[Marxism] Reuther brothers documentary
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 10 08:17:40 MDT 2012
NY Times October 9, 2012
Telling the Story of His Family, and of a Union
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
It’s a powerful image: Blood streaming down a union organizer’s nose and
splattered all over his white shirt after thugs from the Ford Motor
Company attacked him and others who were distributing union fliers.
That 1937 photograph is just one of the searing scenes in “Brothers on
the Line,” a new documentary about the Reuther brothers: Walter, the
future United Auto Workers president standing next to the bloodied
organizer, and Victor and Roy. Together they played a pivotal role in
transforming the United Auto Workers into what was for decades the
nation’s most powerful labor union.
Victor Reuther’s grandson Sasha Reuther features that photo prominently
in the new documentary, which he directed and helped produce, to tell
how the brothers built the U.A.W. and how that union helped raise living
standards for not just one million autoworkers, but also for a large
swath of America. The film shows the fierce struggles and sit-down
strikes that led to the unionization of General Motors, Ford and
Chrysler, and how the U.A.W. played a major role in underwriting the
civil rights movement as well as that of Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers.
“Some will say it’s a love letter to the family, and it’s the Reuther
boy who did it,” Sasha Reuther said. But he added that he took pains to
include criticisms of the Reuthers, showing blacks in the 1960s
protesting that they were underrepresented in the union’s hierarchy and
complaints that Walter purged many Communists who had played an
important role in building the union.
Still, as a family member, “I felt destined to tell this story,” Mr.
Reuther, 36, a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York
University, said recently at his Upper East Side apartment. “I feared
that if I didn’t do it, it’s going to disappear.”
Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of
California, Santa Barbara, said, “There’s a dramatic story to be told
about the history of the U.A.W., and it needs to be told to every
The documentary, which will be shown on Tuesday in Manhattan as part of
the IFC Center’s Stranger Than Fiction series, focuses on Walter, a
gifted speaker, shrewd negotiator and confidant of Presidents John F.
Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. The film also tells of Victor Reuther,
the most intellectual of the brothers, who became head of the U.A.W.’s
international division, and of Roy Reuther, who, as the union’s
political director, used its power to help elect Kennedy and push
through Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act and other landmark
At some early screenings, Sasha Reuther said, he was struck by how
little many young people know about the history of the labor movement.
“The immediate reaction is, ‘Why haven’t I heard of any of this before?’
” he said.
He added that he was especially moved by the way an African-American
student responded at a Washington high school. The teenager was
surprised to see whites attacked, Mr. Reuther said. “He said, ‘I thought
things like that only happened when African-Americans were beaten up in
the civil rights movement.’ ”
For Mr. Reuther, one of the biggest challenges with his debut film was
shaping a concise and moving story out of the ocean of archival material
he discovered — not just that in the union’s archives, but also nearly
100 hours of 16-millimeter film at Wayne State University in Detroit. So
he brought in a veteran film editor, Deborah Peretz, to help mold and
streamline the documentary.
“I suppose you can say we had an embarrassment of riches,” Ms. Peretz said.
Professor Lichtenstein, also the author of a biography of Walter
Reuther, “The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit,” said he was impressed by
the archival material the filmmakers found, especially a recording of a
phone conversation in which Johnson warned his longtime ally Walter
Reuther not to turn against him and oppose the war in Vietnam.
“I want you to tell the rest of them that I’m no goddamn fascist,”
Linda Reuther, a daughter of Walter, said that segment was eye-opening:
“I was opposed to the war for a long time. I had no idea why Daddy
wouldn’t be against the war. It didn’t make sense to me until I saw that
Some critics say the Reuthers were so successful in pushing up wages and
benefits that it made Detroit’s Big Three automakers uncompetitive once
Japanese imports started flowing in. Professor Lichtenstein said, “The
film puts the question forward about what happened to the auto industry,
but it never comes to an answer on that one.”
Asserting that there was some complacency in the U.A.W.’s leadership
after Walter died in 1970, Sasha Reuther said that union officials
focused more on continuing the great wages of the past than on keeping
the automakers competitive. “Any organization like that has to be
flexible,” he said. “The contract should be a living document and needs
to change with the times.”
He said he felt fortunate that Martin Sheen agreed to narrate the film,
an opportunity the actor leapt at. “The Reuther brothers, particularly
Walter, have been heroes of mine since my childhood,” Mr. Sheen said.
Not only did they build the U.A.W., he added, “they basically created
the middle class.”
There had been other efforts to document the Reuthers’ legacy on film,
Sasha Reuther said. He recalled that soon after the 1992 release of
“Hoffa,” which starred Jack Nicholson as the Teamsters leader, Hollywood
producers approached Victor Reuther.
He said his grandfather rejected the idea, fearing that such a film
would, like “Hoffa,” focus on violent episodes, like an assassination
attempt on Walter’s life — a shooting that left Victor with a glass eye
— and confrontations like the one with the Ford thugs that came to be
known as the Battle of the Overpass.
But making a movie was something Sasha Reuther, like a number of
relatives of other notable figures recently (Deepak Chopra, Ethel
Kennedy, William Colby) had long considered. “It’s been in my mind and
heart for 20 years,” he said, and he even filmed 10 hours of interviews
with his grandfather while a student.
After graduating, he made a living directing and producing reality TV,
commercials and music videos, but prepared on and off for a Reuther
brothers film. It wasn’t until 2004, at a memorial service for his
grandfather, that his wife, Sonya, pressed him to step up. Pointing out
the U.A.W. and civil rights leaders in attendance, he recalled, “She
said, ‘Your story, the family story, is right here.’ ” And she told him,
“If you don’t do something soon, a lot of these people will be gone.”
So Sasha Reuther plunged in. “The message of the film,” he said, “is
that they were about something bigger than the fight just to make union
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