WHERE EUGENE DEBS failed, Walter Reuther succeeded. This unpretentious, admiring life is the newest volume in the useful Library of American Biography series edited by the Harvard historian Oscar Handlin. Those whose experience of crowd action was confined to the comparatively sedate--and safe--peace marches of the '60s and '70s will be astonished by its account of the lengthy, violent, and often bloody struggle of the United Auto Workers to organize General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler in the 1930s. The internecine conflict between competing union leaders often rivaled the labor-management struggle. The public career of Walter Reuther, a founder and for 35 years an officer of the UAW, is here laid out with just the right amount of detail, and a bibliography points to further reading. Fighting off communist infiltration of the UAW, Reuther used strikes and shrewd negotiating to force unwilling managements to agreement on a number of landmark bargaining issues: guaranteed annual wages, pensions, cost-of-living allowances, comprehensive health-care programs. In the process he was beaten up and shot at--an attempted murder in 1948 remains unsolved. Of course he was lucky to be UAW president in a period of unprecedented national prosperity: in 1948 only half of American households owned cars, 20 years later the figure was 80 percent.

A nonsmoker and teetotaler, he was not a backslapping union boss that bought beers for the boys. Interestingly, as a young man, he had journeyed to Europe and worked for a time in a Soviet auto factory. His humor was acerbic: once when he was touring a new automated Ford plant, a company engineer taunted him with the remark, "Not one of those machines pays dues to the United Auto Workers." Quick as a whip, Reuther shot back, "And not one of them buys new Ford cars, either." As powerbroker in the Democratic Party, vice president of a united AFL-CIO, and outspoken advocate of civil rights (many volumes could be written on the black experience within the UAW and on race relations in Detroit and the auto industry), Reuther provided the muscle and cash to push the enactment of far-reaching social legislation under Lyndon Johnson. He was an undoctrinaire socialist, really a pragmatist, interested in results not slogans, and his death in an airplane accident in 1970 left a still unfilled void in American labor leadership.