How the UAW Can Get Its Horsepower Back

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Paul Schutzer / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Walter Reuther in 1961

At the United Auto Workers convention that opens Monday, June 14, job No. 1 will be to install a new leader to follow Ron Gettelfinger, whom a Detroit News columnist last week called "the most consequential UAW president since Walter Reuther."

Walter who? To a younger generation more familiar with the UAW's embattled present than its heroic past, that declaration may provoke questions. The answer is that Reuther was the leader of a powerful social movement, a man considered so dangerous to the status quo of his time that he was the target of an assassination attempt. Back then, the fight to create America's middle class was a revolutionary struggle. (By comparison, Gettelfinger had the much more defensive role of saving the UAW from extinction.) Reuther, running the union from 1946 to 1970 as a family dynasty along with his brothers Roy and Victor, won unprecedented protections for working people, set a standard for collective bargaining and drove the U.S. economy to new heights. Today's UAW, after making repeated concessions to automakers and suffering huge job losses, is running with much less horsepower. Its membership stands at 355,191, down from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979.

Can a humbled UAW ever again be a social force? That's a question relevant to me personally — Walter and Roy were my great-uncles, Victor was my grandfather, and I'm working on a documentary about the trio called Brothers on the Line — but also to working-class Americans who need stronger voices on their behalf. At a time of abuse-of-power scandals among such giant corporations as BP, Toyota, Goldman Sachs and even Johnson & Johnson, it's clear the balance in our economy has tipped too far toward the behemoths that organized labor once challenged. Traditionally, the UAW was a fearless advocate for people in the middle, both as workers and consumers. Back in the mid–19th century, that role even called for physical courage, not just the fiscal kind. Both my grandfather and great-uncle survived shotgun blasts through the windows of their homes, leaving Walter with a mangled arm and my grandfather with a glass eye.

Flipping through my grandfather's scrapbooks, mining the labor archives at Wayne State University in Detroit, cracking open film canisters untouched in 50 years, one thing I can say for certain is that the UAW once had a loud and definitive voice in public affairs. No matter what the issue — civil rights, urban development, health care, the environment — Labor would weigh in, typically with progressive, long-term positions. Walter Reuther felt it was crucial that the union was about more than just another nickel in the pay envelope. "It has had a social vision, economic goals," Berkeley labor expert Harley Shaiken told the Wall Street Journal. "That link was fractured with the economic recession, and now they need to get that back."

The UAW is tradition-bound, for good and ill. As the UAW convenes in Detroit this week, it will be celebrating its 75th anniversary, which offers a good moment for the union to take a hard look at its past and decide which parts to embrace and which to reject. To start with, the union needs to become more democratic. For an organization with a history of fighting for democratic values, it has a contradictory way of electing its officers, an antiquated holdover from the Reuther era. In assuming the UAW presidency in the 1940s, Walter inherited a chaotic union on the brink of collapse, rife with ideological infighting and corruption. Charting a new course with little doubt of the righteousness of his cause, Walter consolidated power, establishing a rigid hierarchy and a system of electing officers through a caucus rather than the direct vote of its members. The current nominee, Bob King, 63, a union vice president who handles the UAW's Ford negotiations, is unlikely to be upset by dissident candidate Gary Walkowicz, a committeeman at Ford's F-150 pickup plant. Other unions, like the Teamsters and the Steelworkers, have evolved into democracies that elect their chiefs by direct vote, and so should the UAW. While ballots of the rank and file may not change the result, an opportunity for dissenting voices is essential to shake off the UAW's image of insulated politics.

Regarding its public face, the UAW would be wise to revive an aspect of its past that it seems to have neglected: serving as a think tank with hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members. In his defense, Ron Gettelfinger was engrossed with keeping the union and its employers alive during Detroit's crisis, which required huge concessions. (New hires at the automakers will be guaranteed only $14 an hour, compared with $28 for workers hired previously.) In his comments in recent weeks, Gettelfinger's focus has remained on automaking and how its recovery could benefit the union. "I believe that these companies are on a roll now," he said in a speech. "We have always wanted to share in the growth of the companies, and it's no different now." By contrast, Walter Reuther took it upon himself to be what's now called a thought leader. "He can — and does — speak almost endlessly on almost anything," wrote TIME in a 1955 cover story. As Reuther stressed to his board members, "You need to talk to the press because they never run out of ink." The TIME story even found an analogy in his body language: "A powerhouse of physical energy, he bounces and bounds with swift, long strides."

What would Reuther talk about if he were striding today? A timely example is immigration reform. The UAW is potentially a strong force in favor of it at a time when zealous opponents have dominated the dialogue in places like Arizona. The UAW endorses a well-defined pathway for these often exploited workers to become citizens. This represents a classic win-win formula: good for the country, and good for the union in potentially expanding its ranks. A major portion of the union's members now work in positions other than automaking, from aerospace and farm-equipment workers to food processors and office professionals. Last month, research and teaching assistants at New York University filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking for an organizing election. Their union: UAW Local 2110.

Walter Reuther would savor the challenge of new organizing drives. Exiting the stage at his last UAW convention, in April 1970, one month before he, his wife and four others died in a small-plane crash, Walter was approached by a group of union-newspaper editors. When questioned about his commitment to the next generation of activists, he said, "I think what we have to say to a young fellow is, 'Look, don't try to do it outside here as if we were a part of the establishment and that we are hopeless. Come in here and get your teeth into it.' " Can incoming boss Bob King match that kind of labor evangelism? He may be cut from the right cloth. Trained as both an electrician and a lawyer, he has been described as "cerebral" by Ford chairman Bill Ford and has a reputation as a radical turned pragmatist. What he needs to do from the start is bring passion and a human face to an organization that stands today in the shadow of the Big Three — and its own big ideals.

Sasha Reuther is an independent filmmaker in New York City. His documentary Brothers on the Line is scheduled to be released later this year.

Read Walter Reuther TIME cover stories here and here.