Author Page for Erik Loomis
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.
President Obama held a private meeting with top national security journalists on Thursday afternoon following his national security policy address at the National Defense University in Washington, POLITICO has learned.
Present at the meeting were Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist; Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief; Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post; David Igantius, The Washington Post columnist; Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic correspondent and Bloomberg View columnist; and Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist.
The meeting, which was scheduled to last for one hour but lasted for two, was held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Where’s the rope?
Luckily for myself, I don’t know how to tie a knot.
The decline of wildlife along the Mekong River, and really in all of Southeast Asia, has reached crisis levels. Between widespread development and the Chinese desire to kill every mammal in existence, there isn’t much left. On the Mekong, home of many now rare and amazing species, we are at crunch time in what is probably a losing battle. Among the fundamental problems when it comes to aquatic life is that you have to convince fishermen that not killing as many animals as possible is worth their effort. The only way to do that is cash because for poor people, every fish, every deer, every thing period, counts toward feeding their families. Of course, paying off large segments of a population has never been tried and probably would not work anyway, but without state intervention or convincing people to not kill the last of these animals, the Mekong ecosystem will be pretty well denuded of animal life.
A special day for Republican hypocrisy on food stamps.
In the Senate, you have our old friend, Louisiana’s David Vitter:
Vitter presented the bill as prohibiting “convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles” from food stamp benefits. And in general those are the categories – murder, rape, aggravated sexual assault, domestic violence where sexual assault is involved, child molestation, and so on. No senator would vote to “give” violent offenders federal benefits, and in this case they didn’t have to. Rather than put the amendment up for a vote, the manager of the farm bill, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, merely accepted the amendment into the base bill. The amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent, which is to say that nobody objected to it on the floor. In reality, it’s unlikely that most senators even knew the amendment’s contents.
Vitter conveniently left solicitation of prostitution off his felony list. Wonder why.
The Tea Party caucus member from Tennessee’s 8th district justifies taking food out of the mouths of millions of hungry children and their parents by quoting the Book of Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” He also quoted, a verse from the 26th chapter of Matthew, which says the “poor will always be with us.”
“The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other,” the congressman concedes, but quickly adds “not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”
He’s a principled man about these issues:
How much exactly has the Tennessee legislator received from hard working American taxpayers? Together with his father and brother, who farm over 2500 acres for cotton in five counties, roughly 8.9 million dollars in cotton subsidies over the last 10 years, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
Rep. Fincher, who is the second largest recipient of farm subsidies in the United States Congress– and that is saying a lot– wants to increase federal crop insurance by a whopping 9 billion dollars over the next 10 years. The congressman has not said how much more he would personally reap if these additional federal subsidies are enacted.
Can’t make this stuff up.
I love classic capitalist propaganda. Take for example, 1956′s “Destination Earth.” A cartoon produced by the American Petroleum Institute, it shows that oil + competition=getting rid of that dastardly
Stalin Ogg, leader of Mars.
CNBC and Fox are pretty lame capitalist propagandists compared to this.
My Catholic friends, I think it is time to go old-school next Lent.
In addition to disease, the European settlers also brought Catholicism with them, and successfully converted a large proportion of the indigenous population. And the native Americans and Canadians loved their beaver meat.
So in the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec approached his superiors in the Church and asked whether his flock would be permitted to eat beaver meat on Fridays during Lent, despite the fact that meat-eating was forbidden. Since the semi-aquatic rodent was a skilled swimmer, the Church declared that the beaver was a fish. Being a fish, beaver barbeques were permitted throughout Lent. Problem solved!
I’m going to suggest it to the in-laws.
Modern Farmer with a long look at a major problem with the Greek yogurt industry–endless amounts of very gross whey that is quite toxic to riparian ecosystems. New York produced 150 million gallons of acid whey last year from its Greek yogurt industry. Dealing with that stuff is, to say the least, a big problem.
Via this Alternet article, which I thought was an unfair attack on Chobani since it seems that it is a problem inherent to all Greek yogurt companies.
Just another part of our industrial food system and its endless supply of toxic byproducts.
It’s no secret that the United States has an aging and increasingly dangerous infrastructure. An embarrassment compared to Europe or Japan, Americans have decided that it is far more important to fight unnecessary wars and give our plutocrats lower taxes than to act like a modern country, creating a functional train system or repairing our vast roadways. Sinkholes are appearing in Washington D.C. and our state capital cities (not to mention everyone’s favorite winter game in Providence called “Pothole or Archeological Dig.” I felt like I was driving in Costa Rica or Honduras in February and March.) In the wake of the horrifying 2007 bridge collapse on I-35W in Minneapolis, the nation did basically nothing. Here’s a good graph on public construction spending:
Last night, a bridge on I-5 over the Skagit River north of Seattle collapsed. Amazingly, no one was killed. Very lucky. It has been 6 years since the Minneapolis disaster. Some states have prioritized bridge reconstruction but not Washington. The bridge at hand was rated as “functionally obsolete,” which is not the same thing as dangerous, but it was very old, built in 1955. State funding to make bridges safe from earthquakes is going away in 2015. Washington infrastructure gets a particularly poor rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers, especially on roads and transit systems. The ASCE said, “Bridges were awarded a C-, in part due to the nearly 400 structurally deficient bridges in Washington State. 36 percent of Washington’s bridges are past their design life of 50 years.” And last night we saw the effects of the state’s lack of infrastructure spending.
It’s also worth noting Andrew Rice’s essay on the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, which will not exactly give you confidence to drive over that thing. Not that you have a lot of choice.
In short, we need a massive federal works program just to keep our infrastructure at a stable, functional, and safe level, not withstanding the need for high-speed rail and other new projects to keep the United States competitive with the rest of the world.
Roy Hogsed’s 1948 version of “Cocaine Blues”
Country Music History 101 teaches everyone that Johnny Cash did not write that song, though he did a good version of it. I will save most of my Johnny Cash rant for now, which in brief is that Cash was awesome in the 50s, declined rapidly after about 1963, was a washed-up has been putting out bad album after bad album (see Christgau’s review of 1978′s Greatest Hits Volume 3–”who today would think of ranking him with George Jones, Willie Nelson, or Merle Haggard?”) until Rick Rubin brought him back with 1 great album, 1 fine album, and a few meh albums with a good song or two on them, and that many of the people who think he is the ultimate in country music are in part falling for a marketing campaign.
Which isn’t to say that Cash wasn’t one of the finest artists in the history of country music or that his version of “Cocaine Blues” isn’t one of the very best. But given the centrality of the song to his popular image, it’s worth noting that not only is it not a Cash song, but that he built upon dozens and dozens of earlier versions of this popular song in its various and sundry iterations. The Hogsed version is much closer to how Cash played it than many others.
Mike Elk has a really great piece on the 1-day federal contract workers strike. It’s simple. First, our government should not be allowed to contract with employers who have a history of labor law violations. Second, all workers toiling for the federal government, whether directly or through subcontracts, should make a living wage. An excerpt:
“I work at Quick Pita in the food court of the Ronald Reagan Building. I work nearly 12 hours every day serving lunch to the thousands of people who work in the building. But I am not here to tell you how hard I work. I am here to tell you that my employer does not follow the law,” testified Antonio Vanegas before a hearing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus yesterday.
Vanegas is one of 100,000 low-wage workers in the Washington, DC area, according to Good Jobs Nation, many of whom are employed by federal contractors or in federally owned buildings like Union Station, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the Ronald Reagan Building. He and about 100 of his colleagues went on a one-day strike yesterday in order to draw attention to their low pay. Despite provisions in the federal Service Contract Act stating that federal contract workers like Antonio Vanegas should make at least the local prevailing wage, up until a few weeks ago Vanegas was making $6.50 an hour–less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and well below the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25. Additionally, Vanegas works 60 hours a week, but claims he receives no overtime pay for hours he works past 40, in violation of the Federal Labor Standards Act.
“There are many workers in the food court who are like me, who don’t make enough to pay the rent, put food on our tables and take care of our families,” said Vanegas in his testimony. “That’s why I’m here and why so many workers like me are on strike today. We want the federal government to be a good landlord and rent prime retail space to employers who follow the law. We want the government to lead by example and guarantee that all workers who do work on behalf of the federal government earn a legal and living wage.”
This strike has made an impact within the Democratic caucus. Whether Nancy Pelosi’s vow to bring it to Obama leads to the president actually doing something about it, I don’t know. But he needs to. Again, raising the working standards of federal workers is something he can do without congressional approval, so there are zero good reasons why he should not act.
Allow me to also note how subcontracting is a malignant plague upon the working conditions of all people. Whether it is the Gap subcontracting in Bangladesh to avoid any responsibility to the workers making its products or the federal government looking to cut costs by outsourcing labor, subcontracting hurts working-class people. There is no good reason why it should exist. Corporations and governments can employ people directly.