It is fitting, on International Workers' Day, to pay tribute to Walter Reuther.
Reuther's biographer, Nelson Lichtenstein (The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor, Basic Books, 1995) could have been referring to Walter Reuther's civil rights, social justice, and anti-war work as much as to his efforts on behalf of working people. And given that Walter Reuther, and especially his brother Victor, were very active internationally, perhaps they were also the most dangerous men in the world?
Less well known are the Reuther brothers' work for the environment and against nuclear risks.
Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers (UAW) took one of the very first high profile stands against nuclear power in the early 1960s, when it -- alas unsuccessfully, unfortunately -- attempted to stop the construction and operation of the Fermi 1 experimental plutonium breeder reactor in Monroe County, MI, just 25 miles south of Detroit. Between the Detroit and Toledo areas, some 500,000 UAW members lived within 50 miles of the big nuclear experiment on the Great Lakes shoreline. Even though the UAW did not prevail in its lawsuit against the Atomic Energy Commission at the U.S. Supreme Court (by a 7 to 2 vote), Reuther and the UAW would be proven right just a few years later. On Oct. 5, 1966, "We Almost Lost Detroit" (the title of John G. Fuller's iconic book, as well as Gil Scott Heron's ballad) when the Fermi 1 reactor core partially melted down. But it came precariously close to turning out much worse than it did.
Before Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech, the business plan for Fermi 1 was to make money by selling weapons-grade plutonium to the AEC for the US nuclear arsenal. Only after Eisenhower's speech, did the companies behind Fermi 1 change the plan to primarily electricity sales, as well as plutonium "recycle" for commercial reactor fuel fabrication.
Sasha Reuther, the grandson of Walter's younger brother Victor, published a documentary film in 2012 entitled "Brothers on the Line." Towards the very end of the film, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy is quoted as saying that Walter Reuther was green before it was even invented.
In Victor Reuther's 1976 memoir The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston), he wrote:
"In 1964, Walter sponsored a UAW resolution stating that 'in the age of thermonuclear weapons and missile delivery' disarmament is absolutely essential." (page 358, emphasis added)