To mark Labor Day here in the States, I want to pay tribute to the Reuther brothers– Walter, Victor and Roy– who, as leaders of the United Auto Workers union, did as much as anyone to help create the reasonably well-off industrial working class that is now being hollowed out.
They are the subject of a documentary, “Brothers on the Line,” by Victor’s grandson Sasha Reuther.
Try to imagine anyone beginning a TV program today as Mike Wallace did in the 1950s, and you’ll realize how far we’ve come– or how far we’ve fallen– from a time when income at all levels rose steadily.
Walter and Victor worked from 1933 to 1935 at an auto plant in the Soviet Union. Walter later turned strongly anti-Communist and, as president of the UAW, took on and defeated the Stalinists in the union. He was a rare visionary among labor leaders and he worked against all odds to transform the USA into a social democratic society in which workers would have a real voice in economic and political decisions. He and his wife were killed in a plane crash in 1970.
Although the majority of UAW members were white, the Reuther brothers were fierce fighters for civil rights. Walter addressed the 1963 March on Washington (“For Jobs and Freedom“) where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech.
In his biography of Walter Reuther, Roy Lichtenstein records the following conversation from 1952, when the UAW leader toured a new Ford assembly plant.
Ford executive: “You know, Walter, not one of these machines pays union dues.”
Reuther: “And not one of them buys new Ford cars, either.”
Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires, and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
—Martin Luther King Jr., December 1961
Further update: Don’t miss Sarka’s comment of 3 September 2012, 7:09 pm.
Another update: House Republican leader Eric Cantor thinks Labor Day is a day to celebrate successful business owners.
In fact the first Labor Day in 1882 was celebrated by the New York City Central Labor Union to demonstrate the strength of organized labor.