Go to Chapter One Section

The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit
Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor
By Nelson Lichtenstein

Chapter One: Father and Sons

The workers can be emancipated only by their own collective will . . . and this collective will and conquering power can only be the result of education, enlightenment and self-imposed discipline.- Eugene V. Debs, "Sound Socialist Tactics,"1912

Late in 1903 the city fathers of Wheeling, West Virginia, asked Andrew Carnegie to build their city a library. The steelmaker turned philanthropist had already funded several hundred all across industrial America, and it seemed certain that their application would meet with success. Wheeling was the largest and most industrialized city in West Virginia, with a diversified manufacturing base that included firms in the iron and steel, pottery, wood, brass, glass, cigarmaking, brewing, and meatpacking industries. This growing community of forty thousand seemed just the sort of deserving place for Carnegie's benevolence. In return, all that Carnegie required was a city commitment, in the form of a $50,000 bond levy, to buy the land and books and staff the building.

The library had all the right supporters: the mayor, the city council, the board of education, the daily newspapers, as well as all the leading businessmen. These were the"go-ahead citizens of this community", asserted Wheeling's Daily Intelligencer. And there was Andrew Carnegie himself, who had built his philanthropy on a combination of sincere Christian charity, pious self-justification, and procapitalist propaganda that made him as controversial a figure in retirement as he had been as a captain of industry. The Daily Intelligencer captured some of these shadings when it editorialized,"Mr. Carnegie is so situated that any affront to him at this time might in the end prove very disastrous to the physical welfare of Wheeling.... We desire Mr. Carnegie's good will. He deserves our good will."

Only the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly raised its voice against the Carnegie gift. The largest and most vigorous central labor organization in the state, the labor assembly served as the lively political voice for nearly four thousand Wheeling workers organized into more than forty local unions. The labor assembly remembered well the bitter and world-famous Homestead strike of 1892 when Carnegie Steel had used Pinkerton agents and state militia to break its once-powerful unions and open up an era of what even Andrew Carnegie called"prodigious"profits for his billion-dollar corporation. With more than one local of the bloodied Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers represented in its ranks, the Wheeling labor assembly naturally supported the Carnegie Steel strikers, even holding a"Homestead Day"to raise money for the vanquished steelworkers,

Thus Wheeling unionists mobilized quickly, and almost unanimously, against a Carnegie library. The steelworker Mike Mahoney denounced the philanthropist as the"greatest of oppressors,"a foe"who gave with one hand and took away with the other."Carnegie's library was nothing more than a"disgraceful monument"to a"cold blooded outrage."Rather than erect such a building, Mahoney asked the citizens of Wheeling to defeat the bond levy,"thereby paying tribute to our murdered comrades, whose ashes repose in the precious soil at Homestead."Wheeling trade unionist took up the challenge: they soapboxed on the street comers, confronted the city council, and put precinct workers at every polling place on election day. The working class must vote no, concluded another Wheeling unionist, so"there will be one place on this great green planet where Andrew Carnegie can't get a monument to his money."

The citywide vote pitted unionist against employer, Wheeling's working-class districts against the civic elite, and a community of German, Scandinavian, Polish, Irish, and Appalachian workers against the economic power and ideological values embodied in giant enterprise. Led by an activist core of Socialists and radicals, many Wheeling workers were persuaded that the fight against the library represented a defense of their dignity and manhood, a declaration of independence cast against the encroaching power of a new feudalism, Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the most active and energetic American workers had framed their struggles in these ethical and moral terms. Such rhetoric reflected a sense of communal citizenship--historians have since labeled it republicanism--that gave to the working-class movement of those years a sense of moral order and transcendent purpose. The fight was waged on many fronts: in the factories and mines, certainly, but also in municipal politics, public education, the construction of parks and playgrounds, even in the shifting character of a city's patriotic rituals. Thus the labor assembly's fight against the Carnegie library was but a skirmish in the larger, protracted struggle waged by so many turn-of-the-century Americans to define and defend a consciously working-class citizenship.

Wheeling unionists cheered the results of the January 1904 vote. A majority of voters had cast ballots for the library, but a three-fifths majority was needed for passage, so the appropriation failed. More important, the working-class districts in South and East Wheeling had voted three-to-one against Carnegic's gift. Wheeling thus became the only city in West Virginia, and one of but a handful in the nation, to spurn the steelmaker's benevolence.Thhe city eventually built its own public library, with its own funds, in the very heart of proletarian South, Wheeling.

Among the most active campaigners against the Carnegie library was a twenty-two-year-old German immigrant, a beer wagon driver, who had arrived in Wheeling in the last year of the nineteenth century. Valentine Reuther was typical of the immigrant Socialists who had helped invigorate America's turn-of-the-century labor movement. He was born in 1881 in the Rhineland village of Edigheim. His parents, Jacob and Christina, were peasants, devout, literate Lutherans who set sail. for the United States in 1892 in the midst of the last great wave of German immigration to North America. Rhineland farming had become a chronic struggle against poor soil and the international market. But of equal importance, Valentine Reuther's father feared the growing weight of Bismarckian militarism, for which he had a pacifist's disdain. Jacob Reuther arose each morning at 4.00 A.M. to read his Bible, but he rejected much Lutheran doctrine: though not a social democrat, his faith was one of active engagement in the world. The elder Reuther is said to have remarked that churches try to do too much for Cod and not enough for men.

The Reuther family settled near Effingham on the Illinois prairie, close by one of Jacob's brothers who had come over earlier, Valentine, who was eleven when the family made the move, spent his teenage years in a hard struggle against the land. But he was no more of a farmer than the millions of other young men and women, in both Europe and America, who were determined to free themselves from the stultification of rural life. In the fall of 1899, after the crops were in, Valentine made his leap to the city, to Wheeling, where he joined an older brother, Jake, who had already become part of that city's large and well-organized German community.

He soon wrangled a job in one of Wheeling's ironworks, as a night-shift laborer earning $1.50 a day; within months he made a move to the big money 2s a"heater"in the rolling mill. As a heater, which was considered skilled work, Val Reuther became eligible to join the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers, of Homestead fame. He proved a faithful unionist, whose dedication, intelligence, and bilingual fluency made him a natural leader among German workers and their friends. But when the Amalgamated called an unsuccessful strike at the ironworks in 1902, he lost his well-paying job. The strike was hardly as dramatic as Homestead, but the underlying issues were much the same. The Amalgamated, which rejected organization of the many unskilled eastern European laborers in its industry, fought a losing battle to preserve a world in which skilled workmen commanded the respect of their employers and effective control of their work. These workmen, largely of Welsh, German, and Irish extraction, ???? a newly ???? management who ???? a drive for technological rationalization to their own mastery of the production process. The strike probably reinforced Valentine Reuther's appreciation of the value of skilled, autonomous work, an appreciation he would instill in his four sons, all of whom eventually secured the kind of work, he found just beyond his reach.

Like so many other German immigrants, Valentine had been a member of a German singing society, the Beethoven Cesangverein, which itself was part of the extraordinarily dense set of German-language cultural associations, including gymnastic societies, educational circles, and union beer gardens, that sustained German working-class culture and advanced the political self-confidence of Valentine's generation of immigrants. Typically, it was through a friend in the Beethoven Gesangverein that Val got his next job, as a beer wagon driver for the Schmulbach Brewing Company. Driving a wagon, sometimes in freezing weather, was"unskilled work,"and the wages were far lower than those of a heater or roller in the ironworks. But the pay was steady, and the job gave Val Reuther the opportunity to play an active role in the leadership of the union movement in Wheeling, his real passion in these years before World War I.

Valentine Reuther helped organize a local of the brewery workers at Schmulbach. In midwestern towns like Wheeling, the brewing trade was heavily German, both in ownership and workforce, and it was a local market industry that protected these same owners and workers from the fierce competitive gales that made life so miserable in the steel mills, coal mines, and railroad yards. The relationship between the company and the union was therefore a placid one, but this hardly retarded Valentine Reuther's political development. The International Union of Brewery Workers was itself an unusual union, industrial in form, largely Socialist in leadership, one of a handful of well-entrenched, left-wing unions in the nation. Val also became close friends with a cousin from the old country, Philip Reuther, who introduced the young unionist to the Socialist movement of the United States.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, socialism was a broad and inclusive movement in this country, with a place for Marxist intellectuals, Oklahoma populists, Jewish bundists, and social gospel ministers. Confident that the growth of industry, knowledge, and socialist ideas had to go hand in hand, the Socialist Party (SP) of these prewar years was a school that educated a generation of working-class youth in economics, science, literature, and philosophy. With thousands of others, Val Reuther eagerly absorbed the pamphlets and books turned out in cheap editions by the great Socialist publishing houses of Chicago and Girard, Kansas. He faithfully read the mass-circulation Socialist weekly, The Appeal to Reason, the lectures of the agnostic Robert Ingersoll, and the inspiring speeches of the Socialist tribune Eugene V. Debs.

Goethe and Schiller, Lincoln and Jefferson, Darwin and Huxley, were all part of an expansive socialist lexicon studied by self-taught and intellectually hungry young workers like Val Reuther. Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, a sharply drawn depiction of capitalist degradation and socialist redemption, won a vast audience, while the novels and stories of Jack London could be found in almost every schoolboy's bedroom. The Appeal to Reason and another Socialist periodical, Wilshire's magazine, each averaged 250,000 circulation across the nation. Debsian socialism was therefore very much an organic part of American working class life--a minority tendency, to be sure, and heavily weighted toward Germans, Jews, Finns, skilled craftsmen in the metal trades, and maritime workers on shore and at sea, but it was hardly the alien, European transplant seen by most of its contemporary foes and even some of its latter-day chroniclers. For many immigrants, Debsian socialism served as an"Americanization"movement that enabled newcomers to retain the cultural and political values of their homelands even as it drew them into the thick of American life.

Val Reuther trod this path, A friendly and energetic young man, he was determined to improve himself as he advanced the Socialist cause in the upper Ohio Valley. The Brewery Workers quickly elected him a delegate to the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, where his articulate and bilingual militancy made him a well-known spokesman for Wheeling's organized working class. For more than a decade he defended labor's cause at city hall and before the board of education and legislative committees at the state capital, where he testified often in favor of child labor legislation. He was soon made painfully aware, however, of both his German accent and his limited schooling, which he strove to rectify through a correspondence course in English and spelling.

These were heady days for Ohio Valley Socialist. The state party won support from unions of glassworkers, printers, carpenters, machinists, cigarmakers, and brewery workers; in Wheeling the Socialists generally controlled the Ohio Valley labor assembly and the local labor paper, through both of which they waged a vigorous campaign for independent political action. In 1909, at the age of twenty-seven, Valentine Reuther served a term as president of the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly. He came to love Eugene V. Debs and campaigned for him throughout the state each time the Socialist leader ran for office. The Socialist Party expanded steadily. The number of Mountain State party branches grew from six to fifty-three in the six years after 1905; likewise, the Socialist vote shot upward to about 6 percent in the statewide poll of 1912, about the national average. In Ohio County (Wheeling) the Debs ticket did even better, capturing II percent overall, and more than 42 percent in some working-class wards heavily populated by hard-pressed tobacco and steel workers.

Val Reuther's socialism emphasized political action because strikes and confrontations threatened to disrupt the fragile accommodation that the craft unions of Wheeling had achieved with the local employer class. Moreover, many German Socialists placed a high value on the civic freedom and republican institutions that seemed so advanced in the United States, certainly compared with the German Reich and its inequitable franchise and antisocialist laws."Ein politisch und sozial befreites Deutschland, das ist unser Amerika"(A politically and socially liberated Germany, that is our America), declared the Berlin Sozialdemokrat in an early expression of this sentiment. Although increasingly critical of the great inequalities of wealth in the United States and the manifest exploitation of unskilled labor, German immigrant Socialists considered American citizenship of genuine value and the vote an efficacious weapon against oppression. Upon turning twenty-one, Val Reuther immediately took out his citizenship papers. Thereafter he proved an active campaigner and union lobbyist, especially in the effort to abolish child labor in West Virginia mines."The ballot is the strongest weapon that working men and women have if you just exercise it;"Valentine Reuther told his comrades.

Valentine Reuther stood firmly in the center of the American Socialist Party. He spurned the conservatism of the top leadership of the West Virginia Federation of Labor and sought to win state and local American Federation of Labor (AFL) bodies to the Socialist cause, but along with Debs and most Wheeling Socialists, Valentine rejected the militant syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who championed the insurgent coal miners in West Virginia's Kanawha Valley mine wars of 1912 and 1913, IWW talk of social revolution and direct action seemed infantile and self-destructive, and it threatened whatever influence the Socialists had won with the United Mine Workers (UMW) leaders. One can assume that Val Reuther agreed with his good friend Walter Hilton, whose editorials in the Wheeling Majority denounced IWW agitation and described the Wobblies as a collection of"every freak and bug"in the labor movement.

These were good years for Val Reuther, In 1904 he married Anna Stocker, the red-haired, twenty-two-year-old daughter of a skilled Swabian wagonmaker who had arrived in Wheeling but twenty months before. The couple met in a workingman's saloon where Val delivered the beer and Anna worked in the kitchen. Anna had fled her native Scharnhausen when a love affair with a local youth was blocked by her mother, but she was far less of a rebel than her new husband. Her family had been more conventionally Lutheran, and in America she insisted upon regular church attendance for herself, for Val, and for their offspring. She loved to dance, cook, and socialize; in later years her outgoing disposition stood in contrast to the more conservative temperament of her husband, whose personal and political rectitude she often considered mere stiff-necked isolation.

Val and Anna had five children: Theodore in 1905, Walter Philip in 1907, Roy Louis in 1909, Victor George in 1912, and Christine in 1922. Walter was born on September 1, Labor Day eve. The family lived in a rough section of Wheeling, Ritchie Town, where railroad tracks and mine shafts commingled with the frame houses occupied by Wheeling's Polish and German laborers. Here the Reuther kids knew all the dangers and pleasures of a poor boy's childhood: second-hand clothes, odd jobs around the neighborhood, chancy swims across the broad Ohio, dangerous experiments with fireworks and gunpowder. In 1926 the family moved to an old but spacious farmhouse surrounded by several acres of land on Bethlehem Hill, two miles outside of town; there Val Reuther's adolescent sons demonstrated a resourcefulness, mechanical aptitude, and fraternal spirit that soon put the house and outlying buildings, including a commercial chicken coop, into good shape. The house remained the elder Reuthers' home for the rest of their lives and served as a warm domestic refuge to which the Reuther sons would return time and again in their adult lives.

Life in the Reuther family was marked by a typically German sense of orderliness. Anna kept close track of the family's sometimes difficult finances, while Val meticulously supervised the education of his sons, political and otherwise. He made his boys understand that ideas and language mattered and that life was to be taken seriously and its difficulties aggressively and purposefully attacked. He gave them all a dramatic demonstration of these values in 1919 when, in the midst of the great postwar strike wave that found Wheeling at its virtual epicenter, a new pastor at the family's Zion Lutheran church attacked trade unionism in a Sunday sermon. Flushed with anger, Val Reuther rose to his feet and, in a booming but measured voice, denounced the minister's opinions and led his family from the church. Val Reuther rarely attended services again, but Anna Reuther insisted that the boys continue; all were confirmed at Zion after a record of perfect attendance at Sunday school. Suspicious as to the content of the Sunday sermons, Val Interrogated his sons after the Sabbath services. These dinner table discussions soon turned into set-piece debates on the issues of the day: Prohibition, women's suffrage, capital punishment, the rights of labor. Val assigned the topics, and the boys worked up the arguments. According to Victor, these long-remembered and soon legendary sessions set the style for the Reuther brothers latter-day oratory: Ted was"the orderly accountant, able to construct a fine column of facts; Walter was contentious and pugnacious; Roy tried to emulate the silver-tongued orators"of the day; Victor described himself as relying"less on logic than on emotional exploitation of the material."The training soon paid off: a schoolmate remembered Victor and Roy as classroom showoffs, their hands eagerly thrust into the air with ready answers for the teacher's queries.

When the U.S. government sent Eugene V. Debs to jail for violation of the Espionage Act during World War I--the Socialist leader had advocated draft resistance--his first prison stop was the Moundsville Penitentiary just south of Wheeling. Debs received scores of visitors there, among them, Val Reuther and other local Socialists. On one occasion in the spring of 1919 Walter and Victor Reuther, then aged eleven and six, were taken along, possibly because their father knew that Debs would soon be transported to the less accessible federal prison in Atlanta. It was a melancholy visit that the boys remembered well, Debs, dressed in prison garb, looked quite gaunt; their father was without words to express his strong feelings, and tears ran down his cheeks as they left the prison."How can they imprison so kind and gentle a man?"Val repeated again and again on the way back to Wheeling.

Debs's imprisonment was a fitting and heroic climax to the great years of Socialist Party activism before and during World I, but these years were also the end of the vibrant Socialist labor movement of Val Reuther's youth, As the Reuther boys were emerging from early childhood, their father's life as a union leader and political activist was also drawing to an abrupt and painful end. The tragedy was twofold, involving both personal impoverishment and political isolation. Thus the Reuther boys found themselves divorced from the political culture that had so animated their father's life; when they sought to rejoin and re-create it in the early Depression years, the broad Socialist movement of the early twentieth century, with its sustaining trade unions, publications, and cultural institutions, had become part of a world that was more than half lost.

The first blow struck against Val Reuther came with the rising tide of Prohibitionist sentiment that swept over West Virginia in the years just before World War I. The movement was particularly damaging for brewery workers, for it threatened both to deprive them of their livelihood and to propel them into a politically opportunistic alliance with the brewing companies in a vain effort to reverse the Prohibitionist surge at the polls. In 1912 the Schmulbach Brewing Company gave Val Reuther a three-month leave of absence to campaign all over West Virginia for the Trades Union Liberty League, a group set up by the Brewery Workers to fight Prohibition. The brewery union-industry alliance failed to halt Prohibition, but it did gut much of the German labor movement's historic attachment to radicalism and began the transformation of the Brewery Workers into an organization whose politics was not far different from that of mainstream AFL organizations. The Prohibition fight also opened wide fissures within the Socialist Party, between German and Catholic workers in the North, and many southern and western state organizations that backed the drinking ban.

For Val Reuther, the closure of the Schmulbach Brewing Company in 1914 opened a painful chapter in his life. He had no"trade,"and the labor movement, which had been his real career, did not have the resources to offer him full-time employment at a salary adequate to support a family of six. In a pattern typical of working-class families in this era, Val's wife tried to fill the breach. The Reuthers opened a small restaurant near their house, but the project ended in disaster when a warm bottle of ginger ale exploded in Val's hand, blinding him in one eye. For some months he remained despondent, sometimes even suicidal, and when he did finally land other work, it was as an unskilled laborer or factory operative.

Eventually, Val Reuther rescued his family's finances and at least a portion of his dignity by securing a position as an agent of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, selling"industrial insurance"to his old comrades and friends in proletarian South Wheeling. Val Reuther knew his clientele, he rarely had to"back the hearse up"to frighten his poor neighbors into signing a contract. This he was on his feet again by the mid-1920s, when he also supplemented the family income with the sale and rental of real estate. But the family's newfound financial stability had an ironic edge: the man who had once campaigned so diligently against the imperial outreach of Andrew Carnegie was now the agent within his own working-class community for the financial capitalists of New York and Boston.

Val Reuther's personal travail mirrored the fate of immigrant socialism as a whole. The nativist, xenophobic pressures unleashed by the patriotic mobilizations of World War I virtually suffocated radicalism in provincial towns like Wheeling. German Socialists were particularly hard hit, not only because of the belligerency of their presumptive homeland but because in the postwar era the door to the rapid assimilation of this white, northern European community stood so invitingly open. During World War I there were few arrests or vigilante attacks in the city, but the heavily German representation in the leadership of the labor assembly devastated laborite socialism, even after Wheeling unionists fully endorsed the war in 1917. The next year a can of red paint was splashed across the front door of the Reuther homeland even within the German community some parents told their children to stay away from the"radical"Reuther boys.

With many progressives, the Wheeling Majority's Walter Hilton came to believe that the war could be used to promote social reconstruction; thus, the once fiery editor promoted wartime cooperation between workers and their bosses. The Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly backed government bond drives and escorted military inductees to the railroad station. A prowar lawyer took over leadership of the Socialist Party, after which its meetings and activities nearly ceased. Naturally, the party vote declined as well, from 6 percent in the Ohio County elections of 1914 to 4 percent in 1916, when at least half of all the Socialist sympathizers appear to have voted for President Woodrow Wilson. By 1920 Wheeling Socialists drew only 1 percent of the vote in the presidential election.

Wartime patriotism dealt a body blow to the Socialist Party, but of even greater long-term consequence was the transformation of the industrial and social world upon which Socialist strength had been built. In West Virginia, as in so many other industrial regions, the pre-World War I Socialist Party was almost exclusively composed of skilled workers, whose sense of mastery over their immediate, work environment coincided with and reinforced their vision of a society in which the working class itself would master the means of production and the power of the state. But now these skilled workers were coming under sustained attack as the economics and technology of their industries underwent a radical change. The brewery workers union, with its high proportion of skilled German workers, had already been destroyed. In the early 1920s technological erosion of skilled work undermined the pottery and glassmaking trades, two important Ohio Valley centers of radical laborite strength. Technological change also eliminated many of the skilled, male workers from the cigarmaking shops, In coal mining, industrial decay, the defeat of a left-wing insurgency inside the UMW, and the consolidation of John L. Lewis's autocratic regime all sharply reduced the possibility of Socialist agitation in this once-fertile incubator of American labor radicalism. By 1928 dues-paying Socialist Party membership in all of West Virginia had fallen to just eighteen souls.

Val Reuther had become a man without a union and without a party. But he always saw himself as a practical and political man. In 1924, when the Socialists endorsed Robert LaFollette's third-party campaign, Val Reuther cast his ballot for the Wisconsin Progressive as well. Later in the decade, Val, Anna, and Ted (in 1926) registered as Republicans, which in West Virginia appeared less corrupt and more prolabor than the Democratic Patty. He still sought socialism"the star of hope that lights the way, leading the workers from wage slavery to social justice,"but Valentine Reuther lacked the practical political tools to advance this cause.

Thus the Reuther boys came of age in Wheeling when the social and economic landscape was far bleaker than the one that had faced their father twenty years before. While Anna Reuther was suffering through a lengthy illness after the birth of her only daughter, Christine, in 1922, family meals often consisted of boiled potatoes and perhaps a can of tuna fish, The eldest son Ted left school in 1919, after finishing eighth grade, and took a job in the paymaster's office at the Wheeling Corrugating Company (later Wheeling Steel). It was a lucky break, a first step on the road to white-collar security. A quiet, cautious, and diffident young man, seared more than his brothers by the difficult postwar years, Ted never escaped the parochial world of his youth. Gradually he worked his way up in Wheeling Steel's accounting department, ultimately putting in forty-eight years with the company.

At age fifteen, Walter Reuther left high school before graduation as well, when he learned through Ted of an opening for an apprentice in the toolroom at Wheeling Corrugating. His schoolmates already thought of him as an unusually intense, well-organized, and highly motivated young man. Like his younger brother Roy he had a passion for basketball and a fiercely competitive temperament that soon propelled their church team to a city championship, Like his mother, Anna, Walter had blue-gray eyes and a head of reddish hair, and with Roy he shared her physical vigor and outgoing, optimistic sensibility as well. He respected his father's adventuresome encounters with the world of politics and ideas. Indeed, it was from Valentine Reuther that Walter took his moral, Manichean understanding of class power and economic progress, but unlike his often stiff-necked father Walter never enclosed himself within a virtuous, self-protective isolation. He craved the approval of his mentors and the friendship of his workmates."I have always been able, wherever I went, to make friends with people,"Walter later remarked of his first youthful forays into the world of work.

Walter's entree into the world of skilled work therefore offered a perfect fit between his growing mechanical aptitude, his search for comradeship, and his youthful quest for self-mastery, Walter had gravitated toward the world of craftsmanship almost from his elementary school days, when he had roamed through a decorative glass factory and watched, fascinated, as the artisans there carefully molded punch bowls laced with intricate figures and lamp shades graced with flowers or the attractive forms of strolling women. The punch bowls were his favorite."One was a beautiful thing,"remembered Reuther some forty-five years later."The glass was a beautiful crimson color, and it had woven into it a design in gold, The gold had to be added at just the right time, and it was quite a ceremony in the plant when the glass was ready for the gold. Then the president of the company would come by with five or six gold pieces, and he would throw these in to be melted and fused into the glass, reproducing the design."

Intrigued by such wonders, Walter practically lived in the glass factory. By the time he was ten or eleven, he was serving as a"carry boy"who took the glass on a large asbestos paddle from one craftsman to the next. But his real interest lay with the skilled steelworkers who made the molds. This was the heart of the entire enterprise, and these were the men who really created the designs the glass workers reproduced. They were"real artists,"remembered Reuther,"and for a time my highest ambition was to work in the glass factory. But the men themselves warned me against it.... Machines could stamp out designs much faster and cheaper, and it was becoming obvious that soon there would be no place for the hand craftsman."Indeed, the glassworks soon went out of business, but Reuther had seen a powerful vision of dignity and creativity in the world of work, It was an inspiration from which much of his politics would flow, and it marked the moment from which Reuther dated his determination to become a craftsman in metal.

Walter Reuther had a number of childhood jobs--a paper route, work in a bakery, piece rate work in a Wheeling stove shop--but his aptitude was clearly bent toward the metal trades. Throughout his adolescence, Reuther remained a determined sports enthusiast, but he also spent an increasingly large proportion of his spare time in the high school machine shop."That's really where my mind and my heart and my soul were at the time,"recalled Reuther. He was restless, his grades suffered, and he left school after his sophomore year in 1923. Reuther spent about a year as an eleven-cent-an-hour handyman at Wheeling Corrugating, assigned the dirtiest jobs, before he was transferred to the tool and die department for instruction. Here he thrived. Dies, made from specially hardened metal, were then becoming widely used to stamp out a huge variety of parts, and objects. At Wheeling Corrugating, master workmen transformed elaborate floral and geometric designs into the dies that stamped out millions of elaborately ornate ceiling panels and roof ornaments, which graced so many commercial buildings of that era.

Wheeling Corrugating's toolroom was small but full of first-rate craftsmen, so the quick-witted, personable youth had an opportunity to become a good all-around toolmaker."I learned to do everything,"Reuther later remembered."For example, they would bring us a beat-up piece of metal and say, `We've got to make this.' We would have to make all the drawings, design the part, make the dies, and finally fashion the piece of machinery that had to be replaced."The machinists and die makers at Corrugating considered Walter Reuther a natural craftsman. Leo Hores, then a few years older than Walter, remembered that the red-haired youth resented sloppy work."He was neat with his work, he did close work, he could work with anybody and anyone."

The experience at Wheeling Corrugating was preparation for Reuther's entree into the American industrial aristocracy, but it was still work filled with hazards and happenstance. At age seventeen, Reuther lost his right big toe on a day when a rush order came through to move a heavy die from a press. The die, a single piece of metal weighing about 400 pounds and oiled on its underside, slipped when Walter and two others tried to lift it out of the press. A sharp metal edge sliced through the leather shoe of Walter's right foot as if it were paper. With blood spurting from his foot, he was rushed to the local hospital on a stretcher; in this traumatic moment, he nevertheless demonstrated something of the coolness and foresight under pressure that would sustain him in later years."I was always the shortest guy on the team, but I always jumped center because I could jump so much higher than anybody else. Now I could see that I wasn't going to be able to jump so high unless I had two big toes."Reuther therefore demanded that his workmates bring the severed toe along in the ambulance, and that his doctor sew it back on in the hospital. The physician knew this to be an impossibility, but Reuther persisted and the doctor finally agreed. Refusing an anesthetic, Reuther watched as his toe was reattached. It turned black and came off within a few days, but Reuther soon learned to walk without a limp and did play center again, for a championship team in a Detroit league.

With both Ted and Walter still living at home and contributing the bulk of their pay packets to the household, and with father Valentine's insurance business steadily expanding, the Reuther family finances could sustain Roy and Victor as full-time high school students. Although both had their share of Reuther family industriousness, neither felt the self-generated pressure that had pushed Walter and Ted out of school. Roy, a slightly stockier, even more athletic version of Walter, was an exceptional basketball player and a great success on the track squad. He was excited by the new field of radio, both as a hobby and as a vocation. Roy had also installed most of the electrical wiring in the Reuther house on Bethlehem Hill, Instead of finishing high school, he took an apprenticeship with a local electrical firm, soon joining the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in the same union hall where his father had presided as labor assembly president twenty years before.

By 1927, therefore, Val Reuther's three eldest sons held full-time jobs. But Walter Reuther was restless. After three years at Wheeling Corrugating, he had more than tripled his pay. At nineteen, he still had another year to put in to finish his apprenticeship, yet he had learned all lie could at Corrugating, and the family no longer needed all his income. From the conversational buzz in the toolroom, Walter learned that Ford was paying $1.25 an hour for toolmakers' skills; around Wheeling, $.75 was tops for even the most experienced men. Moreover, Reuther disliked the long hours, including occasional Sunday work, that he had to put in at Corrugating; Ford had just advertised its commitment to a five-day workweek. And beyond all this, Reuther was a young man with a young man's dreams who had hardly strayed beyond the hills that enclosed the upper Ohio River. For generations, newly minted tradesmen, in the old country and the new, had sharpened their skills and discovered a broader vision of the world by applying their talents in new workshops, laboring alongside cosmopolitan workmen, in distant cities. In the third decade of the twentieth century, there was no place in the world that a young toolmaker could do so to better advantage than Detroit.

© 1995 by BasicBooks

Back to the top