Reflections from 1985: Interview with Victor Reuther

Labor’s present-day struggles against capital – and sometimes, amongst itself – are reflected in this 1985 Socialist interview with Victor Reuther, brother of the late United Auto Workers’ President Walter Reuther and himself a longtime UAW leader.  Reuther, being spotlighted as a recipient of DC/MD DSA’s annual (and final) Debs-Thomas Award, reflected on his long career in labor, fissures within that movement, and the need to ally labor with the larger movement for social justice. (Note that Victor Reuther died at age 92 in 2004.)
-Bill Mosley

[This article was first published in print in the Democratic Socialist, publication of the DC/MD and Northern Virginia Democratic Socialists of America, in the September/October 1985 issue]


Victor Reuther, along with brothers Walter and Roy, was one of the leaders in the founding days of the United Auto Workers. All three were lifelong UAW officers. Though he retired in 1972, Victor remains active in international union affairs and teaches at UAW’s Black Lake, Michigan Family Education Center. Reuther is being honored with DC-MD DSA’s Debs-Thomas Award on October 17 [1985]. This interview was conducted by Socialist staffer Stuart Comstock-Gay.

Stuart Comstock: Something that struck me in reading your book was the level of militancy and solidarity among the workers organizing the UAW. We don’t often see that kind of intense solidarity today. Why is that?

Victor Reuther: I was just overwhelmed back in the thirties by the extent to which unsophisticated workers out of the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky and Missouri – with all of their prejudices at that time – closed ranks and struggled and sacrificed in support of one another. I suspect that if the issues today were as clear and it came to a real contest again,  you’d find the same kind of solidarity among the younger generation, but things have become so diffused – there’s so much talk now of partnership and so on to meet foreign competition. The distinction between worker and owner has been fuzzed in language and in comprehension, if not in fact or reality. But this tends to confuse and bewilder, and the goals and the objectives of the labor movement are less clear than they were then.

And the participation of the individual worker appears to be more remote and less effective because often the goal may be a legislative or a political goal and the worker finds it a little more difficult to comprehend how his own – or her own – participation in the struggle can make the difference. So it’s a different ballgame.

But still the answer remains the same – that the workers have to have a high degree of solidarity to protect their well-being – to balance their interests against an employing group that has achieved a greater degree of solidarity than they have in earlier years. Our success as a labor movement has perhaps frightened some employers into developing an employer class solidarity. So we have perhaps been a little more successful in organizing our enemies than in organizing our own members. But that’s a dilemma we’ll have to confront.

SC: You have raised many concerns about the recent General Motors/UAW agreement on the new “Saturn” plant. Would you talk about that?

VR: It is very sad to see signs today that some of that democratic participation by the rank and file in union decisionmaking is being lost. I’m referring in particular to the secret negotiations which were carried on for many months between the  officers of the UAW and the corporation to reach a tentative understanding of agreement on the Saturn plant which will be located in a right-to-work state, Tennessee. I don’t think the UAW had a vote on where the plant would be located, but General Motors touts this new agreement as the beginning of a great partnership between labor and management.

Well, that’s a hell of a way to start a new era and a new partnership by, number one, locating the plant in a right to work state and, number two, conducting the negotiations of the agreement in such secrecy that even elected local officials in General Motors plants around the country have to learn about it by reading the newspapers. And already General Motors says that it wants to extend that agreement to other General Motors plants. And Ford and Chrysler, from what they know about it, like it so much that they say “We’ll take the Saturn agreement, also.” So, if this is of such far-reaching significance, shouldn’t there be a great deal of discussion in the ranks of the UAW about this new era and what it implies?

Suddenly General Motors says “We’re going down in the hills of Tennessee. And if you’re the lucky one, and are invited to come down there to work in this new partnership, you may start all over again, with a mortgaged home. Of course you’ve taken a loss on the one back in Flint or Pontiac because when employment drops, real estate values drop, and you can start all over again building the roads and the schools and the hospitals and the churches.” The social cost of that is enormous.

So here’s General Motors concerned only with profits, that is imposing on society incredible social costs because of a decision they make behind the paneled walls of the boardroom as to where they will locate that plant. I don’t know of a single industrialized nation in the world -- not even Japan – where a private company would be free to make that kind of a decision on plant location without clearing it with government, and without clearance with the trade unions – even Japan, which they tout so much as the place they would like to emulate.

Added to that insult, and like rubbing salt into an open wound, General Motors in its alleged search for a plant site goes to twenty-three states in the United States and says, in effect, “What do you offer us to locate the factory in your state? How much are you willing to give us in free real estate, in lowered tax rates, in reduced workman’s compensation benefits, in contributions to a private training fund for new hires, etc., etc.”? The state of Michigan offered a package whose estimated value is $500 million. Now who is supposed to pay that, suppose they had decided to stay in Michigan? Who was supposed to pay that $500 million to General Motors? The taxpayers in Michigan.

Twenty-three states offered packages of varying sizes. I can’t describe this search for packages any other way than a solicitation for a state bribe.

As one who spent fifty years in helping to build the UAW I resent the fact that it’s being done in such a high-handed and secretive way. I remember each major departure from a traditional approach with industry always triggered long discussions in the local unions.

For instance, when the UAW decided to push for supplemental unemployment benefits (SUB), we took three years to develop the program. Because it was complicated, we discussed that in every local union across the country until the workers understood it better than the company did. And when the UAW finally laid the proposal on the bargaining table at the Ford Motor Company, the Ford Motor Company naively said “Oh, the workers don’t want this, they would much rather have a stock option plan.” And Walter said, “You think so? Fine, give us a letter that you will agree to incorporate in the new contract whichever of these propositions the Ford workers vote for in a secret ballot conducted by the National Arbitration Association.” At which point Ford withdrew their offer, because they knew damn well we’d done our homework. I wish the UAW was as certain of its position today as the UAW has been traditionally.

Now there’s more involved in this than just the workers’ relations with the company. There’s the whole question of the corporation’s obligations to society—to the communities where it has operated for long years. You see there’s a great pool of skilled and experienced labor in all these centers where General Motors has been operating for years: Flint; Pontiac; Lansing; Detroit; Anderson, Indiana; Framingham, Massachusetts;  St. Louis and Kansas City – you name it. The workers are already housed there, they’ve been paying for years on their home; they’ve helped pave the roads of the city; they’ve helped pay for the schools and the hospitals; and they’ve contributed to building their churches.

I don’t know why a corporation ought to feel that it’s entitled to that kind of preferential treatment because they’re so generous to locate their factory there. My god they’re going to make millions of dollars of profit there out of that state and out of the workers. This whole concept is leading to an erosion of what has long been considered the social obligation of corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, etc.

In other words, they want to undo everything that we’ve achieved since the ‘30s. Is this the kind of partnership that labor is seeking? If so, we’re going to turn the clock back.

SC: What are some of the highlights of your years with UAW, as well as some of the great frustrations?**

VR: Participating in celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the UAW is of course and emotional experience for each of us who were on the scene in the early days. We’ve come such a long ways. We’ve made so much progress, and so many wonderful gains that have benefited the whole community and the nation that it is an occasion for great celebration. If I am frustrated on occasion, and disappointed with the activities in certain instances with elected officials of the UAW, it is more in sadness than in anger that I call attention to those activities. Because I think in the long run those activities will weaken the union – undermine the democratic participation that’s been the hallmark of the UAW from its earliest years.

SC: Turning to the issue of peace, which you’ve long been very involved with, there’s a wonderful quote from your book (*The Brothers Reuther*). Talking about your father’s support of Eugene Debs’ opposition to World War I you said, “They felt that the development of a war economy and the strengthening of the military and its conservative political allies would weaken democracy in the United States. How prescient they were.” Do you still believe that?

VR: Without a doubt. Inevitably the military form a very right-wing political nucleus. And the history of most of the third-world countries is where democratic revolutions took place, independence occurred, and their independence was destroyed by military coups in later years. I sometimes think that all generals are trained in the same little schoolhouse – whether they’re Russian generals or American generals or Korean generals – they all have the same mentality. They live in a simplistic world. You get what you’re entitled to only by your ability to take it by stronger force of arms. Wherever I see the military’s hand being strengthened anywhere I fear for democracy.

SC: You had a very close relationship with your father and your brothers. That must have strengthened your work tremendously.

VR: I think it’s certainly very questionable that three out  of four sons would have ever spent their entire adult lives in the labor movement had it not been for the enormous family impact of a father who was deeply involved in the trade union and social democratic movement – and a mother whose basic instincts were very very supportive of the social goals which my father espoused through trade union and political activity. I look back with real nostalgia, with a sense of great satisfaction that I was privileged to come out of a family that had these kind of social goals. I didn’t have to struggle to acquire it. I sort of got it along with breakfast, lunch and supper.

SC: What do you see as a couple of major themes which labor needs to pursue to rebuild its strength in the next decade?

VR: I think the greatest shortcoming at the national labor level – this applies to all unions – is the apparent absence of an alternative program to what corporate America has put forward. Most trade unions today are merely reacting to a corporate strategy. That’s why they’re so caught up in concessions, etc. We ought to have our own prospectus of where we want to go and what’s needed to get us there. And we may have to trade some of that off in exchange for canceling out some concessions which corporate America may want.

This has got to be a cohesive program, part of which we can work at on the collective bargaining level, the other part through our political arms. And we need to accept the fact – which trade unions are now accepting in words, but I question whether they are accepting it in deeds – we must broaden our coalition. We may have enough strength to defeat General Motors in a strike, because we’re taking on one opponent, and we know our strength in the shops. But when you move I the political field, labor can never win by its votes along.

It has to have the support of coalescing organizations, cooperating organizations. And of course if we’re serious about that then it means we can no longer afford to be dogmatic and insist that every organization that cooperates with us in the political field has to agree with us on every single issue. They don’t. Nor do we have to agree with them. But, we reach a common understanding on the most crucial items. And we move together. It is that lack of a sense of directing and prospectus which plagues us today.

And of course that underscores the fact that we don’t have a labor political force. Because if we had what the Canadians have in the New Democratic Party, or British Labour, or the German Social Democrats have [then] the party normally provides that sense of direction. Without that you will never have a sense of discipline within the political movement either. That would help discipline the people who may be elected on the Democratic ticket, or whatever party.

SC: What role do you see for socialists, and specifically for DSA, in this politicization process?

VR: I see the democratic socialists in the United States as a very advanced group of individuals who, because they have concerned themselves with political matters as a science, are in a position to provide some very helpful leadership to the trade union movement and to those who are participating in the political process.

The Democratic Socialists of America know that they’re not going to field candidates in their own name as a separate party today; they’re not after jobs. They’re after a trade union movement that is true to its own traditions; and they’re after a political movement that is committed to advancing the well-being of working people. That means farmers as well as factory workers. How best can these two great movements coalesce, and become more effective under circumstances that are very divisive today and very negative? I think the democratic socialists bring to the trade union movement in the United States a philosophy and a history that has been tested in many democratic societies over m any long years in Western Europe.

The greatest bulwark for democracy has been the social democrats. They have been the real heroes in the long struggle for democracy. They’re the ones who really provided leadership when Europe pulled itself out of the chaos of the last great war. That’s why Labour came to power in England and eventually in Germany, and has remained in power over these long years in Austria, and for but a short time in Scandinavia. So there’s a rich history to draw upon.

And I look upon the social democrats as at the cutting edge; they’re very dedicated people. They come with a much clearer sense of direction than the average trade union or the average Democrat has because they have been exposed to this political history of combining the best in democracy with a sense of social direction and human commitment.

And I think there’s a great role for them – it’s a teaching role, it’s a leadership role, it’s a counseling role, it’s a role of encouraging and providing help in crisis situations. It’s a great challenge, it really is.

If I were starting my life all over again, I couldn’t ask for a better heritage to begin with than the democratic socialist training I got at my father’s knee. And what I learned through actual participation in the early socialist activities in Detroit and elsewhere, in the peace movement, in the trade union movement, and campaigning for Norman Thomas.

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