As the national debate over universal health care continues, it is instructive to look back to 1950. The “Treaty of Detroit,” signed that year, represents a pivotal moment in the offering of full medical benefits to the American worker.
Under Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers (UAW) evolved the negotiating practice of pattern bargaining with the Big Three. In essence, the UAW would pick a strike target among Ford, Chrysler and General Motors (GM) during each negotiating year. The other two companies would match the concessions won by the UAW from the strike target and avert costly strikes at their own factories.
In 1950, the UAW pattern bargaining target was Ford, and among the major issues were pensions and full medical benefits. Ford quickly settled, and, after a 104 day strike, Chrysler agreed as well. GM followed suite. In what was hailed as the “Treaty of Detroit,” all autoworkers at the three carmakers would receive full pensions and full medical care. The trickle down effect was felt across the United States, as companies in the automotive and other industries followed the trend. For the first time, large segments of workers in the United States would have affordable health care, provided through their companies. Individuals and families who couldn’t afford to see a doctor, or for whom a medical emergency was an economic disaster of epic proportions, were now part and parcel of the growing health care system.
Reuther himself had been forced to use the existing health care system in extreme fashion. He had been the victim of an assassination attempt in his house in northwest Detroit on April 20, 1948. After returning home after a late UAW meeting, Reuther was hit by a shotgun blast through the kitchen window as he was opening the family refrigerator. Wounded in the chest and right arm, Reuther suffered a long process of recovery and knew from first-hand experience the costs associated with the extremes of medical care. No doubt this played heavily on his mind as he negotiated the Treaty of Detroit.
For much more about Walter Reuther, visit the Walter P. Reuther Library. Of particular interest is No Greater Calling: The Life of Walter P. Reuther. It was developed to commemorate his 100th birthday and also has text and even audio of speeches, photos and more.