Two very different men in their early Nineties passed away last week. Both were active in their unions— Ronald Reagan in the Actorís Guild, Victor Reuther in the United Auto Workers (UAW). Then, needless to say, their paths diverged markedly.
Ronald Reagan became the conservative politician with the dulcet speaking voice. Victor Reuther became the labor leader with the deeply resonating voice of a stump orator.
As Governor and President, Ronald Reagan demonstrated, as columnist Richard Reeves observed, “that words are more important than deeds.” As a major organizer of workers at General Motors and Ford Motor Company factories, Victor Reuther was a courageous man of action, a reader, thinker and compelling speaker who improved the lives of millions of American workers and their families.
Ronald Reagan who spoke often of “morning in America” never awoke to the necessities of working families, the poor, and the environment. He spoke more than any politician against government deficits and big government, but left office after eight years of piling larger government debt than all previous Presidents from George Washington to Jimmy Carter combined. He flew back to California leaving government bigger than ever.
Victor Reuther and his brothers, Walter and Roy, built the United Auto Workers into a powerful, exemplary union while at the same time the auto companies grew and made more and more money. The Reuthers showed that making big corporations responsive to their workers helped lift all boats.
Ronald Reagan, a man from a humble working class background, became the champion of big business and the opponent of regulatory law and order.
He was hostile, in his friendly way, to defending consumers from fraud and harm by business practices and defective products. The “Gipper” was almost contemptuous of labor rights— freezing the minimum wage and the work of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) relating to fatalities, injuries and diseases in the workplace.
His firing of the striking Air Traffic Controllers could have backfired with a single two plane collision. But Reagan always had four leaf clovers in his pocket. He got away with this airline safety gamble and delivered a severe setback to an already weakened labor movement.
Victor Reuther always opposed the UAW and other unions becoming too chummy with companies and their executives. He viewed the role of the union movement as more than cutting ever more “realistic” deals. He saw the UAW as a mover for womenís rights and started a Womenís Bureau at the UAW in the 1950s. He also got the Union to work toward improved housing for working people.
In his later active years, Reuther ranged broadly over the field on international labor issues, objecting to the UAW receiving funds from a CIA-front organization and opposing the Vietnam War. A self-educated man, he believed strongly in the continuing education of workers, spearheading the creation of labor institutes, media production units and the UAWís own drama schools and summer camps.
While Ronald Reagan went on to fame in the White House, Victor Reuther was supporting a worker reform group challenging the UAWís conservative policies and solarizing his home in Washington, D.C. I recall over ten years ago how proud he was showing visitors his personal demonstration of the energy path he wanted the world to pursue.
In 1976, he published his memoir about the tumultuous times of the labor movement in the Thirties and Forties titled “The Brother Reuther and the Story of the UAW.” In 2004, he was in his assisted living home dismayed by the deterioration of the standards of living for tens of millions of American workers.
The struggle for justice continues, as it has over the centuries, illuminated by the beacons of fortitude and rectitude such as the likes of Victor Reuther.