The Wonderful Life and Strange
Death of Walter Reuther
excerpted from the book
by Michael Parenti
City Lights Books, 1996, paper
THE WONDERFUL LIFE AND STRANGE DEATH OF WALTER REUTHER
(co-authored with Peggy Noton)
In recent decades, organized labor has
endured a serious battering from conservative interests in both
government and the corporate world. As progressives in the AFL-CIO
try to rally their forces, they would do well to remember those
few especially dedicated and gifted union leaders who understood
the broader social and political dimensions of the labor struggle.
Among such leaders looms the great figure of Walter Reuther. Rising
from the ranks to spearhead the creation of the United Auto Workers
(UAW), Reuther brought a special blend of unfaltering progressivism
and efficacy to the U.S. political scene. For this he earned the
wrath of powerful corporate and political interests. On the evening
of May 9, 1970, Reuther, along with his wife,
The Early Struggle
Eight months before his death, Reuther
reflected on the broader dimensions of labor's struggle: "The
labor movement is about changing society . . . . What good is
a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning
down? What good is another week's vacation if the lake you used
to go to, where you've got a cottage, is polluted and you can't
swim in it and the kids can't play in it? What good is another
$100 pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke?" Reuther
was the kind of labor leader who unsettled the higher circles:
militant, incorruptible, and dedicated both to the rank-and-file
and a broad class agenda.
In 1958, at a GOP fundraiser, Senator Barry Goldwater declared
that "Walter Reuther and the UAW-CIO are a more dangerous
menace than . . . anything Soviet Russia might do to America."
... A two-page ad in the Wall Street Journal
(9/22/58) ran an inch-high headline: "WILL YOU LET REUTHER
GET AWAY WITH IT?" The ad warned: "Walter Reuther is
already within reach of controlling your Congress. The American
Labor movement has now become a political movement with the objective
of establishing a socialist labor government in control of the
economic and social life of this nation."
FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover certainly never
lost his violent bitter taste, stalking Walter for some forty
years, using undercover informants and illegal bugging equipment.
Reuther was on friendly terms with several Democratic presidents
who submitted his name for positions on presidential boards and
commissions. In each instance, Hoover successfully blocked Reuther's
appointment by secretly circulating disinformation packets to
the White House and members of Congress, featuring the doctored
"For a Soviet America" letter and testimony by individuals
falsely accusing Walter of communist affiliations.
Both the CIA and the FBI monitored Reuther's
foreign travel, taking note of public comments of his that "might
be construed as contrary to the foreign policy of the United States?'
During World War II, Hoover made preparations to put all three
Reuther brothers in custodial detention. He was ultimately dissuaded
from doing so by John Bugas, chief FBI agent in Detroit.
In his early Detroit days, Walter had
formed an alliance with communists within the union in order to
combat conservative labor factions and company bosses. In 1938
he severed this association and some years later, after gaining
control of the UAW board, he launched a purge of dedicated UAW
organizers who were communists or close to the party. In 1949,
he played a key role in the expulsion of eleven unions accused
of being communist-led.
Over the years, Reuther denounced communism
at every opportunity, seeking thereby to legitimate his own status
as a loyal American. Like so many on the Left then and now, he
did not realize that those who fight for social change on behalf
of the less-privileged elements of society are abhorred by conservative
elites whether they be communists or not. For the industrialists,
financiers, and leading politicos, it made little difference whether
their wealth and power was challenged by "communist subversives"
or "loyal Americans?' The communist label was used in attempts
to smear and delegitimate Reuther. But it was not an obsession
with communism that caused them to hate and fear Reuther but an
obsession with maintaining their privileged place in the politico-economic
At the same time, Reuther was critical
of right-wing radicalism. In 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy
asked him, Victor, and Joseph Rauh, an attorney for the UAW, to
investigate the ultra-Right. (Reuther was a close friend and advisor
to the Kennedys.) The resulting report warned of radical right
elements inside the military and urged the president to dismiss
generals and admirals who engaged in rightist political activities.
The report also faulted J. Edgar Hoover for exaggerating "the
domestic Communist menace at every turn" thus contributing
"to the public's frame of mind upon which the radical right
From the first days of the AFL-CIO merger in 1955, irreconcilable
political differences existed between Reuther and AFL-CIO president
George Meany, a cold-war hawk. Under Meany, the AFL-CIO entered
into an unholy alliance with the CIA in order to bolster conservative,
anticommunist unions in other countries. These unions, as Victor
Reuther describes them, were run by people who were "well
soaked with both U.S. corporate and CIA juices. It was, in effect,
an exercise in trade union colonialism."
In early 1968 the UAW withdrew from the
AFL-CIO and joined forces with the Teamsters and two smaller unions
to form the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA), with a membership
totaling over four million. The Teamsters gave Reuther a free
hand on political and social issues. With Nixon in the White House
and the bombings in Indochina escalating to unprecedented levels,
Reuther ran ads in the national media and appeared before congressional
committees to denounce the war and call for drastic cuts in the
military budget. While the AFL-CIO was proclaiming its support
for Nixon's escalation of the war and his anti-ballistic missile
program, the ALA was lobbying hard against both.
Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the killing
of four students at Kent State University prompted Reuther-the
day before his death-to send a telegram to the White House condemning
the war, the invasion, and "the bankruptcy of our policy
of force and violence in Vietnam?' By 1970, Reuther was seen more
than ever as a threat to the dominant political agenda, earning
him top place on Nixon's enemy list.
The Fatal Crash: Some Disturbing Evidence
The struggles of Walter Reuther's life
should cause us to give more than cursory attention to the questionable
circumstances of his death. Here are some things to consider:
First, as president of the largest union
in the country, Reuther had the resources for advancing his causes
on the national scene as did few others. He was an extraordinarily
effective proponent of socioeconomic equality and an outspoken
critic of the military-industrial complex, the arms race, the
CIA, the national security state, and the Vietnam war. For these,
things he earned the enmity of people in high places.
Second, in the years before the fatal
crash there had been assassination attempts against Walter and
Victor. (Victor believes the attempt against him was intended
as a message to Walter.) In each of these instances, state and
federal law-enforcement agencies showed themselves at best lackadaisical
in their investigative efforts, suggesting the possibility of
official collusion or at least tolerance for the criminal deeds.
(In this context, it might be noted that
in January 1970, only three months before the fatal plane crash,
the Nixon White House requested Reuther's FBI file The call came
from Egil Krogh, a Nixon staff member who was later arrested as
a Watergate burglar. The file documented Reuther's leadership
role in progressive and antiwar organizations. In 1985, when Detroit
newsman William Gallagher asked why Nixon had wanted the file,
Krogh was evasive, claiming a lack of memory.)
Third, like the suspicious near-crash
that occurred the previous year, the fatal crash also involved
a faulty altimeter in a small plane. It is a remarkable coincidence
that Reuther would have been in two planes with the exact same
malfunctioning in that brief time frame...
In a follow-up interview with us, Victor further noted:
Animosity from government had been present for some time [before
the fatal crash]. It was not only Walter's stand on Vietnam and
Cambodia that angered Nixon, but also I had exposed some CIA elements
inside labor, and this was also associated with Walter .... There
is a fine line between the mob and the CIA There is a lot of crossover.
Throughout the entire history of labor relations there is a sordid
history of industry in league with Hoover and the mafia .. . .
You need to check into right-wing corporate groups and their links
to the national security system
Checking into such things is no easy task.
The FBI still refuses to turn over nearly 200 pages of documents
regarding Reuther's death, including the copious correspondence
between field offices and Hoover. And many of the released documents-some
of them forty years old-are totally inked out. It is hard to fathom
what national security concern is involved or why the FBI and
CIA still keep so many secrets about Walter Reuther's life and
Reuther's demise appears as part of a
truncation of liberal and radical leadership that included the
deaths of four national figures: President John Kennedy, Malcolm
X Martin Luther King, and Senator Robert Kennedy, and dozens of
leaders m the Black Panther Party and in various community organizations.
Whether Reuther's death was part of a broader agenda to decapitate
and demoralize the mass movements of that day, or whether such
an agenda existed at all, are questions that go beyond the scope
of our inquiry.
Suffice it to say that Victor's belief,
shared by Walter's daughter Elizabeth Reuther Dickmeyer and other
members of the family, that the crash was no accident sounds disturbingly
plausible. Despite the limited investigation there is enough evidence
to suggest that foul play was involved. The untimely death, of
this dedicated and effective progressive labor leader raises disquieting
questions about the criminal nature of state power in what purports
to be a democracy.
In C. Wright Mill's words: "What people are interested in
is not always what is to their interest; the troubles they are
aware of are not always the ones that beset them. . . It is not
only that [people] can be unconscious of their situations; they
are often falsely conscious of them."
One can see instances of false consciousness all about us. There
are people with legitimate grievances as employees, taxpayers,
and consumers who direct their wrath against welfare mothers but
not against corporate welfarism, against the inner city poor not
the outer city rich, against human services that are needed by
the community rather than regressive tax systems that favor the
affluent. They support defense budgets that fatten the militarists
and their corporate contractors and dislike those who protest
the pollution more than they dislike the polluters.
In their confusion they are ably assisted
by conservative commentators and hate-talk mongers who provide
ready-made explanations for their real problems, who attack victims
instead of victimizers, denouncing feminists and minorities rather
than sexists and racists, denouncing the poor-rather than the
rapacious corporate rich who create poverty. So the poor are defined
as "the poverty problem." The effects of the problem
are taken as the problem itself. The victims of the problem are
seen as the cause, while the perpetrators are depicted as innocent
or even beneficial.
Does false consciousness exist? It certainly
does and in mass marketed quantities. It is the mainstay of the
conservative reactionism of the 1980s and 1990s. Without it, those
at the top, who profess a devotion to our interests while serving
themselves, would be in serious trouble indeed.
Michael Parenti page