BOOK REVIEW / Transatlantic thoughts on the state of the union: Walter Reuther - Anthony Carew: Manchester, pounds 35

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FORGET the hype about Jimmy Hoffa: Walter Reuther was the most important American union leader of the century. Unlike Hoffa, Reuther stayed honest, built links with the international labour movement and steered clear of mobsters.

Born into a radical family (by the age of 12 he had visited the socialist leader Eugene V Debs in prison), Reuther and his brother Victor worked in the Soviet Union in the Thirties and witnessed German Nazism at first hand. The brothers took their political vocations seriously, agreeing at an early age to 'forswear marriage so as not to be encumbered in a life's work they anticipated would be hard'.

Although Walter broke the vow, he remained puritanical throughout his career, and 'neither smoked, drank, nor used profane language'. Hoffa may have been more colourful, but he was never this dedicated.

Reuther's rise in the United Automobile Workers Union proved crucial for the American war effort. Here was a union leader prepared to work in co-operation with government and the large auto employers. He introduced the idea that pay increases from General Motors should be decided on the company's ability to pay, and that the cost increases should not be passed on to car-buyers. Profits, he suggested, should be split equally between the employers on the one hand and the consumers and workers on the other. 'Our basic philosophy towards the employers . . . is that we have a great deal more in common than we have in conflict,' he said.

Reuther's readiness to conciliate with employers was often read as a sign of weakness by both industrialists and union members, but Reuther was no lackey: he pushed through a series of worker benefits despite deep suspicion of the left.

Carew's study of Reuther is excellently researched and documented. He traces the union leader's rise through factionalism in Detroit, his moderate but successful stand against Chrysler, Ford and the other auto moguls, and the links he forged with international labour movements.

The British press dubbed the 1957 TUC conference at Blackpool 'The Walter Reuther Congress'. The Sunday Times claimed he 'spoke like a prophet', and Harold Wilson would later credit Reuther for the White Heat of Technology idea. His influence at home grew steadily, too, and Reuther's progressive philosophy made him a Kennedy confidant.

Anthony Carew brilliantly explores Reuther's many contradictions, some of which were exposed during the Sixties. He spoke at the civil rights march on Washington in 1963, at a time when most union leaders did not sympathise with black aspirations; and he slipped money to radical student organisations. But he remained in favour of the Vietnam War until just before his death in 1970, and was unable to rid his own union of racial discrimination.

His bitter rivalry with George Meany, head of America's largest union organisation, split the US left as much an any in-fighting in the Democratic Party. When Reuther eventually led his UAW out of Meany's American Federation of Labour / Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL/CIO) movement in 1968, he was forced into an alliance with others, such as Hoffa's old outfit, the Teamsters union.

Carew traces Reuther's career in impressive detail, and unearths some genuinely valuable nuggets, although Reuther's private life appears so boring that a hint of any scandal would have been welcome.

Although Barry Goldwater declared in 1958 that 'Walter Reuther and the UAW are a more dangerous menace than the sputnik or anything Russia might do,' his public profile remained mild-mannered and reasonable. He was not, however, afraid of confrontation, had suffered terrific beatings at the hands of strike-breakers, and in 1948 was shot and wounded for his UAW activities.

Carew's is a generally sympathetic portrait: he suggests that Reuther didn't know that money he sent to non-Communist unions in Europe was from CIA funds. It's unlikely that there will ever be a Hoffa-style Hollywood blockbuster made about the honest, boring Reuther, but no union leader has ever made such an impact on the American way of life.