Walter Reuther, president of the UAW since 1946, died in an airplane crash at age 62

Saturday 9th May 1970

Walter Reuther, president of the UAW since 1946, died in an airplane crash at age 62. Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, to German immigrants, Reuther’s socialist leanings were fostered by his father, Valentine. A master brewer, Valentine had left Germany to escape the repressive Lutheran authorities there, and to avoid what he viewed as the increasing militarization of his homeland. He imbued his three sons, Walter, Victor, and Roy, with the values of labor organization and social equality. Walter dropped out of high school to become an apprentice die maker at the Wheeling Steel Company. Before he could finish his training, he moved to Detroit during the heavy production years of the Model T, and talked his way into a job as a die maker in a Ford factory. Reuther returned to high school while working at the Ford plant, and he maintained his interest in Socialism and organised labor. During the Depression, he and his brothers traveled to Germany to visit their relatives. The trip proved formative as the totalitarian conditions in Germany, and the bitter split between the National Socialists and the Left, disappointed the brothers terribly. They even briefly ran pamphlets for the Socialist underground there. They continued on to Russia, where Walter employed his skill as a die maker in Russian auto plants that had purchased Ford machinery. They remained in Gorki from 1933 to 1935. Reuther was greatly moved by the camaraderie of the autoworkers there. “To a Ford employee especially,” he said, “[the social and cultural life] was absorbing.” Reuther returned to Detroit, and began his career as an activist and labor organiser. At first considered a radical and a Communist, Reuther worked his way up the ranks of the UAW as the union became a more and more legitimate force. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal reached out to the leftist elements of the labor movement, and in response Reuther’s left moved centre to meet the Democratic Party. Reuther played vital roles in the formation of the UAW and in the merger of the AFL-CIO. He championed integrationist policies when few other labor organisers cared, “The UAW-CIO will tell any worker that refused to work with a coloured worker that he could leave the plant because he did not belong there.” During Reuther’s benevolent reign atop the ranks of the UAW, autoworkers became members of the middle class, as measured by earnings, employment security, medical care, and retirement pensions.

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