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Henry Ford was a hero to many working-class people. His company offered high wages and jobs to many including veterans, African Americans and people with disabilities. However, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, work rules became stricter, wages were cut, people lost jobs and supervisors often bullied workers. Workers everywhere were organizing unions to protect their rights.
United Autoworkers of America Billboard (0-8738)
In 1934, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) attempted to unionize mass-production industries across the nation such as textiles, steel, rubber and automobiles. More than 1.5 million workers engaged in work stoppages.
Union Members Distributing Leaflets at the Rouge (P.833.68765.21)
After devastating strikes in 1936 and 1937, General Motors and Chrysler agreed to union contracts with the newly formed CIO-affiliated United Auto Workers (UAW). Of the Big Three auto makers, only Ford refused to accept the union.
Ford Motor Company Brochure claiming “there is no labor troublewithin the Ford organization” (64.167.951.7)
In early 1937, union supporters at the Rouge began holding rallies and handing out newspapers and leaflets to workers as they arrived or went home after a day’s work.
Unionism not Fordism Leaflet, 1936 (64.167.354.1)
These rallies could be risky since Ford security men and Dearborn police tried to physically prevent organizing efforts on or near company property.
UAW auxiliary, the Emergency Brigade (EB) WomanSpeaking to Ford Security (O.8966)
Woman, both as workers and as wives of workers, played important roles in the union effort.
Preparing to Distribute Leaflets at the Rouge. (833.69565-C)
Many women were directly involved in planning and conducting leafleting, rallies and strikes.
Rally at the Rouge (833.69368-Q)
The main leaflet distribution point was Gate 4 on Miller Road. The company built a pedestrian overpass linking the gate with a streetcar line across the street and then leased the overpass to the Detroit Street Railway Commission.
Overpass at the Rouge (P.O. 8988)
In April 1937, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act protecting workers’ rights to unionize. Many workers were upset when Henry Ford publicly announced “We’ll never recognize the United Automobile Workers Union or any other union.” Hundreds of union sympathizers were arrested in an attempt to intimidate workers and keep the union out of the Rouge plant.
Arrest of UAW Officers, 1938 (0-8889)
On May 26, 1937, more than 100 women distributed leaflets along Miller Road. Union leaders Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, Robert Kanter and J. J. Kennedy watched from the top of the overpass.
Union Leaders on the Overpass, May 26, 1937 (833.68529-17)
Members of the thuggish Ford Service Department attacked the union leaders. Ford executive Harry Bennett specifically hired ex-convicts to intimidate workers. Frankensteen and Reuther were beaten bloody.
Ford Service Men Attacking Union Leaders, May 26, 1937 (0-4951)
Ford security men (often called “goons”) also assaulted the leafleters, inflicting dozens of injuries including a broken back and one fractured skull.
Frankensteen and Reuther after the “Battle of the Overpass” (833.68529)
The “Battle of the Overpass,”as it became known, was a turning point. Public opinion turned quickly in the union’s favor; however, Ford continued its opposition to the union organizers.
UAW Billboard, 1938 (P.833.69737)
Ford Workers Picketing (0-4622)
On April 1, 1941 Rouge workers, fed up with the company’s anti-union violence, spontaneously shut down the plant, sabotaged Ford equipment and walked off the job. Ironically, workers used their cars to completely surround the Rouge during the 1941 strike.
Aerial View of Rouge, 1941 (0-4564)
Finally, on May 21, 1941 Ford workers had the opportunity to vote for or against the union. The UAW-CIO received 70% of the more than 78,000 votes cast, a more conservative union received 27% and Henry Ford’s proposal for no union at all received just 3%.
Workers Voting on the Union, 1941 (833.75664.E)
Even after the union was recognized, workers showed their strength and support by gathering at Gate 4 on June 1, 1941 to hear about the ongoing contract negotiations.
Union Rally, 1941 (95.97.4)
The “Battle of the Overpass” was just one day in the five-year struggle to unionize the Ford Motor Company. Michigan Governor Murray Van Wagoner congratulates U.A.W. President R. J. Thomas for negotiating a contract with Ford as Harry Bennett, Head of the Ford Service Department, looks on.
Union Negotiations Completed, 1941 (0.8927)