When Reuther uttered these words, he was not only giving a call to action, but was saying something very significant about who we are: Our union has always stood for all, not just ourselves.
It sounds like a simple proposition, but at the time, it was a revolutionary idea. The labor movement grew out of a need where workers saw that banding together could lead to improvements and protections at work. It was often done in secret as few laws protected the activity.
Before the Industrial Revolution, work was divided by trades where specialized skills bound them together: bootmakers, wheelwrights, saddlers, masons, etc. It was a simple enough matter for these trades to want to strengthen their crafts by maintaining standards and bargaining with their employer for improvements. Many were closely guarded and did not let others enter their trades easily. Sadly, that practice grew to include discriminating against women and nonwhites.
The advent of mass production introduced the unskilled worker, someone not necessarily falling into a trade, but who was becoming more and more essential to the manufacturing process. At this point, the labor movement was at a crossroads: include the unskilled workers? Or continue to raise high walls against the unskilled to protect the trades?
Many unions chose the latter path, including the AFL which was a federation of many unions. In the early part of the 20th century, this was the great debate in the labor movement. Other unions, which eventually formed the CIO, felt that all workers should be organized, regardless of trade, gender or race.
Our UAW was at the forefront in this debate and insisted strongly that the right to collectively bargain belonged to every worker. We were never about just helping ourselves – we saw that all workers were connected and will rise and fall together. “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
That was a substantial step toward the modern labor movement and it was by no means an easy shift. And throughout our early history, CIO unions were at odds with AFL unions on many important public policy fights of the day such as social reform and immigration. There was no solidarity between the two groups. The AFL even worked with the federal government to crush “radical labor groups” during World War I.
As our union grew, our philosophy matured. Our union saw that we cannot stand alone: that our fate is tied to our communities. Elected officials can, in one sweeping piece of legislation, wipe out all of our gains at the bargaining table. It was becoming evident that the concerns of labor were not limited to just those who carry a union card. After Reuther was elected president of the UAW in 1946, he said it succinctly: We are “a labor movement whose philosophy demands that it fight for the welfare of the public at large.” It was a pragmatic statement that we need others to stand with us. But it was also a reflection of our core beliefs that the union movement is also about improving the lives of all, not just card-carrying union members.
A greater calling. That is why we are who we are. When others are in need, UAW members are the first to step up. We do much of this through the heart of our union — our standing committees; ramps for the disabled, toys during the holidays, building homeless shelters, giving new students book bags and tools to be successful, mentoring teens, collecting money during tragedies, water for Flint. The list is as endless as the need. We do it because we know that we are an integral part of the living communities around us and supporting others is a reflection of our values as trade unionists. In 2017, we should celebrate who we are and the great works done by UAW members around the country. It is perhaps needed as much today as ever.
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