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Reuther's Fight

By Jonathan D. Asher

The Reuther-Meany feud has come into the open again but this time it may be bloody. Early in February, Reuther resigned from the AFL-CIO's powerful executive council and an April meeting of his Auto Workers Union will probably give him the power to pull the union out of the labor federation altogether. A complete split between George Meany, President of the AFL and Walter Reuther, his vice president, and head of the organization's largest union will have grave effects on the entire labor movement.

An important labor leader believes the difference between the two men is ideological. "Meany," he says, "represents the old school of business unionism, where the labor movement has a social conscience." Reuther grew up on the picket line. He was instrumental in organizing the auto industry and took part in the bloody sit-down strikes of the late 30's. Meany, on the other hand, prides himself on the fact that he never called a strike and has never walked a picket line himself. A labor official put it very simply. "Meany just isn't comfortable with Reuther."

Furthermore, Reuther is a creative trade unionist. His bargaining demands are frequently full of innovations. He was one of the first to push for "escalator clauses," which insure that wages rise along with the cost of living. He has sought benefits for those whom he feels are "too old to work and too young to die." Some of these benefits include supplemental social security, medicare and elegant pension plans. He also was a forerunner in obtaining profit-sharing plans and is now atempting to win guaranteed annual wages for his auto workers. But he wants unions to go beyond bread and butter issues and also deal with important social issues. In the bill of particulars spelling out the UAW's displeasures with the AFL Reuther charged that "the AFL-CIO is becoming increasingly the comfortable, complacent custodian of the status quo." One of Reuther's major areas of concern has been civil rights. He has directed much criticism towards the discriminatory practices of the building trades unions and Meany is a past president of the plumbers union. One of the first open battles Meany and Reuther had concerned the Civil Rights March in 1963. Reuther served on the ten-man committee directing the March. The executive council of the AFL under Meany's control withheld endorsement of the March. Reuther attacked Meany's statement as "so anemic that you'd have to give it a blood tranfusion to keep it alive on its way to the mimeograph machine."

The two top labor leaders also disagree vehemently over the role of the American labor movement in international affairs. Reuther believes that unions ought to help bridge the gap between nations, while Meany refuses even to talk to Communist labor groups. Last year the International Labor Organization (an agency of the U.N.) elected Leon Chain, a Pole, president. The American delegation headed by Randy Faupl, a close friend of Meany's, walked out of the meeting. Reuther sought to condemn the walk-out at the next executive council meeting but was overruled by a near unanimous vote. A source reports that at this meeting Meany told Reuther he would never be President of the AFL. Reuther later called for a special council meeting to discuss American foreign policy which he then boycotted, setting the stage for the current battle.

If the UAW leaves the AFL it will probably do so alone. None of the other industrial unions are planning now to follow. The head of one such union reported that his position could not even be formulated until the UAW decides what it is going to do after leaving. Another insider said "No one can fault what Reuther is saving but he has not said specifically what he personally can do. Everything is couched in vague generalities, there are no definite plans." One of the most telling analyses of the situation was the report that "I would seriously doubt Reuther himself knows where he is going."

Meany responded to the latest Reuther attack last week during the executive council's meeting in Florida. He simply stated that if Reuther has any differences he ought to work them out within the federation and not by leaving it. This same feeling has been voiced by many other insiders. The big question asked by an AFL staffer is "where has Reuther been for the past ten years?" One of Reuther's main complaints has been that the AFL has done little to organize the unorganized.

Part of the UAW's complaint included criticism of Meany's autocratic control of the executive council. One labor mediator points out that "Meany has strong personal convictions. He is blunt in his convictions and speaks the language of his colleagues. Reuther does not. He is too intellectual." But what Reuther sees as autocracy is only the executive council's reaction. The fact that the AFL scarcely acts on social issues and Reuther's knowledge that he has no chance of taking over the AFL cause him great frustration. The UAW complaint and his recent resignation are manifestations of that frustration.

And Reuther not only has problems within the AFL, but he also has them within his own union. The UAW's contracts with the major auto companies expire in September and there may be trouble. His skilled craft members have threatened to break away from the UAW unless they receive wage increases that would bring them up to the pay scale of outside unions. They have already applied for admission to the AFL as independent unions. The policy of the federation is not to admit a union splintering from one of its affiliates, but if Reuther leaves the AFL they may issue a charter to the disgruntled UAW members.

Most of the auto workers are young men. These young men believe that their benefits have been "given" by the companies, not "won" for them through the solidarity of their unions and the battles of those workers who organized the industry during the 30's. Emil Mazey, Secretary-treasurer of the UAW has said these new men "don't know the difference between unionism and rheumatism." It is doubtful that Reuther and his social vision is any more appetizing to such a constituency than it is to his fellow union leaders.

Reuther must be watched. If he can take his "vague generalities," turn them into "definite plans" and then carry them out it will be useful for the American labor movement. If he can accomplish no more than he has been able to do within the federation he will have succeeded only in isolating himself. His frustration, rather than leading to a greater social commitment for his union, will have achieved nothing.

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