Victor Reuther, Labor Leader and UAW Pioneer, Dies
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2004; Page B06
Victor Reuther, 92, the redoubtable labor leader who rallied sit-down strikers at General Motors plants, survived an assassination attempt that cost him an eye and helped rebuild the trade unions in postwar Europe, died of renal failure and massive pneumonia June 3 at George Washington University Hospital.
Mr. Reuther was one of three brothers who led the United Auto Workers during its mid-century heyday. While his brother Walter was the prominent union president who wielded influence in national politics for almost a quarter-century and Roy Reuther handled legislative affairs, Victor Reuther's role was at first the union's education director and later the union's international director. He had lived in Washington since 1954.
"He was a pioneer in the true sense of the word," said Doug Fraser, a former UAW president. "He helped build one of the great unions in America."
A passionate believer in the ability of unions to help working people with a broad range of social issues beyond paychecks and benefits, Mr. Reuther forged a career spanning the eras from labor's flirtation with Russian socialism to its alarm at the outsourcing of what were once union jobs to Third World countries. He appointed Mildred Jeffrey to lead the UAW's first Women's Bureau in the 1950s, protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s, publicly rebuked the shah of Iran in the 1970s and argued against the UAW's partnership with automakers in the mid-1980s.
He first made his name as the organizer staffing the sound truck in the winter of 1937 when Flint, Mich., autoworkers staged an epic sit-down strike at one of the GM plants. Mr. Reuther climbed aboard the sound truck and urged the strikers to stand firm, despite the cutoff of power and food. The police later attacked the strikers with tear gas and bullets, wounding 13. The union responded with fire hoses and heavy hinges fired from jerry-built slingshots in what is known as the "Battle of the Running Bulls."
"It was a monumental labor event; it brought the world's largest corporation to the table and made them deal for the first time with a union," said Mike Smith, director of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit. "He had this deep, resonating voice, and he coupled that with a superb control of the language. He was a self-educated man who read widely, and . . . when he got up to give a speech, it was usually a beauty."
A dozen years later, Mr. Reuther sat down to read the newspaper in his living room when a shotgun blast shattered the front window and blew apart his jaw. Mr. Reuther lost his right eye, and his collarbone was smashed. A partial denture was pushed deep into his throat. He said in his 1976 memoir, "The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW," that he told the oral surgeon, "They can take out my eye and take off an arm or a leg, but please fix up my tongue. I've got a living to make."
Mr. Reuther, born to a German immigrant brewery-wagon driver and union activist in Wheeling, W.Va., was the only one of the four boys to graduate from high school. The boys learned activism early; Smith said they were required to debate contemporary issues around the dinner table.
Mr. Reuther attended the University of West Virginia and Wayne State University but in 1932 took off with his brother Walter on a bicycle trip through Europe, visiting family in Germany and witnessing the rise of Adolf Hitler. The brothers went on to Russia to teach workers in Gorky how to build Model A Ford automobiles. They returned in 1935, and Mr. Reuther became an assembly line worker in Detroit and joined the fledgling UAW.
After the 1949 assassination attempt, Mr. Reuther and his family moved to Paris as part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations' effort to rebuild the decimated trade labor unions of Europe. He returned in 1954 and settled in Washington, where he led the UAW's international work and was a close confidant to his brother Walter.
Mr. Reuther didn't hesitate to voice his opinion about the direction of the labor movement during the strikes and bargaining and internecine union struggles. He was a key player when the American Federation of Labor merged with the CIO, when the UAW pulled out of the AFL-CIO in 1968 and rejoined it in 1981, and when Canadian autoworkers pulled out of the UAW to form their own organization. He objected to the union accepting money from a CIA front organization, and he urged the union to increase its effort to improve housing for working people.
"Victor was never without passion for fundamental change," said Jerry Tucker, a former UAW regional official from St. Louis who led a dissident group beginning in the mid-1980s. Mr. Reuther, by then retired, was a widely quoted supporter of the group, charging that the union surrendered too much power to corporations. For a few years, he was persona non grata with union leadership but eventually was welcomed back as one of its wise men.
In failing health for the past dozen years, Mr. Reuther was cared for by one of his sons, Eric, and Eric's partner, Deborah Mathews. His father decided, without consulting the family, to move into an assisted-living center in Georgetown three years ago, Eric Reuther said.
One of his first acts there was to organize a reading and study group to discuss international issues with fellow activists, ambassadors and artists who retired there.
"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," AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in a statement. "Together with his brothers, Walter and Roy, he built the UAW into a powerful force for social good."
His wife of 60 years, Sophie Goodlavich Reuther, died in 1996. A daughter, Carole Hill, died in 1999.
Survivors include two sons, Eric Reuther of Fort Myers, Fla., and John Reuther of Moscow and New York City; a sister; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company