A union family’s story
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It's a powerful image: Blood streaming down a union organiser's nose and splattered all over his white shirt after thugs from the Ford Motor Co. 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 organiser, and Victor and Roy. Together they played a pivotal role in transforming the United Auto Workers into what was for decades United States' most powerful labour union.
Victor Reuther's grandson Sasha Reuther features that photo prominently in the new documentary to tell how the brothers built the UAW 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 unionisation of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, and how the UAW played a major role in underwriting the civil rights movement as well as that of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers.
"Some will say it's a love letter to the family," 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.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labour history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said, "There's a dramatic story to be told about the history of the UAW, and it needs to be told to every generation."
The documentary 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 UAW'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 legislation.
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