Jul 19, 2021
This year is the 80th anniversary of the strike by Ford workers that was one of the most significant victories of the union organizing campaigns of the 1930s and 40s.
Many of those organizing drives were led by worker militants who were socialists and communists. In auto, including at Ford, many of the leading organizers were members of the Communist Party (CP). They helped organize the UAW by building networks of workers in the plants and by leading many of the strikes and sit-down strikes that forced the auto companies to recognize the UAW as the workers’ union.
By 1941, Ford was the only major auto company that still held out. Ford was violently anti-union. At the Rouge complex just outside Detroit, where about 85,000 people worked, Ford had their own private army, inside and outside the plant, for the purpose of keeping the union out. The Ford Service Department, numbering about 8,000, consisted of thugs, goons and spies, many of whom were former criminals and gangsters. They were used to identify the union organizers and supporters in the plant and then threaten them and attack them in the streets or at their homes. Many union organizers and union supporters were also fired.
Another part of Ford’s strategy to keep the union out was to hire black workers at a time when most other companies refused to hire them. Ford recruited black workers by working through ministers in some black churches. Ford hoped that these workers would be grateful and loyal to the company, even though most of the black workers were assigned to the worst jobs, like in the foundry. If that strategy didn’t work, Ford was also ready to play on divisions between black workers and white workers to keep the workforce divided.
Ford’s use of terrorism and division were among some of the obstacles that the CP militants and the other union organizers inside Ford had to overcome. Over the years, these militants built a strong network of workers throughout all the plants in the Rouge complex. This network became the basis for the union. By early 1941, thousands of Ford workers were openly wearing union buttons and union caps in the plant, defying Ford’s Service Department goons. If Ford’s thugs attacked them, they often responded in kind.
The fight of the Ford workers at the Rouge began to build. On March 13, 1941, when Ford fired some union members in one building, 3,000 workers sat down on the job in protest. On March 18, 6,000 workers in another building sat down on the job until some fired union workers were brought back to work. On March 19, workers in still another building went on strike until the company agreed to rehire fired union members.
On April 2, after Ford fired a union committeeman, workers in the rolling mill stopped work and the strike spread throughout the Rouge. By the end of the day, they had shut down entire Rouge complex. Over 80,000 workers were on strike.
Workers set up mass picket lines at all the gates and parked cars to barricade all the roads leading to the plant. Daily strike bulletins and sound trucks were used to keep the workers informed.
Ford tried to use the black workers to break the strike, offering to pay the black workers a lot of extra money to keep working. But many of the black workers joined the strike right away. Black union organizers and members of the NAACP appealed to the other black workers to join the strike. In the end, only a few black workers stayed inside.
Ford’s divide-and-conquer strategy had failed. Ford’s terrorism had failed. Ford workers had organized and fought and had brought this powerful corporation to its knees. The corporation which had vowed to never allow a union was now forced to agree to the workers’ main demand, which was to recognize the UAW as the workers’ union.
But Ford agreed under the condition that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conduct an election where the workers would have to vote to have the UAW represent them.
There was never any doubt that the Ford workers were going to vote for the UAW. A month later, they did so overwhelmingly. But Ford was trying to get workers to believe that they had to follow this government procedure before they could have a union. Ford wanted the workers to believe that what mattered was a vote, and not their organized strength and not the strike they had just carried out.
Ford proposed to begin automatically taking union dues out of workers’ paychecks and giving it over to the union, instead of having the union officials go around and convince the workers to pay union dues. It seemed more convenient. But it was a step toward putting the union leaders less under the control of the workers. It was a step toward tying the union leaders more to the company.
With the agreement of top union leaders, Ford proposed to have a grievance procedure to resolve problems and differences. Workers were told not to take their own actions to settle daily problems as they had been doing; workers were told not to stop working to get the job back of somebody who was fired, as they had been doing; workers were told to instead wait on the grievance procedure to resolve problems, which would often take months.
Ford was the last of the major auto companies to recognize the UAW. But when the Ford workers’ strike forced Ford to back down, Ford immediately took the steps that began tying the union to a way of functioning that we see in unions today.
When auto workers are ready to make a fight to defend their interests, they will have to break out of the legal rules and contract procedures that get in the way of making the kind of fight that is needed. They would do well to remember what the Ford workers did in 1941. Those workers showed the power that workers have when they are determined and make a fight relying on their own forces.