Home / General / This Day in Labor History: March 7, 1932

This Day in Labor History: March 7, 1932


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.

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  • cpinva

    ford raising worker’s pay to $5 a day wasn’t done out of any altruistic motives, it was strictly a business move. with that pay, ford workers would be able to afford to buy the low priced of the products they produced, thus becoming rolling advertisments for the ford company. ford was the rockefeller of the automotive industry, who’s only interest was whatever was best for him, and the hell with anyone else. he had a strong calvinist streak, assuming that god had personally favored him, as shown by his material good fortune.

    • rea

      Well, yeah, Ford was not altruist, but at least he understood that a proserous workforce is good for business, unlike a lot of our current capitalist lords The rich treating the rest of us like animals is a bit more tolerable when they are better at animal husbandry.

      • DrDick

        While a smart fascist plutocrat is better than a stupid fascist plutocrat, he is still a fascist plutocrat.

        • I grew up w my grandparents and my mom. My grandfather worked at Ford through much of the 30’s. He was apparently a very good metal lathe operator; he both retired with all his digits and he was asked to go to the USSR to help set up the tractor factor Ford built there. [In classic Irish mother way, he didn’t go because his mother forbade it.]

          Anyway, he’d worked for Ford for several years and then he got appendicitis. He had to get it removed, which meant he wasn’t able to work. So–and this was shortly before the UAW organized the Rouge Plant, which happened in 1941– he was fired.

          I joke that I was 7 or 8 before I realized Ford’s first name was simply “Henry,” and that contrary to what I’d come to believe, his real name was not what he was referred to in our household, “That Son of a Bitch Henry Ford.”

    • montag

      Actually, that was the public reason given by Ford. It was much more pragmatic–and crueler–than that.

      In 1911, Ford spent much of the year visiting other businesses to see how they were run because he wanted a drastic increase in production–the margin on his cars was too small, to his mind, so he had to make more of them to sell more. The businesses with which he was most impressed were slaughterhouses–the truly awful sweatshops of the day.

      So, he completely revamped his line to reduce tasks to the simplest routines possible at the time and then sped up the line much more than it had been. The work was brutal and extremely repetitive, so injuries were frequent. As a result, in the year prior to his $5/day announcement, turnover at River Rouge was 380%. The average employee tenure was about 85 days.

      Rather than reassess his changes to the line, he offered higher pay. And to compensate for that cost, he sped up the line even more.

      • Uncle Kvetch

        An interesting (and depressing) clarification, montag…thanks.

        • montag

          Institutional memory of that time is one of the reasons why line rates are such a thorny issue with the unions. Even after the UAW had become a fixture, and contract negotiations were an accepted part of the business, Ford continued to secretly diddle with the line rates. In the late `70s, they had a secret master “bump” button in the big plants that edged up the line rate imperceptibly, week by week. By the time the union caught them at it, they were getting 3000 cars a week over the established contract rate. And, even though the UAW caught them red-handed, they still had to take the matter to the NLRB for resolution.

      • Barry

        And from what I’ve heard, the big problem with a straight-up assembly line is that if you have 100 stations, but only 90 people, you’re in big trouble. With ordinary gang labor, 90% attendance results in 90% production.

        So Ford offered very high wages so that people would stick with the jobs. If you are offering far higher wages than other employers, getting fired is a serious problem.

  • DrDick

    But remember all those wonderful things employers gave to workers out of the goodness of their hearts that Brad and the other Libertarians are always telling us about?

  • BobS

    Thank you for this series.
    My uncle was present at both the River Rouge Massacre and the Battle of the Overpass. I grew up thinking ‘goddamned bastard’ was Bennett’s first name since I never heard him mentioned without that identifier.
    My uncle was my grandma’s brother, and one of their sisters was married to my uncle’s wife’s brother, who himself was somewhat of a fascist- I always took it for granted that if he’d have remained in Italy during the Mussolini years, he’d have been one of his Blackshirts. There were some pretty animated conservations between my two uncles that frequently seemed on the verge of fistfighting.

  • Hogan

    Henry Ford still has an international reputation for good labor management.

    Really? I know he’s known as an extreme (even psychotic) example of the Taylorite “scientific management” school, but I’m not sure it’s still generally agreed that that’s good.

    • Hogan

      Tag fail.

  • Bruce Vail

    There’s also a very interesting and convoluted tale about Ford and black workers.

    In the early days of the industry, many of the Detroit auto plants would not hire blacks at all, but Ford did. Granted, the jobs were the hardest, dirtiest jobs at the plant, and there was segregation, but Ford became known throughout the country as a company that would hire black men and pay a living wage.

    I’m told that Ford cars are preferred by consumers in many African-American communities to this day, based on the old word-of-mouth that Ford was a black-friendly company.

    • LeeEsq

      Likewise, Jewish-Americans would not buy Ford cars because of Ford’s Jew-hatred. Jewish-Americans of the time purchased Buicks as the car of choice.

      • wengler

        Hitler had a picture of Ford in his office. They were bros. Must’ve broken Henry’s evil old heart when Hitler declared war on the US.

  • LeeEsq

    Lots of employers attempted to control their employee’s activities outside of work, its one of the less known, among the masses, aspects of American laborer history. Pullman and Ford were the most infamous because they went to the highest extremes. Store owners often had lots of rules about what employees could do with their private time.

    Henry Ford was probably less hypocritical about this than Pullman since Ford seemed to genuinely believe in the values he expected his workers to live by and lived by those values himself. He’s still a petty tyrant but a sincere one.

    • Uncle Kvetch

      Lots of employers attempted to control their employee’s activities outside of work

      Given the prevalence of drug testing for employment today, I think your use of the past tense is unfounded.

      • LeeEsq

        Yes and no. Drug use is illegal and while I do not like the War on Drugs, I think employers do have a right to know if their employees are breaking the law or not. In the past, employees would try to stop their employees from doing perfectly legal activities in their off-hours like going to the theatre because it was immoral or something.

        • I think employers do have a right to know if their employees are breaking the law or not.

          Fuck that.

        • Hogan

          I think employers do have a right to know if their employees are breaking the law or not.

          Should they then have access to their employees’ homes, bank records and tax returns? Should they be strip-searching employees as they enter and leave the workplace?

          When I’m caught breaking the law, my employer will find out, and vice versa. In the meantime we just have to trust each other.

        • witless chum

          Would you support my employer searching my home computer to see if I ever pirated any MP3s? Or, hell, doing a physical search of my home to see if there’s any weed in the sock drawer? Seems to me your bloodstream ought to be your own business unless someone has a very good reason as to why it shouldn’t be.

          A better setup would make drug testing of employees without a permit illegal and permits only available to companies through convincing some bored bureaucracy that they had a real good reason to test people in certain jobs like airline pilot.

        • Linnaeus

          Drug use is illegal and while I do not like the War on Drugs, I think employers do have a right to know if their employees are breaking the law or not. In the past, employees would try to stop their employees from doing perfectly legal activities in their off-hours like going to the theatre because it was immoral or something.

          We recently passed marijuana legalization in Washington, but even the legality of marijuana doesn’t prevent an employer from 1) testing employees for marijuana use and/or 2) firing employees if they test positive.

        • JosephW

          Well, that’s a two-way street. All too often, when the employer’s involved in some serious wrong-doing, it’s the employees who are the last to know. If the employer has a “right to know” what the employees are doing, the employees have a “right to know” what the employer is doing as well.

          You think any employer is going to accept that attitude?

        • DrDick

          Employers certainly have a right to know whether their employees are impaired at work, but what they do outside of work is absolutely none of the employer’s business. We fought a war to establish that workers are not chattel.

          • LeeEsq

            Drug use is something that I’m highly ambivalent about. Prohibition doesn’t work, the War on Drugs is a failure. At the same time, I’m not exactly looking forward to a world of even more widespread drug use for reasons that I’m not exactly sure of. I guess largely because of my own anti-hedonist streak.

            • LeeEsq

              I’d feel a lot better if drugs were sold through a government monopoly of some sort rather than leaving it in the hands of a private market. I suppose its the idea of corporations marketing cocaine that makes me nervous. It’ll be like the tobacco corporations but worse.

    • So petty tyranny is better when it’s done whole-heartedly?

      • LeeEsq

        Nah, just making an observation.

  • Paul

    OK enough with back patting we all know Ford was jerk, and the responce of his goons and bought local government completely egregious but nobody has a comment on the rather bizarre goal of the march?

    ” 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

    Really it seems to me government should be the target of that march not a business that is watching its sales fall through the floor.

    It useful to remember Ford suffered a massive drop in market share as the Model-T sales collapsed in the same period before the Model A was introduced and that did not catapult Ford back to the same share. I’m deeply pro Union but that is not the same thing as making a company give just give you a job they have no need of.

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  • Tanya

    I just found out that my great-granduncle committed suicide in June, 1932. He had worked in the Ford Motor Car Co., but he was unemployed at the time of his death. I wonder if this is why he did it?

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