Here’s a story Doug Fraser told me once about his first full-time job, which was in a Dearborn machine shop. This was in 1936, and he was a nineteen-year-old high school dropout. The Great Depression was still lingering, though Franklin D. Roosevelt had given people hope of a better future. FDR was running for re-election, and Fraser’s boss hated the President and everything he stood for.
Fraser was too young to vote, but like the other workers, he was made to watch a propaganda film about how bad Roosevelt was, and how his communistic New Deal policies were destroying America.
The men were told that if Roosevelt were re-elected, they would all lose their jobs. Most had families, and a job wasn’t something you wanted to lose when there was 17 percent unemployment.
On Election Day FDR won the biggest landslide in history. When the boss came to work he found his office was entirely papered over with newspaper front pages announcing the triumph of the man he hated so much.
And nobody ever told who did it. I like that story, in part because it indicates that there is only so much you can do to bully or brainwash the people against their better interests.
If there is an afterlife, I would like to be a fly on the wall during the first conversation Doug Fraser has with Walter Reuther. In many ways, Reuther was sort of like Martin Luther King. He was absolutely brilliant, a man who never lost his ideals, but knew how to be shrewdly practical in pursuit of them. On the last night of his life, King told his people that though he might not get there with them, they would get to the promised land. Walter Reuther did live to see his auto workers get there.
But he didn’t live to see the gains he had fought so hard for eroded by forces he probably never saw coming. When Reuther became head of the UAW, fifty-one percent of all the cars made in the world were made in the city of Detroit.
This year, fifty-one percent of the cars purchased in America were made by foreign manufacturers. The UAW has about a third the membership it had when Reuther’s plane crashed. The union faces another round of grim negotiations and giving up benefits.
Doug Fraser was the first UAW president to have to grapple with the changing automotive reality. Less than a decade after Reuther died, Chrysler almost died as well. Fraser skillfully led the union through the minefields and even served for a time on the Chrysler board.
Today, the union movement is in deep crisis, as is the auto industry itself. I don’t know what Reuther would do today, but I do know this. They used to say that he was the only man in America who could reminisce about the future.
Today, Walter would hope that his union’s modern leaders would somehow be able to build a future worth reminiscing about.