Celebrate Labor Day
Film review: “Brothers on the Line.” By Maurice Isserman
“Brothers on the Line.” Directed by Sasha Reuther. Produced by Sasha Reuther and Nancy Roth. Edited by Deborah Peretz. Running time: 80 mins. Release date: 2012. Distributor: The Cinema Guild (non-theatrical/educational). Purchase – $310, Classroom Rental – $125.
Some years ago, in a provocative article for The Nation magazine titled “I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night,” historian Jesse Lemisch questioned the Left’s attachment to outmoded/provincial forms of cultural expression, notably labor/radical documentary films with heroic narratives and folk-music-heavy soundtracks. “One of the chief problems in left expression,” Lemisch wrote, “centers on the question of authenticity. Can people on the left speak honestly in their various voices, or must they pretend to be somebody else and speak in a voice that they imagine, erroneously, to be mainstream American?”
Jesse had a point – it’s not 1936 anymore and never will be again (which didn’t stop me from subsequently raising my children on the same Seeger and Guthrie records with which I grew up). In any case, in recent years parts of the American Left have learned to move (and communicate) with the times – in accordance, with if not directly inspired by, Lemisch’s polemic decrying left-wing fogeyism – witness, for example, Occupy’s use of social media in promoting its cause.
But I think even Jesse might make an exception for “Brothers on the Line,” a resolutely old-fashioned and stirring labor documentary (cue Pete Seeger singing “Solidarity Forever” on the soundtrack), which nonetheless speaks to our own time and issues. First released in 2012 to critical acclaim (including a rave review in The New York Times), and picking up a half dozen film festival awards, “Brothers on the Line” will have its general DVD release (at a much reduced price) in the near future.
“Brothers on the Line” tells the story of Walter, Roy, and Victor Reuther, and their crucial role in the establishment and leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union – and through their story, that of the UAW itself, one of the powerhouses of the American labor movement during its greatest years of expansion from the 1930s through the 1960s. The film makes a persuasive and (these days) too rarely remembered argument that in its heyday the UAW proved a powerful instrument for promoting social justice in the United States as well as the material interests of its own members.
Part of what establishes this documentary’s “authenticity” is that its director and co-producer is Sasha Reuther, who in addition to a background as a professional filmmaker is the grandson of Victor Reuther. Conservatives like to boast of their commitment to “family values,” but there’s more than one set of values that can be passed down from generation to generation, and Sasha Reuther clearly believes that his family’s version is worth remembering (and emulating).
Victor Reuther, among other distinctions, was one of the founders of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) in 1973, predecessor organization to Democratic Socialists of America, and a DSA Vice Chair. He was also the only one of the three brothers still around for Sasha Reuther to interview for the film, Roy having died in 1968 and Walter in 1970. But all three men, and especially Walter, come across as vivid personalities in the film, thanks to vintage newsreel and television footage. The film is also aided by Martin Sheen’s professional narration, and the informed analysis offered by chief talking head/labor historian Kevin Boyle (whose 1995 book The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 is an indispensable source on this topic).
The Reuther boys grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia, their father a German immigrant socialist and trade union activist named Valentine Reuther who introduced his sons to Eugene Debs. The three boys moved to Detroit in the late 1920s, took jobs as assembly line workers, and learned first hand of the brutal speed-up conditions, lack of job security, and intense anti-union intimidation that prevailed in mass production industry on the eve of the Great Depression. In the 1930s they were on labor’s front lines in Detroit, Flint, River Rouge and other storied battlefields in the struggle that brought unionism to auto. And in the 1940s, following a complicated factional battle (a little too complicated for “Brothers on the Line” to do complete justice to), they emerged as the leaders of the UAW – Walter elected president in 1946, Roy appointed director of the union’s political department, and Victor the head of its educational and later its international office.
These were tough, unsentimental men (Walter and Victor both survived assassination attempts in the 1940s by unknown assailants), but they retained a strong sense of social idealism. In the 1960s the UAW was an important supporter, politically and financially, of the civil rights movement (for example, endorsing the 1963 March on Washington, which AFL-CIO president George Meany refused to do), as well as the expansion of the social welfare safety net by the Johnson administration.
Of course, not everything was a simple as a rousing folk song. The film acknowledges the tensions that led young black auto workers in the late 1960s to denounce the union for insufficient militancy and led anti-war protesters to criticize the UAW for silence on the war in Vietnam (Victor came out against the war early in the 1960s; Walter finally joined him shortly before his death in 1970). But at its height and at its best, as “Brothers on the Line” suggests, the UAW was one of the reasons why American workers in the quarter century that followed the Second World War enjoyed a greater share of the nation’s wealth, and a greater chance for social mobility, than ever before or ever since. It’s a story worth telling.
Editor’s Note: This article was submitted to the Democratic Left magazine but for reasons of space only is published as a blog post. One other article submitted to the magazine will follow, as well as articles that also appear in the printed version.
Maurice Isserman is a historian at Hamilton College and the author of The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington.