As the longtime president of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther was the seminal figure in making the UAW not only the greatest American union, but also the only social democratic institution in U.S. 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.
The opposing viewpoint in this debate was immediately put forth by Bricklayers President Harry Bates. "Yeah," said Bates, whereupon the board promptly approved Bates’s position.
I thought of this encounter earlier this week when the Justice Department reached a settlement with a much-diminished UAW. A multiyear Justice investigation had uncovered a host of illegal violations by UAW leaders, including by two recent past presidents who had misappropriated union funds to finance a lavish lifestyle that included winter digs in Palm Springs and cross-country golf excursions. The two presidents have pleaded guilty to embezzlement, and roughly a dozen other former officials have had similar charges brought against them.
The settlement won’t involve having the feds conducting strict oversight over the UAW, as they did for three decades over the Teamsters, which institutionally had racketeering charges brought against it. (Institutionally, the Teamsters were in bed with the Mafia, while the UAW was merely prey to its officers’ own greed.) But a court-appointed monitor will serve as a watchdog over the UAW for the next six years.
The two main factions that built the UAW in the 1930s and ’40s—Reuther’s social democrats and their communist-dominated opposition—were both comprised of highly talented idealists who saw the union as a vehicle to build a more egalitarian America. They attracted like idealists from both the shop floor and university campuses, and, even when fighting each other tooth and nail, they won more significant victories for American workers than any other institution before or since. What they couldn’t arrest was the offshoring of the industry and the deindustrialization of the American economy, which reduced the UAW’s membership from 1.5 million at its peak to 400,000 today, and subjected the wages and benefits of its remaining members to ferocious downward pressure. The loss in members and clout was slowly matched by the loss in the elan that Reuther and the union’s early leaders had once brought to the UAW, though the union always had and still has a number of excellent and militant officials and staffers. But it also has had leaders who, as Reuther put it, managed to "wallow in luxury like a bunch of capitalists"—on the union’s dime.
There are sadder stories about American workers, but few sadder ones about unions.