WALTER REUTHER AND THE RISE OF THE AUTO WORKERS by John Barnard

WALTER REUTHER AND THE RISE OF THE AUTO WORKERS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A competent if unsatisfying addition to the Library of American Biography. It's difficult now, as the series presumes, to write simply, positively, and relevantly about Walter Reuther: the pacesetting benefits that he won for the auto workers--""in wage security and retirement income""--have proved to be illusory; ""his skill at tense, high-stakes bargaining"" sounds like something out of the frontier past; his affiliation with liberal Democrats, in pursuit of social unionism, did little for unions and not a great deal for society. Even at the time, he didn't shine as part-time head of the CIO (195255) and of the merged AFL-CIO's Industrial Union department: organizing lagged; AFL. business-unionism set in; he and George Meany scrapped, And when Reuther led the UAW out of the AFL-CIO in 1968, no liberal labor leader followed; his ""unlikely partner"" in a new, short-lived organization would be the Teamsters. Meanwhile, Reuther hemmed and hawed on Vietnam. Professor Barnard (History, Oakland College, MI) does not conceal these last, outright failings. What he doesn't squarely address is the Communism/Cold War issue: the extent to which Reuther gained the UAW presidency through Red-baiting, his complicity in the CIO purge of leftist unions, the ensuing cost to militant unionism. Neither, more crucially, does he really project Reuther's intensity as the son of an old Socialist worker or his dynamism as a young Socialist organizer. And insofar as he follows the benefits-pacesetter, skillful-organizer, social-unionist line, he doesn't distinguish other Reuther efforts (re international unionism, health-and-housing) of perhaps less immediate but more lasting value. But he obviously knows the terrain (before the UAW stopped the replacing of older workers with the lower-paid young, ""hair dye sold well in Detroit stores""); he gives a clear account of major developments; and he does characterize Reuther accurately (austere, disciplined, self-confident) if only as a sidelight. The book is no substitute for Victor Reuther's fat memoir (The Brothers Reuther, 1976) and it hasn't the color or grip of Irving Howe and B. J. Widick's classic, The UAW and Walter Reuther (1949). But until someone reevaluates Reuther's career, this will serve the superficial needs of students.

Pub Date: Feb. 18th, 1983
Publisher: Little, Brown