Walter Reuther, president of the UAW for nearly three decades, was a visionary negotiator and statesman. His brothers Roy and Victor advised him on community, political and international affairs.
The Reuthers, the Labor Movement, and Me
The history depicted in the film was also a big part of my history. I graduated in 1952 from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. My first three college semesters were spent in Cornell’s liberal arts college, but I ran out of money to pay the tuition there. Fortunately Cornell, though primarily a privately endowed (i.e. high tuition) university, also has several colleges subsidized by the state of New York. When I considered transferring into one of these tuition-free schools, my curiculum choices were agriculture, home economics, veterinary medicine, and labor relations. The choice was easy.
Soon enough, I developed a genuine interest in labor relations. After getting kicked out of Cornell Law School in March, 1955, a few months shy of graduation (another story for another time), I lucked out, landing a job as a starting labor editor at BNA (now Bloomberg/BNA), a leading publisher of labor relations information. I began a career at BNA — in labor and employee relations — that lasted for forty years.
The Labor Movement and the Rise of the Middle Class
The period from the end of World War II (1945) to the early 1970s is generally regarded as the Golden Age for American capitalism. The Reuther film’s depiction of those years reminded me of the two factors that probably contributed the most to this:
- The “GI Bill” Passed in 1944, this law provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans (GIs). These included low-cost mortgages, loans to start a business or farm, cash payments for tuition, and living expenses to attend college, high school, or vocational training. By the end of the program, roughly 2.2 million veterans had used the bills’s education benefits to attend colleges or universities. Most of these men and women were the first in their families to get a higher education. This provided the well-educated work force essential to the postwar economic boom. And, combined with its subsidy for home buying, the GI Bill created the large new middle class whose appetite for goods and services fueled much of this economic growth.
- The Labor Movement Union membership as a percentage of non-farm workers peaked at nearly one third of the workforce in the early and mid ’50s. During the 50s and 60s, the wages and benefits negotiated by the major unions — such as the Auto Workers and the Steelworkers — set the pattern not only for other unionized companies, but also for non-union companies who realized they had to provide similar benefits if they wanted to remain non-union. As a result, the growth during the postwar economic boom was distributed fairly evenly across economic classes, unlike today. Innovations negotiated during those years included employer-paid holidays and vacations, pensions, life and health insurance, and supplemental unemployment benefits.