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The Ghost of Reuther Past

The new UAW faces new challenges, but bears some distinct resemblances to the old.

Like the Reutherites, Fain and his cohorts had to wrest control of the UAW from an incumbent regime, though the lines of this conflict did not, at first glance, seem to be drawn around political concerns. After a several-year period during which a number of UAW leaders, including two former presidents, were convicted of misappropriating funds (and in some cases, taking bribes from management), a reform movement called Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) took shape. UAWD saw their chance to elect a clean slate (in both senses) of officers when, as the result of a deal that federal prosecutors reached with the union, rank-and-file members, rather than convention delegates, would elect their leaders for the first time in UAW history. But the UAWD didn’t confine itself to demands for fiscal probity; it also became a force to reverse the downward spiral of wages and benefits that the union had failed to arrest for many years.

Just as the Reutherites had schooled themselves in Socialist Party conclaves and the militant working-class perspectives of Brookwood Labor College, the cadre in the UAWD and on Fain’s staff once he was elected had apprenticed at such institutions as Labor Notes publishing and gatherings and the Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigns (a direct echo of Walter Reuther’s 1936 work on socialist Norman Thomas’s presidential campaign). Both of these cadres encountered some skeptical receptions as ostensibly exotic growths in the ranks of American labor, but both brought a level of militance and savvy that the labor movement of their respective times badly needed. Then, and more so now, a number of unions have had talented radicals on their staffs. But the number of unions with new regimes having to prove themselves in the manner of the 1947 and 2023 UAW is never very large. (In 1948, the sociologist C. Wright Mills actually wrote a book largely about Reuther’s newly installed socialist cadre at the UAW, called The New Men of Power.)

Some of the gains the UAW has made over the past two weeks simply restore Reuther-era gains that had been lost in recent times, like the COLA. Some eliminate concessions the union agreed to in the depths of the Great Recession, like the establishment of a lower-paid tier of workers. Some extend the scope of the contracts to include workers at new facilities, such as EV and battery factories. (The contracts in Reuther’s day included all new GM, Ford, and Chrysler factories; the companies hadn’t yet tried to weasel out under the cover of joint ventures, which didn’t exist at the time.)