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Victor Reuther, 92; Joined His Brothers in Building the UAW

June 07, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Victor Reuther, who along with his brothers, Walter and Roy, helped make the United Auto Workers union a powerful force in the American labor movement and led mid-20th century development of all industrial unions, has died. He was 92.

Reuther, who had been living in a hospice in the Washington, D.C., area, died Thursday of renal failure and pneumonia at George Washington University Hospital. His death was announced by what is now the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America union in Detroit.

"Victor Reuther was one of the most imposing and inspirational figures in the developmental years of the labor movement and ranks among our movement's heroes," John L. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a prepared statement. "Together with his brothers, Walter and Roy, he built the UAW into a powerful force for social good."

Victor, Walter and Roy Reuther, the sons of a steel and brewery worker father, left their native Wheeling, W.Va., for Detroit in the 1930s to lead a changing American labor movement. Walter became UAW president, heading the organization from 1946 until he died in a plane crash in 1970, while Roy, who died in 1968, served as the union's legislative director.

Victor Reuther joined Kelsey Hayes Wheel Co. in 1936 as an assembly line worker and became a strike leader after helping organize West Detroit Local 174 of the new UAW. He went on to lead the UAW's education department and was appointed director of the union's international affairs department in 1955, forging ties with noncommunist labor movements in Britain and Germany.

He retired from the UAW in 1972, and four years later published "The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW: A Memoir," which critics called more a history, albeit partisan, of the union than of the man.

In the 1980s, Reuther strongly criticized UAW leaders' endorsement of plans to give rank-and-file workers a voice in how manufacturing companies were run.

"Now is not the time for union partnerships with reactionary corporate America," he told Los Angeles Times labor columnist Harry Bernstein in 1986.

In the early years, Victor Reuther was seen as courageous and charismatic -- facing down police with tear gas, billy clubs and bullets to rally union strikers and force automobile and parts manufacturers to negotiate with unions, often for the first time.

"He had this deep, resonating voice, and he coupled that with a superb control of the language," Mike Smith, director of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, told the Washington Post. "He was a self-educated man who read widely, and ... when he got up to give a speech, it was usually a beauty."

Victor and Walter studied at the University of West Virginia and Wayne State, rooming together and pooling their savings. In 1933 they began a three-year trip around the world, observing how workers sought better pay and working conditions. They bicycled through Europe, worked at a Russian automobile plant in a Ford-sponsored worker-exchange program, and traveled through India and Japan before settling in Detroit.

Victor Reuther noted in his memoir that seeing the beginnings of despotism in Russia, Germany and Italy made them strongly pro-democratic, anti-fascist and anti-communist advocates for the rest of their lives.

After leading a successful sit-down strike at the Kelsey Hayes plant, which won union recognition and a wage increase, and swelled membership from 78 to 30,000, Victor Reuther moved to Flint, Mich., to organize a strike against General Motors. Building on hard-won success there, he moved on to help his brothers unionize Ford.

During World War II, Reuther served on the federal War Manpower Commission and was co-director of the UAW war policy division, which helped forestall any labor shutdown of war production facilities.

In 1949, Reuther and his wife, Sofia, had just returned from Europe, where he helped reorganize postwar labor unions, when a shot was fired through their living room window. He was struck in the face and neck and blinded in one eye in the assassination attempt -- only a year after a similar attack on his brother Walter.

Widowed in 1996, Reuther is survived by two sons, Eric and John; a sister, Christine Richey; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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