Apr 18, 2011
In April of 1941, workers struck the huge Ford empire, shutting it down completely.
Before the strike at Ford, workers had fought a number of major battles at other companies, especially in the industrial Midwest. Ford was a bitter holdout to the end – the last of the major auto companies to be organized. But when it was finally organized, the victory at Ford cemented this fact: Industrial workers had imposed their decision to have a union on the whole capitalist class.
Ford workers took on a corporation fully committed to preventing any unionization.
Henry Ford set up a special division to set up links with churches. 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.
This was especially important in the black community given the severe racism of the time, which meant that few black workers were hired in the big plants. Ford was something of an exception.
By 1941, Ford employed more than half the black workers who worked in auto. They represented 11.5% of the Ford work force. A small number of them were even in the skilled trades.
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. None of this cost Ford much, but it let him appear as a benefactor in the black community.
Of course, most black workers were still relegated to the worst jobs. Inkster was in worse shape than the tracts of houses for white Rouge workers that Ford put up in Dearborn. And while Ford took credit for Inkster and Dearborn improvements, the few workers “lucky” enough to buy one of these ended up taking home only 12 cents an hour – the rest was deducted by Ford to pay for the work that had been done.
Ford expected his paternalistic innovations to gain him the undying support of black workers.
At the same time, he assumed that the slightly better situation of the white workers in contrast to the black workers would cement the loyalty of the whites to him.
This whole divide-and-conquer policy was a kind of insurance policy for Ford, which he hoped would counteract the abysmal working conditions, which gave all workers plenty of reason to organize.
Ford also employed an extensive army of spies and enforcers. And he had the support of the police and city officials in Dearborn, where the giant Ford Rouge complex is located.
Ford had both uniformed and private police, a 3000-strong Ford Service Department. Outside the plant, Ford Service depended on its links with area gangsters, as well as the Black Legion, to attack union organizers. 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. Violence and intimidation were the rule at the Rouge.
Anyone suspected of union activity was fired on the spot. Between 1937 and 1941, more than 4,000 workers were fired from Ford plants.
And all of this took place in the midst of the decades-long Great Depression with high unemployment and vicious speed-up in the plants.
The Organizing Campaign Begins
In 1940, the newly organized UAW began a major campaign at Ford carried on in part by union militants from GM and Chrysler, who had been part of the successful sit-down fights there, and by fired Ford activists. They canvassed house to house to find Ford workers to discuss with.
But of course the most important organizing took place inside the plant, done by the Ford workers themselves. 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 or in the bathrooms. Union literature appeared not only in English but also in Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, and Italian.
Militants from the Communist Party played the key role in this organizing drive. By 1938, the Michigan Communist Party had 2600 members, 750 in auto. The most active ones were in auto with several hundred active CP militants at the Rouge.
The CP militants had put out a shop paper at Ford all through the 1920s and into the 1930s. They had been the chief organizers of the 1932 Hunger March and the early auto unionization drives around Detroit.
Because of the CP’s reputation for fighting against racism and discrimination, the CP also had a special influence in the black community.
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 union militants in all the departments with each other. It was their work which brought together more than 1000 shop floor union militants at the Rouge, long before Ford recognized the union. It was this structure that enrolled workers in the union. In the first months of 1941, membership jumped. In a single week period, 6000 workers joined up.
On March 13, 1941, three thousand workers in one division at the Rouge sat down on the job to protest firings of unionists. 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.
Some top UAW leaders tried to head off the strike by reporting that the government had agreed to hear the UAW’s petition for a special election. But the workers were not waiting. Within nine hours, the whole Rouge was shut down.
At least 10,000 of the Rouge's 85,000 workers ringed the plant in massive 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.
Ford also had 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. They helped him try to discredit the strike, calling it unpatriotic and against the war effort. And they helped him red-bait 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 some black workers inside. He called on help from these black ministers and other influential people he had courted, and offered the workers as much as $24 a day to stay inside, an astronomical sum at the time. About 1000 workers did so, most in the foundry.
On April 2, some of those black workers inside the plant were coerced into going outside to attack the pickets at Gate 4, most of whom were white. Big photos of this confrontation appeared in the Detroit press.
The workers found ways to respond to these various attacks. Pickets offered to share their food and coffee with the workers inside the plant. Some of those workers came out to cheers. Most important of all, the black workers who had been fired at Ford for union activity were among those who led the strike.
The youth group of the NAACP were active supporters of the strike. They went to the plant and appealed to the workers inside to come out.
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.
It was obvious the workers would vote overwhelmingly for their union. But hinging recognition on this government-controlled vote symbolized what was to follow: Top UAW officials increasingly pushed workers to depend on government procedures and on negotiations between the bosses and union officials, instead of on their own forces.
On April 12, a mass meeting of nearly 20,000 workers discussed 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, and voted to continue the strike. They were outvoted, but only by a small margin. When the election was held, of course workers voted for the union – overwhelmingly.
On June 20, 1941, Ford signed a contract with UAW officials. Ford offered to set up dues check-off for the union. It was the first arrangement of its kind, and it meant that union officials at Ford did not have to worry about convincing workers to pay their dues. Dues check-off assured the union of funds, and it symbolized the fact that the unions were already 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 the workers. In so doing, he helped those officials escape control of the workers.
Nonetheless, the Ford workers had shown what was possible when workers are united, determined and organized – something we need to relearn today in this period that more and more resembles the Great Depression.
Ford workers imposed their union. They also showed how the racism and racial divisions in the work force, which are always in the interests of the bosses, can be combated. And their struggle showed that a working class even as divided as that of the U.S. can unify its forces, giving it the possibility for victories it otherwise never could imagine.