Making Sense of Reuther

Making Sense of Reuther

Midway through his extraordinarily rich biography of Walter Reuther, Nelson Lichtenstein writes about an episode that occurred in 1947 while
Republican Congress was passing the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) called for protest demonstrations. Reuther, in his capacity as United Auto Workers (UAW) president, sent telegrams to all the Detroit-area locals ordering them to stop work at 2 P.M. on April 24 and assemble at Cadillac Square. This was a political strike, familiar in Europe, and since the late1930s increasingly commonplace in American industrial centers as well; only the previous summer CIO demonstrations against the decontrol of meat prices had shut down many Detroit plants.

This time, however, General Motors (GM) drew the line. Anyone who quit work would be disciplined for violating paragraph 117 of the contract, which prohibited work stoppages. Anti- Reutherites on the executive board, and even some of his allies, wanted to take GM on, but Reuther said no: the UAW couldn’t retaliate against GM for enforcing the contract. The strike call was not rescinded, but Reuther backed away from it, and word went out to the GM locals not to violate the no-stoppage provision. The militants who did—most GM members waited until the shift ended before heading over to the huge rally—got fired or were given long suspensions. Scrambling to get them reinstated, the UAW bowed to the corporation’s demand that it formally repudiate the contract violation. Reuther pledged that the UAW would never again call its members out on a political strike.

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Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima