Sasha Reuther's Compelling Chronicle of the American Labor Movement

Posted In:   From Issue 756   By: Robert E Martin

27th September, 2012     0

Sasha Reuther hails from a pivotal family that helped shaped an important juncture in American history that resonates strongly at the political crossroads which the United States finds itself in today. And with his new film Brothers on the Line, Reuther examines the vital local history of the 1936-37Flint Sit-Down Strike that is finally given the proper film treatment it deserves in this beautifully rendered documentary.
The film covers not just the importance of the labor movement in terms of union organization and social justice, but also chronicles the lives of those responsible: the Reuther brothers, Walter, Roy and Victor, whose efforts forever transformed the social & economic landscape of America.  Narrated by Martin Sheen, the film includes rare UAW archive footage and will be shown at The Hell's Half Mile Film Festival on Friday, October 5th at The State Theatre in Bay City at 8:30 PM. It will also be shown on Saturday, October 6th at the Delta Planetarium.
A winner of Best Documentary at the Traverse City Film Festival and the Michigan Film Awards, Reuther will be in attendance at the festival and recently spoke at length with The Review about the genesis of his significant and vital history that resonates with lessons as important today as they were when lives were laid on the line.
Review: Please provide me some background on your involvement with this documentary and how you developed the idea for pulling it together.  What are some of the objectives that you wanted to achieve with this work?
Reuther: The film is an exploration into my family legacy.  I grew up around these stories.  My grandfather, Victor, the youngest of the famed Reuther brothers trio, was a remarkable orator.  I was fascinated by his vibrant recollections of struggle, sacrifice, and success at the heart of the American worker experience. Of course, the dramatic effect was intensified by the steely glass eye, which he wore due to a failed assassination attempt in the late 1940's.  He was captivating, without a doubt.  So when I discovered that I wanted to be a storyteller myself and followed that passion through film school at NYU, the family history stuck with me.  If one of the keys to a successful nonfiction film is unique access to the material, I guess it was destined that I should jump into this project with both feet.
I was developing script notes and idea sheets for several years prior, but production on the documentary actually began in 2007.  The United Auto Workers have a tremendous audio-visual archive and after camping there for days, I started to grasp a greater framework from the stirring imagery.  My wife, Sonya, was certainly a catalyst as well, transforming a “someday” project into a reality, as she pressed the importance of getting the older generation on-camera as soon as possible. 
Brothers On The Line was my first feature documentary. Recognizing the magnitude of the historical study ahead, I quickly brought on a more experienced co-producer, Nancy Roth, who lined up the crew and helped coordinate a friends-and-family fundraiser for seed monies. Then, we were off and running.
My objectives were two-fold.  First, I was compelled to bring this little known yet crucial piece of American history to the screen.  If I hadn't grown up in the family, I honestly would not have known much of labor history.  It's just not commonly taught in high schools or only touched on briefly.  And yet it's so important to understanding the fabric of our culture, economics and politics.  
Presenting the Reuther story offered a great vehicle.  It is such a dramatic tale that, if told in a fast-paced visually stimulating manner, the film could introduce a broad swath of history that might have been lost on younger generations.  Not just the story of my family but, encompassing the essence of a successful movement to which many men and women dedicated their lives. 
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of inspiring working-class/union stories that get wide exposure.  I believe Brothers On The Line is on the cusp of achieving that goal.  We are grateful to be championed by a number of film festivals across the country and will begin Educational sales to schools and libraries in November.  Discussions continue for a TV and consumer Home Video release in 2013 as well. 
Secondly and more specifically to the script, I wanted to be sure that we delivered a reasonably balanced perspective on the Reuther legacy.  I obviously have a deep affection for my elders and their achievements.  However, they were men of power and influence who had to make tough decisions and often toe the line of support for multiple constituencies, whether their audience was of the rank-and-file or in the Oval Office.  The Reuther brothers had their detractors and I believe we provided a fair voice for a few of them in the film.   
Review: I had an uncle that got his head busted open during this period of history that also had some remarkable stories.  What do you feel is the biggest lesson to be learned from this violent and pivotal period of American history that people have either forgotten, or harbor distorted views about through revisionist interpretations of this history?
Reuther: UAW history of that period offers many lessons.  One in particular is the fact that the union was far from a simple economic pressure group.  The goals were not just for the betterment of the membership, but to lift all boats; union and non-union alike.  And they put this into action.  UAW headquarters in Detroit, known as Solidarity House, was a social movement incubator. 
They were one of the first unions to whole-heartedly support the civil rights movement, whether providing the sound system and hundreds of placards for the March on Washington or supplying bail money to free Dr. King after SNCC's non-violent civil disobedience in Birmingham. 
Vehicle emissions were only a small part of the UAW's concern for our environment, reflected in Walter Reuther's timely donation to the first Earth Day in 1970.  One of his famous quotes accentuates that mission: “What good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week's vacation if the lake you used to go to, where you've got a cottage is polluted and you can't swim in it and the kids can't play in it? What good is another $100 pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke?" 
The UAW offered aid to other organizing campaigns as well, whether it was Cesar Chavez' farmworkers in California or Local 1199 hospital workers in Charleston, SC.  So, the union had concerns and activities far beyond the negotiating table or factory picket line.  And, I believe today's UAW, under Bob King's leadership, carries on a similar call-to-action.  However, they are consumed by an urgent struggle for survival, so the emphasis is placed on concessions to management and retaining membership.
The “Coalition of Conscience” of the 1960s, which brought together labor, community, and church organizations to pool their resources in support of social causes, is a terrific example and absolutely should be revitalized today. I think there's room for the enthusiasm of the Occupy Wall Street movement to join the fray as well.  This is the kind of concerted effort needed to pressure legislators to address the ongoing economic turmoil.
Review:  What was the most challenging component involved with pulling this documentary together?
Reuther: Aside from fundraising, which is an uphill climb for any independent filmmaker, I would have to say our biggest challenge was our wealth of material.  The Reuther brothers barely came up for air, as they seemed to be involved in back-to-back actions and high-profile events from the 1930's through 1970.
And, even in the early days, the United Auto Workers had their own newspaper and education department, which was essentially documenting their activities in photos, audio recordings, and 16-mm films.  This incredible collection of materials is currently held at the Reuther Labor Library at Wayne State University, Detroit.)  What a producer friend of mine called “an embarrassment of riches” was an enormous task to research, log, story craft, and eventually edit. 
I am so thankful for our editor, Deborah Peretz.  Her experience in historical documentaries for PBS was priceless.  Together, we shaped a lengthy chronology into a fast-paced narrative that still maintained the depth and emotion of the characters.  An accomplished team of advisors, both academic and activist, reviewed several cuts of the film to be sure we maintained accuracy in our effort to be concise. The few scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor (or rather, in an Avid edit bin), I am hoping to introduce on the web or insert as DVD extras.  
Review:  Nowadays public opinion is widely varied on the topic of unions and torn behind an extreme dichotomy that views unionization as either the best thing that happened for American because of the way it advanced prosperity for the middle class, or the worst thing that happened because unions got greedy and in turn drove management to seek labor in foreign markets so they could manufacture affordable products and remain competitive.  I'd be interested to hear your views on this topic, especially insofar as we have a national election coming up in November.
Reuther: Well, in this time of economic uncertainty, people are quick to place blame on those who potentially got us into this mess; especially in an election year when it's all about finger-pointing.  Yes, certainly Labor must continue to make some sacrifices.  But it's terribly alarming to see the outright onslaught of anti-union rhetoric and actions by conservative (and even some Democrat) legislators. 
The trend of states adopting right-to-work laws and slashing collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers points to a desire to dismantle unions in general.  These are the same unions that built the middle-class in this country and likely hold the key to its revival.  It's a shame that the issue has become so politicized. The Labor movement was founded on the principles of fighting for a living wage and dignity in the workplace.  That doesn't sound Democrat or Republican-specific.  
Ideally, unions should act as 3rd party, checks-and-balances between big business and government. There could be no better time than now to support labor and have them as a partner in rectifying our national standing.  If you take unions entirely out of the picture, I can guarantee you that the disparity between rich and poor will only get worse. 
Echoing FDR, who's New Deal furnished some much-needed legal backbone to union organizing, Obama has stated, “if he was a worker, he would join a union.” Not discounting his achievements with the auto bailout and healthcare, but if the President is reelected, labor law reform and the further expansion of public works projects would put the appropriate action behind those words.   
Review:  What is the biggest misconception that you feel people harbor about this period of the Flint Sit Down Strike and the growth of the labor movement over the next several decades?
Reuther: The biggest misconception is that the union movement was guided by militancy and easily susceptible to corruption. The strategy behind the Sit-Down Strike was actually non-violent in nature.  Sitting down on the inside not only halted production, but also protected the workers from any kind repercussions or hostility that might occur on the picket line.
Continuing on through UAW history, they clearly made decisions to take the less aggressive road.  When the United States entered WWII and auto factories were converted to airplane and tank production, the union signed a “No Strike Pledge” for the duration of the war.  During Walter's presidency, he was adamant about clearing labor's house of corruption.  In the same years that the Senate Rackets Committee was investigating Hoffa's Teamsters, Reuther basically volunteered the UAW's financial records and made personal appearances in Washington to emphasize his crusade.   
Interestingly, this obsession with routing radicals, whether suspected Communists in the 1940's or dissenting rank-and-file in the late 60's, might have been part of the undoing of the greater vision, as a number of passionate, imaginative activists were caught in the undertow.  
One last misconception of note:  Do not underestimate the contribution of women in the movement. My film may highlight “brothers” in its title, but the sisters, mothers, wives, and daughters all played vital roles.  Genora Dollinger and the Women's Auxiliary Brigade helped bring a peaceful end to the Sit-Down Strike (and were willing to lay their lives on the line in the process), my grandmother, Sophie, was the first paid female organizer for the UAW, and Millie Jeffrey was a civil rights trailblazer during her time as director of the union's Women's Bureau and Community Relations Department.  Those are just a few names.  
As a companion to our film, I would recommend watching With Babies and Banners by producers Lorraine Gray with Lyn Goldfarb and Ann Bohlen. It provides an intimate slice of that important story. 


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