Joseph Wolf

The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit - Nelson Lichtenstein 

      In The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Nelson Lichtenstein takes a very sympathetic, yet at the same time very much mixed and at times critical take on the life of Walter Reuther, the man under who’s leadership the United Auto-Workers (UAW) Union became among the most powerful labor organizations in the Unites States.  It is clear that Lichtenstein very much “feels” for the American labor movement deep down in his heart, and has an admiration for a man like Walter Reuther who was able to accomplish so much in his life. Yet at the same time, Lichtenstein demonstrates much “tough love” for Reuther, whom Lichtenstein certainly believes should have been capable of accomplishing much more, and who Lichtenstein paints as a sort of “tragic hero” in the end.

      Walther Reuther’s life has frequently been cast in terms of either being that of an “opportunist” or that of a “pragmatist,” with the former having a more pejorative connotation than the latter.  This is due to the fact that in Reuther’s early life, he was a self-described “socialist,” having been influenced by his Father who was a European socialist, with Reuther even volunteering to spend several years at a Soviet industrial plant in the cause of communist solidarity, yet Reuther would not choose to bring the UAW in such a radical direction.  Within a decade of returning from the Soviet Union, Reuther had risen through the ranks of the UAW to become its president, and with a half-decade of becoming President had negotiated the “famous” (or in Lichtenstein’s mind, “infamous”) Treaty of Detroit, despite remaining a self-described “socialist” in the Western European mold.  The 1950 “Treaty of Detroit” is often considered one of the crowning achievements of the mid-century labor movement, laying the groundwork for what is often considered Labor’s “golden age” during the next several decades.  Essentially, the “Treaty of Detroit” established what many historians refer to as a “private welfare” system, whereby the largest automakers agreed to extremely generous benefit and compensation packages in return for Labor’s loyalty.  Yet, the “Treaty of Detroit” is now seen as a dubious achievement in American history by many historians, among whom Lichtenstein can certainly be counted.  This is because in establishing a private “corporate welfare” system, Reuther was therefore giving in to the idea that these were “benefits” that could be negotiated over been Business and Labor, thereby precluding much of the idea of a greater western European-style socialistic welfare system (which Reuther always considered as one of his goals) which would be established by the government.  Furthermore, Lichtenstein also shows how the “Treaty of Detroit” in fact may have lead to divisions in the working-class divisions and racial antagonism, by creating in effect two classes of workers, the skilled, mostly white, unionized workers who worked for the large automakers covered by the “Treaty of Detroit,” and lesser skilled workers who were often African-Americans who worked for smaller companies which did not enjoy union benefits.

           Lichtenstein is also critical Reuther’s political tactics.  It has already been stated that Walter Reuther was certainly not a Samuel Gompers figure who advocated pure trade unionism without political activism.  Rather, Reuther was certain that in order for the working-class to succeed in the long run, they would have to gain control over political mechanisms in order to affect policy at the public level.  Nevertheless, as we have seen, the “Treaty of Detroit” was, in the minds of many historians, responsible for dividing many sectors of the working-class, such as women and blacks, away from organized labor.  It is possible that if Reuther would have been able to form an alliance between Labor and progressive African-American movements, he could have built wider support for his goal of social democracy, although Lichtenstein admits that the penetration of the northern working-class by the racist ideology of George Wallace in the 1950’s and 1960’s may have essentially “bound” Reuther’s hands in this regard. Lichtenstein furthermore faults Reuther following a purely partisan insider’s path on his road to achieve political power, by allying himself to President Lyndon Johnson, and then essentially “blindly” supporting Johnson’s Vietnam policies that Reuther himself did not necessarily enthusiastically support.  Lichtenstein considers this a big mistake, as it supposedly drove a wedge between organized labor and the anti-war movement, two liberal movements that, had they allied, may have been able to do much to bring about Reuther’s vision of progressive social democracy for the working-class.  Ultimately, when Reuther died in 1970, he left behind a Labor organization which was on the verge of an era in which it would shed both membership and political influence nearly as fast as it had gained it.  Thus, while Lichtenstein ultimately sympathizes with Reuther’s goals and does realize that no man is a “super-man” capable of accomplishing everything perfectly, he does demonstrate a sense throughout much of the book of an eventual “let-down” by Walter Reuther and disillusionment towards Reuther’s ultimate achievements.