“There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.” –Walter P. Reuther
The Reuther-Wheeling Library was founded as a research and study center on the life, times, and thought of Wheeling, West Virginia native Walter Reuther. An important part of the library’s mission is to promote the literary works of local authors about the heritage, history, and culture of the city of Wheeling. The library also contains numerous titles related to economics, politics, labor history, social justice, human rights, education, and the environment. The library is maintained by the Wheeling Academy of Law & Science (WALS) Foundation and is located, fittingly, in the “State Cellar” of the First State Capitol Building, where West Virginia’s first governor, Arthur I. Boreman had his offices and where West Virginia’s ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery, as well as the 14th and 15th amendments, occurred.
The Reuther-Wheeling Labor History Archive was added in May, 2017, and is dedicated to collecting, maintaining, preserving, digitizing, and making accessible to educators and researchers, photographs, documents, books, ephemera, media, and other artifacts related to the life and work of Wheeling’s native son, labor leader and human rights activist, Walter Reuther, and the Reuther family, as well as such material related to the history of organized labor, unions, and the working class in Wheeling and the Upper Ohio Valley region.
But why does Wheeling deserve to be the home of a labor history archive? And why Walter Reuther?
Solidarity in the Name of Defiance
From the rather menacing origins of it place name (derived from the Lenape “Weelunk” or “place of the skull”), to the tenacious survival of its European settlers during two 18th century sieges of their frontier outpost, to its role as host forum for a band of feisty loyalists who decided to secede from secession (rendering it the birthplace of the only state born of the American Civil War), Wheeling, West Virginia, has always been a hotbed of solidarity in the name of defiance.
And nothing epitomizes that spirit of defiance more colorfully than Wheeling’s labor history. As a transportation and manufacturing hub, the city attracted droves of migrant laborers and European immigrants in search of opportunity in industries making products like iron and steel, nails, glass, pottery, stogies, and beer. Others sought work on the wagons, trains, and steamboats endlessly hauling such products, and the raw materials needed to produce them, into and out of town.
Led by large numbers of German immigrants influenced by socialist theory, Wheeling’s workers organized for better pay, hours, and working conditions. By the turn of the century, Wheeling was home to an array of labor unions representing every trade and profession from butchers and bartenders to brewers, bricklayers, and horseshoers.
We Unite Because We Must
“We unite because we must. It is not a matter of sentiment or charity. It is one of business. True, the blood tingles on beholding the brutalities of our industrial chaos; but while this is an incentive, it is not the foundation of our unionism. We are trade unionists because there is no other agency that will secure for us good wages, a short workday, partial independence in the present, and sometime, we hope, complete.” -History of the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, 1902
The listing of labor unions in the 1911-12 Wheeling City Directory shows stunning variety for a relatively small city:
Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees of America, Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, Amalgamated Sheet and Metal Workers, Molders’ Union, Bartenders’ Local Union No. 292, Bricklayers’ Union, Brotherhood of Painters and Decorators of America, Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, Coopers’ International (barrel makers), two Horseshoers’ Unions, Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ International Alliance and Bartenders’ International League of America, International Association of Glass House Employees, International Brotherhood of Stationary Firemen, International Hod Carriers’ [bricks] and Building Laborers’ Union, International Printing Pressmen and Assistants’ Union, International Typographical Union, International Union Brewery Workmen of America, International Union of Steam Engineers, Iron Molders’ Union of North America, Journeymen Barbers’ Union, Journeyman Plumbers’ Association, Journeyman Stone Cutters’ Association, Journeyman Tailors’ Union of America, Laborers’ Union, Machinists’ Union, Master Painters Association, Master plumbers’ Association, Musicians’ Mutual Protective Union, National Brotherhood of Operative Potters, National Stogiemakers’ League, Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, Operative Plasterers’ International Association, Order of Railway Conductors, Retail Grocers Protective Association, Stonemasons’ Union, Stationary Engineers (boiler systems and mechanical systems), Structural Building Trades Alliance of America, Tin-Plate Workers’ International Protective Association of America, United Brewery Workers, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, United Brotherhood of Leather Workers on Horse Goods, United Mine Workers of America, Wheeling Tobacco Workers’ Union.
Most of these organizations were represented in West Virginia’s largest central labor assembly, the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, whose membership was comprised of four thousand Wheeling workers from forty unions.
“Always in Sympathy with Organized Labor”
In the late 19th century, during the so-called “Gilded Age’” best known for its unbridled capitalism and the “Robber Barons” – with names like Carnegie, Gould, and Vanderbilt – who amassed obscene personal wealth on the backs of employees forced to endure long hours and hazardous working conditions for meager paychecks, some Wheeling business owners demonstrated solidarity and defiance of this laissez-faire convention. A stogiemaking tycoon named Augustus Pollack, for example, took a radically different approach: he treated his employees with empathy and respect.
Pollack paid his stogiemakers a living wage and approached issues like working conditions, safety, and hours with an unheard of and influentially progressive attitude. As a result, while the “Robber Barons” regularly faced violent confrontations with organized labor (such as Carnegie and Frick’s bloody Homestead Strike), Pollack’s employees remained comparatively loyal and content. So beloved was Pollack, in fact, that after his April 23, 1906 death, his employees and scores of local union members passed the hat to erect a massive monument in his honor. Inscribed: “Erected by Trade Union Members of United States in Memory of Augustus Pollack Whose Business Life and Actions Were Always in Sympathy with Organized Labor,” it is thought to be the only monument ever built by labor in honor of a business owner.
Meanwhile, Aaron and Samuel Bloch, the brothers who founded the South Wheeling concern that produced internationally famous Mail Pouch chewing tobacco, also treated their employees with an unusual level of respect. “From those early years in the Company’s and Union’s history up to the present,” the company proclaimed in its monthly bulletin for July-August1954, “relations between [labor and management] have been held at such a high standard, that only one brief work stoppage has occurred. This employee-employer success as manifested in good relations through the years can only be the result of cooperation on both sides.”
Kicking a Gift Horse in the Teeth
Even when “Robber Barons” like Carnegie attempted to assuage their guilt through philanthropy, Wheeling was defiant. When the steel magnate earmarked $75,000 to build a Carnegie library in Wheeling, local organized labor, led by the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, balked. With the death and suffering inflicted on their brethren in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers in Homestead in 1892 still fresh in their memories, union leaders organized and brought about the defeat of a 1904 bond levy, ensuring that Wheeling would remain the “one place on this great green planet where Andrew Carnegie can’t get a monument with his money.” The city defiantly built its own public library seven years later, with no help from Carnegie.
A Native Son
“At my father’s knee we learned the philosophy of trade unionism. We got the struggles, the hopes and the aspirations of working people every day.” –Walter P. Reuther
Just a year and a half after Wheeling mourned the death of Augustus Pollack, the city’s traditionally defiant German immigrant community (from whom so many union members and labor leaders sprang) added a son who would grow up to become Wheeling’s most important nationally prominent figure of the twentieth century.
Walter Philip Reuther was born in working-class South Wheeling on September 1, 1907, Labor Day eve, to Anna (Stocker) and Valentine Reuther, a German immigrant and delivery driver for Wheeling largest beer maker, the Schmulbach Brewery. Valentine, who had himself vocally opposed Carnegie’s attempted library gift a few years before Walter was born, instilled a strong sense of fairness and social justice in his five children, including Walter, his brothers, Theodore, Victor and Roy, and their sister, Christine. This sense would serve the Reuther boys well. Young Water honed the oratory skills for which he would later be known during after dinner debates with his siblings, staged by his father, featuring hot-button contemporary topics like workers’ rights, prohibition, and women suffrage. When the American Socialist icon Eugene Debs was imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act, he was briefly held at the Moundsville Penitentiary while being transported south. Valentine Reuther took his sons Walter and Victor to visit Debs.
Even as his father’s more radical world crumbled due to the patriotic backlash against German socialists during the First World War, and the closure of the breweries due to state prohibition, young Walter was inspired by the craftsmen who made glass and the skilled steelworkers who made glass molds. He began apprenticing in the Wheeling Corrugating tool and die department, where skilled craftsmen made the ornate dies used to stamp metal ceiling panels. When he learned that he could make good money as a toolmaker for the Ford Motor Company, Walter Reuther moved to Detroit in 1927, where he was later joined by his brother Victor. A successful die maker for Ford, Walter was fired in 1932 for supporting a socialist candidate. He decided to travel with his brother Victor to Germany and on to the Soviet Union, where the two worked at the Gorky automobile factory training workers in die making.
While in Europe, Walter learned much about oppression under the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, lessons that would later make him strongly anti-Communist, despite hyperbolic labels applied by his detractors.
When the Reuther brothers returned to Detroit in 1935, they became much more active in automobile worker unionizing efforts and young Walter rose rapidly through the ranks of the United Automobile Workers Union (UAW). Walter met and married an activist named May Wolf in 1937. The couple would have two daughters.
On May 26, 1937, at the “Battle of the Overpass,” UAW organizers, including Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen, were attacked and beaten by Ford Motor Company guards while engaged in a leaflet campaign for better pay and hours near a Ford plant in Dearborn Michigan. Asked about the incident later, Reuther recalled, “Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms . . . and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more…” Ford guards attempted to destroy press photos of the attack, but one was published, providing an eye-opening revelation for the American public, as evidence of anti-union violence was graphically revealed. The power of the free press was confirmed as public support for Henry Ford crashed, while support for the UAW, and for Walter Reuther, increased.
In 1939, UAW officials promoted Walter Reuther to head of the General Motors department, and his leadership helped GM employees secure a new contract. Impressed by Reuther’s plan to have auto plants produce military planes for the war effort (a plan that was never actually implemented), President Franklin D. Roosevelt began consulting Walter as a sort of unofficial adviser, making FDR the first in a series of American Presidents to do so. After the war, Reuther led a strike against GM for better pay, challenging ownership to open the books and do right by their employees, a simple appeal to fairness that resonated with labor and the American public.
Propelled by this popularity, Walter Reuther was elected president of the United Automobile Workers Union in 1946 and would serve in that capacity until his death in 1970. As president, he led the union to unprecedented gains in benefits like health insurance, workplace safety, compensation during layoffs, and pensions. He achieved these successes via tough negotiation tactics, the threat of strikes, and actual work stoppages. His success made him enemies, including future Michigan Governor George Romney, who famously called Reuther, “the most dangerous man in Detroit.” Reuther was equally despised by the radical wing of the labor movement, who considered him far too moderate, even a sycophant controlled by ownership. His enemies managed an assassination attempt in 1948 that resulted in a shotgun injury to Reuther’s right arm. The shooter was never identified and crime was never solved.
In 1952, Walter Reuther was elected president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and oversaw its reunification with the American Federation of Labor (the two manufacturing unions had split when John L. Lewis was in charge of the CIO). But deep seated philosophical differences with the conservative George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, caused Reuther to pull the UAW from the alliance in 1968.
Walter’s Way With Words
One particular anecdote well illustrates Reuther’s quick-witted style. According to the report about a 1954 conference on automation held by the UAW-CIO in Cleveland, “Walter Reuther was being shown through the Ford Motor plant…A company official proudly pointed to some new automatically controlled machines and asked Reuther: ‘How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?’ Reuther replied: ‘How are you going to get them to buy Fords?’
The “White MLK”
“There is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood.”-Walter P. Reuther
Walter Reuther was not just an accomplished labor leader, he was a progressive-minded visionary with a strong interest in civil rights and economic justice. On August 28, 1963, during Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, best known as the forum for MLK’s “I Have Dream” speech, Walter Reuther was the only white speaker. He took the podium at the Lincoln Memorial to deliver a seven minute speech in solidarity with King regarding equality and linking the goals of the civil rights and labor movements under the umbrella of economic justice.
“Fellow Americans and Friends. I am here today with you because with you I share the view that the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for equal opportunity is not the struggle of Negro-Americans but the struggle of every American…And we need to join together, to march together, and work together, until we’ve bridged the moral gap between American democracy’s noble promises and its ugly practices in the field of civil rights…”
“One of the problems is that there is too much high octane hypocrisy in America. There is a lot of noble talk about brotherhood, and then some Americans drop the brother and keep the hood…”
Hear the audio of Reuther’s speech.
In addition to advising President Lyndon B. Johnson’s on civil rights and the “War on Poverty,” Reuther marched for civil rights in Mississippi, Alabama, Detroit, and Washington, DC. And he marched with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers for agricultural workers’ right. He forged alliances with international labor organizations to help workers win their rights all over the world.
“As I have heard you say, the true measure of a man is where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy; when the only consolation he gains is the quiet whisper of an inner voice saying there are things so eternally true and significant that they are worth dying for, if necessary. You have demonstrated over the years that you can stand up in moments of challenge and controversy. One day, all of Americans will be proud of your achievements, and will record your work as one the glowing epics of our heritage.” –Martin Luther King, Jr. in a letter to Walter Reuther (1961)
Walter Reuther, his wife May, and four others, died in a plane crash on May 9, 1970. The discovery of evidence of possible tampering with the altimeter led some to believe that Walter Reuther had been murdered.
Walter Reuther’s life ended abruptly and prematurely, but his legacy lives on in the progress he secured for American workers and in the ideas he championed for achieving economic justice and guaranteeing human rights.
So Why Wheeling and Why Walter Reuther?
Walter Reuther was shaped by his experiences growing up in Wheeling, a town with a rich history of defiance and solidarity, largely expressed through the activities of the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly and other labor organizations. Considering Reuther’s legacy as a Wheeling legacy, therefore, the concept of a labor history archives seemed a natural fit. This West Virginia town has been an incubator for noble ideas that have come full circle and are embodied in the mission of the WALS Foundation, an organization that owes it’s existence to those ideas.
In Wheeling, solidarity in the name of defiance and rebirth, continues.
The WALS Foundation has launched, for example, the “Jobs First Agenda” community discussion series, a research initiative inspired by Reuther’s work, Wheeling’s history with organized labor, and the principles embodied in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These principles include economic rights, such as the right to a free public education, the right to a well paying job, and the right to free universal healthcare, ideas that Walter Reuther was among the first national figures to espouse. The Jobs First Agenda series is designed to explore the possibility of creating a new narrative; a nonpartisan, grassroots philosophy of action based on fairness and empathy that can facilitate the pursuit of a just economic life for all Americans.
The community discussions are focused on how a Jobs First Agenda could impact the most critical issues confronting our nation today, such as climate change, racial divisions, ongoing wars, immigration and refugee issues, and opioid addiction, among others. Learn more about the Jobs First Agenda.
If you are interested in accessing materials housed in the Reuther-Wheeling Labor History Archive, or in donating material, or in receiving emails about future WALS programs, please contact the WALS Foundation at 304-905-1690.
(all volumes are housed in the Reuther-Wheeling Library)
- Barnard, John, Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers (1983)
- Christman, Henry M., Walter P. Reuther: Selected Papers (1961)
- Cormier, Frank and Eaton, William J., Reuther (1970)
- Dayton, Eldorous L., Walter Reuther: Autocrat of the Bargaining Table (1958)
- Dickmeyer, Elisabeth Reuther, Putting the World Together; My Father Walter Reuther: The Liberal Warrior (2004)
- Eyck, James Ten, The Life and Times of Walter Reuther: An Unfinished Liberal Legacy (2016)
- Gould, Jean and Hickok, Lorena, Walter Reuther; Labor’s Rugged Individualist (1972)
- Hansen, Beatrice, Political Biography of Walter Reuther: The Record of an Opportunist (1987)
- Lichtenstein, Nelson, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (1997)
- Lichtenstein, Nelson, The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walter Reuther And The Fate Of American Labor (1995)
- Reuther, Sasha, Brothers on the Line (Documentary Motion Picture, 2014)
- Reuther, Victor G., The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW: A Memoir (1979)
- Smith, Mike and Pam, The Reuther Brothers: Walter, Roy, and Victor (Detroit Biography Series for Young Readers, 2001)Special thanks to the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor & Urban Affairs at Wayne State University, the largest labor archive in North America. We recognize their position as the primary repository for all things Walter, and aspire to do our small part to support their mission in Water’s hometown by collecting, preserving, and making accessible, material related to Ohio Valley labor history.