On this day in 1907, the labor leader Walter Reuther was born. He was the man that turned the United Automobile Workers (UAW) into a major political force in the country. He was also a very important supporter of the civil rights movement. Unions were often impediments to racial equality. Reuther understood that workers are workers.
One of the maddening things about Americans is the way we allow special interests to turn us against each other. This is almost a founding principle of the country. It’s the reason we had the slavery of African Americans. At first, it wasn’t a racial issue. But black and white slaves had this nasty habit of ganging up and revolting against the rich. So the rich came up with a great idea: make the Europeans free so no matter how bad their lives were, they would feel okay because at least they weren’t slaves. And indeed, that did put an end to the poor seeing themselves as a single group.
Reuther understood this. But it is so ingrained in who we are. And so many American myths (for example, the rugged individual) have been crammed into our minds that it is very hard to fight. But Reuther tried and succeeded to a large extend. As I noted last year:
He had what I think was a very common political arc for people of his time. He started as a socialist (even a communist) but after the New Deal came in, he became a liberal. Conservatives tend to vilify FDR for bringing socialism to America. That isn’t true, of course, and that thought is typical of the conservative “all or nothing” mentality. If they thought about it for a moment, they would realize that what FDR did was save capitalism from revolution. People like Reuther thought they wanted socialism, but all they really wanted was a more fair and equitable political and economic system. Is a safety net to avoid the worst excesses of capitalism so much to ask?!
Reuther turned the United Automobile Workers (UAW) into a major force in the United States. He also integrated it with the Democratic Party — where he was a major figure until his death. He was also a prominent supporter of the civil rights movement. He was on stage with Martin Luther King Jr during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. He also took part in the Selma to Montgomery March. Unfortunately, he died in a plane crash with his wife and others at the age of 62.
Happy birthday Walter Reuther!