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American Vanguard: The United Autoworkers during the Reuther Years, 1935-1970

Author(s):Barnard, John
Reviewer(s):Jacoby, Daniel

Published by EH.NET (August 2004)

John Barnard, American Vanguard: The United Autoworkers during the Reuther Years, 1935-1970. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004. xiv + 607 pp. 49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8143-2947-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Daniel Jacoby, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program, University of Washington, Bothell.

In 1947 Walter Reuther announced to the United Auto Workers (UAW) that they were the “vanguard” of America’s “crusade to build a better world.” And, of course, they clearly were. Yet, given organized labor’s free fall after Reuther’s death in 1970, his legacy has become contested terrain. John Barnard’s magisterial history of Reuther’s UAW will be an important part of any reassessment of this era, one that empowers readers to make their own judgments.

Passionate arguments over vision and strategy within the labor community are the outcomes of struggles in which the consequences of mistakes have been both immense and personal. As leader of America’s largest labor union in the nation’s most successful industry, Walter Reuther cannot escape becoming a target for both blame and credit regarding labor’s direction. Indeed, Barnard skillfully tracks Reuther’s handiwork in decisions that define pivotal moments in labor history, including the sit down strikes that forced union recognition upon the industry, the leadership struggles within the union, the eviction of communist leaders from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the UAW’s failed frontal assault on managerial prerogatives in the 1940s, the CIO merger — and subsequent UAW breakup — with the AFL, and the articulation of a progressive social agenda — including a foreign policy — for labor.

The narrative begins with the auto workers’ economic and social conditions preceding the organizing drives in the 1930s. The harsh depression struggles are captured in photos like the 1937 scenes in which Ford guards approached and then beat Reuther and co-organizer Richard Frankensteen in the infamous “Battle of the Overpass.” Although this attempt to organize Ford failed — the firm did not capitulate to the UAW until 1941 — the union had already secured its own future with a number of major successes, most notably with General Motors after its sit-down strike in Flint.

The early UAW leadership divided into three main factions. The Progressives, probably the least ideologically inclined group, were undercut by the erratic behavior of their leader, Homer Martin, the UAW’s first elected president. Soon only the Communists and Reuther’s Unity faction remained to square off among themselves. Although Communist unionists usually kept their affiliations secret, their capacity for leadership was strained by their adherence to a party line subservient to Stalin’s political zigzags. Their positions became increasingly unpopular, especially after the Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, and then, after this pact was broken, by a war policy that essentially required workers to abdicate their shop-floor militancy in order to hasten Hitler’s defeat. Already weakened, the Communists blundered once again in 1943, by endorsing incentive wages to increase war productivity. In a union predicated upon its resistance to the managerial drive system, this was a fatal mistake, one that Reuther adroitly exploited to successfully set himself up for the union’s 1946 leadership election. As president, Reuther chose not to mend wounds, but instead pushed his advantage by endorsing the controversial Taft-Hartley provision requiring labor leaders to sign affidavits to attest they were not communists. Having effectively silenced his adversaries, Reuther was free to define his own brand of left wing labor politics — one element of which, ironically, was to advocate a foreign policy in which anti-communism would not be the litmus test by which America entered into alliances.

Reuther’s political success cannot be read solely in terms of Machiavellian politics. As a tactician and bargainer, he demonstrated his ability to extract significant contract gains from the auto companies. After the war, he pressed for greater, more systemic changes that would diminish industry’s managerial prerogatives. In his bargaining with GM, Reuther insisted the auto company not increase prices to pay for the large wage increases he demanded. When this gambit failed he pressed for labor’s right to inspect company accounts. GM withstood a long strike and held firm. Ultimately, Reuther obtained significant contract innovations, but of less sweeping scope. What he was able to deliver was an automatic productivity raise and a cost of living agreement; gains, which he could plausibly argue, did not come at the expense of the consuming public. Such a claim was important if Reuther was to be able to demonstrate that labor was interested in something more than its own immediate interests.

A profound sense of pubic accountability anchored Reuther’s leadership and established its defining characteristic. Second-in-command within the AFL-CIO that he helped to re-unite in 1955, he eventually rejected George Meany’s leadership as too narrow and self-satisfied. “We don’t have a labor movement, “moaned Reuther, “we have a club.” Preparing to withdraw from the AFL-CIO, Reuther said (p. 428), “What is wrong with the American Labor Movement is that is has no soul. It has wealth. It has power. It has no soul.”

Barnard (p. 378) describes the Reuther of the 1960s as, “Mindful of the need to mold a common purpose and resolve out of a welter of conflicting interests, the International Union searched for the course that would advance the vital interests of all while sacrificing those of none.” To this, one simply wants to quip, “Good luck!” Holding on to wage and contract gains forces labor to take a conservative turn. Advancing the interests of African Americans, women, the unorganized, and the unemployed — all progressive causes Reuther embraced — could only be accomplished hesitatingly casting one eye rearward over his shoulder. Labor solidarity required a reconciliation of seemingly irreconcilable progressive and conservative demands.

Change would not come without sacrifice of gains, as Reuther was to learn from the experience of skilled auto workers. In the union’s early organization drives (p. 49) Barnard depicts many of the craft workers as “militant” warhorses, but the union’s egalitarian contract bargaining would soon whittle away their significant wage advantages. In the late 1960s, skilled workers threatened to leave the UAW to secure the freedom of their own craft organization, the International Society of Skilled Trades (ISST). In response, the UAW violated its one-worker, one-vote union democracy by giving this elite group a separate veto over contract agreements (p. 369).

Similarly, forces on the ground made it difficult for Reuther to aggressively enforce Civil Rights. Barnard points out (p. 329), “The remedies available to the International for correcting an errant local — expulsion or installing an administrator — were resented and resisted.” Consequently, the union tolerated some racial inequities, particularly in new southern plants where locals threatened to go their own way. Still, the leadership’s position was known and it could take progressive actions. For example, when wildcat strikers refused to work alongside minorities, the union went clearly on record to tell workers they would be subject to company dismissal and the union would not defend them.

Barnard confidently integrates a vast primary and secondary literature without miring the reader in excessive detail. The sweep of the book is immense and naturally some areas integrate into the narrative more easily than others. For example, the attempt to define how women mattered in the industry and union seems strained, though its inclusion is better than omission. On the other hand, Barnard’s discussion of skilled workers works much better because it explores more fully how Reuther was forced to compromise to maintain his power base. Still one suspects that there is a good deal more that can be said about these skilled workers as their union redistributed their wage differentials to the less skilled. Perhaps, Barnard’s most significant deficit is his discussion of shop floor militancy, which is almost always portrayed as a problem, one to be dealt with by the leadership. This is unfortunate, as left-wing critiques of modern labor require a better understanding of both the mentality and potential for worker control of the shop floor. Never challenged is the compromise that commits union leadership to discipline of its rank and file as the quid pro quo for permanent recognition of a labor bureaucracy.

As Barnard’s account makes clear, it was Reuther’s good fortune to ride astride one of the greatest profit generating machines in America’s experience. If history had stopped in 1970, when Walter Reuther died in an airplane crash, his statesmanship would almost certainly have been regarded optimistically, providing a solid foundation for the future. But, alas for the labor movement, as history washed aside many of Reuther accomplishments, it seems as if his successors had inherited a sandcastle for which they possessed only toy shovels to fend away the waves.

Reuther had foreseen most, if not all, of the great forces that would beset labor. He had anticipated the move toward subcontracting, he understood and acted upon the need for international solidarity, he had insisted that the unemployed be organized and protected, that jobs expand to provide the have-nots enough opportunity to keep labor’s edifice from falling apart, but most of all he urged that labor not content itself with materialism, rather that the movement must kindle a spirit of moral and social uplift. Yet, Reuther could not prevent the future. He had done too little, or too much.

Daniel Jacoby holds the Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies for 2004-06 at the University of Washington. He teaches in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program at the University of Washington, Bothell. Author of Laboring for Freedom: A New Look at the History of American Labor (1998, M.E. Sharpe), his current investigations include the effects upon students of the contingent academic labor system, how law and labor influenced American education and vocational training, and the consequences of organizing faculty by disciplines.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII