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The Battle of the Overpass

By Curtis Hansen

On May 26, l937, Walter Reuther, President of United Automobile Workers Local 174 and three fellow UAW organizers-Richard Frankensteen, J.J. Kennedy and Robert Kantor-climbed the stairs of a footbridge over Miller Road. The overpass led to Gate No. 4, the primary entrance to the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge industrial complex. The men anticipated this would be a peaceful distribution of union literature by the ladies auxiliary of Local 174. At Reuther’s request, several neutral observers were also present, including members of the clergy, reporters and photographers.

Reuther was not able to present his city permit for leaflet distribution to anyone that morning. Within moments he and his associates were in the midst of the “Battle of the Overpass.” When it ended Reuther and his men found themselves at the bottom of the steel steps leading to the overpass. They had been thrown down the stairs by members of Ford’s Service Department.

Dearborn was the home of Henry Ford and the car company named for him. As the major employer in Dearborn, Ford possessed tremendous political and economic clout. His cousin was Mayor of the city and the Chief of Police was a former Ford security officer. Ford tried to nurture an image of himself as a benevolent father figure. In an attempt to set his company apart from the other auto makers, Ford claimed that no union was needed at the Ford Motor Company to take care of the needs of his workers; his personal control and management of the company would best serve his employees.

The Ford Service Department was established to maintain control over the company’s assembly line workers and to keep unions out of the plants. Ford appointed Harry Bennett to run this portion of the business and he was given a free hand to do so. Bennett was a Navy veteran, a talented boxer, and he enjoyed the company of athletes, particularly wrestlers, football players and boxers. Bennett was also confrontational, always ready to assert himself physically. In addition, Bennett’s lack of an education and management experience matched Ford’s general distrust of formal education and position in society as benchmarks of success. As head of Ford’s Service Department, Bennett was arguably the most powerful man at Ford Motor Company with the exception of Ford himself.

Bennett employed many techniques to control the company’s industrial workers. He hired and fired employees in a capricious manner. Union sympathy or activity meant immediate dismissal, and with poor wages, no paid holidays or vacations and no job security, employees were very vulnerable. Intimidation and attacks by his “Servicemen” were commonplace, and a spy network within the factories kept Bennett well-informed. Inside and outside the plants, his men observed union meetings, followed suspected unionists and lurked outside their homes. They also eavesdropped on conservations on the shop floor and in taverns, groceries, restaurants and other public places. Bennett recruited his men among former convicts with violent criminal histories, street thugs and other assorted ruffians that he could find. He maintained connections with the criminal elements in Detroit and the “Down River” suburbs south along the Detroit River as well. The Service Department also kept UAW Local 174, the unit charged with organizing the Rouge Plant under constant surveillance. This made organizing an uncertain and dangerous proposition.

Both Miller Road and the overpass itself were considered public thoroughfares, yet when Reuther and his colleagues arrived, a large group of Ford “Servicemen” approached the four UAW members. Reuther and his companions were told to leave, allowed no time to respond or withdraw and immediately attacked by the Ford thugs. They were punched, kicked, and picked up, slammed to the ground repeatedly, and after a severe beating, tossed down the stairs to the road below. Although the number of attackers is disputed--possibly as many as forty--their vast numerical superiority overwhelmed the union members who were caught by surprise. Once down on the road, Reuther and his companions were able to get to a car and leave the scene. The ladies passing out the organizing materials on Miller Road were also attacked and forced to flee to their waiting buses for safety.

Meanwhile, down on Miller Road, Katherine Gelles, commander of the Ladies Auxiliary of UAW Local 174, and her associates received similar treatment. As the women attempted to pass out their leaflets entitled “Unionism not Fordism,” they were harassed, punched, kicked and forced back onto buses by another group of Servicemen. Many were injured, some seriously, such as William Meriweather, who was brutally beaten as he tried to assist the ladies. He suffered a broken back and internal injuries. The Dearborn Policemen on the scene watched as the attacks took place and made no attempt to restore order.

In addition to assaulting Reuther and his colleagues, the attackers attempted to intimidate the reporters and photographers. They tried to seize cameras and film to eliminate the images, which would vividly illustrate the level of the brutality. They were largely successful but some photos survived, including those taken by James “Scotty” Kilpatrick of the Detroit News. His famous sequence depicting the attack on the UAW members shows the story as it unfolded prior to the actual attack, and through to its conclusion. When the “Servicemen” attempted to seize the film shot by Kilpatrick, he concealed it, and instead handed them blank film.

The “Battle of the Overpass” is one of the most famous events in the history of the American labor movement. The national attention garnered by the photographs and the subsequent hearings provided damning evidence of the methods utilized by Ford and other companies to fight unionism. This victory in the public consciousness was vital to further advances by organized labor. The testimony given by the outside observers, the medical people who treated the injured, and especially the widespread publication of the photographs swayed public opinion in favor of the UAW and left Ford with a black eye. Also, as a result of this episode, his first appearance on the national stage, Walter Reuther emerged as an important leader within the UAW. This episode was an important step in the UAW’s successful drive to unionize Ford Motor Company, the final holdout among the Big 3 automakers. The “Battle of the Overpass” set in motion the series of events, which after four years of effort, resulted in a crippling strike at the Rouge Plant, the successful NLRB election and final recognition of the UAW by Ford Motor Company, in May 1941.

Although no single work has been done on the “Battle of the Overpass” other books can enhance knowledge of it and of the UAW struggle during those early days.

Revised October 2005.
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