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This Day in Labor History: May 26, 1937

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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.

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