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Spotlight on American Labor History

May 9, 2017 
By Bill Hohlfeld

Elements of Greatness
This week’s broadcast of “Blue Collar Buzz” highlighted the passing of Walter Reuther, President of the C.I.O.  He was, to be sure, an icon of the American Labor Movement.

While it is often easy to look back over a man’s career and point to his accomplishments, the truth is, there is something much more important than the list of facts and figures that can be mechanically rolled off the tongue like lines on a resume. The larger question to ask, I think, is: What were the characteristics of the man responsible for the actions.

In the case of Walter Reuther, what I see is the willingness to care first and foremost about what is right, as opposed to getting forever entangled in ego driven questions about who is right. The first example I would proffer is his active role in the expulsion of communist influences within the CIO. Now, I know that may very well rankle the old time hard liners that will quickly point out if it were not for the efforts of some very well meaning and high minded members of that party back in the 1930’s, the CIO may never have become the force it eventually did. Granted.

But what Reuther and the other leaders of the CIO recognized in post WWII America, was that the survival of any U.S. labor organization, would be dependent upon severing all ties with the communists. Truth be told, the regime of Joseph Stalin was nothing to be admired, and the people of so called “people’s republics” were much more enslaved than any worker struggling with the inherent difficulties of capitalism. As much fun as cocktail party ideology can be, it is wise to remember that people’s lives don’t revolve around theory, but rather the reality of their everyday circumstances.

The second example of putting the greater good over personal preference, was the historic merger with the AF of L. It could not have been easy to mend fences that had been in severe disrepair for twenty years and take a back seat to a powerful man like George Meany. Reuther managed to do this and put the future of the American worker ahead of his own agenda. Never trying to pretend he liked or agreed with Meany, Reuther did what needed to be done at the time  despite the fact that ironically in 1968 Meany succeeded in getting Reuther and several other CIO leaders expelled from the federation’s executive board. Reuther then again tried his best to make the best of a bad situation by yanking United Automobile Workers from the AFL-CIO, and forming a new alliance with a the Teamsters.

AFL, CIO, public sector, private sector, liberal, conservative, populist… Maybe if we worried less about who was in charge and more about what got done, we’d all be better off


 

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