Love Song to the UAW

Love Song to the UAW

In 1937 autoworkers boldly grasped the means of production, gained recognition from General Motors, and proceeded to build the kind of institutional power that transformed history. It’s an incredibly seductive story. Perhaps too seductive.

Walter Reuther (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)

Brothers on the Line
Directed by Sasha Reuther, 2012

Few things fire up nostalgia and kindle hope for American progressives more than the sit-down strikes of 1937. That winter in Flint, Michigan, autoworkers boldly grasped the means of production, gained recognition from General Motors, and proceeded to build the kind of institutional power that transformed history. It’s an incredibly seductive story. Perhaps too seductive.

At the center of that struggle stood the shrewd and daring Reuther brothers. As the modern UAW took shape, Roy worked the administrative and legislative agenda, Victor managed international affairs and education, while Walter became one of the most famous labor leaders in American history in his role as UAW president from 1946 until his death in a plane crash in 1970. Together they pushed American pluralism about as far as it could go by advancing union power to unprecedented heights, advocating for civil rights, and keeping their eyes on a future social democratic America.

Once household names, sadly the Reuthers are now largely lost to popular lore—a problem that Brothers on the Line goes a long way toward rectifying. A time when a handsome, eloquent working-class leader—flanked by his indefatigable younger brothers—could go toe-to-toe with the bosses publicly and win on a regular basis seems today more like fantasy than history. For that reason alone, Brothers on the Line deserves a wide audience. A viewer unfamiliar with the forty-four-day occupation of the Fischer Body plant, the assassination attempts on the young Reuthers, the extraordinary gains in collective bargaining, and the important role of the UAW in the civil rights movement will certainly be surprised—if not astounded—at this amazing archival footage and the extraordinary story that changed the direction of American history.

Raising the popular consciousness about the role of the Reuthers seems to be the goal of Sasha Reuther, Victor’s grandson, who directed and helped produce this film. That is good, and every generation needs a new introduction to these amazing stories. Perhaps I am asking too much of a documentary, but this project needs a higher calling. With the increasing cultural distance between the Reuthers’ time and our own, in which the entire CIO seems to bracket a sort of generational accomplishment more than a long-term victory, we have much more pressing and important concerns than the dramatic stories of these (truly) great men. In a world in which working-class power may be approaching a hundred-year nadir, we need to understand where all that power and energy came from and how it dissipated so quickly.

There are a lot of good love songs that tug at the heart strings and make us feel good, but only a few actually get to the true complexity of relationships. Those that do, make for great love songs. Brothers on the Line is a good love song.

The film may have lost me with its clichéd chorus. Narrator Martin Sheen predictably calls the workers “slaves to the company,” and the film soon cuts to faceless masses, á la Dorothea Lange, marching through the plant gate. Then, of course, “Which Side Are You On?” gets queued up—or was it “Solidarity Forever?” It probably doesn’t matter. The problem is that these old war stories are failing to create both new wars and new stories. Indeed, they may be holding us back.

Sheen’s narration often gives way to the prominent presence of the wonderful historian Kevin Boyle, who performs his job with passion and insight. I wonder, however, if the filmmakers read Boyle’s book, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism. There, in Boyle’s opening pages, are the questions that Sasha Reuther might have focused on. A good accounting of labor’s problems in the United States, Boyle explains, must include the union’s “inability to build a cross-class, biracial coalition committed to continued reform; its inability to redefine the nation’s policy-making structures; its inability to fashion a more democratic political economy in the postwar United States.” The UAW did one hell of a lot better than most, and its praises need to be sung. The limits of the UAW’s accomplishments were not issues of ambition or will or compromise on the union’s part. “The UAW, at least,” argues Boyle, “wanted labor to be much more.” But why didn’t it happen? And why didn’t it last?

Some complexity and tension does emerge as the film deals with the struggles with Communists on the left and the mob on the right, the challenge of the black power insurgencies of the sixties (which showed Walter to be pretty autocratic), and the political cage of the Democratic Party, which offered both a place for organized labor and strict limits on it purview. Some of the thorny questions we need to ask of the UAW are here, but the answers are not always satisfying.

Much more might have been made of these complexities by looking at the UAW’s relationship with Students for a Democratic Society (which it helped form), the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (which it helped squelch), and other flashpoints that tease out the dilemmas of power. Perhaps most glaringly, there is almost nothing on the entirety of the Second World War and Reuther’s “500 planes a day” strategy, in which he proposed converting the flailing auto industry to defense production (a great precedent for plant conversion for our own time, though the national emergency now calls for green technology rather than defense). Similarly, there’s a notable silence on the postwar strike wave when the UAW squared off with General Motors over questions of labor’s say in management (often called the “open the books” strike). That massive, protracted 1946 strike may have been labor’s greatest and best reach in all of history for a say in how the corporation was to be run, but it passes with nary a word.

The footage and interviews in Brothers on the Line are great, though a lot of the material will be familiar to labor documentary buffs, especially those who have seen the PBS American Experience episode Sit Down and Fight (1993). Like an unexpected horn solo that breaks up a standard composition, however, Sasha Reuther’s best addition from the archive is not small: the chilling recordings of conversations between Walter Reuther and Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War and the Great Society. Here we see Reuther stuck between his loyalty to Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state and his creeping realization that the Vietnam War was a disaster. They needed each other but their relationship was doomed. “I want you to tell the rest of them that I’m no goddamn fascist,” Johnson pleads to Reuther.

Viewers unfamiliar with the drama of this amazing tale of union power owe it to themselves to see this film. It is simply an amazing story. Those looking to use labor history to help puzzle their way out of our current problems will have to keep looking. Because the film does not engage its subject matter more playfully, analytically, and ambitiously, we are left to see this as merely past rather than a set of problems for the living.

Jean Paul Sartre liked to use the clunky neologism “practico-inert” to describe the way the sedimentary layers of the past form a sort of paralysis on the present field of action. And organized labor has enough of that on its own. This subject is important enough for us to need more ambition from our filmmakers (and certainly from our labor leaders). It was, after all, boldness and imagination—a willingness to throw off the past while working within the American context—with which the brothers Reuther made their mark. We owe it to their legacy to do the same when thinking about their pivotal contributions to American working-class history.

Jefferson Cowie is the author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press). He teaches history at Cornell University.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: