The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

60 Years Ago:
Workers Built Their Union at Ford

Jun 25, 2001

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. And this strike was what convinced Henry Ford I he had no choice but to accept the union the workers had built.

Standing behind this strike lay more than a decade of work carried out by Communist Party 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. Their network of sympathizers 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 among the black workers whom Ford tried –unsuccessfully –to use against the union.

By 1940, the top UAW leaders were already turning their backs on the sit-down strikes that had won the union at GM and Chrysler. Instead, they called on the workers to look to the Roosevelt Administration in Washington and the Democratic governor in Michigan.

Results were slow in coming, however, and Ford was regularly firing union activists. By the beginning of 1941, the atmosphere in the Ford plants was heated.

On March 13, 3,000 workers in one division at the Rouge sat down on the job to protest the firings. On March 18, 6,000 workers in the axle building sat down until 12 fired unionists were rehired there. 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 when management refused to talk with a rolling mill delegation about the firing of unionists in that building, the rolling mill workers stopped work on April 2, quickly spreading their strike to other departments and buildings. The UAW leaders had tried to head off the strike. But within nine hours, the whole Rouge was shut down.

At least 10,000 of the Rouge's 85,000 workers ringed the plant in huge picket lines. The workers formed huge barricades with parked cars, shutting down all the roads leading to the plant. When cars were removed, workers began to form moving picket lines of cars four and five abreast all around the Rouge. Workers all over the area joined in, despite attempts by the top UAW leadership to keep the struggle restricted to Ford workers.

Within eight days, Ford agreed to accept the union and to reinstate most of the fired workers –providing the strikers would agree to go through an election supervised by the new NLRB.

In fact, it was obvious the workers would vote overwhelmingly for their union. But hinging recognition on this vote symbolized what was to follow: top UAW officials would now push workers to depend on government procedures and on negotiations between the bosses and union officials.

On April 12, a mass meeting of nearly 20,000 workers ratified –but only by a small majority –the proposal to end their strike under these conditions. The most conscious workers understood they could have forced Ford to recognize them directly instead of waiting for the government's stamp of approval.

They went through the election and of course they won it.

From the moment of the victory, history was rewritten to obliterate the fact that it had been the workers' own organized strength and determination to act that had built their union. Nonetheless, it was not the vote, but the determination of the most militant workers to organize a fight of their fellow workers which had forced Ford to accept the union.