1941:
Victory at Ford’s

Jun 11, 1990

In April of 1941, workers struck Ford, shutting down the huge Rouge complex in Dearborn Michigan. It was the first time the Rouge had ever been shut down by a strike. It was also one of the most important strikes of the Depression period.

The relationship of forces, which favored the corporations during the worst years of the depression, had given Henry Ford practically a blank check to do whatever he wanted. Ford workers were suffering from wage cuts and the constant threat of job loss. The ferocious speed-up and lack of safety devices on the machines produced a constant stream of injuries.

Some of the earliest attempts by workers to organize themselves during the Depression had come at Ford. In 1932, the Communist Party organized a demonstration of the unemployed, a “hunger march,” which went from Detroit out to the Rouge complex to demand jobs. Once in Dearborn, the unemployed workers faced Dearborn police and Ford goons. When they finally arrived at the Rouge, they were shot at by Ford’s goons. Four workers were killed immediately, a fifth died somewhat later. Dozens more were injured. Several days later, at least 25,000 demonstrators marched down the main street of Detroit and out to the cemetery as a memorial to the slain marchers.

By 1934, workers elsewhere were not only fighting some impressive battles, but also winning some important victories. By the end of 1937, the other major auto companies had been struck and forced to accept the union their workers had built. Ford was the last of the major auto companies to be organized. But the fight at Ford was a decisive one. A defeat at Ford might have called in question the earlier victories and made it much more difficult to build on or even keep the gains the workers had already made. The victory at Ford cemented the right to have industrial unions which the workers had won elsewhere.

Organizing Against Ford

The Ford workers took on a corporation fully committed to preventing any organization by the workers. Of all the big companies, Ford was the most difficult to crack.

The Ford empire was, first of all, a harshly repressive place to work, filled with an extensive army of spies and enforcers, who used violence, intimidation and firing to prevent any hint of union organizing. Ford’s private police, called the Ford Service Department, numbered 8000, both uniformed and undercover. Many of those hired into the Service Department were petty gangsters or members of the reactionary Black Legion. Outside the plant, the gangsters and the Black Legion attacked union organizers on the streets and at their homes. The Black Legion, a Northern offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, killed dozens of unionists in southeastern Michigan during this period, and maimed many hundreds more. Finally, Ford had the undying loyalty of the Dearborn police and city officials.

At the same time, Henry Ford was paternalistic, trying to win his workers’ allegiance. In the late teens, long before other companies even dreamed of such a wage, Ford advertised that he was paying $5 a day. In general, his wages were higher than those of other companies. He organized large tracts of bungalows for steady Ford workers. Of course, he took a sizeable payment out of their weekly pay and the houses were only cheap tract housing, but this nonetheless tied many workers to their jobs at Ford to do anything would risk losing their house.

Ford had earlier set up a special division to hire black workers; one of the men heading it was a former black athlete at the University of Michigan, well-known in the black community. Ford aimed at setting up links with black churches to recruit for Ford. Those ministers who used their influence against union organizing received contributions from Ford and could get their parishioners hired on at Ford. Ministers who refused to agree to Ford’s anti-union pledge saw their parishioners excluded from Ford jobs. Ford also donated money and held out the promise of jobs to black clubs and organizations.

The flood of black people who had come into Detroit in search of jobs ever since World War I, had, for the most part, found the doors of the hiring halls slammed shut in their face. Ford was the exception. By 1941, it employed over half of the black workers who worked in auto. They represented almost 12 per cent of the Ford work force. Although most were still confined to the dirtiest, lowest paid jobs, usually in the foundry or as laborers or janitors, a small number of black workers were even put in the skilled trades at Ford.

Ford took over the community of Inkster, near the Rouge plant. He put in plumbing, a sewage system and electricity. The houses were painted and repaired. Then it was turned into an enclave for a few of the black workers from Rouge and their families, who of course had to pay Ford for these houses. None of this cost Ford much, but it let him appear as a benefactor in the black community.

This whole divide-and-conquer scheme was a kind of insurance policy for Ford, an attempt to counteract the abysmal working conditions, conditions which gave every worker reason to resist and to organize.

CP Militants Play the Leading Role

By 1940, with most of GM’s and Chrysler’s plants organized, and other companies following one after the other, the UAW turned its attention to Ford.

The main proposal made by the top UAW leadership was to ask workers to look to the government for help, to the NLRB and to the Roosevelt administration. There was open opposition among UAW leaders to any talk of a strike at Ford. Instead, they proposed only that workers sign cards, then leave things in the hands of the government. Nothing in the UAW’s policy called on the workers to organize their own fighting power.

Nonetheless Ford workers continued to build their own organization inside the plants. Signs of that organization could be seen everywhere. Workers on the line set radio buttons in the cars to the union station. They put leaflets under the window glass of cars coming down the line, in the bathrooms or even posted on walls when management was absent. Union members more and more openly identified themselves as such, and committeemen elected by the workers to represent them forced Ford to settle matters with them at the same time that Ford continued to say it would never recognize the union.

Art Preis, in his book Labor’s Giant Step, gave a description of the situation, as reported in the January 25, 1941 Socialist Appeal:

“Thousands upon thousands of men in Ford are now union. Union men under union instructions have entered the hellish gates of the Ford empire wearing union caps and union buttons! ... Ford is jittery.

“How different things are now than six months ago. Now the wave of unionism has so engulfed River Rouge that Service men are offering themselves for sale to go to work for the union. They feel the ship will soon change hands.

“Union men now give out leaflets without fear. The plant gates of the Rouge empire are no longer the portals to an impenetrable anti-union hell. When a Service man does dare to attack a union man, many union brothers are ready and able to protect their union brother and to exact a little revenge for past brutalities. There is enough steam up in the Ford empire among the men to blow the anti-union lid off for all time.”

Behind this now apparent organization lay more than a decade of work carried out by CP militants at Ford and other auto companies. The CP had issued shop papers at Ford through the latter part of the 1920s and into the 1930s. In so doing, it had built up a network in the plant, while it recruited a good number of militants. By 1938, according to the CP’s own estimates, it had several hundred active militants or sympathizers at the Rouge. Their network in the plants became the union’s network. The CP, by this time, also had a reputation for fighting against racism, and this gave it a certain influence in the black community.

Its role was contradictory during this time period. On the one hand, it had also called on workers to look toward Roosevelt. But at the same time, its advocacy of a communist society of the future, its links with the tradition of the Russian Revolution and its sometimes radical language and actions had attracted some of the most militant and class conscious workers into its ranks. These militant workers were ready to do whatever was necessary for the workers to organize themselves.

They were the ones who did much of the basic union recruitment in the plants. They helped to establish the framework of a union at the Rouge by linking up the militants in all the departments with each other. It was their work which brought together more than 1000 shop floor militants at the Rouge long before Ford recognized the union.

Of course, while this organizing was being done, Ford was not sitting silently by. Anyone suspected of union activity was fired on the spot. Between 1937 and 1941, several thousand workers were fired from Ford plants on suspicion of being union activists or even sympathizers. Ford’s black officials along with black ministers and Urban League officials spoke to black workers at Ford and to their families arguing that the UAW would only get black workers fired from the best jobs they would ever find.

Workers Shut Down Ford Rouge

Nonetheless, the workers’ organization was increasing. By the beginning of 1941, union membership was growing by leaps and bounds. And the atmosphere in the plants was becoming heated.

On March 13, 3,000 workers in one division at Rouge sat down on the job to protest the firings of union members. On March 18, 6,000 more workers in the axle building sat down until 12 fired unionists were rehired. On March 19, another building struck and the company once again gave in. On March 21, Ford agreed to return more than 1,000 fired unionists.

But on April 1, management refused to talk with a delegation from the rolling mill about the firing of union committeemen in that building. On April 2, the rolling mill workers stopped work, then quickly spread their strike to other departments and buildings. Within 9 hours, the whole massive Rouge complex had been shut down.

Tens of thousands of the 85,000 workers at Rouge ringed the plant in huge picket lines, 27 in all, at all the different gates. The workers positioned parked cars to form huge barricades to shut down all the roads leading to the plant. In addition to the daily strike bulletin issued in several languages, there were regular radio broadcasts and sound trucks circling the plant. When cars were removed, workers began to form moving picket lines of cars four and five abreast all around the Rouge. They were joined by other workers on the picket lines and at rallies. Workers all over the area knew that Ford was the final test. And they joined in, often over attempts by the UAW leadership to keep the struggle restricted to Ford workers.

Ford got help from the AFL leadership and Homer Martin, former UAW president who was now on the Ford payroll. They tried to organize a back-to-work movement, calling the strike unpatriotic and against the war effort, red-baiting the leadership of the strike for their communist politics.

Ford also tried to set up racial incidents to provoke trouble. When the Rouge complex was shut down, Ford did everything possible to keep the black workers inside. While he was calling on help from black ministers and other influential people he had courted, he offered the workers as much as $24 a day to stay inside, an astronomical sum at the time. Nonetheless, only about 1,500 of the Rouge’s 10,000 black workers stayed in, most in the foundry.

On April 3, some of the black workers still inside the plant were sent out to attack the pickets at gate 4, most of whom were white. Big photos of this confrontation appeared in the Detroit press. There were periodic skirmishes like this which Ford tried to use to rally the black community against the strike and to convince the white workers that the black workers were nothing but scabs.

The workers found ways to respond to these various attacks. Pickets tried by every means possible to talk to the workers who had stayed inside the plant. Some of these workers came out to cheers. Black workers who had been fired at Ford for union activity were among those who led the strike and they attempted to overcome the fears of the black workers who had stayed inside that they would be attacked if they came out.

The youth group of the NAACP was active in support of the strike. They went to the plant and appealed to the workers inside to come out on strike. They also tried to address meetings in the black community to talk about what was happening at Ford.

Finally on April 7, under the pressure of the strike, Ford agreed to accept the union providing the strikers would agree to go through an NLRB supervised election procedure. The NLRB ruled that it would schedule a collective bargaining election within 45 days faster than normal. UAW officials immediately agreed, but then they had to convince the strikers who were opposed to going back so long as any union militants were still out in the street.

On April 10, Ford, after discussions with Michigan’s governor and the head of the CIO, agreed to reinstate five of the men who had been fired, the incident that had provoked the beginning of the strike. The case of the other three union organizers was to be sent to an arbitrator. Ford agreed not to take reprisals against strikers.

Two days later, a mass meeting of nearly 20,000 workers ratified but only by a small majority the proposal to end their strike under these conditions.

Nonetheless, the workers felt victorious as they started back to work on April 14. They had just brought the strongest industrial giant in the United States to its knees. In fact, they had won their strike and forced Ford to recognize the union organization they had built.

The fact that official recognition of the union hinged on getting a stamp of approval from the government seemed, at that moment, like a small thing. It was obvious the workers would vote overwhelmingly for their union. But it symbolized what would follow, with UAW officials trying every way they could to convince the workers to depend on government procedures, on negotiations between the bosses and union officials, rather than on their own organized strength and ability to act and impose what they wanted themselves. Obviously, it was the corporations which would be served if the workers could be made to forget their own power and capacities. And already at the moment of victory, many union officials were pushing the workers to forget.

On May 21, 1941, Ford workers voted overwhelmingly for their union. On June 20, 1941, Ford signed a contract with UAW officials. He proposed a “union shop,” that is, that all workers would automatically be enrolled into the union, and he offered to set up the dues check-off system for the union. It was the first arrangement of its kind, and it meant that union officials did not have to worry about convincing workers to join or to pay their dues. The dues check-off assured the union of funds, and it symbolized how quickly the UAW was developing an apparatus independent of and set over the workers. Ford decided that if he had to accept unionization in his plants, he would deal with union officials and not with the workers. In so doing, he helped those officials escape the control of the workers.

Certainly, things did not just quiet down because of this deal cut between Ford and the top union leadership. Workers carried on fights on the shop floor to settle the daily problems that came up. But some things were harder to deal with: for example, Ford severely cut back on its hiring of black workers. Having been unable to use them against the union effort, he no longer had any use of the black community. To broader problems like these, the UAW leadership offered no response.

Above all, it had started to rally around Roosevelt as he prepared to take the U.S. into World War II; the heads of the new unions lined up in support “of the war effort.” As soon as war was officially declared, the heads of the CIO offered a pledge that no union would strike during the war. The heads of the UAW were too busy disciplining workers who were not ready to give up their strike weapon to pay attention to what the company was doing.

The immediate collaboration between Ford and UAW officials shows how quickly the workers’ own organizations can be used against them, if they accept in any way the framework of capitalist society. And that was exactly what the UAW leaders accepted. They simply wanted a bigger piece of it, especially for themselves. But they never understood that the capitalists’ drive for profits would continually push them to take back whatever they could of what the workers had won in struggle.

By the end of the war, with the no-strike pledge enforced by both the union and the CP militants who had played the leading role in the Ford organizing drive, the functioning of the union had taken on the habits that we see still today.

Nonetheless, the Ford workers had shown what was possible when workers are united, determined and organized. They imposed what they wanted through their own collective activity. Ford workers continued to draw on their experiences in this strike movement when it came to defending their own immediate interests on the shop floor. And they had shown how the racism and racial divisions in the work force, which are always in the interests of the bosses, can be combatted.

Reprinted from The Spark #403

June 11-25, 1990