May 26, 2005

Today in Automotive History 1937

Today in Automotive History

1937 The Battle Of The Overpass

Union leaders and Ford Service Department men clashed in a violent confrontation on the Miller Road Overpass outside Gate 4 of the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

The clash came three months after the UAW achieved its first landmark victory at Ford, when they had forced the company to negotiate a policy toward organized labor by staging a lengthy sit-down strike at the Rouge complex. The sit-down strike had succeeded largely because of the support of Michigan Governor Frank Murphy, who protected the strikers' right to bargain collectively. However, the labor agreement did little in the way of changing the day-to-day life of Ford workers.

At the time of the victory, the UAW was still a relatively small, well-organized group. Legally, Henry Ford was forced to give ground, but he did not relinquish his opposition to organized laborers. Instead, he allowed Harry Bennett, head of the Ford Service Department, to build an increasingly muscular force of Ford officials charged with the job of maintaining discipline in the workplace. Bennett had, in the past, used what amounted to thug tactics to intimidate workers.

After the sit-down strike, tensions ran high between employees and labor officials. On this day in 1937, UAW organizers Walter Reuther, Bob Kanter, J.J. Kennedy, and Richard Frankensteen were distributing leaflets among the workers at the Rouge complex when they were approached by a gang of Bennett's men. The Ford Servicemen brutally beat the four unionists while many other union sympathizers, including 11 women, were injured in the resulting melee. The attack was no surprise to Ford employees. One man summed up the tone at the Rouge factory: "I was glad to have a job but scared to go to work."

One of the Ford servicemen involved in the incident was Elmer Janovski, a 26-year-old ex-bootlegger who had been personally hired by Bennett. "We were told there was trouble--Reuther and Frankensteen were passing out flyers," said Janovski. "I started fighting with them. I didn't poke Reuther, but I poked the others, including the newspaper cameraman." The newspaper camera operator in question was what made the Battle of the Overpass an extraordinary event. The day after the struggle, all of America was witness to the primitive tactics with which Henry Ford subdued organized laborers who had the law on their side. The publicity didn't end Ford's opposition to organized labor, but it certainly made his eventual acquiescence inevitable. Reuther later recalled the event. He said that anti-union thugs "surrounded us and started to beat us up.... The men picked me up about eight different times and threw me down on my back on the concrete and while I was on the ground, they kicked me in the face and head and other parts of my body."

Ironically, Janovski was fired from Ford and bounced between a number of low-paying jobs at automobile factories before he, too, joined the union. Some time later, he ran into Reuther at a labor rally in Detroit. "I told him that I was one of the guys on the other side at the Overpass," he said. "Reuther told me, 'It's all forgotten... we're all happy now... we're all brothers.' "

Today, a reported 5,000 of River Rouge's 13,000 employees cross the Miller Overpass on the way to work. The landmark is a physical reminder of the suffering undertaken by brave workers who strove for a better quality of life.

Posted by Quality Weenie at May 26, 2005 08:25 AM