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The Brothers Reuther – A Film Review

October 31, 2012

A trade union family portrait that doesn’t shy from critical views

Brothers on the Line, directed by Sasha Reuther, 2012

There is a moment toward the end of Brothers on the Line when legendary American union leader Walter Reuther is making a speech to a rally of mostly black people fighting for their civil rights. “I think black is beautiful,” he says. There’s an appropriate pause. “I think white is beautiful,” he adds. And then he says something that should bring a tear to the eye of even the most hardened of union bashers. “I think black and white together are the most beautiful thing of all.”

Reuther, the iconic founding president of the United Auto Workers of America, is at his best at that moment, his paper UAW hat cocked to the side and the hint of his infectious smile below that disarming twinkle in his eye. He is the central figure in what is billed as “A timely tale of one family’s quest to compel American democracy to live up to its promise of equality.”

I wanted to see how honest the filmmaker would be in this “dramatic blueprint of successful social action” that tells the story of the turbulent lives of Reuther and his two brothers, Roy and Victor. And I was not disappointed. But first let’s get our biases out of the way.

Sasha Reuther is Victor’s grandson, so I didn’t expect him to air the family’s dirty laundry. As a labour historian I’ve read my share of critical comments on Walter’s handling of dissenters, particularly left-wing ones. As a retired trade union staff member, I’ve also seen the wrong choices that unions can sometimes make. I expected to be able to poke the film full of holes. As it turns out, it is both inspirational and unabashedly truthful. A few examples will illustrate what I mean.

No one can deny the major role that the brothers played in building the modern trade union movement. As the film’s publicity notes, they were leaders in innovative collective bargaining, civil rights struggles and efforts to foster global labour solidarity. As the film shows, they put their lives on the line to create the UAW. In fact, both Walter and Victor took bullets for the cause, and Walter ultimately died prematurely in a plane crash on his way to fulfill another union commitment.

Many of us know this as part of labour history and the film, narrated by acclaimed actor Martin Sheen, provides extensive commentary from a labour historian, a financial expert, a mafia scholar, other experts as well as family members to remind us of the details. Critically important is the film’s treatment of that other side of trade unionism. The part that is known as social unionism – the fight for public health care, mothers’ allowances, public pensions, equality and the long list of other items on the social justice agenda.

If any leader can claim to have tried to bring about that type of unionism in North America, it’s the Reuthers. They were on the frontlines of all the major battles – Caesar Chavez and the farm workers, women’s rights, and eventually, some may say too late, Walter came forth to condemn the Vietnam War.

This last bit is where Sasha needed to do some hard thinking about how to present his famous relatives. To his credit, he doesn’t falter. The film’s coverage of Reuther Sr.’s red-bashing and his open antipathy toward dissenters in the union are clearly revealed. His cozy relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson is depicted in an arresting cinematic style as Johnson and Reuther are shown talking to each other on the telephone. Johnson is asking Walter to back him on the Vietnam War. Walter is seen acquiescing to that request. It’s a hard-nosed bargaining session and the President wins.

Softening that negative image are the scenes of the Reuthers with Jack and Bobby Kennedy and the clips of Ted Kennedy praising the brothers in comments taped not long before his death. In a scene from one of the Kennedy era UAW conventions, the President looks out over the throng, head down. He tells them he had just met with various business organizations and he was wondering how he got to be president at all. He looked into the faces of the delegates and added “Now I remember.” The crowd roared its approval.

I was impressed with Brothers on the Line. It was a professionally made film that would appeal to audiences inside the labour family but also reach out beyond it to at least some of the general public, some of the 99 per cent. With union membership in the U.S. private sector at a low of 7 per cent, everyone knows we need to reach a lot further than unions have done lately.

Why is this film different and why is it important to see? Hasn’t it all been seen before? The films of John Sayles, Barbara Kopple and Michael Moore come to mind. We’ve had lots of labour movement videos over the years, depicting the heroes of the movement and urging that it be revitalized with soundtracks that include the powerful union anthems Which Side Are You On? or Solidarity Forever. Those songs are on this one too, but I came away with the feeling that this time they had a new resonance, a beckoning to America to take back its workplaces or at least demand a say and a role in reviving America.

Will corporate America see this film? Will the corporate billionaires, their political sycophants and their media propagandists see it and find renewed respect for working people? Chances are not good. As we speed towards a presidential election, the corporate choice is bent on undoing much of what the Reuthers struggled to create for their nation. He is even on record wanting to let the auto industry sink into oblivion in 2008…and he’s a son of Detroit. If he’s elected – and the polls close to election day were saying he was out in front by a percentage point – corporations will not need to be afraid of paying more taxes. But workers will have plenty to fear.

And that begs the most critical question of all: who will stand up for them when there are no more unions? The Reuthers knew how to make the Big Three automakers meet the workers half way. They helped shape a movement that became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (the CIO) and they saw to it that auto workers could achieve all the trappings of the middle class. Now much of that class has long abandoned its unions. They bought the media malarkey about unions having had their day. Now with that class under attack by the one per cent, where are the Reuthers who will speak truth to power?

Brothers on the Line, far from being a syrupy portrait of three working-class union heroes, is a clarion call to all workers from whatever class they think they’re from to decide which side they’re on. As I said earlier, it is inspirational and what it inspires, whatever form it decides to take, is desperately needed today.

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