Max Shachtman

Walter Reuther, UAW Official,
Proves the Case
for a Workers Government

(February 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 7, 16 February 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The recent conference in Detroit of the United Automobile Workers Union (CIO), attended by more, than 160 delegates of the General Motors workers, attracted considerable attention in the press because of, the speeches delivered there by UAW President R.J. Thomas, and the director of the General Motors Division of the union, Walter P. Reuther, author of the plan for converting the auto industry to war production.

Of the many interesting and significant statements made by the two labor spokesmen, one in particular deserves to be lifted out of the obscurity to which the reporters and editors of the press doomed it. It occurs in the speech of Reuther and merits careful reading. Arguing against the contention of the automobile industrialists that the lagging of war production was not their fault but the government’s, Reuther declares:

“General Motors and the industry now are taking the position that they aren’t responsible. They say that the government made the decisions and that they merely went along with the government’s program, but the thing that they failed to realize is that they were the government.

“They had Mr. Knudsen down there, surrounded by hundreds of dollar-a-year men, who spent all of their time looking around to see how they could protect their own individual interests – how they could maintain the status quo and superimpose a defense economy on the existing economy. And so when they say the government was responsible, they are merely saying that the dollar-a-year men from industry, who were running the government, were representing industry instead of the needs of the nation.” (New York Times, February 8)

For the moment we want to leave to Messrs. Reuther AND Knudsen and any one else who is working to convince labor that this is its war, the dubious honor of fighting over who is better qualified to organize and conduct an imperialist war. We are interested here in another aspect of Reuther’s remarks to the GM conference of his union.

A Responsible Spokesman

Reuther is a highly-placed spokesman for a most important part of the organized labor movement of this country. We assume that he is also a responsible spokesman, one who is not given to making wild-eyed statements on the platform of the labor movement, or statements he is not prepared to follow up.

If that is so, just think of the charges for which Reuther took responsibility in that part of his speech we quoted:

He says that for the whole past period, at least since Knudsen was put in charge of organizing war production by Roosevelt, the government has been in the hands of one of the most powerful and most reactionary industrial oligarchies in the country – “General Motors and the industry” – or more exactly, that this oligarchy was itself the government.

What else can be the meaning of Reuther’s words, unless the English language means something different to him than it does to a couple of hundred million other people who speak it? He says:

“General Motors and the industry ... failed to realize ... that they were the government.”

And further:

“... the dollar-a-year men from industry ... were running the government.”

No Tribute to Intelligence

Now, Mr. Reuther is an important and authoritative leader of the American working class. He even lays some claim to industrial and political statesmanship, if on no other ground than the plan he presented for the war-production conversion of the auto industry. But the remarks he made at the GM Conference are not a tribute to his political intelligence or his qualities as a leader of labor.


Because, among other things, Mr. Reuther was among all the other labor leaders who sold the union movement the idea of backing Roosevelt for President as a “friend of labor” and of keeping the same union movement out of independent labor political action. After helping elect a second Roosevelt government, Reuther is compelled to acknowledge that the Administration in Washington, at least throughout the whole past period of the war crisis, has not been a friend – much less a representative – of labor’s interests, but that it was “the dollar-a-year men from industry, who were running the government.”

To anyone who takes his own words seriously, this is a positively blatant confession of political bankruptcy. In uttering these words, Reuther is as much as saying: “When I advised labor to back Roosevelt, I didn’t begin to know what I was talking about, because in the showdown it turned out that the Roosevelt government was nothing but a tool of big business.”

Reuther says that what “they” – meaning General Motors and the auto magnates – “failed to realize is that they were the government.”

Not Quite as Fatheaded

We doubt it. Knudsen, Sloan, Wilson, Chrysler et al. are not quite as fatheaded as Reuther wants to believe, or wants others to believe. THEY never make a mistake about which government is whose government! It would be a thousand times closer to the truth if Reuther were to say: “It was we – I and my fellow labor leaders – who failed to realize that the Roosevelt government is the government of General Motors and the industry, and of capital in general. And that proves we weren’t as bright as we could have been.” (As the reader sees, we are assuming for a moment that all that troubled our labor leaders was their lack of foresight and not a lack of loyalty to the class interests of labor.)

Now what does Reuther propose to do as a consequence of this utterly ruthless and, accurate indictment of the Roosevelt government – i.e., the General Motors government – and this confession of his, Reuther’s, own political boner? After all, nothing serious has changed by the replacement of Knudsen with Nelson, for only a few minutes before Reuther spoke, President R.J. Thomas declared that the set-up in Washington remained essentially the same. And unless Reuther meant what he said, and meant it significantly, he had no business making the statement he did.

But after Reuther let loose a roaring declaration, hie lapsed into timid silence. Should labor organize politically to work for its own government, instead of a government of General Motors and its associates? Should labor have a political party of its own, or continue to vote for a party of General Motors’ which establishes a government of General Motors? Is this fresh lesson in politics to be ignored as have all previous lessons? It is high time that labor had done with all this treacherous and futile nonsense of “non-partisan politics” and “reward your friends and punish your enemies.” The latest fruit of that policy, according to no less a statesman than Mr. Reuther is a government (it merits repetition!) of “General Motors and the industry.” That policy should have been buried along with horse-and-buggy unionism – and even before then.

Labor needs an independent Labor Party – and a Workers’ Government!

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Last updated on 18.5.2013