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Walter Reuther - Success, Work and UnionsWalter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions


Walter Reuther (1907-70)


American leader (pictured right) of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) trade (or labour) union which forced the big car companies to pay its members bigger wage increases.

 Walter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions

Also see....

The Battle of the Overpass in the History Highlights section, when Reuther and three other union organizers were beaten up by the car maker, Henry Ford's (pictured right) employees. 


Why was Reuther successful?

 Walter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions

1. Vision

He wanted the UAW to:

  • satisfy its members’ immediate needs
  • think about the future.

He saw the value of small, inexpensive cars long before the American car companies did.

 Walter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions

2. Principles

Reuther (pictured right with President Harry S. Truman in 1952):


a) strongly believed in the UAW

(to improve workers’ pay, other benefits (like pensions and longer holidays) and working conditions - see points 3 and 4).


b) was anti-communist 

He was a vehement opponent of the Soviet Union (then the name for communist Russia).


c) supported equality, justice and prosperity for allWalter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions

He strongly supported:

  • the use of car factories for making aeroplanes during the Second World War. 
  • civil rights for African Americans.

He spoke at the March on Washington rally in 1963 (pictured right, second from the right), when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech (pictured right below).

 Walter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions

3. People first

Reuther fought all his life for the belief that people must come first in business and society

He believed that people’s happiness depends on

  • their standard of living.
  • social issues (like pollution, and the prevention of nuclear war and crime).

“Making progress with the community, not at the expense of the community” was his aim.


4. Co-operation

He wanted to co-operate with managers to:

  • improve working people’s prosperity
  • increase profits (so long as workers got a fair slice of the companies’ increased wealth).
  • support new technology (like mass production and new machinery) to increase productivity (production per worker) and cut costs.

In 1948 he struck a historic deal in which General Motors  (in return for no strikes) gave:

  • job security.
  • annual guaranteed wage increases (linked to sales, productivity and inflation).

 Walter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions

5. Courage

He forced Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan (at General Motors, pictured right) to recognize his union, the UAW,

In the Battle of the Overpass (1937) he and three other union officials were beaten up at Ford’s factory by 40 men, some of them gangsters, when distributing leaflets for the union.Walter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions

He helped to organize two major, victorious strikes against:

  • General Motors (in 1940).
  • Ford (in 1941).

He also fought against corruption and the influence of gangsters in his union.

A gunman tried to kill him and his wife in their kitchen in 1948, and he was watched for 40 years by J. Edgar Hoover’s (pictured right above) FBI.

 Walter Reuther - Success, Work and Unions

6. Great communicator

He was a brilliant negotiator and publicist.

At the Battle of the Overpass(pictured right on the left after being beaten up) , he brought along a press photographer, who sent pictures of his attack throughout America.

He also communicated his messages with snappy slogans like

“Too Old to Work - Too Young to Die” (which supported his negotiations for worker pensions).


Key quote on negotiating

If you’re not big enough to lose, you’re not big enough to win.


Key quote on society

Making progress with the community, not at the expense of the community.


Key quote on objectives and vision

There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.


Key quote on workers and unions

Fight for the welfare of the public at large.

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