Walter Reuther’s Lesson from Autoworkers to Nurses: Harder to Bargain is Worth the Lift!

Labor Organizing Organizing
Walter Reuther speaking at a large labor rally

Toronto  The other day I was having lunch with a friend and colleague, Colin Heslop, who has been the skilled trades director for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union for the last decade, and worked with us to rehab a number of houses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  It was a Sunday in Little Italy and all around us were the cheers and groans of fans plastered to the widescreen televisions pointing towards the streets.

Somehow we started talking about the difficulties of collective bargaining in these hard economic, concessionary times, and Colin reminded me of the unique bargaining structure for skilled trades within the auto unions that went back to Walter Reuther’s leadership in the mid-1950s.  Of course Reuther and his brothers had been skilled tradesmen and excellent tool-and-die makers, so they knew both the values of the trades and the potential difficulty of keeping elite workers happy in an industrial union.  They also knew how critical skilled trades workers were to an organizing drive.  They had more access and leeway in the plant without interference of supervisors, they could get around, converse, carry messages, and just plain organize where others couldn’t go, which made them invaluable.  There may not be as much plant-based organizing, but this same organizing phenomena is still true for maintenance people in some drives and nurses in healthcare facilities for example.

Homer Martin, another early UAW leader, had tried to pull the skilled trades out of the industrial model and take them separately into the AFL as the disputes between the CIO and AFL hardened in those days.   In keeping the union together and beating the automobile companies, Reuther, Wyndham Mortimer, and others fashioned a collective bargaining structure within auto that was unique.  They established a skilled trades council and then gave it more than simply an advisory role.  During bargaining, the skilled trades council could express disagreement with the terms of the contract as it impacted their trades.  They were also allowed to vote separately on ratification, so that a situation could develop where the general vote approved the contract and the skilled trades rejected.  If they rejected, they would – and this still exists – meet with the bargaining committee and present their issues.  Obviously these issues couldn’t be trivial single-plant matters, but had to be specific to the trades and have companywide impact.  If they prevailed in their arguments, the bargaining committee would have to bring the company back to the table on their concerns.   If the committee came back and said they had gotten their best, they could ratify separately or companywide.

Reuther used to argue that yes it was harder, but worth it to build the strongest union.  Sure the skilled trades were a minority, but this way they got more from the process than without such a bargaining structure and if they were alone.  Colin mentioned how Leonard Woodcock used to defend the structure by advocating the importance of each worker and their concerns no matter how much they were in the minority, and that the union was built on how well it represented the least of the workers as well as most of the workers.

Only days before, I had been reading more reports of the California Nurses leadership “declaring war” on SEIU because of some issues or perceived slights as their peace agreement winds down.  SEIU still has many nurses in its membership and this argument between the aristocracy of labor in healthcare and the trades model of unionism versus the industrial model in hospitals could benefit from remembering these lessons from Reuther’s era and the skilled trades council with the UAW and CAW.

Were unions like SEIU willing to “take the extra trouble” to satisfy their nurses not with just a nurses’ council meeting that visited annually or some such, but with a real voice, veto, and process at bargaining, then the better model, an industrial model, in hospitals could still prevail.  It would be more than worth the work to keep workers united in bargaining and resolve the issues internally, no matter how difficult or complex, than allow everyone separate seats at the table where it is the bosses calling the shots and not the workers themselves.

Reuther taught that lesson well, and it’s worth remembering.

Walter Reuther (second from right) at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963