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01/2006 UAW President Bathed in Applause at the AIA Centennial Convention

by Andrew Brodie Smith

In the spirit of celebration and with great expectancy, members of the AIA gathered for their Centennial Convention at the Sheraton Park Hotel in the leafy Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It was the spring of 1957, and the occasion couldn’t have been more auspicious. Membership in the Institute had been surging since WWII, and the construction industry was booming throughout the U.S. Architects had plenty of work and the Institute’s coffers were full. There was much to honor in the Institute’s illustrious past, and the future looked bright.

AIA President Leon Chatelain read a letter to the assembled from President Eisenhower congratulating the Institute on its 100-year anniversary. Vice President Richard Nixon sent a telegram, too. The Institute had gathered a group of illustrious non-architect speakers and guests for the occasion, unrivaled since the time, nearly 50 years earlier, when President Theodore Roosevelt made an appearance at a ceremony honoring Augustus Saint-Gaudens held as part of the AIA’s 1908 Convention.

Bennet Cerf, leading literary light of New York and the publisher of Random House, gave an uproariously funny address about the current state of the publishing industry. Dr. Howard Mitchell, conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, prepared a special program of music, “Music and Architecture in the Environment of Man,” that the NSO performed. Other speakers included Time, Inc.’s editor in chief Henry R. Luce and actress Lillian Gish. David Brinkley, later to become an Honorary AIA member, was on hand to cover the event for NBC television. The Centennial Convention was a true celebration of The Institute in particular and American arts in general.

UAW President Reuther raises a red flag
Amidst the celebration walked in Walter P. Reuther, the feisty and world-renowned president of the United Auto Workers and leading figure in the AFL-CIO merger. He had been invited to speak to the convention as part of a panel called “The New World of Economics.” Reuther was to share the dais with Emerson P. Schmidt of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and James Ashely, public relations director for the glass company Libbey-Owens-Ford. The panel was to be moderated by former Pepsodent president-turned-architect Charles Luckman.

Ever the social crusader, Reuther wasn’t of the mind to throw bouquets at the Institute in honor of its 100 years. After all, that was not why he had been invited. His address came more in the way of a challenge than a celebration.

“It is not a lack of economic resources,” he said, “or a lack of technical competence. It is a lack of moral courage and will to commit our resources to build decent neighborhoods where people can grow up in the kind of environment, in the kind of wholesome neighborhoods so that they can enjoy the good life and they can develop into better and more useful citizens … The people of the world will judge America as we need to judge ourselves—not by our economic wealth but by the sense of social and moral responsibility by which we are able to equate material wealth with human values, by which we are able to translate technical progress into human progress, into human happiness, into human dignity.”

To the extent that the AIA had long been committed to the improvement of the built environment for all Americans regardless of class, Reuther was preaching to the choir. However, he hadn’t accepted the invitation only to air his social vision to a gathering of architects. He likely had something more specific in mind. The year before, the UAW had run afoul of the AIA. The union had for some time been organizing workers at the Kohler Company—a well-known Wisconsin plumbing-fixtures firm with a storied history of labor-relations strife.

Origins of the controversy
UAW-CIO Local 833, the local union active at Kohler, got the idea to send letters to architects around the country asking them to boycott the company’s products in support of the striking workers. Members of the Institute received the letters and alerted the national office of the campaign. The AIA was an organization that long considered itself progressive on the question of labor. It had maintained an open and cooperative dialogue with building and allied trades and saw the cause of labor as not inimical to the overall health of the construction industry.

The brand new AFL-CIO headquarters on 16th Street in Washington stood as further testament to the good relations between the Institute and organized labor, designed as it was by Ralph Walker, beloved former president of the Institute and the recipient of that year’s AIA Centennial Gold Medal. But, clearly, the AIA could not countenance the kind of interference with the architect/client relationship that the efforts of Local 833 at Kohler represented.

To ask an architect not to specify a particular brand of building product would be like asking physicians not to dispense a much-needed medication. Alarmed, AIA Executive Director Edmund Purves and AIA President George Bain Cummings called a meeting with Richard Gray, president of the AFL Building and Construction Trades Department, and Emil Mazy, UAW secretary. In the meeting, the union leaders agreed to ask Local 833 to cease its letter writing campaign.

The story would have ended there if not for the fact that union leaflets regarding the labor problems at the Kohler plant had mysteriously appeared on all the chairs in the ballroom prior to the panel presentation. Reuther denied any involvement in the placing of the literature. Hotel management couldn’t explain its presence either. The pamphlets were already on the chairs when the ballroom was opened at seven in the morning. Moreover, Reuther made a statement during his address to the Institute meant deliberately to force the issue.

“We in the labor movement,” he said, “believe that every child made in the image of God has the right to grow limited only by the capacity that God gave each child to grow. I say there’s something wrong with the basic moral fiber of a free society that is more concerned with the condition of its plumbing than with the adequacy of its educational system.”

“The condition of its plumbing”
Certainly a man of Reuther’s political stripe and sophistication wasn’t arguing against the importance of modern sanitation. There was only one likely interpretation: the UAW president was taking a veiled dig at the AIA regarding its response to the Kohler boycott efforts. The thought must have been running through the minds of almost every architect in attendance.

The panel’s question-and-answer period was to be handled via hand-written questions submitted from the audience. Moderator Luckman read the fifth question: “Mr. Reuther, how does the secondary boycott raise the moral and spiritual values that you talk about?” Someone had taken the bait.

Reuther pounced. “I presume the reference to secondary boycott refers to the current Kohler strike, and I am sure that all of you in your professional activities have had some contact with this problem.” He proceeded to methodically lay out the union’s case against Kohler, beginning with the bloody events of 1934 when Kohler’s company guards opened fire on striking and rioting workers, killing 2 and wounding more than 30.

He brought up the problem of silicosis and other workers’ health problems at the factory. He mentioned the company’s infamous intransigence, refusing to accept a proposal for arbitration even from Wisconsin Governor Walter Kohler Jr.—owner Herbert Kohler Sr.’s own nephew. He brought up Kohler’s admission before the Wisconsin State Mediation Board that the company still maintained a private arsenal of weapons despite the tragedy of some 20 years earlier.

Reuther could barely contain his indignation: “This is a moral question, to persuade people to not use Kohler fixtures … We say so long as this company is going to act irresponsibly and immorally, we are going to do everything we can to persuade people not to use Kohler fixtures so that we can protect the economic interest and well being of the workers who are merely asking for their measure of economic and social justice.”

The audience applauded as Reuther finished. Letter-writing campaign or no, the UAW president had won the day, successfully and dramatically articulating his union’s position to a captive ballroom filled with the most influential architects in the country.

Civil rights make their AIA-convention premiere
The labor problems at Kohler aside, Reuther’s address to the AIA is notable for another reason. Those paying careful attention would have heard the UAW president use the term “civil rights”—likely the first public mention of the issue at an AIA national convention. And in this regard, Reuther sounded a note that would resonate for decades to come both at the Institute and in American society as a whole.

What happened at Kohler? It took another eight years, one of the longest strikes in UAW’s history, and among the most protracted cases before the National Labor Relations Board, but the UAW eventually prevailed. Kohler would recognize the union and agreed to pay workers $3,000,000 in back pay and another $1,500,000 in restored pension rights. As to whether any of the architects in attendance that morning during Reuther’s speech furthered the UAW’s cause by limiting their specification of Kohler products, that can only be a matter of conjecture.

A final note
In 1970, The AIA invited Reuther once more to address its Convention. He was to give the prestigious Purves Memorial Lecture. Tragically, this command performance was never to occur, as a month before the event, Reuther and his wife were killed in a plane crash en route to inspect the UAW’s new education center at Black Lake, Michigan. The AIA lost one of it own aboard the downed jet also: Oscar Stonorov, an Institute Fellow and the center’s architect. An AIA memo memorializing the union leader said, “many of the ideals and policies he championed came to pass and are now accepted as part of the American Way of Life with hardly a ripple of opposition or concern. We have lost a voice of social concern and, yes, professional responsibility.” Upon his death, the Board of Directors of The AIA established a scholarship for disadvantaged students in his memory.

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 1877-1886: Westward and Upward
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 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
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 1987-1996 Technology, Diversity, and Expansion

Andrew Smith is the contract researcher/archivist for AIA150.

Lillian Gish with fellow Government and the Arts panel speakers Howard Mitchell, left, and Leo Friedlander.

A young David Brinkley, left, covered the AIA Centennial Convention for NBC. To his left are Newsweek reporter Lee Campbell, an unidentified woman, and former Pepsodent president-turned-architect Charles Luckman.

UAW President Walter Reuther may have orchestrated his scathing tirade to the 1957 AIA conventioneers, but he got an ovation nonetheless for his community-values message.

“The New World of Economics” panel featured, from left, James Ashley, public relations director for Libbey-Owens-Ford, Emerson Schmidt of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Moderator Luckman, and Reuther.

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