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International Socialism, Summer 1967


Stanley Weir

The Forces Behind the Reuther-Meany Split


From International Socialism (1st series), No.29, Summer 1967, pp.26-29.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Stanley Weir examines the forces behind the division between Reuther and Meany, the two senior-most leaders of the American TUC, the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO). Reuther is the leader of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and former head of the CIO when it was an independent federation.

Walter Reuther’s long uncomfortable accommodation to AFL-CIO President George Meany appears to be ending. Reuther’s sudden resignation of 3 February 1967 as first vice-President of the AFL-CIO has created the potential of complete disaffiliation from that body by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and stimulates the hope that a new and more vital labour confederation may be born. The major accomplishment of the 1955 AFL merger with the CIO was to increase the size of the AFL and Meany’s power to carry out conservative policies. Conversely, it facilitated the near extinction of what was left of the more militant and socially progressive CIO attitudes in the upper echelons of the American labour movement. Late in 1966, the Reuther-Meany conflict over foreign policy allowed the public its first knowledge of a serious rift in the top leadership. Reuther openly objected when, with Meany’s sanction, AFL-CIO delegates to a European labour conference walked out because delegates from Communist-Bloc countries were seated. The 28 December 1966 UAW Administrative Letter, however, explained that, contrary to the impression created by the press, the UAW’s disagreements with Meany’s policies did not ‘derive solely and exclusively from differences over international affairs,’ but included a critique of Meany’s overall leadership which ‘suffers from a sense of complacency and adherence to the status quo and is not fulfilling the basic aims and purposes which prompted the merger of the AFL-CIO.’

The cost of the twelve-year silence of Reuther and many other members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council over this issue has been and continues to be borne by the ranks of labour. The criticism is completely true, but satisfies few as an explanation of Reuther’s 1967 rift with Meany. Labour journalists have offered a number of interpretations of the split, but, although there may be some truth in all of them, research is seldom conducted below the top leadership level. Reuther has resigned his AFL-CIO Executive post, but has significantly retained the presidency of that body’s Industrial Union Department (IUD). The IUD consists of the industrial, mass-production and former CIO unions (6 million members) that Reuther led into the AFL. During the last three years, rank-and-file revolts have broken into the open in every major union in the IUD, with the exception of the United Packinghouse Workers. Second rank leaders in the United Steel Workers have been forced to lead in replacing their President, David McDonald, with I.W. Abel, whose style of leadership is more similar to Reuther’s.

The same process ousted James B. Carey and made Paul Jennings the new president of the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), rid the United Rubber Workers and the Oil, Gas and Atomic Workers of their respective presidents, George Burdon and O.A. Knight. It likewise threatens the position of Harry Bridges among his longshoremen, who were affiliated with the CIO before their bureaucratic expulsion from that body, and finally has created a crisis for Reuther’s leadership in the UAW.

The eruptions in these unions inaugurated what the Strike Fever issue of Life magazine (26 August 1966) called The New Era of Labor Militancy, and what the November 1966 issue of Fortune described as a period of shift ‘from the familiar faces to the facelessness of the rank and file.’ The press did not recognise the existence of the new era which was also to involve white-collar, professional, service, civil service and farm workers, until the radical five week July-August 1966 strike of the Airline Mechanics directly touched the lives of the middle-class public. It was noticed by the labour leadership much earlier. The first of the multiple eruptions that opened the new era in 1964 occurred in the UAW, but uniquely, revolt in the UAW was apparent as long ago as 1955. In that year Reuther signed a contract with the General Motors Corporation which did nothing to check the speedup or speed the settlement of working conditions grievances. GM employs as many workers as all other major auto manufacturers combined. Over 70 per cent of them conducted wildcat strikes immediately after Reuther announced the terms of his agreement. Since the early 1950s the union has become increasingly ineffective at the shop-floor level. The ranks have been forced to resort to minor acts of sabotage, departmental wildcats and various forms of guerilla warfare against their immediate supervisors in order to obtain relief from the increasingly inhuman methods and pace of work. The casualties of underground unionism are high and the naturally selected work-group leaders are victimised, sometimes with the aid of official leaders. The aim of the giant 1955 wildcat was to bring the union back inside the factories.

A larger percentage of GM workers ‘wildcatted’ after the signing of the 1958 contract because Reuther had again refused to do anything to combat the speedup. For the same reason, they walked off their jobs again in 1961. The strike closed every GM and several Ford plants.

The UAW ranks’ ability to conduct a nation-wide wildcat strike is made possible by a democratic practice that has been maintained by GM workers since the Thirties. Every GM local sends elected delegates to Detroit to sit in council during national contract negotiations. They instruct their negotiators and confer with them as the bargaining progresses. Ideally the council and negotiators arrive at agreement on the package that the latter have been able to obtain from the employer; then both the rank-and-file delegates and leaders recommend ratification by the ranks back in the local unions.

In 1961, when council delegates communicated the terms of Reuther’s contract to their local unions, the GM-wide walkout was not labelled a ‘general wildcat’ strike because Reuther announced that the strike was official. He also announced that all locals would stay out until all the working conditions grievances had been settled in each plant through separate local supplemental agreements, rather than in the national agreement. He maintained leadership and control. The ranks were out-manoeuvred and angered. The quality of the supplemental agreements vary from local to local enabling the employer to pit the workers of one plant against another. The wildcat strikes in each local usually win the settlement of a portion of the backlogged grievances, but their primary function is often to achieve the immediate rehiring of rank-and-file leaders who have been given disciplinary layoffs for periods of up to two years under GM’s reprimand system.

Just prior to the negotiation of the 1964 contract a development took place in the UAW that is unique in American labour history. Several large Detroit locals initiated a bumper sticker campaign. In all cities across the country where UAW plants are located the bumpers of auto workers’ cars pushed the slogan: ‘Humanise Working Conditions.’ Lacking the support of their official leaders, they were attempting to inform the public of the nature of the struggle they were about to conduct, and to indicate that its primary goal would be to improve the condition of factory life rather than wages.

Their attempt to bypass Reuther failed. He opened negotiation with Chrysler, the smallest of the Big Three auto makers, instead of following the established practice of starting with GM. He imposed the pattern of this contract on the Ford workers and announced that the Chrysler-Ford agreements would be the pattern for the GM contract. The dialogue of the GM workers with their president was brief. They struck every GM plant for five weeks and were joined by a number of large Ford locals. They returned to work under a national contract no better than those signed with Ford and Chrysler. Their strike won the settlement of local grievances, sabotaged Reuther’s manoeuvre, and made imperative the further development of rank-and-file leadership. They demonstrated that they would not give ground in their efforts to make their national contract a weapon against the speedup and the indignities of treatment on-the-job like that administered to minimum security prisoners.

Aware that the ranks would be continuing their fight and seeking revenge at the UAW’s May 1966 convention in Long Beach, California, Reuther sought issues that could be used to divert their wrath. In early 1965 the ballot count in the election between incumbent IUE President James B. Carey and his challenger Paul Jennings was in doubt. Reuther issued a statement to the press announcing his offer to merge the IUE with the UAW. The merger might have salvaged Carey’s reputation and employment in the labour movement. It could also have been used as a major agenda item involving extended discussion at the UAW convention. Carey turned down the offer, claiming that he had learned of it only hours before it was made public. The Long Beach convention was the first labour convention experience for a large percentage of the delegates. Many of the faces that had become familiar to Reuther during previous conventions were absent. None of the delegates got a chance to discuss what was the main issue for the ranks who elected them – the negotiations for the 1967 contract. That point on the agenda was postponed to a special conference in April 1967.

Reuther won more than a breathing spell at Long Beach. In the months preceding the convention the rebellion in the UAW’s 250,000-man Skilled Trades Department had reached crisis proportions. Their wages had fallen behind those doing comparable work in the craft unions and they threatened disaffiliation to the rival International Society of Skilled Trades (independent). The UAW Constitution was amended to give the skilled UAW members, less than 20 per cent of the union, veto power over all national contracts. It is likely that they will get a substantial wage increase in the 1967 contract. They do not work under the same conditions as the semi-skilled assembly line workers who are the majority and now second-class citizenry of the UAW. Reuther has obtained an aristocratic power base and laid the foundation for another and even greater rupture in the UAW.

For more than a decade it has been absolutely clear that the UAW ranks demand top priority be given to the fight to improve working conditions. Their efforts to make Reuther lead this fight have been herculean. At this late date it is almost paradoxical that he remains rigid in his refusal to make that fight, and so he must try to go into the April conference equipped with a diversionary tactic of gigantic proportions – based on more than a transparent manoeuvre that will only further enrage his ranks. His struggle with George Meany, has, among other things, armed him with the needed diversion. The question of total withdrawal from the AFL-CIO is to be the first point on the agenda of the April conference which is now scheduled to last only three days. If Reuther is not successful in using this discussion as a mechanical device to cut the time for floor debate on the 1967 contract, he is then in a position to tell the delegates that his split from Meany now frees him to make the fight against the auto employers that the ranks have wanted and that it was impossible in the past because of the lack of support from the conservative Meany hierarchy.

Reuther’s timid jousting with Meany before the open split was a source of embarrassment to him within the UAW. Early this year leaflets were circulated in the auto plants entitled, Reuther Backs Down: The Case of the Timid Cowboy. It is probable that the leaflets were supplied by pro-Meany sources outside of the UAW and circulated by conservative members within the Skilled Trades Department, but the significant factor is that Reuther was vulnerable from this quarter.

The revolts in the UAW and other mass production unions have another major relationship to Reuther’s split. He has witnessed at close quarters, in surrounding unions and among workers who are only now beginning to form unions, the development of a radical mood and on-the-job militancy; a militancy that in the 1930s allowed John L. Lewis to break away from the AFL, form a new labour confederation, and become the outstanding labour leader of his time.

Lewis centralised and structured the power of the revolts that had taken place factory by factory and industry by industry. Nationwide bargaining raised and stabilised the incomes of millions of semi-skilled workers. In the process, Lewis disciplined and conservatised their revolt. Wildcat strikes and slowdowns were necessarily replaced by collective bargaining and formal grievance procedures. Employers were far more assured that each day’s production would not be interrupted. But this was done at the expense of rank-and-file organisational power on the job. Militancy among rank-and-file leaders was discouraged by top officials who rewarded only those who were willing to adopt ‘responsible’ attitudes. Lewis was able to build a new confederation, even while disciplining the ranks, because he was equipped organisationally and ideologically. He could demonstrate progress because of the materialisation of his main programatic idea – the establishment of industrial unions and national bargaining. Reuther lacks the comparable and necessary programatic equipment to centralise, structure and discipline the power of the revolts of the 1960s. The industrial and most powerful section of American workers already have unions and industry-wide contracts. For the first time they are in a position to make a direct struggle to improve the condition of their life on the job and Reuther has no programme for this struggle.

Inflation has heightened the demand for wage increases, but the revolts broke out long before rapid price increases and labour shortages were created by the war in Viet Nam. For over three years the leaders of labour have had no assurance that the contracts they negotiate will not be greeted by unauthorised strikes or will be able to end strikes already in process. The 9 February 1966 issue of the Wall Street Journal reports that union ranks in 1966 rejected 11.7 per cent of all settlements participated in by the government’s Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The rate has never been higher. Labour’s officialdom continues to negotiate for purely economic benefits and the ranks vote with their feet until they get some satisfaction on the grievances on working conditions that pile up between contracts. News articles typically report that ‘agreement has been reached on the economic package but the parties are still far apart on other issues,’ or ‘a wage settlement has been reached but the strike continues over purely local issues in the following key plants.’

On 8 February, Walter Reuther issued his new Program for the American Labor Movement. It contains the standard plank calling for a ‘sound overall economic wage policy.’ It is primarily a bid to rewin for organised labour the support of the liberal-intellectual, academic, student and racial minority communities. It proposes that organised labour again become the champion of social reforms which benefit all of society. The list of reforms is excellent. It would push labour unions to a forefront position in the struggle for racial equality, civil liberties, educational reform, aid to the old and the conservation of natural resources. It is against poverty, communism and all forms of totalitarianism, and for ‘building bridges of international understanding leading toward a reduction of armaments and the building of a just and enduring peace in which people with diverse economic and social systems might live peacefully ...’

This area of the programme has already acted as a stimulus to George Meany’s AFL-CIO Executive Council. At its mid-February meeting in Bal Harbour, Florida, a reluctant liberalisation process was begun. Meany announced a programme for the organisation of farm labourers that would end the AFL-CIO’s criminal neglect of that and similarly depressed sections of the nation’s workers. He also responded to the long-time demands of rank-and-file painters’ union leaders from San Franciso and New York and ordered an investigation of long obvious corruption in their international union. Meany was further forced to deny knowledge of and publicly repudiate CIA collusion with top labour officials. The Bal Harbour meeting made another significant repudiation: after endorsing the re-election of President Johnson in 1968, Meany led the delegates in their passage of a resolution that rejected the Johnson administration’s plea to forego fights that would increase wages in proportion to the rapid rise in the cost of living.

In spite of its positive effect upon Meany and its potential ability to generate labour support in the general public, Reuther’s new programme cannot win the same support in the ranks of labour that Lewis’ CIO programme of industrial unionism did in the 1930s. The era of labour militancy that began in 1964 demands that unions obtain a control over the speed-up of production and the nature of work. Reuther’s programme makes no mention of this new and higher level struggle. It is a struggle that Reuther does not want to make. The large corporations consider production speeds and methods to be sacrosanct areas of management authority and indicate their willingness to make a principled battle to maintain it. Safety and working conditions are so complex and vary so much from job to job and department to department in each plant that they cannot be contractualised in detail. To make them less onerous it is necessary to do more than negotiate an improved grievance machinery. Improved methods of work have to be established by precedent and be policed every day. A shop stewards system that would put stewards with bargaining power in all work units, including those with only a handful of men, would have to be instituted. But this machinery would constantly develop new union leaders and place much of the power of the union inside the places of work.

Reuther wants to lead and discipline the new era of labour militancy. He does not want to set forces into motion that would shake any of the large foundation stones of present labour-management relationships. This seriously limits his present programme’s chances for success. He has announced that he intends to push for guaranteed annual salaries and a share in industries’ profits for auto workers. A serious push in this direction would not be greeted by employers, but it has a ‘lesser evil’ attractiveness. If obtained, it would have a conservative effect on the work force and a regularising effect on the flow of daily production, which could become increasingly erratic. Employers learned this bitter lesson 30 years ago, as is demonstrated by the following quotation:

‘In 1936 and 1937, a wave of sit-down strikes swept through the rubber and automobile plants of the United States. The workers on strike wanted higher wages, union recognition, and an organised machinery for the handling of day-to-day grievances, but, above all, they were striking against what they called the “speed-up” of work as governed by the assembly line. The causes of every major strike are complex and frequently so interwoven as to be inseparable. But somewhere among the causes (and frequently basic to the others, as in the sit-downs) are work-methods and working-conditions.

‘Two years before the first sit-down strike the country experienced a nation-wide walk-out of textile workers. Here, discrimination against union members, wages, and many other issues were involved, but the dynamic origin of the disturbance (not only in 1934, but through the remaining thirties and after) was the introduction of new work methods and machinery, all of which were generally lumped by the workers and denounced as the “stretch-out.” If particular work-methods or undesirable working-conditions may sometimes cause a national walk-out, they are also the common origin of innumerable lesser conflicts in the world of industry. The net result of a minor conflict over a work-method may be a day’s slow-down or a grievance fought through the local’s plant grievance machinery or, perhaps, hostilities expressed in low-quality work or by a high rate of absenteeism ... When neglected or misunderstood these merely local disturbances can, with surprising rapidity, grow into a national emergency.’ [1]

On 22 February, Reuther broke the wildcat strike of UAW-GM Local 549 in Mansfield, Ohio. 2,700 men had walked out because two men were fired for refusing to make production tools and dies ready for transfer from their plant to another in Pontiac, Michigan. GM has long followed a policy of transferring work out of plants where workers have established superior working condition or are conducting a fight to improve them, to other plants with less militant work forces. Mansfield workers had long observed this practice in silence. To be forced to participate in the transferral and their own defeat was the final indignity. Mansfield-GM is a key feeder plant. The strike idled 130,000 men and had it continued another day it would have shut down plants that employ twice that number.

The Mansfield strike was a long-neglected ‘local disturbance’ that with surprising rapidity grew into a ‘national emergency’ – particularly for the International UAW leadership. It was but one of the five strikes involving working conditions that was in progress during the period in which the Reuther-Meany split was daily in the headlines. The Reuther leadership made statements to the press calling attention to the responsible nature of their action that sent the Mansfield GM workers back to their benches. These statements also made the front pages of the press and topped radio and television newscasts. The leaders explained that the strike was poorly timed because it came on the eve of Reuther’s big push for his new wage and profit sharing programme.

The Mansfield workers gave in to the pressure of the international under the threat of the suspension of democracy that would have put their local in trusteeship. Reuther is aware that he cannot repeat a policing action of this kind too often and maintain the possibility of regaining the popular leadership of the ranks of his and other unions. His Mansfield action embarrassed him because it placed him in a role, and presented an image, which is the opposite of that he has chosen to play in his struggle with Meany. His split with the old AFL leader is a manifestation of the division that so often occurs in the leaderships of all establishments when embattled from below by their constituents. Meany cast himself in the role of a ‘hard.’ At first he chose to ignore and resist the changing mood below. Reuther chose the ‘soft’ course and has attempted to demonstrate his willingness to lead the struggle of the ranks by making liberal concessions to them. He has tried to design a programme that would accomplish this and enable him to divert the control of revolt energies to the responsible agencies of the official labour leadership – without at the same time himself stimulating a greater radicalisation in the ranks. At the Bal Harbour meeting Meany indicated that at least for now he will switch roles and also make concessions to the ranks in an attempt to compete with Reuther. The competition only strengthens the position of the ranks, but there is little likelihood that either leader will become a sincere champion of the fight to ‘humanise working conditions’ – his aid to farm labourers and teachers’ unions notwithstanding.

A similar process in British labour stimulated the birth of a shop stewards’ movement. Since World War II its growth established a dual authority in a number of British industries where the official trade unions negotiate contracts, but where the stewards, without necessarily formal recognition, are the accepted leaders of the workers. They act as a pressure group on official leaders and conduct the day-to-day fights to maintain working conditions. There are other British unions that have, in part or in whole, made a place for the shop stewards in their official operating machinery.

For the most part, British unions are more bureaucratised than their American counterparts in which the turnover of the top leadership is far more rapid. However, unions in England provide a number of concrete examples of the options that are open to both the ranks and the present official leaders of American labour.

The options of Walter Reuther have, in the main, narrowed down to three:

  1. He can continue to pursue his present new programme, calling for an enlightened return to the unionism of the 1930s, including a continuation of his aid to the organising programmes of farm workers, teachers and white-collar workers.
  2. He can use his current power to police the ranks’ new revolt and its demands for basic change in the concepts and attitudes held by official union leaders in the past and present.
  3. Or, to the good portions of his new programme relating to social reforms that would benefit all of society, he can add the new concepts that would institute:
  1. a policy for a democratic union structure that extends into the work places, giving the ranks a daily voice and role in union operation and decision making.
  2. an independent political policy that would end official labour’s subservience to existing political parties.
  3. and a policy that officially gives top priority to the new era’s major demand – ‘humanise working conditions.’

Only the third option affords Reuther the opportunity to differentiate himself qualitatively from George Meany. Without it the ranks cannot be won to the support of social reforms; there is not a segment of the American community that has ever conducted a major struggle without the prospect of direct and major rewards for itself. Without it, Reuther’s role in labour and American history will not be identified with social progress.


1. Charles R. Walker in Industrial Conflict, ed. Arthur Kornhauser, Robert Dubin and Arthur Ross, New York, 1954.

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