On March 7, 1932, several thousand unemployed workers marched toward Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Upon reaching the complex, the city police and Ford’s armed guards, very similar entities, opened fire on the marchers, killing five and wounding more than 60.
Henry Ford still has an international reputation for good labor management. This is based entirely upon his 1914 decision to pay his workers $5 a day, the equivalent of about $113 today. That was indeed pretty impressive, doubling his workers’ wages. Here’s the problem though–he didn’t raise that wage for well over a decade. Moreover, Ford was a small-minded mind and demanded nearly complete control over his workers’ lives through his Social Department and its 50 investigators that detailed workers’ everyday lives to make sure they lived up to Ford’s moral standards. Ford also hated unions. He hired Harry Bennett, a former boxer, to bust unions and beat organizers, which Bennett and his men did with extreme prejudice, most famously at the Battle of the Overpass in 1937, when Bennett’s men brutally beat United Auto Workers leaders including Walter Reuther. So when the Great Depression began in 1929, Ford had no patience for those who would argue he had a responsibility for his workers.
As the Depression deepened, the auto companies laid off thousands of workers. Between 1929 and 1932, automobile production fell by 75%. For those still working, wages dropped by 37%. The resulting unemployment led to depression and suicide. There were 113 suicides in Detroit in 1927, 568 in 1931. By 1932, there were 400,000 unemployed people in Michigan, most of them in the Detroit area. Dave Moore remembered life in Detroit at the time:
I hope you never will witness what people went through. People would go down to the old Eastern Market and pick up half-rotten white potatoes or sweet potatoes, lettuce and cabbage, whatever the farmers were throwing away. That was the source of food for many people, picking up a half-rotten banana or a half-rotten potato, any kind of half-rotten vegetables, to bring home so your mama could make a meal out of it. I came from a family of seven boys and two girls, and the older boys had to leave home. Whatever food there was, was left for the younger ones. David Moore, and a lot of other David Moore’s went very hungry at that time. But we tried to make it possible for our moms and dads and brothers and sisters to eat. We’d go out and try to salvage whatever we could from the stores and street corners, wherever different kinds of food – discarded vegetables and meat – had been thrown out because they couldn’t sell it. That’s how we got together a meal for ourselves.
The unemployed began organizing, with help of the Communist Party that was organizing the unemployed across the United States. Two communist-led groups, the Detroit Unemployed Council and the Auto, Aircraft, and Vehicle Workers of America decided on a march of the unemployed from Detroit to the River Rouge complex in Dearborn to present petitions demanding jobs. Focusing attention on the Ford Motor Company seemed an ideal way to galvanize support for unemployment relief at one of the worst times in American history.
The march had between 3000 and 5000 workers and was nonviolent. Workers held placards demanding jobs and there were some feisty speeches, but nothing more threatening than that. The workers marched to the Dearborn city limits but when they arrived, the sympathetic government of Detroit mayor and future Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy disappeared, to be replaced by the Ford dominated Dearborn police. Ford completely controlled Dearborn. The city government, police, and fire fighters answered directly to Henry Ford. And they were determined to keep the communists and the unemployed out of the Ford fiefdom.
Upon reaching the city limits, the Dearborn police sprayed tear gas at the marchers and beat them with their clubs. The crowd fled and the nonviolence turned into self-defense, with marchers throwing stones at the police to fight back against police violence. The police retreated and the marchers regrouped. A mile later, nearing the River Rouge gates, the Dearborn Fire Department sprayed fire hoses upon the marchers on what was one of the winter’s coldest days. The police and Ford security guards began firing into the crowd. 3 worker–Joe York, Coleman Leny, and Joe DeBlasio–were killed and 22 wounded.
At this point, the organizers called off the march and began retreating. But then Harry Bennett, who was as bloodthirsty an anti-union thug as anyone could imagine, pulled up in his car and opened fire on the crowd personally. People began throwing rocks at his car and injured him. The police then opened fire with a machine gun, killing a fourth worker by the name of Joe Bussell. A fifth, Curtis Williams, an African-American, died of his wounds a month later.
That night, the forces of reaction kicked into high gear. The wounded marchers were chained to their hospital beds. Communist offices were raided in Detroit. A nationwide manhunt began for CPUSA leader William Z. Foster. There were no legal consequences for Harry Bennett, any of his thugs, or the Dearborn police. Detroit newspapers blamed the whole thing on the communists, saying they had opened fire. The communists tried to blame Frank Murphy along with everyone else, but that didn’t stick with Detroit workers. Even the AFL, anti-communist as ever, condemned the murder of workers.
A funeral march of up to 70,000 people laid the 4 murdered workers to rest, side by side. When Williams died, the cemetery would not allow an African-American to be buried there. Have to keep the color line in death as in life after all. So instead his ashes were dropped over the River Rouge plant from an airplane.
Here’s an interesting little film produced in 1932 about the incident. The first 2 minutes show a march in February in Detroit. Then it gets to footage of the repression in Dearborn.
Ford would continue his harsh anti-union stance. Long after General Motors and Chrysler signed contracts with the United Auto Workers, Ford resisted, finally relenting only in 1941.
This is the 54th post in the series. The rest are archived here.