Victor G. Reuther
|Victor G. Reuther|
|Born||Victor George Reuther
January 1, 1912
Wheeling, West Virginia
|Died||June 3, 2004
|Occupation||International labor organizer|
Victor G. Reuther (January 1, 1912 – June 3, 2004) was a prominent international labor organizer. Along with brothers, Walter Reuther, and Roy Reuther, he helped make the labor movement a powerful force in the lives of millions of working people around the world. His older brother Walter became the president of the United Auto Workers union (UAW) and Victor became the head of that union's Education Dept. and an organizer on the international level. Throughout his life Victor strived for the betterment and the continuing education of the working classes and as a powerful advocate of social democracy.
Victor Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, the son of Anna (Stocker) and Valentine Reuther, a socialist brewery worker who had immigrated from Germany. His father was a union activist and supporter of Eugene Debs, a socialist candidate for the United States Presidency. Victor attended college as a freshman at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
Later, at the urging of his brother, Walter, he attended what is now Wayne State University. Subsequently, he then joined Walter on an extended trip to Europe and Asia, during which time the brothers worked in a Russian automobile factory. The Reuthers were eventually blacklisted and expelled from the U.S.S.R. after leading a strike demanding safer working conditions.
Returning to the United States in 1936, Victor took a job at the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company, in Flint, Michigan. It was there that he started to organize the workers into a union that would eventually become the UAW. During this time Reuther lent his support and leadership to the 1936 General Motors Strike where he faced down the billy clubs and tear gas of the violent pro-company police. He was famous during this strike for driving around Flint in a car with a loudspeaker mounted on the roof, encouraging the striking workers who were occupying the factories. Reuther was 24 years old at the time. General Motors (GM) workers in Flint took action, and the strike eventually spread to over 100 other production facilities. During this strike, 90% of GM production was stopped due to the shortage of parts and labor.
The strike was eventually settled in February 1937, with many gains for the workers although Victor had to leave town with his wife, Sophie (the union's first female organizer) to evade a warrant that had been issued for his arrest by a GM "owned" judge. He and Sophie ended up in Anderson, Indiana to support another strike taking place there and another battle against thugs, corrupt police and public officials who were "in the pocket" of the corporations that were determined to wipe the union out.
The war years and beyond
The United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, and for millions of American workers, industrial production was converted to supplying war material. Reuther was among the first to sense the waste and extravagant spending that the large corporations were engaging in now that they were getting lucrative military contracts. Reuther went to Washington, D.C. and informed the Roosevelt (New Deal) Democrats of the idle machinery and infrastructure that could be turned over to military production, and subsequently there were much stricter controls on how, when, and where government allocations to private corporations could be spent. After the war Reuther travelled to Germany and was instrumental in the re-organization of the German labor unions. Through the remainder of his life he continued to be a strong supporter of the union movement in Germany and the rest of Europe. In 1947 his brother Walter was elected as the president of the UAW. Shortly after that Victor became the head of the union's Education Department. He was a vocal advocate of the recruitment of women, minorities, and young people into leadership positions for the union. Reuther saw the positive results that offering further education to the rank and file workers would bring to the workplace and to future generations of workers.
An attempt on his life took place in his own Detroit home, in 1949. While he was reading a newspaper, a shotgun-wielding assassin fired at him through a closed window, hitting Reuther in the face and upper body. Waking in the hospital Reuther told his surgeon, "Take my eye, or my arm or leg, but spare my tongue. I've got a living to make." Reuther lost an eye and the partial use of one arm, but survived. The gunman was never caught. Even though the Detroit police had some very good eyewitness accounts and descriptions, they never followed up successfully on any of the leads. His brother Walter had earlier survived an April 1948 incident in which he was hit by a shotgun blast through his kitchen window. Reuther happened to turn towards his wife, and was hit in the arm instead of the chest and heart. That crime also was never solved.
Reuther recovered from the assassination attempt and continued to lead the union's Education Department for several more years. He was eventually named the UAW's International Director. He was active in the labor movement of many European countries, and became very well known in the Canadian labour scene. His brother, Walter, was killed in a plane crash in 1970, and in 1973 Victor decided to retire and write his memoir "The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW" which was published in 1976. He continued to speak at union conventions and rallies and earned much respect for his unyielding view that working people should always be making gains in terms of wages and working conditions. During the separation of the UAW and the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) in the mid-1980s, Victor Reuther was fully supportive of the Canadian workers' motivations. He felt that the UAW had been giving too much in the way of concessions to the US corporations, and it was his belief that the Canadian union would set a good example for their US counterpart. He remained active well into his declining years and died in Washington, DC at the age of 92.
Victor Reuther's life and roles in the United Automobile Workers are documented through several archival collections at the Walter P. Reuther Library. Materials include personal papers, such as correspondence and notes, as well as administrative files relating to his activities in various UAW departments. Researchers are encouraged to find these collections at the Walter P. Reuther Library website.
- Reuther, Victor G. "The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW: A Memoir." Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976.
- Reuther, Victor G. "Die Brueder Reuther. Eine Autobiographie sowie die Geschichte der amerikanischen Automobilarbeitergewerkschaft UAW." Koeln: Bund Verlag GmbH, 1989
- Reuther, Victor G. "Verraten in Gorki. Die Tragödie der ausländischen Arbeiter in den sowjetischen Autowerken in Gorki." Bonn: Verlag J.H.W. Dietz Nachf. GmbH, 2002 (published only in German language)
- Barnard, John. American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers during the Reuther Years, 1935-1970. Wayne State U. Press, 2004. 607 pp.
- Kempton, Murray. "The Reuther Brothers" in Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties (1955, repr. 1998, repr. 2004)
- Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935-1955 (1995)