Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Walter Reuther and the social struggle of the US labour movement


The documentary Brothers on the line opens with images of empty factories in Detroit. They represent more than just the rise and fall of the American auto industry: “They were the incubators for a powerful social movement that extended beyond the members of a union and challenged the status quo.”
The documentary narrates the story of Walter Reuther and his brothers and the rise of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Initially, workers in the nascent auto industry were hardly organised. One could lose one’s job just like that and Ford had its own ‘Service Department’ to nip any attempt at organising in the bud.
In 1937, Reuther and other leaders of the UAW were beaten up by Ford’s thugs when trying to distribute pamphlets saying Unionism, Not Fordism. Photos of the incident leaked. They caused an outrage over Ford’s behaviour and growing support for the young union. The same effect would repeat itself with the violence against the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and again with the police violence against a Justice for Janitors demonstration in LA in 1990.
Through strikes, factory occupations and other actions, the UAW strengthened its position. The union fought for decent employment conditions, but under Reuther’s leadership increasingly also for broader social issues. The UAW supported the farm workers’ movement of César Chávez and Reuther collaborated with Martin Luther King. Civil rights activist Andrew Young: “They  understood that the struggle for human rights was directly related to the struggle for organising rights.”
The UAW also played an active role in politics. Not just through backroom lobbying, but especially through large-scale get-out-the-vote efforts. The union created a political action fund for that purpose. The documentary contains great footage of a senator infuriated with Reuther for using union dues for political mobilisation. Reuther, unimpressed: “We have a right to urge people to register [to vote] and the Constitution of this beautiful country gives us that right.” The political action fund may well have laid the foundation for the crucial role American unions still play in voter mobilisation.
Brothers on the line was made by Sasha Reuther, grandson of one of Reuther’s brothers. He shows a great involvement with his subject, but is not uncritical. For example, he argues that Reuther was not very tolerant of black workers who accused the UAW of discrimination in the 1960s. He also discusses Reuther’s refusal to condemn the bombing of Vietnam, a refusal people close to him found hard to understand. The film contains a telephone conversation between Reuther and president Lyndon Johnson, which suggests they had some sort of understanding. Johnson has enacted important social legislation fought for by the UAW; in return, he was now asking for Reuther’s support: “I want you to tell the rest of them that I’m no goddamn fascist.”
The movie contains great historical footage, not just of social struggle but also of work in the factories. Anyone who has the opportunity should see this documentary, if only because it shows so convincingly the social role unions have to play.

It is as yet unknown when the documentary will be screened in Europe. Unions that want to screen it to their members can buy a DVD.

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