couldn’t argue…you did exactly what the boss told you, at the threat of losing a job. But the union gave the workers dignity. The people who are powerless and are discriminated against and finally you have this newfound power - the workers power – it’s a wonderful feeling.
Geraldine: We felt like we were people again. We weren’t just nothing. And that’s the way you’d get to feel sometimes when you have nothing. My father was a very, very sad man. But after the union, it was another story.
Kerwin: We were organizing all over the place and half the time you’d send somebody out to the plant to try to organize a union and the other half the time they’d be calling you up and sayin, “We want a union. We’re on strike. What do we do next?”
NAR: With seventy-five factories under their watch, the Reuther Brothers worked tirelessly, strategizing and signing up new members. Their wives, May, Sophie, and Fania were also active in the movement, distributing leaflets, lending a hand in the strike kitchen, and using their language skills to recruit a new sector of workers.
Linda: The union was life. It was the headlines always. Mother was the right-hand. She really was the classic woman behind the man. I think Daddy really needed her and used her. He bounced ideas off of her. He really included her in his work.
NAR: Once the United Auto Workers had an agreement at General Motors, Chrysler was the next to sign. Union leaders now looked to include what they feared would be the hardest case of them all, the Ford Motor Company.
Victor: We knew that we weren’t ready to take on Ford, but we had to lay a foundation for the Ford drive and we knew it would be more difficult than General Motors was because it would be more violent.
Henry Ford/River Rouge
Boyle: Henry Ford ran the Ford Motor Company as kind of a personal fiefdom. It was his and his alone. It was literally his and his alone. It wasn’t a public company.
Pestillo: This was truly his baby. He saw it grow and burgeon, if you will and was more than paternalistic, he felt an ownership. Therefore he didn’t want to be intruded upon. He didn’t want people helping him run his business, which is the essence of the Labor Movement. So there was a natural conflict there beyond mere sharing of wealth or competing for wealth. It was, you know, this is mine.
NAR: Henry Ford’s River Rouge factory was the ultimate reflection of his preeminence. Set along the river for which it was named, the 2000-acre facility west of Detroit was the largest concentration of machinery and labor in the world. Employing over 100,000 workers, Ford considered security a priority. He created a management division known as the Service Department to ensure order in his plants, but their tactics were not always sound.
Victor: There was, in the shadows of the Ford Motor Company, the presence of one Harry Bennett, who had developed within the Ford structure, a private army of some 5,000, many of whom were armed inside the plant, as a security force.
NAR: Harry Bennett, Ford’s henchman and former bodyguard, was an unpredictable character. He kept a gun in his desk and always wore a bow tie, claiming to have been nearly strangled with a necktie in a street fight.
Kavieff: Bennett wasn’t a gangster but he hired a lot of people from the Detroit underworld to do the bidding of the Ford Service Department. You know, he hired ex-boxers, ex-wrestlers, ex-strong-arm guys, ex-gunmen, ex-gangsters, anybody who had some kind of a frightening persona about them, to keep people from talking about or even trying to organize at the Ford plant. The intention of the whole Ford Service Department was to prevent unionization…in any way, shape or form.
Battle of the Overpass
(ON-SCREEN: date, “May 26th, 1937”)
Walter: On the overpass at Gate 4 in 1937, myself and other people with a group of ministers were standing there on public property. Not private property. We went there to make a distribution. The Ford Servicemen came in.
Doug: Yah they knew what was going to happen. That’s why they called the Press. We were the ones that called the Press… we didn’t provoke it obviously…we were just handing out leaflets.
NAR: The Servicemen went on to smash cameras and harass the reporters. One photographer managed to slip away and his photos were plastered on front pages across the country.
Boyle: And that’s of course exactly what Walter Reuther wanted to have happen was to have that symbolic moment where ordinary people who weren’t union members, people living out in Dubuque, Iowa out on the farm, could look at the newspaper and say, “Jeez, that’s not right.” That’s what you want, that one flash.
Doug: My theory use to be…didn’t work all the time…but sooner or later, the company will do something stupid and then you organize.
Victor: It took a number of stoppages and serious bargaining before the Ford Motor Company came around. We built a strong union and when it came to an election, we won an overwhelming victory.
(ON-SCREEN: date, “May 21st, 1941”)
NAR: In just a handful of years, a small army of workers had forced the colossal carmakers to recognize their right to a union. The relationship between labor and management was changed forever. The union was an important pillar of stability central to the lives of its members and their communities. Union leaders occupied a position of power and respect and Walter Reuther’s star was on the rise.
Boyle: He’s just a very, very smart guy. He doesn’t even have a high school diploma but he’s a classic kind of working class intellectual. He thinks about ideas all the time. He’s enthralled with ideas. He’s very ambitious. He clearly wants to be a union official. So, very quickly he sets himself apart as a rising figure.
Kerwin: Walter was putting out a message of hope and progress for workin people, all kinds of working people.
Walter: When free men and women are united in the solidarity of human brotherhood, there is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men thus united.
Assassination Attempt (flash-forward)
(ON-SCREEN: date, “April 20th 1948”)
(Sound of crickets…a gunshot…and a car screeching off into the night)
Linda: Mother screamed and Daddy was lying on the floor in the kitchen in a pool of blood and mother was leaning over him.
Christine: I drove my parents up there and I’ve never driven any faster than that. We didn’t know whether he’d live or not.
Victor: Walter was shot and his right arm was nearly ripped off and bullets penetrated his chest and ricocheted all the way and exited in the back and he was hospitalized for some time. That shook all of us up in the family and of course aroused national attention.
Newsreel: (Neighbor, Mrs. Helen O’Keefe, questioned by police) “I heard a shot.” – “And then what did you do?” – “As I turned around, I saw the window broken, the Reuthers.” – “And did you see any car leave that particular area?” – “Yes, I saw a red car.”
Barry: After Walter was shot, of course there was a big question about who did it. Some people thought it was the mob, which was trying to get into the UAW the way they had penetrated some groups within the Teamsters, for example. Others thought it was maybe some people working for the corporations.
Chris: There were a lot of thugs that were available to hurt union people then. I worried about them and I know my mother worried a great deal. But that’s what they believed in. You have to be willing to put your life on the line if you really believe in a cause.
Walter’s Rise/Enemies (flashback)
(ON-SCREEN: “Gorky Automobile Plant, USSR”)
NAR: Many years before, the Reuther brothers had already begun accumulating enemies, from management to rivals within their own union. Walter and Victor’s 1932 trip to the Soviet Union put their ideology in question by bigots on the far right and communists on the far left. In an effort to quell the UAW’s factional infighting while furthering his personal ambitions, Walter turned his back on many former allies. In 1946, his shrewd consolidation of power and popularity with the rank-and-file propelled the fiery redhead to a commanding peak.
Doug: Walter was elected only by a hand full of votes. I mean that was a very-very close election.
Boyle: So it became this kind of political struggle tied with the cold war, and Walter certainly used the rising fear of communism as a way of attacking his enemies in the union. And, in fact the communists had been very central in building the UAW as much as Walter and his socialist cadre had been central to building the union. So there’s an awful lot of political manipulation that’s going on here and he takes a hard line.
(ON-SCREEN: Union flyer, “Ruthless Reuther”)
Victor: The people who had held that position had so messed up things. They were such victims and slaves of the party caucus that it became obvious we had to make changes.
Boyle: Another group that I suspect will become critically important to the Reuther experience, though no one knows for sure. He also draws the attention of some really nasty criminal elements inside Detroit. When Reuther organizes in the plants and when UAW Locals are established, they’re very much opposed to a lot of the criminal activity that’s kind of the underground economy in the auto plants.
Kavieff: The Detroit Mafia had tremendous influence on gambling operations in the auto industry, which was very lucrative. The fact that Reuther was cracking down on these operations was costing them money. And anything that hurts their pocketbook is not a good thing.
NAR: In addition to the gambling operations, enterprising gangsters who infiltrated a union could embezzle membership dues, steal merchandise from the inside, and sell a guarantee of no strike action to employers. Some elements of the Old Guard UAW leadership, including former president Homer Martin, were suspected of having connections to organized crime and facilitating their activities.
Walter: There’s no question that Homer Martin was paid off by Harry Bennett. He showed me one day 50,000 dollars in cash that he had in his briefcase and with his revolver…this guy was mad. I said, “Brother, count me on the other side of every fight and I’m not gonna stop until we drive you bastards out of this union.”
Walter in Hospital/Victor Shooting (flash-forward)
NAR: By April 1948, Walter had amassed many enemies with the motive and means for this brazen attack. He was lucky to have survived. In the hospital for weeks followed by grueling rehabilitation, Walter never regained the full use of his right arm.
Walter: I don’t think you can win industrial disputes in front of people’s homes in their neighborhoods. I know that my home is a sacred place and it’s been violated by the gangsters paid to come in and shoot me and beat me up. And so, I feel very sensitive about what goes on around a man’s home.
(ON-SCREEN: “One year later…”)
(Sound of another shotgun blast)
Victor: A double-barrel shotgun was fired through the front window and the right bullets, which were concentrated, missed my head by no more than a quarter of an inch and it tore a piece out of the wall that size (demonstrates with his hands.) The scattered barrel, the left barrel, ripped out my right eye, most of my teeth, penetrated my chest, and immobilized my right arm for some five, six months. I was not sure I was going to pull through this.
Walter: The family came together. Of course, Vic was fighting for his life. We weren’t sure whether these bullets that had went into his throat and his chest were going to be fatal. We knew he’d lost his eye. We didn’t know how serious his lungs had been damaged from these bullets that went through his throat.
Kerwin: Because nobody knew who did it or whether it would happen again, Walter had to enter into a life in which he was constantly protected. Rarely without a bodyguard, he moved his house from an ordinary neighborhood in the middle of Detroit, out to a suburban, far suburban place with a fence around it and all because there was fear that he would be attacked again. Psychologically that has to do something. You don’t automatically trust people as well, after something like that happens, as you did before.
Linda: My mother really wanted us to be normal. So she didn’t talk about it. She really didn’t talk about the fact that there are people who don’t like your father and they tried to hurt him. You know, that was never talked about. But, I mean we were under surveillance all the time. There was the bodyguards watching us and watching Daddy. I mean there was always this feeling that there was danger lurking and things needed to be watched and protected.
John: The UAW assigned bodyguards and, although I saw them as exciting characters in our life, I mean these were guys that carried guns, I know this is something that my mother was not comfortable with. I remember her telling a story about how she had a 38-pistol in her apron when she took the trash out because we stayed in that house where Dad was shot.
NAR: No suspects were ever brought to justice for the Reuther shootings and the FBI eventually closed the investigation. At the 1949 Convention, in a rousing speech to his members, the resilient UAW President stated: “You can kill a man with a twelve-gauge shotgun, but you cannot kill an idea. Whether one leader falls or many leaders fall, the UAW will march on.”
Lowenstein: By the 50’s, the auto industries were fabulously profitable. Everybody wanted a car. The federal government built a highway system. Chrysler, Ford and GM ruled the roost. They were rolling in money. GM was the most profitable American company for ten years in a row, so it was the lion of American industry. If the auto industry had a good year, that meant a good year for the steel industry, for the plate-glass industry, for the chemicals industry that supplied the paints. This was not a service economy back then. This was a manufacturing economy and it was lead by Detroit.
Boyle: Reuther uses the early 1950’s to transform the lives of working people and it’s really a staggering accomplishment. If the 1930’s was the depth of the Depression and the 1940’s was dominated by war, the 1950’s is this unprecedented economic boom that’s actually much more broadly based than prosperity had been in the past. And it’s created quite honestly in large part by the labor movement, because what the labor movement had done is force employers to pay really good wages and what happens when people get paid really good wages is they go out and they buy stuff.
Barry: Detroit was the richest city in America in the 1950s because of the auto industry and because of the UAW. Detroit had a higher median family income than any other city in the country, more than New York or San Francisco or Chicago, and it was also a city in which the African-American population was richer than anywhere else. During the glory days of the UAW and the auto industry, it was a great place to live.
Conyers: Thanks to the Labor Movement, Detroit was the one city that had more home ownership than any other city in the country because workers had jobs and they could afford to buy homes.
NAR: Autoworkers had the highest paying jobs in manufacturing and were now a part of a burgeoning middle-class. The UAW represented nearly 90% of hourly workers, pushing membership up over one million. Auto executives had accepted the union’s place at the table, but were determined to hold the line when Walter Reuther charged into negotiations.
WPR (archival): Just because they pay a worker, they don’t own him. There has been an attitude in some of these plants that when a worker punches his time-clock at 10 minutes to 7 in the morning, that that worker somehow becomes the property of the General Motors Corporation.
Pestillo: The great theater was to begin negotiations with a trip each day, three days in a row, to the major companies, where he would have the press follow along, pictures would be taken and comments would be made…”
WPR (archival): Workers have protested their inability to get personal relief, where in affect they have almost been chained to the assembly line. The General Motors Corporation has earned the reputation of being a kind of glorified gold-plated sweatshop.
Pestillo: “He set the stage for negotiations by reciting his demands if you will and put the company on the defensive from the first day and they were never a match for that. The first thing they lacked was charisma for the most part…”
Henry Ford II: “Ford Motor Company has been shut down by a strike that is totally unjustified and completely unnecessary. Because we would not concede to the unconscionable demands of a powerful union, we are paying a stiff penalty.”
Lowenstein: The stock market would hold its breath while these negotiations were going on. Whatever the raise that the Big 3 would get would reverberate through the rest of the economy. It gave Reuther a lot of power.
Boyle: He was a man of incredible energy who knew exactly how to outlast his opposition in a negotiation. They would be having these sessions that would run all day and all night and the older he got, you know it gets a little harder to stay up all night. So, one of the things he would do is at strategic moments he would say he had to go negotiate, he had to go caucus with his members and they would pull out of the negotiations. He wasn’t going to caucus, he was going off to have a nap and then you come back refreshed. He would show up at negotiations with his toothbrush, this was a classic Reuther thing to do, and he would show it to the press as he was on his way in. “I have my toothbrush because I’m not coming out of here until these negotiations are settled.” He’d just wear them down.
Walter: We will spend as many hours at the bargaining table as the company is willing to sit there with us and we will do everything humanly possible but, we will not betray the basic moral obligation we have to working people.
Bluestone: The UAW led the movement through all the fringe benefits and job benefits we have today from life insurance to pensions to medical insurance for the worker in the family.
Doug: It was not uncommon for people just to be let go when they were 45-50 years old. So when we first negotiated pensions in 1950, Walter had a slogan “Too Old to Work and Too Young to Die.”
Lowenstein: He had this dream that the unions and management would go down to Washington together as he said and work for a full pension so that every worker, not just the ones in his union would have a full pension. It was really quite a noble ideal. Industrialists were just dead set against it. The feeling was that it was a road to socialism. Reuther said if you industry, you General Motors, you Ford won’t help us go to Washington and claim a pension and claim healthcare, we are going to get it from you across the bargaining table. And that’s what they did.
(ON-SCREEN: date, “December 5, 1955”)
Newsreel: 1,200 union delegates gathered in New York for what was probably the most historic meeting in the history of American Labor. Symbolic of the merger of the A.F. of L. and the C.I.O., George Meany and Walter Reuther jointly bang the gavel to open the meeting. A meeting destined to bring under one banner, 16 million American workers.
NAR: In 1952, Walter had further extended his reach when he became president of the 5-million-member CIO. The rival AFL, with twice as many members, was lead by George Meany, a former New York City plumber and veteran in the federation’s hierarchy.
Boyle: George Meany is the stereotype of a labor leader. Big, gruff, working-class kind of guy with a big cigar in his mouth, who saw the job of the labor movement was to take care of its members and not this kind of broad social vision that was so central to the Reuthers. Walter Reuther sees the CIO as very much this kind of crusading organization committed to broad social change. So he and Meany are in some ways the polar opposites of the labor movement. But they also understand that the time had come to bridge this institutional gap.
Newsreel: Meany became the first president of the new organization, with Reuther one of the 37 vice-presidents. A milestone for Labor.
Boyle: The problem is how can Walter with this broad social vision live inside and work inside an organization like the AFL-CIO that is now lead by someone who has a very, very narrow vision of what labor’s job is and so, from the minute that organization was combined, they just were at each other’s throats and they never stopped.
Walter: I’m confident that we will find the means of rising above the conflicts of the past.
NAR: Walter coveted the top spot, but accepted a supporting role. He understood that this massive organization would generate tremendous monetary and political capital. In Washington, where conservatives held sway, this new labor federation was perceived as a major threat. “There is something new, and something dangerous,” Senator Barry Goldwater scathed. “Born of conspiracy and violence, and nurtured by the general treasury of the UAW, this is the pattern of political conquest.”
Senate Hearing (Gore Committee)
(ON-SCREEN: “Senate Committee on Campaign Finance, October 9, 1956”)
Walter: We are deeply committed to the participation in American political activities as an organization because we sincerely believe that politics is really the practical housekeeping job of democracy. (Voice trails off…)
Alan: The fundamental premise was that in order to carry out the objectives of the union, they had to be involved politically and that meant getting the membership involved and at a very basic level, getting the members registered and getting them out to vote.
Dodds: Other unions were interested in politics but not in the way that Reuther was. Reuther, Roy and Victor too, believed that you had to put some money into it in a systematic way and they developed the political action fund and dedicated a certain amount of the dues dollar to that. And that’s what got him into trouble.
Sen. Carl Curtis (R-NE): The most sacred thing in this country is the right of the individual and he may be in a minority of only one. But if he has to work under conditions of compulsory union membership, so that the minute he stops paying his dues he’s out of the job, that money should never be used to champion political causes and candidates in which he does not believe.
Walter: May I address myself to that question?
Curtis: I didn’t ask you a question.
Walter: Except you throw out a lot of things that are untrue…
Curtis: Oh no, no, no. I didn’t throw out anything that was untrue.
Walter: I can prove that they are untrue if you give me a couple of minutes.
Curtis: Oh no.
Dodds: And then when he had the little to-do in front of the cameras, Walter managed to get said, Senator how many people do you think felt so strongly about this that they said, “well I’m gonna write a letter and tell them not to have any dues dollars go for political action, Walter said hardly anybody wrote.
Walter: We have a right to urge people to register and the constitution of this great and wonderful country gives us that right!
Curtis: Now, I think you people are approaching this from a very reactionary point of view.
Walter: I intend to state my position here as clearly and as forthrightly as I know how. There are no secrets. I am running away from nothing. This country is my country too, you know. I am not a second-class citizen and I don’t intend to start acting like one!
Kennedy Campaign/Election/Political Action
JFK: I am today, announcing my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. (Voice trails off…)
Doug: We supported Kennedy very strongly in 1960. Pulled out all the stops.
Ted: When the Reuthers made the judgment and decision in terms of support, you’d get 75% of the UAW vote. I mean, that was worth something. Endorsements are endorsements but, when you got that endorsement, people watched that, people followed it, and people understood it. And that’s political power. That’s political power. Make no mistake about it. They understood they had it. They never abused it and they used it to advance the wellbeing and the cause of the people that they represented. So, Reuther’s support in terms of the UAW of my brother in the ’60 campaign, was enormously important.
(ON-SCREEN: Headline “Kennedy Wins in Photo Finish – Big Labor Has High Hopes”)
JFK: Last week after speaking to the chamber of congress and the president of the AMA, I began to wonder how I got elected…and now I remember. (laughs/applause) This organization and this union, has not interpreted its responsibilities narrowly. You have not confined yourselves to getting the best possible deal at the bargaining table. But instead, year after year, you have worked to strengthen the entire United States and the free world on a whole variety of ways: employment, education, a fight for a quality of opportunity for all Americans regardless of their race and their color. These are the things for which America stands and which this union stands. (cheers)
John: There was a closeness between the Kennedy brothers and the Reuther brothers. They were all involved in the same causes and helped each other.
NAR: President Kennedy had appointed his brother Robert as Attorney General, finding strength in the dedication and trust of family at work by his side. The Reuther brothers mirrored this relationship, as Roy and Victor played crucial supporting roles for their high-powered older brother, Roy in community and political action and Victor in international affairs.
Victor: We want to see the living standards of people around the whole world raised as rapidly as the new tools of technology makes this possible because only as they have a stake in Democracy, will they feel they have something worth defending.
Ted: The fact that the brothers worked as closely and coordinated as well, enhanced the authority and power of the whole movement.
Boyle: If you think of Victor as kind of the political conscience of the Reuther brothers and if you think of Walter as the political leader of the Reuther brothers, you have to think of Roy as the political operative. The operation of the political action committees, the lobbying on Capitol Hill, that’s what Roy did. He created that system for the UAW.
Schrade: Roy came to our regional conference. We put together a resolution to support the Farm Workers struggle. Roy was effective in taking the message back to Walter in saying, I’ve been talking to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and these people really got something and they need help.
Dolores: The picketing was very hard and so when you had someone like the Reuther Brothers come to Delano it was just a really, really big thing. It was these types of visits that really lifted the spirits of the workers.
Victor: Our strength and influence throughout the country grew enormously as we brought the same vigor and vitality we had shown in organizing campaigns and strike situations to the cause of social issues like civil rights.
NAR: By the end of the 1950’s, a civil rights revolution was taking place in the South, under the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, used non-violent resistance and borrowed Labor’s protest tools in the form of bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins to shed a blinding light on racial injustice.
MLK: The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. The duality of interests makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.
Andrew: The truth of it is, not all of the unions were really ready to get involved in the civil rights movement, but Walter Reuther, Victor Reuther, United Auto Workers were. They understood that the struggle for human rights was directly related to the struggle for organizing rights. And so Walter Reuther became one of the people that Dr King depended on for advice and guidance. It was good to have a strong partner, politically and economically, that you could count on when you got into water that was too deep for you to stand.
NAR: In May of 1963, Dr. King and hundreds of demonstrators were jailed in Birmingham, Alabama after an intense campaign of civil disobedience against local businesses. Many of those arrested were children and the incident garnered national attention. The UAW stepped in, helping to raise the $160,000 in cash required for bail.
Andrew: We saw ourselves as what Dr King used to call a Coalition of Conscience, as one movement to empower the lower class, the working class and to have a voice in what happened in the world.
March on Washington
(ON-SCREEN: date, “August 28th, 1963”)
Walter: Brother Randolph. Fellow Americans and friends. I am here today with you because with you I share the view that the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for equal opportunity is not the struggle of Negro Americans but the struggle for every American to join in. For 100 years the Negro people have searched for first-class citizenship and I believe that they cannot and should not wait until some distant tomorrow. They should demand freedom now! Here and now! It is the responsibility of every American to share the impatience of the Negro American. And we need to join together, to march together, and to work together until we have bridged the moral gap between American democracy's noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights. (cheers)
Kennedy Assassination/LBJ phone call
(ON-SCREEN: Headline “President Dead, Shot by Assassin”)
LBJ: I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help…and God’s.
Andrew: It took a master statesman like Lyndon Johnson to help the country through this crisis and the Reuthers and the trade union movement were right there with him on that.
Boyle: Lyndon Johnson knew right off the bat on November 22nd, 1963 that the Liberal wing of his party didn’t trust him. And so he knew that what he had to do was convince them that they could trust him. And so he picked out this whole list of important Liberals and he just called them. So all the time through that weekend when the entire country is stopped for the President’s funeral, he’s calling all these political leaders and of course Walter’s one of the top names on that list.
(Start Phone Call)
LBJ: I just wanted to tell you that I’ve got a terrifying responsibility and I’ll need your friendship more than I ever did in my life and I want to rely on you and count on you and I’m going to go before the Joint Session I guess on Wednesday and tell these folks that I won’t abandon the ship.
Walter: Well, we have to and I want to tell you Mr. President, you have my prayers, my friendship and every possible help that I can offer is at your disposal.
LBJ: Well, I need it all. I never needed it as much in my life.
Walter: Any time that you need me, you just call and I’ll be there and anytime you’ve got a chance for a chat, I’d like to come in and visit with you.
LBJ: All right. We’ll work it out and I’ll be in touch with you in a few days.
Walter: Very good.
LBJ: Thank you Walter. Thank you my friend.
(End Phone Call)
Boyle: Johnson actually did count on Walter Reuther in a way that John Kennedy hadn’t and quite honestly, Lyndon Johnson turned out to be much more of an aggressive Liberal as President than John Kennedy ever was. Johnson gave Reuther an awful lot of what Reuther had hoped for.
LBJ’s Great Society
LBJ: My fellow Americans, I am about to sign into law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Boyle: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are voted into law. These are the fundamental laws that transform the American South.
LBJ: This Administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
Boyle: He’s pledged his Administration to eliminate poverty in United States. Well, that’s the exact link that Reuther had been talking about, the link between economic injustice and racial injustice. Johnson has seen it and he’s putting into place policies that are designed to crack that.
Alan: It was government activism to tackle a whole range of issues from education to housing to economic development and that was really a dream come true for the Reuther brothers.
Boyle: By 1965, he passes both Medicare and Medicaid, what is the closest we have ever come in the United States to a national healthcare system. He launches a massive urban renewal program called Model Cities that Walter Reuther created himself, sitting at his breakfast table. There is a moment when Johnson seriously considers appointing Walter Reuther to a cabinet post. So, there’s never a point in Reuther’s career where he’s closer to the centers of power then during the Johnson years.
1967 Ford Strike
NAR: While the UAW President was championing innovative approaches to the country’s social ills, the American auto industry faced a dramatic transformation on several fronts. Automated machinery had taken the place of certain manual jobs and rising sales of smaller, cheaper foreign cars threatened the domestic monopoly of the market.
Lowenstein: In about 1966 or 1967, Datsun of Japan was introduced in this country. Now suddenly the consumer had a choice. They could get the Chevrolet with a pension or they could go for a Honda without one. The competitive disadvantage became tremendous. Reuther didn’t want the union to take so much that there would be nothing left and the numbers of jobs would start to shrink, their market share would shrink.
Pestillo: He knew he was dealing with the Golden Goose. And the Goose laid Golden Eggs if you didn’t kill it and he never did. He was very careful to take what he could get. The strikes were inevitable - try to keep them short, make the settlement reasonable.
NAR: Ford workers took to the picket line in 1967 when their contract expired. While many workers were on strike for the standard list of economic demands, certain elements of the membership had more complex grievances and were growing dissatisfied with the union’s priorities.
Tucker: Collective bargaining in and of itself tends to make you a little more conservative. You know the rules. And therefore over time, you begin to place more value on the process, looking for gains but nothing radical, nothing revolutionary. Here was a union leadership that was now just a little less than thirty years in and somewhat comfortable in their accomplishments. And then all of a sudden these things begin to erupt.
DRUM (workers shout from picket line): “UAW means U Ain’t White!” (repeats)
Tucker: African American workers were rising up and there were confrontations. The Reuthers were very visible and public civil rights advocates in the country but that wasn’t necessarily translating its way downward into the ranks within the union.
Baker: I hired into the Dodge Main plant in September of 1964. The new workforce that came in, almost 3/4 of us was young, African American workers that went inside the shops. But the union on the other hand had very few elected black officials. We didn’t have any other minority representation on the union side. So those were the kind of conditions we were confronted with at that point in history.
Tucker: We had a highly segregated membership; therefore there was a lot of tension and pressure against the rising movement. Walter and others at the top of the UAW clearly would like to have seen that tension eased…(DRUM: “Black workers power!”)…but it’s not something that you can just waive a wand and have go away.
Walter: I don’t get hung up when a revolutionary black worker in favor of destroying the system thinks I’m the real enemy. I believe that they are antagonistic towards us because we are successfully trying to make the system work.
DRUM: “Behead the Redhead!” (repeats)
Baker: We went after everything. When we went after the leadership of the union, we had a slogan for Reuther “Behead the Redhead.” We went after everybody that got in our way. But the Reuther machine didn’t allow any dissent. You could hardly run for a local office in one of these major unions without being tied to the Reuther Caucus. And people would run against him all the time and lose and that gets kind of frustrating.
NAR: The Reuther Caucus launched a vigorous campaign against rank-and-file dissent, the kind they used to defeat their rivals two decades earlier. Walter sought absolute control of his union, even if it meant suppressing internal democracy. “I have always said,” he wrote, “one should encourage enough opposition to make it interesting but not enough to make it dangerous.”
Late ‘60’s Unrest/Vietnam
(ON-SCREEN: date, “July, 1967”)
Barry: It was a terrifying time. I mean things were exploding all over the place. Riots in city after city. 42 or 43 people killed in Detroit…Newark. It was a time that demanded radical action.
Boyle: When the United States escalates the war in Vietnam, which it does in the spring and summer of 1965, the leadership around Reuther, and Victor is probably the most outspoken figure in this, think this is a huge mistake and they want very much for the UAW to say that.
Victor: There is a heavy moral obligation upon the United States, upon our government, to immediately cease the bombing of North Vietnam…without conditions. (applause)
John: My father and my mother were very much opposed to the war in Vietnam and often mother felt that dad wasn’t pushing hard enough on Walter. But, dad wasn’t an elected official. He was appointed, so he didn’t have the pressure that Walter had.
Barry: The UAW had members that were all over the political spectrum and the question was how far out in front can the leadership be?
John: Walter had a lot of things that he wanted to accomplish and was always very careful in trying to get most of his agenda passed. You don’t risk losing it all necessarily going out too fast on one particular issue.
Alan: I remember Walter going to the University of Michigan and being heckled because of the war issue and what a shock that was for him, instead of being viewed as a progressive, because of all the other issues that the war had taken over.
Linda: Daddy had given a speech and we were all riding in the car together and he turned to my mother and said, “Do you think they’re still listening to me?” And that was like, he doesn’t question himself, does he? That was like the most vulnerable that I have ever heard him be, you know. All of the progressive people who had their hearts and minds in the right place were coming out against the war and Daddy just wasn’t ready to and I didn’t understand that.
Schrade: Walter was being pressed by his daughters, by younger people in the union about not taking on Johnson on the question. But Walter said, “If I raise this question with Lyndon Johnson, I’m out of there.”
(Start Phone Call)
LBJ: Walter, I want to depend on you. I just got to have you stand up when the going’s tough because when you got your back to the wall, I come to ya and I stand there and when you got your strikes on, you know that you got a friend. Now I want you to tell the rest of them that I’m no goddam fascist. I’m trying to settle this thing.
Walter: I’ve made it very clear. I said to that Board yesterday and I believe this deep in my heart that nobody wants peace more than you do. You’re carrying the heavy burdens of your office and God only knows it’s an impossible task.
(End Phone Call)
Boyle: Walter understood that if he were to come out against the war, that Johnson would cut him off at the knees. That that relationship which had actually produced so much and brought Reuther to such the center of power, was gonna be severed like that and it would have been. So he’s trapped essentially by the very success that he’s had in the Johnson Administration, supporting a war that everybody closest to him is telling him is a huge mistake.
(ON-SCREEN: date, “January 10th, 1968”)
Alan: My father had had a heart attack in November and was supposed to be recuperating. I remember all of a sudden getting a call from my Dad’s secretary saying, “go to Walter’s house.” She wouldn’t say anything more and my brother and I drove out to Walter’s house and I remember walking through the door and Walter saying, “your father’s expired.”
Doug: Roy’s death had a very significant impact on Walter. Roy and Walter were very, very close. Of course, you know all the years that Roy was with him all the time and he’s engaging in things that Walter was also engaged in, you know it makes a difference…in politics, meeting with different people.
Alan: I think it had a big impact on Walter, losing one of his brothers. And this is ’68 so there’s all these other pressures from the war and I think it contributed to the feeling of aloneness and the world’s changing.
RFK: I have some very sad news for all of you and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee. (screams)
(ON-SCREEN: date, “April 4th, 1968”)
Christine: That was a very tough time in American history, those years. Lots of loss.
(ON-SCREEN: date, “June 5th, 1968”)
Alan: It was like one blow after another. All the bright lights, all the leaders for what we viewed as progress were being chopped down.
NAR: The agonizing spring of 1968, culminating with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, was a critical turning point for Walter. With a sudden void in progressive leadership, American society demanded more of the embattled union chief. With Victor by his side, Walter unleashed his first public criticisms of the US involvement in Vietnam, reaffirmed his pledge to Dr. King’s civil rights agenda, and challenged the stagnated policies of the AFL-CIO.
Tucker: Civil Rights, the war, organizing and organizing the South specifically…all of these were large questions that over time had roiled and become contentious within the national leadership of the AFL-CIO and a lot of the other union leaders and heads had become much more conservative over time and Walter found himself somewhat isolated.
Walter: One of the problems has been that we have been trying to get the labor movement off dead-center. We’ve been trying to get the AFL to join in launching a massive organizational crusade. We would like nothing better than to be able to march with the AFL-CIO but, if we are given no choice accepting to be the prisoners of complacency in the status quo…then we’re gonna march ourselves because we’re gonna march!
(ON-SCREEN: Headline “Labor’s Big Divide, UAW Pulls out of AFL-CIO.”)
Walter: I am proud to have the privilege of joining you in this historic struggle for economic justice, for recognition of your union and for human dignity. (crowd cheers) I want to bring you the greetings of solidarity from the 1,800,000 members of the UAW and I pledge to you our fullest support. We are going to march with you and we’re going to back you until you win in Charleston (crowd cheers). I think black is beautiful (crowd cheering). And I think white is beautiful but I think white and black together is the most beautiful when they are marching arm and arm! (crowd cheers). And so we have come together to join hands in a common struggle for justice and human dignity and nothing will stop us!
(ON-SCREEN: date, “May 9, 1970”)
Irving Bluestone, Walter’s Administrative Assistant (press statement; voice-over): This is probably the saddest duty that I’ve ever had to perform in my years with the UAW. Mr. Reuther was on his way in a plane chartered by the UAW to Pelston, which is some 40 miles from Black Lake. Sometime around 9:30 to 9:40 p.m., the plane, while coming in for a landing, crashed, exploded and burned, and there were no survivors. We have confirmed the people in the airplane…Mr. and Mrs. Reuther, the security person for Mr. Reuther, and Mr. Oscar Stonorov, an architect.
Linda: When I heard about the plane crash, I just heard there was a plane crash and Walter Reuther was in the plane and I was shocked. It was like he can’t…he doesn’t die. He’s like this person that will never be destroyed.
Randy: I remember that night because it was raining so hard you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. At the time, we just knew there was a plane crash. We didn’t have any idea who it was. The thing I remember most afterwards is the thousands of cars that came up here from the Detroit area, from the larger metropolitan cities, to pay respect and drove by the site where the plane actually went down back into the woods. It was unbelievable.
John: Dad was very emotional. He had lost Roy and now he’d lost Walter and he was the last of the three Reuther brothers.
Victor: I have difficulty even thinking back on that memorial. It was a moment when our grief was shared by the world.
Doug: Shattering, this event was absolutely shattering. And what helped us through that, you see, the event was so traumatic, that everybody felt duty-bound, really duty-bound to carry on. In fact, that was two of Victor’s words, to “carry on.” And, we did.
ON-SCREEN TEXT: The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be illusions produced by the lack of visual cues, as well as an erroneously high indication on the captain’s altimeter. Examination of the device revealed missing and incorrectly installed parts. Foul play was not suspected.
Boyle: It’s a very hard thing now, all these years later, to get a good sense of what a person like Walter Reuther and the Reuther brothers really represented…because we don’t have that in American politics anymore. It’s gone.
Pestillo: I think the world had turned and the UAW indeed is trying to turn with it. First the Japanese, then the Germans, and now the Koreans have come to the US to build plants and run them and run them very effectively, very competitively.
TEXT: When domestic automakers failed to meet the competition of imports and the union was unable to organize new factories in the South, active UAW membership went into free fall from 1.6 million to less than 400,000 by 2010.
Lowenstein: What’s happened to the good manufacturing jobs? What’s happened to pensions? What’s happened to healthcare? No one’s been able to deliver an increased living standard for the great bulk of Americans in the middle. This is what Reuther was able to do for his generation.
Ted Kennedy: Everyone knows that he not only got the best in terms of the contract…but he was as interested in building parks for the community. He was green before it was cool to be green. His challenge to the UAW was a challenge. He didn’t promise them. He challenged them to participate in that union…and to make a difference in terms of people’s lives.
TEXT: Victor Reuther retired from the UAW International Affairs Department in 1972. He continued his activism and was a key player in the mid 1980’s when Canadian autoworkers sought to form their own union.
Victor: We dared to build a movement that was committed to something bigger than just another nickel in the pay envelope. We were committed to social unionism.
TEXT: Victor died on June 3rd, 2004 at the age of 92.
Tucker: Certainly today these are hard times for working people…and so I think it’s a period of time where the need for new levels of activism…the need for new, younger Reuther types perhaps to emerge…different, better maybe.
TEXT: Today, just 7% of U.S. private sector workers are organized, a steady decline from more than 20% in the mid 1970’s.
Victor: The struggle and the sacrifices go on because the price for free trade unionism, like the price for political freedom and liberty, is eternal vigilance.
CREDIT ROLL. (END)
Distributor: Bullfrog Films
Length: 81 minutes
Closed Captioning: Available
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