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A book about people putting their lives and livelihoods on the line

Jack Lessenberry

Unions don’t represent as many workers as they used to, and we are increasingly ignorant of labor history, though it includes some of the most fascinating episodes in Michigan’s glorious past.

But for those who do care, one of the great unsolved Michigan mysteries is the attempted assassination of Walter Reuther, the legendary leader of the United Auto Workers’ union.

Reuther barely survived a shotgun blast through his kitchen window one spring night in 1948. His brother and fellow union leader Victor got a blast of his own a year later, and lost an eye.

Bob Morris, who worked in state government for more than 30 years, has more reason to be curious than most. His father, Ken Morris, was also an early member of the UAW, who worked side-by-side with giants like Reuther and Emil Mazey.

Ken started his career at the old Briggs Manufacturing Company, one of the worst places to work in Detroit. One night two years before Walter Reuther was shot, he was savagely beaten and left for dead. None of these crimes was ever solved.

But now his son has completed a fascinating book on his father and the early history of the auto workers' union. Built in Detroit: A Story of the UAW, a Company, and a Gangster, strongly hints at the culprit in each case: Disgruntled and corrupt union and management officials, working with a maverick gangster named Santo Perrone.

There is no question that Perrone was a frighteningly despicable creature, described by one police detective as an extortion artist who had gotten rich on fear.

In the end, other mobsters regarded him as so out of control they evidently blew him up. In his book, Morris doesn’t exactly produce a smoking gun, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that Perrone, Briggs management, and a former UAW official named Melvin Bishop may have been behind the violence.

In any event, if you have a Michigan history buff who needs a holiday present, check it out. Former Attorney General Frank Kelley said:

It is the best book on the history of the UAW that he’s ever read. The author told me that his father, who died six years ago, said little about these events growing up.

The kids knew dad had been beaten up once, and the kids knew, though they weren’t supposed to, that he kept a gun for protection in his sock drawer.

Yet much of this was a mystery to Ken till he started doing the research. He told me the book had a moral, that good things can happen when people stand up for their rights.

Then he paused.

“This is a book about people – including my father – putting their lives and livelihoods on the line. I’ve never done that,” he said with a touch of wonder, “but these people did.”

Unions aren’t what they used to be, and I asked Bob Morris if there was still hope for the labor movement. He hesitated, and then said,

“I’ve got to hope that there is hope. I have to wonder what will happen if there isn’t a labor movement, or something like it.”

Whatever your politics, this book is well worth a read.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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