DETROIT – Victor Reuther, one of the last of the activists who helped mold the United Auto Workers into a powerful union, has died at 92.

Reuther, who had been living in a hospice in the Washington area, died Thursday afternoon.

Reuther was a passionate believer in workers rights who was credited with exhorting the workers during a watershed union sit-down strike in 1937 at a General Motors plant in Flint, Mich.

“The entire UAW community is saddened by the loss of Victor Reuther, a pioneer of our union whose passion for social justice and talent as an orator energized and mobilized early sit-down strikers,” UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in a statement.

Reuther and his brothers, Roy and Walter, moved from West Virginia to Detroit in the 1930s and began organizing assembly line workers. Victor Reuther worked briefly on an assembly line in 1936 at the Kelsey Hayes Wheel Co. plant in Detroit as a way to help organize the workers, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of Southern California at Santa Barbara and the author of a book on Walter Reuther. Victor Reuther went on to lead the UAW’s education department and, in 1955, was appointed director of the union’s international affairs department.

While Walter Reuther became UAW president, Victor Reuther was not involved in collective bargaining but was the better orator of the two, Lichtenstein said.

“Walter sometimes called him the deacon – which was a way of saying he had firmly held opinions. Victor and his brother were very close. Victor was more of an intellectual and somewhat to the left of his brother. But it wasn’t a huge gap,” Lichtenstein said.

Walter and Victor Reuther were victims of assassination attempts; each barely survived a shotgun attack that was never solved. In 1949, Victor Reuther was sitting in his Detroit home when a shotgun blast fired through a window hit him in the face, throat and shoulder.

Victor Reuther remained active in labor and social issues for 30 years. Later UAW leaders sometimes were irked at him for aligning with reform union movements.

Ken Paff, national organizer for the dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union, based in Detroit, said Victor Reuther was ahead of his time on such issues as the need for more women in the union leadership. “He would speak to our group. People would expect him to speak about the ‘30s and he may do a little of that. But he wanted to talk about the need to open up the labor movement,” Paff said.

“This was a man who lost his eye. He did not look at those days as a lovely time.”

Reuther retired from the UAW in 1972 and received its Social Justice Award, the union’s highest honor. He wrote a memoir, “The Brothers Reuther,” a lively account about the American labor movement.

Walter Reuther died in a plane crash in northern Michigan in 1970.

In a July 2003 Free Press profile, Victor Reuther was shown as still active, leading weekly discussions of current events, such as the war in Iraq, at a Washington area nursing home.

Besides his brothers, he was preceded in death by his wife, Sophie, the first female organizer for the UAW. He is survived by a sister, two children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, the UAW said.

A memorial service will be held in Washington. Victor Reuther will be cremated and his ashes will be placed at the UAW’s education center in Black Lake in northern Michigan, along with those of his wife and brothers, the union told the Associated Press.

(c) 2004, Detroit Free Press.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-06-04-04 2104EDT

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