Meyerson: The Saddest Union Story

Labor News

Reprinted from The American Prospect by on December 17, 2020.

“As the longtime president of the United Auto Workers,” writes Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect, “Walter Reuther was the seminal figure in making the UAW not only the greatest American union, but also the only social democratic institution in US history to wield real power. Through its pattern bargaining with what were then the Big Three auto companies, the UAW raised the mid-century incomes of American workers to levels previously unheard of; won them benefits equally without precedent; funded many of the crucial campaigns of the civil rights movement; seeded with early funding the Students for a Democratic Society, the National Organization for Women, and the first Earth Day; and campaigned—unsuccessfully, alas—for Medicare for All and worker co-control of corporations.

“Personally, Reuther was a puritan, who also strongly believed that union leaders should enjoy the same living standards as their members—and nothing more. When the industrial unions of the CIO, of which he was also president, merged with the AFL, it created a clash of union leader lifestyles. The more, shall we say, relaxed leaders of the AFL weren’t averse to the more sybaritic jaunts and haunts to which they believed their positions entitled them. This led to continuing disputes between Reuther and other members of the unified AFL-CIO board on such issues as where to conduct their yearly winter meetings, which the pre-merger AFL had customarily held in swank Miami Beach hotels, much to Reuther’s horror. At one board meeting to determine the location of the next winter meeting, Reuther exploded. ‘Do you really want to wallow in luxury like a bunch of capitalists?’ he asked. …

TAP 12/17

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Jeff Burman served on the Guild’s Board of Directors from 1992 to 2019. He is now retired. He can be reached at