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This Day in Labor History: May 26, 1937

[ 49 ] May 26, 2013 |

On May 26, 1937, United Auto Workers organizers, including future president Walter Reuther, walked toward the Ford Motor Company’s giant River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan to hand out pro-union leaflets to workers. As they crossed an overpass toward the plant, Ford’s private army, led by his right-hand man Harry Bennett, savagely beat them, then denied it despite photographic evidence and national outrage.

By May 1937, the United Auto Workers was an increasingly confident union. The creation of the CIO and the passage of the National Labor Relations Act had finally given industrial workers access to the unions they desperately craved. Through the sit-down strikes of the previous winter, the UAW had won contracts with General Motors and Chrysler. That left Ford as the last of the Big Three to organize. The UAW set out that spring to finish the job.

Henry Ford once had a pro-worker reputation. He still does today in the popular mind because of the $5 wage. But that is an unearned reputation. By the 1930s, he was one of the most fervently anti-union employers in the country, not to mention his legendary anti-Semitism and intrusion into his workers’ personal lives. Henry Ford had no problem directing violence against union organizers. A 1932 march of the unemployed from Detroit to the River Rouge plant to demand jobs was met with maximum repression by the Ford controlled town police force, as well as Harry Bennett, leading to the death of five people.

Ford was determined to not fall to the UAW as GM had. Ford saw the state as insufficient protection against unionism. GM relied on Flint for police assistance in fighting the strikers. Ford thought this a bad idea since local and state governments, especially in Michigan under pro-union Governor Frank Murphy, as incompetent and unreliable. As for the federal government, well, Ford didn’t even begin to think he could rely on FDR. Adolf Hitler, now there was a man to Ford’s liking.

Henry Ford receiving his Iron Cross from the Nazis.

So instead of relying on the government, Ford thought he would be proactive with the union and use old-school tactics of violence and outright intimidation to keep unions out of his plants. Ford hired 2000 men to his “Service Department.” These were ex-boxers, thugs, and spies, all comprising Ford’s personal anti-union army and police force.

The UAW knew that Ford’s workers were scared of his thugs. So Walter Reuther decided the UAW needed to take a strong stand, whatever the risk, to show that the union was not scared. It hired an airplane and buzzed River Rouge with a loudspeaker, but this wasn’t so effective. So Reuther got a permit to leaflet the plant. Of course, Ford knew all about this and prepared accordingly. So did Reuther, inviting ministers, journalists, and staffers of the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties to join him. At least if something terrible happened, there would be credible witnesses.

Calling for “Unionism, Not Fordism,” the UAW demands on Ford was a pay raise and shorter hours. Ford was paying $6 for an 8-hour day. The UAW was organizing for $8 a day over a 6-hour day. We sometimes think of the 6-hour day as a pipe dream that only a crazy socialist would demand, as if the 8-hour day is somehow natural, but this was a widespread demand during the 1930s and even after, in part to spread work around to more of the nation’s unemployed.

As Reuther and other UAW organizers, around 50 in total, walked toward the plant to leaflet for the 6-hour day, Detroit News photographer Scotty Kilpatrick asked them to pose for a picture with the Ford company sign in the background. As they did so, Harry Bennett and around 40 of his thugs, came up behind them and savagely attacked them. Kilpatrick shouted a warning, but it was too late.

The moment before the attack

Walter Reuther, on the beating he received:

“Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms . . . and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more. . . “

Richard Merriweather suffered a broken back from his beating. Bennett’s thugs pulled Richard Frankensteen’s coat over his head to immobilize, then beat him, knocked him, and kicked him repeatedly in the ribs and groin.

Ford thugs beating Richard Frankensteen

After they finished with the UAW leaders, they started beating women who arrived to help pass out the leaflets, as well as the media. The Dearborn police, wholly owned by Henry Ford, did nothing, saying that Ford was just protecting its property from intruders. The thugs then tried to hide all of the evidence of the beating, destroying photography plates. But the Detroit News photographer who originally asked for the posed picture managed to hide a bunch of plates under his car seat, while giving empty ones to the thugs. When the photographs came out, outage ensued.

What was great was Harry Bennett’s response to the pictures:

“The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials. . . . They simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality. … I know definitely no Ford service man or plant police were involved in any way in the fight.”

This despite the photographic evidence and dozens of eyewitnesses!

Ultimately, Ford suffered little from the Battle of the Overpass. He suffered a rebuke from the newly formed National Labor Relations Board and was ordered to stop violating the Wagner Act, which was supposed to stop this kind of anti-union violence. But ultimately Ford didn’t much care and of course denied all involvement despite the evidence. It did increase support for the United Auto Workers, both in Detroit and around the country. But Ford managed to hold out against a contract until 1940, when he finally caved.

Kilpatrick’s photos of the beatings convinced the Pulitzer Prize to establish a prize for photography. Interestingly, the first winner, in 1942, was of UAW strikers beating a member of Ford’s Service Department.

This is the 62nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Comments (49)

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  1. cpinva says:

    I’ve never owned a ford. at first, it was because of their crappy reputation for quality (this in the mid 70′s), later, because of what I had learned about henry ford and his gang of thugs. i’d sooner ride a bicycle or walk, than own a ford product.

    • Dana Houle says:

      Since Henry Ford died Ford has consistently been the most progressive of the US automakers. They’ve had the best relations with the UAW and they’ve been the most progressive in how they’ve dealt with environmental and climate change. And when I managed the campaign in Michigan in 2004 against the anti-gay marriage amendment, Ford did a ton behind the scenes trying to get the other two auto companies on board against it (GM blocked it). And last year, when the Republicans were getting ready to pass right to work in Michigan, Bill Ford lobbied Snyder to not sign the bill.

      Oh, Ford also managed their company better in 2006-2008 and didn’t need a federal bailout.

      You don’t have to buy a ford. But for 2013, your reasons for not buying a Ford aren’t only wrong, they’re counterproductive.

      • Dana Houle says:

        BTW, my grandfather worked at the Rouge Plant in the 1930′s. It’s a joke in my family that it wasn’t until I was 9 or 10 that I realized Ford’s name was simply “Henry Ford” and not “that son of a bitch Henry Ford.” My grandfather was apparently good at his job, because when Ford built a tractor factor in the USSR they asked my grandfather to go there to help set it up. My great grandmother put the kibosh on that, which was probably good since some of those people got stuck in the USSR for about a decade. But despite being good at his job, he got fired just prior to the UAW organizing them in 1941. His offense: he missed work because he had an appendectomy.

        After the UAW organized Ford and Henry eventually died, it became a very different company.

      • cpinva says:

        “You don’t have to buy a ford. But for 2013, your reasons for not buying a Ford aren’t only wrong, they’re counterproductive.”

        wrong, on so many levels, social and financial. ford (fix or repair daily) is still a crappy product, throughout its line. check any consumer product guide. oh wait, they’re all lying! ford was bailed out before the rest of the companies, it was ahead of the game in financial mismanagement, as well as production mismanagement (building gas guzzlers, as the price of gasoline continued to rise), so spare me the fairy tale of ford’s competent management. and social awareness. it managed to lose money years before the other car companies were, and didn’t have to wait for the crash of 2008 to do so. no sense getting at the end of the line.

        this is semi-decent overview of Ford:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Motors

        • Dana Houle says:

          How was Ford supposedly bailed out? Got a link that goes against everything pretty much everyone remembers about how Ford wasn’t bailed out like GM and Chrysler?

          As for quality, unlike the 1970′s and early 1980′s, when the gaps were huge, the differences in quality across all auto companies today are minimal. Cars last longer, they require (adjusted for cost of living) less money in maintenance and repair, the get better gas milage, and the differences between a Toyota and a Ford are tiny. For instance, both companies’ cars accelerate, although Fords’ cars mostly just do it when they’re supposed to.

          But hey, unless you’re buying a US-made GM or Chrysler product or one of the few foreign nameplates made in a UAW plant, go ahead and support those non-union jobs and help drive down the wages and benefits of American manufacturing based on something you read about from over 70 years ago.

        • witless chum says:

          Bullshit. My 2011 Focus is rated pretty well by Consumer Reports.

          And you’re a shitty liberal if you live in the U.S. and buy anything but a car made by the UAW. Check out their website for a list. Let’s stop cutting out own throats over a marginally more reliable car how’s about?

    • That doesn’t really make sense. Ford today isn’t anything like Ford in the 30s.

      You might as well eschew voting because the Founding Fathers held slaves. It doesn’t actually help anyone, and actively harms a lot of people in the here-and-now.

      • Dana Houle says:

        Right. So if the intention is to avoid getting 1930′s fascism blood on your hands, do you buy a (once was Daimler-)Chrysler? A Toyota? A Fiat? How about a Volkswagen? Kia, who were founded with help from Mazda? (Can’t get a Hyundai, since they were founded with help from Ford.)

        Maybe there’s still a Yugo or two to be found on Craigslist. That is if one is OK with buying a car produced in a dictatorship.

        Wait, I’ve got it: a great anti-fascist car–the Trabant!

  2. Paul says:

    “I’ve never owned a ford. at first, it was because of their crappy reputation for quality (this in the mid 70′s), later, because of what I had learned about henry ford and his gang of thugs. i’d sooner ride a bicycle or walk, than own a ford product.”

    That a bit extreme don’t you think to hold Ford’s particular management actions against the Company what 70 years later? I think you would hard pressed to find any company still around now that was around in 1930 that rabidly pro union. On the plus Side Ford did build a really huge copy of Rouge plant for the Reds. Does this mean you also avoid Apple no matter what reforms it leans on FOXCON to make? It logical to avoid companies for their actual polices but if they change it seems fair to recognize that.

    • sparks says:

      My parents wouldn’t even ride in a Volkswagen, let alone any other German car. Would you like to dismiss their reasons?

      • DocAmazing says:

        I’m just old enough that I have had an old mechanic mention Pearl Harbor among the reasons he wouldn’t touch my crappy old Honda 125.

        • Mean Mister Mustard says:

          I bought a Dodge Colt in 1972 and you’d think I personally funded the development of the Zero. Plus, my maternal grandfather was German, so I had that going for me.

        • sparks says:

          My mother lived under Nazi occupation as a child/teen. Saw friends in her peer group shot dead in the street for “suspicion”. Could be a reason for holding a grudge, I guess.

        • Phil says:

          I’m in my 40s, and one of my colleagues, two years older than I am, mentions Pearl Harbor as a reason for not buying a Japanese car now.

  3. fka AWS says:

    This may have been mentioned before, but is this series going to become a book at some point? Even an e-book would be great.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      It’s something I’ve thought about, but I have two other books I need to write, one of which like yesterday.

      • fka AWS says:

        Well, you’ve already written most of it, right? Not to put you under the gun on something, but this is a really good series. It would be mostly editing and getting photo permissions at this point, right?

        It’s a really good series, and would benefit from being bound, even like a calendar thing. I could see some labor unions buying it, in addition to the academic angle.

        Anyway, something to think about.

    • delurking says:

      It really is a brilliant series. I’m teaching Working class Lit in the fall and plan to make use of it for my class.

    • DrDick says:

      I would second those above about a book.

  4. Davis X. Machina says:

    Period, but off-topic. What do we know about “Denny Of the Railroad” (1932)? Came to my attention via a mail-order catalog.

    “Denny is a young engineer who works through a strike and is thrown out by his union. Despite his doctor’s advice, the chairman of the board of the railroad dons the attire of a laborer to study working conditions first-hand. Unaware of the chairman’s identity, Denny befriends him and together they fight against the strikers. When the chairman is knocked unconscious by a runaway train, Denny saves his life and wins the love of the chairman’s daughter as well as a job as yardmaster.”

    At 52 minutes, from a no-name studio, it’s not exactly the anti-It Happened One Night, but there must have been some audience for it.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I’ve never heard of it. Would watch it though.

      • sparks says:

        The always reliable IMDb sez it’s presumed lost. Poverty Row film, so I wouldn’t expect much. If it had a review by F. Gwynplaine McIntyre, I’d think it really was lost.

        • Davis X. Machina says:

          May be lost on IMDB, but it’s for sale on Amazon.

          • sparks says:

            Well, I did mention it was said to be lost on IMDb, which is almost like saying it exists. That said, I can find a lot of genuinely lost films listed for sale on DVD. You can order them, pay for them, but you’ll never, ever get a copy. If the sellers were halfway honest, they’d ship a bottle of cellulose nitrate powder with a blank DVD-R.

  5. jim, some guy in iowa says:

    erik, i’ve been meaning to ask this a while now – is there biography of walter reuther that you’d recommend?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.

      • jim, some guy in iowa says:

        thanks! it will be interesting to see if the library can find that on the lending program & if so where

        • Erik Loomis says:

          It’s not hard to find. You should be able to get that pretty easily.

          • Dana Houle says:

            I think it’s a great source of material, but I think almost every chapter ends with a faulty conclusion. I strongly recommend reading it, but I would pair it with Kevin Boyle’s The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism. Lichtenstein makes Reuther out to be some tragically flawed figure whose compromises with management and the state, especially the Democratic party, cost American workers a true social democracy. Boyle is, I think, more balanced in acknowledging the barriers that Reuther and the UAW couldn’t overcome since, in labor, they were largely on their own.

            As an aside, maybe my biggest ego boost came during the Detroit Newspaper strike in the mid-late 90′s. I wrote a review of the Lichtenstein book for the strike paper in which I took him to task for what I thought were some major flaws, such as not realizing the failure to have neighborhood and regional resistance like Reuther’s local led in the 1930′s wasn’t because Reuther was compromised as much as the auto industry stopped putting small shops in residential neighborhoods, and instead starting putting them in cornfields outside urban areas, thus wiping out the ethnic/clan/neighborhood ties that were so strong in a lot of plants in northern cities. A few weeks after that I was at an event, and had the opportunity to meet former UAW president Doug Fraser. I told him my name, he asked me to spell it, and then complemented me on my review.

            [BTW, I once heard Reuther ally/former UAW VP Irv Bluestone gave a withering critique of the Lichtenstein book; one of his most damning charges was that in a roughly 500 page book Lichtenstein never mentions the UAW negotiating the addition of health insurance to their Big Three benefit packages.]

            • I’d also recommend pairing it with Running Steel and Pivotal Decade to get a fuller picture of how and why everything fell apart in the 70s.

              • Linnaeus says:

                Jefferson Cowie’s book Stayin’ Alive dovetails with those quite nicely, in terms of covering the cultural angle.

              • Dana Houle says:

                I’ve seen people wonder if Reuther’s reputation was ironically helped by dying unexpectedly just at the cusp of the 1970′s so he wasn’t directly associated with everything that went so, so wrong.

  6. Dana Houle says:

    Maybe 10-12 years ago the UAW’s magazine, Solidarity, tracked down one of the Ford goons in the photos. He had come to deeply regret his role in trying to keep Ford workers from joining together in a union.

  7. Hogan says:

    “The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials. . . . They simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality. … I know definitely no Ford service man or plant police were involved in any way in the fight.”

    Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?

  8. Murc says:

    We sometimes think of the 6-hour day as a pipe dream that only a crazy socialist would demand, as if the 8-hour day is somehow natural, but this was a widespread demand during the 1930s and even after, in part to spread work around to more of the nation’s unemployed.

    Even the eight-hour has been intensely eroded.

    My Dad, before he became a doctor, worked the sort of jobs in the 70s you’d expect a teenager/student to do. Butcher shop clerk, delivery boy/man, that kind of thing. He always, ALWAYS was provided with a paid lunch; if he were working nine to five, there was a half-hour to an hour in there of meal time that was comped.

    I’ve never had a job like that, ever. Everywhere I’ve ever worked the presumption has been that you work a nine-hour day (eight hours with an hour unpaid lunch in there somewhere.) Curiously, the salaried management all seem to only go home after eight hours, and I don’t think they’re all skipping lunch.

    • delurking says:

      Before I became an academic, when I worked day jobs, this was my experience too. A “9-5″ job was actually an 8-5 job, because the lunch 1/2 hour and my two 15 minute breaks did not count as part of my 8 hour work day.

  9. rm says:

    Even thugs wore suits to their beat-downs back then.

  10. joe from Lowell says:

    Henry Ford once had a pro-worker reputation. He still does today in the popular mind because of the $5 wage. But that is an unearned reputation. By the 1930s, he was one of the most fervently anti-union employers in the country, not to mention his legendary anti-Semitism and intrusion into his workers’ personal lives.

    That picture of his trip to Germany is exactly the right context. Henry Ford had a fascist attitude towards labor, the same attitude that would simultaneously insist on a People’s Car and paid vacations, while banning labor organizing and shutting labor out of the centralized economic decision-making process entirely.

  11. deadweasel says:

    “Henry Ford once had a pro-worker reputation. He still does today in the popular mind because of the $5 wage. But that is an unearned reputation. By the 1930s, he was one of the most fervently anti-union employers in the country…”

    So pro-worker = pro-union. I believe that’s called equivocation, councilor. The unions haven’t been pro-worker since the 1930′s; they’ve been pro-Democratic Party.

  12. mch says:

    Thank you, Erik. You provide a rare link to the truth of the past, our past. I only sometimes comment but often read. Thank you. Hang in.

  13. Lurker says:

    This is just nitpicking, but Ford did not get an Iron Cross. Instead, from the photo, you can very easily see that the decoration in question is much higher than the mundane Iron Cross. (On the other hand, the Germans would not award the military-merits only Iron Cross to a foreign civilian.) A little googling would show that Ford got the Grand Cross of the German Eagle.

    In European culture of decorations, the decoration does not really mirror the amount of merit. Instead, the level of decoration only corresponds to the social class of the recipient. A common man, if decorated, receives a “medal”, a “medal of honour” or a “badge”. A low civil servant or a salaried worker gets a “cross of merit” or something of that type. A junior officer or a civil servant with a Master’s degree gets a “knight’s cross” or something like that. A high civil servant or a minister gets a “commander”. In any of these cases, the decoration is usually for the whole life’s work, and even the greatest merit cannot get you more than one class upwards. (E.g. “1st class medal of honour” instead of simple “medal of honour” or “commander, with a breast star” instead of simple “commander”.)

    “Grand cross” is something reserved for foreign heads of state. Giving it to a private industrialist like Ford was something really extraordinary. The award is of the same level as the US Congressional Medal of Freedom.

  14. witless chum says:

    They’ve got Reuther’s literal bloody shirt at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing. One of the historical relics I’ve seen that really made an impression.

    My old boss told me his dad worked for some anti semetic newspaper than Henry Ford bankrolled in the 30s.

  15. Davis X. Machina says:

    At least as well as handing it over to the cost accountants, I’d say….

  16. DocAmazing says:

    Yeah, what with them giving us the Pinto and refusing to make fewer gas-guzzlers.

    I wonder: when you’re trying to drive a nail and you hit your thumb, do you blame the hammer, or the wood?

  17. Davis X. Machina says:

    I didn’t know Hermosillo is in Alabama.

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