Unions are rightly proud of the outstanding former leaders. The Mine Workers venerate John L. Lewis, Teamsters love Jimmy Hoffa, and the Auto Workers are outright devoted to the memory of Walter Reuther!

Each of these long-passed heavyweights undoubtedly guided their unions during their most memorable periods of prosperity. But they were only men, and they were only coping with the situations that prevailed.

Reuther’s “great accomplishment” was pioneering fixed-benefit company pensions and company health care plans. That’s why it’s hard to welcome another enthusiastic book-length tribute to his life and legend, “Putting the World Together,” even though it was written with the best intentions by his daughter, Elisabeth Reuther Dickmeyer.

As head of the UAW and of the CIO, Reuther, more than any other American leader, diverted the union movement away from demands for improved Social Security and national health care by demanding contractual benefits for his members and leaving the rest of the working class to fend for themselves. This began a process of separating the labor movement from the rest of the working class.

Prior to Reuther’s day, the CIO was known as a social movement that fought for the entire working class. They pushed for increases in Social Security formulas and for a national health care plan. Unions unceasingly demanded shorter hours as a way to end the scourge of unemployment. They worked to form an international alliance so that no worker would be sacrificed by outsourcing. They committed themselves to being open to all races and ideologies so that bosses could not divide us.

Compared to other unionists, Reuther was good on civil rights; but on ideological tolerance he was much worse. Reuther led the anti-communist crusade that expelled whole unions from the CIO, then set up dual unions to take contracts away from the more progressive unions. Afterward, union members were more and more estranged from the rest of the working class as their wages, health care, and pension plans put them more and more ahead. Non-unionized workers, a consistently growing majority in America, tended to think of union members as “labor aristocracy.” The classic American demand for shorter working hours disappeared.

Today, companies are dumping their health care plans. Fixed-benefit company pensions are in crisis. Some economists predict that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will go bust as the airlines join the steelmakers in dumping their obligations to retirees. The American working class, without the demand for shorter hours, has no defense against unemployment. Outsourcing is destroying us. In each aspect, the policies of the pre-Reuther CIO would have been far better than the policies that led into today’s problems. We need to study and adapt the policies of the early CIO for use today.

Editor’s note: “Putting the movement back in labor,” a new PWW feature, will cover developments in the current discussions within the union movement. We especially welcome readers’ contributions, such as the above article. Join the discussion! Send your comments, up to 400 words, to rwood@pww.org.