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A Plane Mystery Filmmaker chronicles family and union strife in Brothers on the Line

Patrick Sullivan - July 25th, 2011
A Plane Mystery: Filmmaker chronicles family and union strife in Brothers on the Line
By Patrick Sullivan
For one filmmaker, this year’s journey to Northern Michigan could be a
little bit like a return to the scene of a crime.
At least a possible crime that might have happened to his family 40 years
ago.
In addition to a string of victories for workers, unions and civil rights,
the Reuther family also notched a slew of assassination attempts during
the 20th Century.
It’s possible one of those attempts -- this one would have been a
successful one -- might have occurred right here in Northern Michigan.
Labor leader Walter Reuther and five others died when a chartered Lear jet
made a dangerously low approach during an attempted landing in bad weather
at the Pellston Regional Airport on the night of May 9, 1970. The airplane
clipped some trees a couple of miles from the runway and crashed.
Reuther, his wife, a friend and a bodyguard were headed to the UAW
Education Center at Black Lake near Cheboygan. The circumstances of the
crash were somewhat suspicious.
Reuther’s great-nephew, Sasha Reuther, will be in town for the Traverse
City Film Festival for two screenings of his documentary film, Brothers on
the Line.
The film chronicles how Walter Reuther, Sasha’s grandfather Victor Reuther
and Roy Reuther battled to increase wages and improve working conditions
for auto workers and improved life for all laborers in the 20th Century.

ONE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Along the way, the Reuther family made a lot of enemies.
Walter Ruether, president of the UAW from 1946 until his death in 1970,
grew the UAW into one of the most powerful organizations in the world and
spent his life in pursuit of civil rights and social justice.
Reuther moved to Detroit in 1927 from West Virginia and worked at the Ford
Motor Company.
He became nationally known in 1936 after the “Battle of the Overpass,” a
protest at the Ford River Rouge plant when he and other labor leaders were
attacked by Ford enforcers.
Two years later an assassin fired shots through Reuther’s kitchen window,
shattering his right arm. Police investigated the attack but no one was
ever brought to justice.
While he spent much of his life fighting for unions, which were not always
friendly to minorities, Walter Reuther also distinguished himself as a
civil rights leader.
Walter Reuther stood next to Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights
leader led the March on Washington in 1963 and delivered his famous “I
have a dream” speech.

ANOTHER ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Victor Reuther made a name for himself during the Flint sit-down strikes
of 1937 when workers took over a plant, grinding General Motors to a halt.
Victor Reuther manned a sound truck, encouraging striking workers to stand
firm as they endured increasingly difficult conditions and were denied
food and electricity.
The strike led to the “Battle of the Running Bulls” after police attacked
the strikers, injuring 13, and the workers responded with home-made
slingshots.
In 1949 Reuther was reading a newspaper in his living room when a shotgun
blast tore through his home, hitting him. Victor Reuther lost his right
eye.
Like the attack on his brother 11 years earlier, this case was also closed
without an arrest.
After that assassination attempt, Victor Ruether moved to Paris and then
in 1954 to Washington D.C.
Victor Reuther served as the UAW education director and then the union’s
international director. He died in 2004 at the age of 92.

A THIRD ATTEMPT?
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause of the
Pellston crash to be a combination of the pilot’s inability to judge the
airplane’s altitude during a nighttime landing and a faulty altimeter.
That’s similar to the cause of an airplane mishap at Dulles International
Airport a year and a half earlier that could have killed Walter and Victor
Reuther.
In that case, the airplane made a hard landing and Sasha Reuther said his
grandfather wrote in his memoir that he believed it was the result of a
bad altimeter.
Some have speculated the crash was caused after someone tampered with the
altimeter.
Sasha Reuther wishes the crash had been more thoroughly investigated to
determine whether there might have been foul play, but he is inclined to
believe the crash was an accident.
In the course of making the film, Sasha Reuther interviewed a volunteer
firefighter who responded to the Reuther crash who said he remembered
extremely bad weather that night.
“Hearing his part of the story, and I’m not really a conspiracy theorist,
I began to think that it sounds a little bit more and more like a terrible
accident,” Reuther said. “Of course, Walter had his enemies, but it’s
difficult, this far removed from it, to feel like there was enough
evidence at the time to say, yes, there was tampering and this and that.”
 
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