By David Humphrey
For The Herald Bulletin
---- — In the early to mid-1900s, workers began to stand up for their rights, demanding better pay, improved working conditions, and to not sell their souls to the company store. While America's workforce stood in solidarity on the picket line, union organizers took on corporate owners at the bargaining table. The Reuther brothers, Victor, Walter, and Roy, were among them.
The lives and legacy of the social, labor, and civil rights activists has been captured in the award winning documentary "Brothers on the Line." Directed by Sasha Reuther, grandson of Victor, the film follows the Reuther brothers from their rise as shop floor organizers in 1930's Detroit, leaders in collective bargaining, crusaders during the Civil Rights movement, and leaders of the United Auto Workers union.
From his Porter Street Pictures production company in New York City, Sasha Reuther said he directed "Brothers on the Line" since very little is known about this important aspect of American history.
"I grew up around my grandfather Victor’s stories of his involvement in this incredible part of American history," Reuther said. "So when I discovered that I wanted to be a filmmaker and became passionate about documentaries, it seemed rather obvious that I should explore the family saga at my fingertips. The other driving force behind my decision to make this film was the severely limited national curriculum on labor studies. There is relatively no coverage of the union movement in the typical high-school classroom and that’s really sad."
Born in Wheeling, West Va., the Reuther brothers learned at an early age the importance of social reform. Their father was a union activist and supported Terre Haute native Eugene Debs, a Socialist candidate for the United States presidency
While in their early 20s, Victor and Walter visited Russia where they worked in an automobile factory. Upon returning to the U.S., Victor found employment at the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company in Flint, Mich. While there, Reuther organized a union that became known as the United Auto Workers. Reuther lent his support to the 1936 General Motors sit-down strike, and his ties with the city of Anderson began.
As auto workers occupied the interior of General Motors plants in Flint, Mich., Reuther drove through the streets with a loudspeaker mounted on the roof of his car. The 24-year-old encouraged strikers to not give in to the company's demands for them to return to work. The labor leader was issued an arrest warrant before he and his wife Sophie fled Flint to assist workers on strike at Guide Lamp in Anderson.
Sasha Reuther said, "My hope is that people will remember the social movement behind the UAW crusade. For the Reuthers, it was always much bigger than the union or the auto industry. It was about making a better world. ... Given that there were three brothers, plus their wives, all committed to the same struggle, it provided many hands and minds to fuse a variety of social causes under one umbrella. It is so rare to see one family spend their entire lives working together, especially on behalf of the common good."
On Jan. 20, 1937, just three weeks after the Guide Lamp sit-down began, Sophie Reuther met with women workers at the Anderson union headquarters. Union meetings were held nightly at the Madison County Courthouse.
One evening, 28 union members were arrested while having dinner at a local restaurant. Out of town union members were deported from Anderson after their release from jail.
Though the police thought Sophie Reuther had left the city as well, she had taken up residence at a union member's home. "The workers here will think I am a yellow dog if I desert them," she said. It was only a matter of days before Victor joined his wife in Anderson where he took charge of union affairs for the sit-down strikers.
Like his wife Sophie, Victor had an abundance of courage and showed no fear to corporate violence or intimidation. The husband and wife stayed at the Grand Hotel near the union headquarters and considered themselves equal to blue collar Americans. Victor and Sophie bonding with the common folk of Anderson comes as no surprise to their grandson Sasha.
Rally at the Crystal
In his book "The Brothers Reuther," Victor wrote of a rally held in early February of 1937 at the Crystal Theatre in downtown Anderson.
"Things went badly from the start. We couldn't find a building for the rally — the armory, school buildings, and churches were all denied us. In desperation I turned to a former member of the AFL who was now in the state legislature and was part-owner of the dilapidated, run-down old Crystal Theater, which had been closed for several years. The rally had been announced for 8 p.m. There was no heating, so we rounded up little kerosene stoves and put them in the aisles, and had an improvised hillbilly band to provide entertainment as the crowd came in.
"And in came our supporters, between 800 and woo strong; every seat was taken and many people stood. The workers had brought their wives and children and there was joy and relief on their faces; they felt they would soon be back at work, with paychecks coming in and the horror over."
As Reuther conducted a civil meeting with union members inside the theatre, an angry mob of company unionists waited outside for the meeting to adjourn. Anderson Chief of Police Joe Carney instructed Reuther and his followers to leave the building under police escort to ensure their safety. However, Reuther refused to exit the Crystal Theatre in fear that innocent people might get injured or killed in a violent clash. Reuther and his band of brothers and sisters waited for the angry mob to disperse before leaving the theatre the following morning.
Activist to the end
In the years that followed the Guide Lamp sit-down strike, Victor and Walter Reuther made several visits to Anderson. On June 30, 1963, UAW president Walter Reuther was guest speaker at the UAW 662 mortgage burning ceremony.In March of 1990, Victor Reuther appeared at a UAW rally at the Paramount Theatre. The 78-year-old activist remained a gifted speaker and pulled no punches when addressing the audience.
"When the Ronald Reagans and George Bushes talk about expanding employment they're talking about flipping hamburgers," Reuther said. "You cannot buy an automobile on hamburger flipping wages."
Sasha Reuther has his own take on post-Reagan America.
"There is no arguing the onslaught of anti-labor legislation and sentiment in the last several decades," Reuther replied. "The gap between the rich and the poor is appalling. We see nothing but deadlock in Washington. But I remain hopeful. We have had successful grassroots movements in this country before. Laborers can only be pushed so far before there is a new wave of mass organized activism. I think we are standing on that doorstep."
To learn more, or to purchase the DVD, go to http://brothersontheline.tumblr.com/