Today my father would be 100 years old if he was still alive and it just seemed appropriate to post this info about Walter Ruther because it exemplifies what I learned from my dad. Luther (Duke) Cunningham was a union organizer and CIO member during the height of the American union movement. Although he settled into a different life by the time I was born, union and political talk was pervasive in our house. I learned about the struggles of Reuther’s United Auto Workers, the United Mine Workers, United Steel Workers, as well as the unionizing of the agricultural workers that my dad was a part of making happen. Our family album included pictures of my dad and others in the Fruit Tobacco Agriculture & Allied Workers (FTA) union signing their union contract with growers after a long hard fought battle for union recognition for packing shed workers. The experience made me honored to be among the working class.
I am proud to say that my dad spent, even risked, his life helping the weak. Like Reuther, he got no greater satisfaction than doing so. However he was quick to point out that the real reward was the feeling of equality and empowerment that a successful union drive or political campaign created in him and the others who made it happen. He was particularly keen on believing that you could only help or protect the weak by helping them realize that they were equals to whomever oppressed them, and that only through their own empowerment and collective risk could they ever actually be free from their oppression. That is what unions are supposed to be about. Both my dad and Walther Reuther knew that.
For those who don’t know about Walter Reuther, there is a lot of information about him on the web. Reuther was a leader in the United Auto Workers, as well as head of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) when it merged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to create the AFLCIO that still exists today.
If you don’t know about my dad, you won’t find information on the web about him or thousands of others like him who were instrument in organizing the American union movement. Sometimes the focus on folks like Reuther who move through the ranks to prominent leadership roles, overshadows the vital contribution that the everyday man and woman makes. I am lucky to have been raised by an average man who joined with other average men and women to make one heck of a difference in their corner of the world.
My dad was part of the migrant workers who journeyed west during the Dustbowl Era. Finding work as one of the “elite” of agriculture workers, my dad soon connected with the widespread efforts devoted to unionizing workers in order to get a fair share of what they produced. He became the head of his local FTA in California and represented the packing shed workers against the intolerable conditions in the industry that feeds the world.
If there is a heaven, I am sure my dad is still raising hell.