Walter Reuther, the son of a trade union and socialist activist, was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, on 1st September, 1907. At sixteen he became an apprentice tool and die maker and three years later moved to Detroit.
In 1929 Reuther enrolled at Detroit City College to study law. He became president of the Social Service Club (the campus arm of the Socialist Party). While at college Reuther arranged for leading socialists such as Norman Thomas and Scott Nearing to speak at meetings.
Reuther joined the Ford Motor Company but his union activities resulted in him losing his job in 1933. Unable to find work during the Great Depression, Reuther left the United States and eventually found employment in an automobile factory in the Soviet Union. Unhappy with the lack of political freedom in the country, Reuther returned to the United States where he found employment at General Motors and became an active member of the United Automobile Workers (UAW).
Reuther remained active in the Socialist Party and in 1937 failed in his attempt to be elected to the Detroit City Council. However, impressed by the efforts by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to tackle inequality, he eventually joined the Democratic Party.
Reuther led several strikes and in 1937 and 1940 was hospitalized after being badly beaten by strike-breakers. He also survived two assassination attempts during this period although one attack left his right hand permanently crippled.
Reuther gradually became a leading figure in the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and in 1946 was elected president after a bitter struggle with supporters of the American Communist Party. Six years later Reuther succeeded Philip Murray as president of the Congress for Industrial Organisation(CIO).
After the Second World War Reuther emerged as one of trade union's leading progressive figures. His support for civil rights and social welfare legislation made him unpopular with conservatives. In the early 1950s the Senate Select Committee on Labor began investigating the trade union movement. Robert Kennedy, chief counsel of the committee, began investigating James Hoffa and the Teamsters Union. Hoffa was a well-known supporter of the Republican Party, and party members on the committee, including Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater and Karl Mundt, insisted that trade union leaders associated with the Democratic Party should also be investigated. Reuther was charged but Robert Kennedy discovered no evidence of corruption.
Under Reuther's leadership the UAW grew to 1.5 million members. A successful negotiator, in 1955 he managed to obtain an agreement that gave auto workers almost as much take-home pay when laid off as when at work.
Reuther found George Meany conservative and dictatorial and in 1968 led the out of the AFL-CIO federation. The following year he joined with the Teamsters Union to form Alliance for Labor Action. Walter Reuther, who was active in the campaign against the Vietnam War, was killed in a plane crash in Pellston, Michigan, on 9th May, 1970.