Press Release: NEW BIOGRAPHY OF LABOR LEADER WALTER REUTHER HOLDS LESSONS FOR LABOR MOVEMENT IN CRISIS TODAY
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., Sept. 26 -- As a struggling American labor movement prepares for next month's historic election battle for the AFL-CIO presidency, a forthcoming biography of one of labor's greatest heroes examines an era just a few years ago when citizens widely believed strong unions benefitted the entire country.
"The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor," by University of Virginia historian Nelson Lichtenstein, draws on extensive research in government and union archives to tell the story of the most visionary labor leader in the post-World War II period. The new Reuther biography will be published by Basic Books in October, just as the AFL-CIO conducts for the first time in more than a century an election in which the incumbent leader of U.S. labor faces a serious challenger.
Regardless of who wins the fight for the AFL-CIO presidency between current president Thomas R. Donahue and John J. Sweeney, head of the Service Employees International Union, at the AFL-CIO's Oct. 23-26 convention in New York, the unusually open debate about labor's future is good for the movement and the country, says Lichtenstein.
Reuther, who served as president of the 1.5-million member United Auto Workers from 1946 to 1970, tackled head-on the very problem facing working Americans today, Lichtenstein says: "how to make sure the increasing profitability and growth in the American economy improved the security and standard of living of everyone." The book traces Reuther's rise from a skilled worker at Henry Ford's vast River Rouge manufacturing complex to emerging as a forceful spokesperson for millions of working men and women. Among extensive advance praise the study is receiving, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. describes it as combining "a splendid biography of America's most creative and commanding labor leader with an illuminating diagnosis of the vicissitudes and frustrations of the American trade union movement."
Although Reuther would eventually grow frustrated by a tangled union bureaucracy he himself had helped create, he taught important lessons that Americans could heed today, as they watch real wages stagnate in the midst of an apparent economic boom, Lichtenstein says. Among them:
Above all, "Reuther saw the role for working-class leadership and was a great educator," says Lichtenstein. "He wasn't just a politician. He spoke for millions of workers and recognized that their problems are society-wide."
Revitalizing the labor movement will require more than a peaceful settlement of the current fight for the AFL-CIO presidency; but there are some definite steps U.S. trade union leaders could take that might begin the task of winning new friends and raising the standard of living of American workers, says Lichtenstein.
In all industrialized countries a strong labor movement has traditionally meant not only higher wages and benefits for union members but has been "a political force that promotes dignity on the job for everyone," asserts Lichtenstein, whose previous books include Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture and Society. Gains made by trade unions often set a standard for pay and fairness throughout their region; and higher pay for low-wage workers boosts local economies, he points out, adding that "Americans need to banish some of their cynicism about labor."
As Reuther believed, a stronger U.S. labor movement could be in everyone's interest by helping solve the broad problem in the American economy: that real wages have stagnated for almost everyone, in the midst of an apparent boom. "It used to be that higher wages were a product of increased profitably and growth, but that linkage has been broken," Lichtenstein says. "stronger labor movement could be part of the solution."
Continuing its historical mission, labor needs once again to help organize a largely immigrant working class at the bottom of the wage scale and help give that group a sense of its rightful economic and political citizenship, Lichtenstein believes. "Ultimately it's a moral question."
The labor movement needs to become more confrontational with leaders of both political parties and strive to become a voice for all who are alienated from the political system. Labor has nothing to lose from challenging "the elites that now control both parties," he says.
And labor leaders need to do a better job organizing especially in such widespread low wage workplaces as fast food outlets, retail stores and food processing plants. Unions need to make an asset of America's cultural diversity; the American workforce is the most multi-racial in the world, and almost half the workforce is now female, Lichtenstein points out.
Unions must again define themselves as "politically independent organizations which challenge the pseudo-logic of the untamed market with a set of deeper values that advance workplace dignity, economic security and a democratic society."
Walter Reuther would approve of the current debate about labor's future, Lichtenstein says. "It opens what has long been seen as a monolithic institution to some fresh air."
September 25, 1995
For interviews Nelson Lichtenstein may be reached at (804) 924-6408 or 295-6769. Review copies of "The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor" are available from Basic Books at (212) 207-7292.