The Multinational Monitor



Solidarity Forever?

The UAW's Harassment
of Vicotr Reuther

by Robert Weissman

The Reuther name is almost synonymous with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Walter Reuther was president of the union from 1947 until 1970. But Walter Reuther is not the only Reuther in UAW history. His brothers Roy and Victor also held high positions in the union. And all three helped build the union, playing important roles in the famous General Motors sit-down strikes of 1936-1937.

Victor Reuther, the youngest of the brothers, made as significant a contribution to the strikes as anyone. Sidney Fine in Sit-down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937, describes Victor Reuther's participation in the Flint, Mich. "Battle of the Running Bulls," in which 13 strikers were wounded by police gunshot: "One observer of the scene thought that from the sound car, manned by [Victor] Reuther and other organizers and alternating exhortation with martial music, emanated 'one steady unswerving note' during the battle. It dominated everything!' Reuther's voice, he said, was like an inexhaustible, furious flood pouring courage into the men."'

More than 50 years later, Victor Reuther, the longtime head of the UAW's international affairs department, is still fighting and still the subject of attack from institutional centers of power. Today, Reuther is fighting not just the auto companies, but also against the leadership of the union he helped build. And now he is being harassed not by a police force responding to corporate interests, but by the union leadership. Reuther has publicly identified himself with the New Directions Movement, a newly formed opposition caucus in the UAW. His name enhances the credibility of his outspoken criticism of the union's current policies and program, and it is precisely because of his stature that he has drawn the wrath of top UAW officers.

Reuther's conflict with the UAW leadership of which he was once a part began in 1985, when the International union negotiated a secret, never-published contract with General Motors (GM). The contract covered GM's "Saturn" plant in Tennessee, and was hailed by GM as an historic agreement. Wages at the Saturn plant are only 80 percent of the auto industry average; workers can earn the normal GM wages only through incentive pay. The Saturn contract also significantly affected shop floor relations, practically abolishing seniority rights and replacing independent union shop floor representatives with "group leaders" who perform the function of both union representatives and supervisors.

Reuther strongly opposed the Saturn agreement. At the time it was negotiated, he said it "constitutes the greatest threat to the in-plant structure of the union, pits worker against worker [and] weakens union solidarity." When he asked for a copy of the contract, the International union refused to send him one, explaining that it had not been released to the union membership.

Reuther's opposition to Saturn attracted the attention of others opposed to the agreement, especially longtime UAW dissidents like Pete Kelly, president of GM local 160. Kelly sought to contact Reuther by mail, but he didn't have Reuther's home address--that's what sort of "co-conspirators" we were, says Reuther--and so he mailed his letter to Reuther care of the UAW's international affairs department in Washington, D.C. Reuther often received mail at the international affairs department, which routinely forwarded it to his Washington, D.C. home.

The letter from Kelly, however, reached Reuther only by following a circuitous path. The director of the Washington office, Don Stillman, took the letter to a meeting in New York, where he gave it to UAW president Owen Bieber. Bieber carried it around for three weeks and then sent a letter to Reuther saying Stillman had inadvertently opened the package. When Stillman discovered it was for you, Bieber wrote to Reuther, he gave it to me and asked me to return it. Bieber then apologized to Reuther for taking three weeks to forward the letter.

Bieber's explanation is open to question, as Reuther and Kelly each point out. "Don Stillman had my home address, he had been at my home," Reuther says. "He didn't have to carry [the letter] to New York to give to Owen."

Reuther speculates that when Kelly's package arrived, Stillman "spotted where it was from and said, 'Aha, I've got Vic Reuther now in cahoots with that dissident troublemaker, Pete Kelly."' He then took it to New York to show to Bieber.

Stillman claims there was nothing unusual or sinister about Reuther's mail being opened and given to Bieber. "Letters addressed to former staff," he says, "are routinely opened" with the expectation that they contain union-related business, not personal material. The letter ended up in New York, he asserts, because he took all his unsorted mail with him on a business trip there immediately after returning from a vacation. When he looked through his mail and saw Kelly's letter to Reuther, he was with Bieber, who offered to take it, saying he would be seeing Reuther the next week.

For Reuther, this bizarre rerouting of his mail was followed by a series of incidents in which he was harassed and mistreated by the International union. In 1906, the International union held its tri-annual convention to elect officers to its executive board. Even though Victor Reuther is the winner of the UAW's highest award, the Social Justice award, and even though the International normally invites dozens of guests to the convention, the UAW leadership did not extend an invitation to Reuther. Reuther did attend the convention, but only as a correspondent for Union Democracy News.

At the convention, Reuther states, "I saw the election stolen from [New Directions founder] Jerry Tucker," who ran for regional director in the Southwest region against an incumbent supported by the International. Reuther's evaluation of the election was shared by the Department of Labor, which eventually ordered a reelection in Tucker's region. Tucker won the reelection.

"When I saw [the stolen election]," Reuther recounts, "and heard Owen say from the platform on numerous occasions, 'we are carrying on the policies and programs of Walter Reuther,' well, that was a bit much for me. Walter Reuther never had to steal an election to win the presidency or have a friend elected to the executive board."

Reuther "felt so inwardly disturbed at what was happening" that he took up Tucker's cause and became an active supporter of the New Directions Movement which grew out of Tucker's candidacy. Reuther travelled widely to speak in support of New Directions.

In Indiana, where Reuther was once director of organizing, rumors began circulating that Reuther was senile. Reuther charges that regional director Bill Osos initiated the rumors after an Indiana local had discussed inviting Reuther to speak. Osos did not return repeated calls asking about the matter.

Reuther responded to the rumor "in a public speech in Muncie, Indiana a year ago," where, he relates, "I suggested that this senile old man is quite prepared to mount the rostrum and take Owen Bieber and the regional director on in debate anytime they are ready."

In 1989, Reuther, along with Tucker, appeared on the "Today" television show. Reuther blasted the direction in which the International leadership had taken the union since the Saturn agreement. He said that workers at a Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tennessee had little incentive to vote to be represented by the UAW, since the union-negotiated agreement at the nearby Saturn plant is so bad and offers no improvements over what the Nissan workers are already getting.

The national coverage afforded Reuther's criticisms of the UAW leadership embarrassed the International union. Soon after, five former top UAW officers, including Leonard Woodcock and Douglas Fraser, the two most recent past presidents of the union, issued what they called "An Open Response to Victor Reuther."

The ex-officers wrote the letter on their own initiative, according to Fraser and International union spokesperson Frank Joyce. The UAW leadership supported the "Open Response," however. "Most people here [in Solidarity House, the UAW's Detroit headquarters] were in basic agreement with the letter's content," says Joyce. And while the International union denies circulating the letter, Fraser told Multinational Monitor that in a number of regions, regional directors had it duplicated and circulated among local unions.

The 13-page "Open Response" began, "It is time to halt the damage that our long-time brother, Victor Reuther, has been doing to our union." The letter noted Reuther's longtime involvement in the international affairs department and in other posts, but claimed that "Victor had little or no involvement with the day-to-day activities of the union, the collective bargaining policies or strategies or the internal policies of the union. He would appear occasionally before the UAW Executive Board to make a report on his activities in the field of international labor, but he was not a participant in the Executive Board's deliberations or decisions."

The letter also challenged the accuracy of Reuther's criticisms of the union, saying he frequently made factual errors. It stated, "In speeches he has made around the country, Victor repeatedly commits factual errors, makes unfounded claims about the UAW's past history, and makes false charges about its current actions." The letter charged Reuther with "[paying] scant attention to the facts," "overlook[ing] past UAW history or ... consciously misrepresenting the facts" and putting forth "specious and incorrect argument[s]."

The "Open Response" claimed that Reuther's criticisms of the UAW leadership constituted "uncalled for invective," and went beyond the bounds of legitimate dissent. "There is always room for constructive disagreement," it said. "It is unfounded, inflammatory, disparaging innuendo like Victor's, challenging the fundamental integrity of the leadership of the union, which is uncalled for and creates divisiveness."

Fundamentally, the letter held, Reuther's actions had been "irresponsible."

About the letter, Reuther says, "If they had written a one-page blast," maybe the criticisms would have been taken seriously. "But a 10-page one was too much to swallow even after you chewed on it for a while." He adds that he feels more sadness than anger about the letter and the state of the UAW. "Nobody likes the feeling that what they have spent their life believing in and embracing is being [thrown] away; that is not a very pleasant thought." But "I am not just going to sit in a rocking chair and lament the fact. I am going to go out and try to stir up the membership and say you have something good here, don't let it slip away from you."

Speaking up, however, has spurred the International union's attacks and the UAW leadership's efforts to silence Reuther--or at least limit his listeners. During the 1989 elections for executive offices, Reuther campaigned actively for Jerry Tucker and another New Directions candidate for regional director, Don Douglas of the Detroit region.

In its active effort to defeat Tucker and Douglas, the International union appealed to retirees to vote against the two insurgents. The International's appeal was, however, unusual, and is now the subject of investigation by the Department of Labor. In many instances, the International invited retirees to free luncheons, gave them speeches about how they should support the International's candidates and then bused them to the polls.

These meetings, arranged and paid for by the International union, were not open to the New Directions candidates. Outside one Detroit meeting at which Douglas's opponent, Bob Lent, spoke, Reuther passed out leaflets supporting Douglas; inside, Reuther relates, "the leaflets were ripped out of the hands of retirees as they entered the room." Reuther and Douglas attempted to attend the meeting, but they were denied access. Lent did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the issue.

A similar incident occurred in Tucker's South central, Southwest region. Reuther went with Ford Local 249 president Matt Snell to the Ford Kansas City assembly plant. The director of personnel at the plant, Lou Papalas, met Reuther and Snell at the plant gate. Reuther and Snell asked to tour the plant. According to both Reuther and Snell, Papalas refused to let them enter, claiming that he had orders from Ford's Detroit headquarters not to let Reuther in the plant. Bob Bierman, Ford's regional public affairs manager, acknowledges the incident occurred, but says he cannot remember if the plant turned Reuther away on instruction from Detroit or on its own initiative.

The Ford plant did not prevent all union officials from touring the plant, however. Reuther and Snell report that at the exact time they were refused entry to the factory, Tucker's opponent, the International union-supported Roy Wyse, was touring the plant with another officer of the local and an International union representative; Wyse was also allowed to address the workers.

Reuther maintains a surprising equanimity in the face of the UAW's harassment. "I don't go around just carping about being mistreated by" the UAW leadership, he says. "I understand the political reasons" for it.

But, he promises, the harassment will not succeed in quieting him. "I spent my whole life in the UAW and I am not accustomed to sitting on the sidelines and seeing gains made at great cost after great struggle over many long years just tossed away. I can't remain silent."

Research assistance provided by James Donahue.

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