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Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
Henry Ford was a hero to many
working-class people. His company
offered high wages and jobs to many
including veterans, African Americans
and people with disabilities. However,
during the Great Depression of the
1930s, work rules became stricter,
wages were cut, people lost jobs and
supervisors often bullied workers.
Workers everywhere were organizing
unions to protect their rights.
United Autoworkers of America Billboard (0-8738)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
In 1934, the Congress of Industrial
Organizations (CIO) attempted to
unionize mass-production industries
across the nation such as textiles,
steel, rubber and automobiles. More
than 1.5 million workers engaged in
work stoppages.
Union Members Distributing Leaflets at the Rouge (P.833.68765.21)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
After devastating strikes in 1936 and
1937, General Motors and Chrysler
agreed to union contracts with the
newly formed CIO-affiliated United
Auto Workers (UAW). Of the Big
Three auto makers, only Ford refused
to accept the union.
Ford Motor Company Brochure claiming “there is no labor trouble
within the Ford organization” (64.167.951.7)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
In early 1937, union supporters at the
Rouge began holding rallies and
handing out newspapers and leaflets
to workers as they arrived or went
home after a day’s work.
Unionism not Fordism Leaflet, 1936 (64.167.354.1)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
These rallies could be risky since Ford
security men and Dearborn police
tried to physically prevent organizing
efforts on or near company property.
UAW auxiliary, the Emergency Brigade (EB) Woman
Speaking to Ford Security (O.8966)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
Woman, both as workers and as wives
of workers, played important roles in
the union effort.
Preparing to Distribute Leaflets at the Rouge. (833.69565-C)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
Many women were directly involved in
planning and conducting leafleting,
rallies and strikes.
Rally at the Rouge (833.69368-Q)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
The main leaflet distribution point
was Gate 4 on Miller Road. The
company built a pedestrian overpass
linking the gate with a streetcar line
across the street and then leased the
overpass to the Detroit Street Railway
Commission.
Overpass at the Rouge (P.O. 8988)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
In April 1937, the U. S. Supreme
Court upheld the Wagner Act
protecting workers’ rights to unionize.
Many workers were upset when Henry
Ford publicly announced “We’ll never
recognize the United Automobile
Workers Union or any other union.”
Hundreds of union sympathizers were
arrested in an attempt to intimidate
workers and keep the union out of the
Rouge plant.
Arrest of UAW Officers, 1938 (0-8889)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
On May 26, 1937, more than 100
women distributed leaflets along
Miller Road. Union leaders Walter
Reuther, Richard Frankensteen,
Robert Kanter and J. J. Kennedy
watched from the top of the
overpass.
Union Leaders on the Overpass, May 26, 1937 (833.68529-17)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
Members of the thuggish Ford Service
Department attacked the union
leaders. Ford executive Harry
Bennett specifically hired ex-convicts
to intimidate workers. Frankensteen
and Reuther were beaten bloody.
Ford Service Men Attacking Union Leaders, May 26, 1937 (0-4951)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
Ford security men (often called
“goons”) also assaulted the
leafleters, inflicting dozens of injuries
including a broken back and one
fractured skull.
Frankensteen and Reuther after the
“Battle of the Overpass” (833.68529)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
The “Battle of the Overpass,”as it
became known, was a turning point.
Public opinion turned quickly in the
union’s favor; however, Ford
continued its opposition to the union
organizers.
UAW Billboard, 1938 (P.833.69737)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
Union organizers continued their
pressure on Ford from 1937 to 1941.
Ford Workers Picketing (0-4622)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
On April 1, 1941 Rouge workers, fed
up with the company’s anti-union
violence, spontaneously shut down
the plant, sabotaged Ford equipment
and walked off the job. Ironically,
workers used their cars to completely
surround the Rouge during the 1941
strike.
Aerial View of Rouge, 1941 (0-4564)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
Finally, on May 21, 1941 Ford workers
had the opportunity to vote for or
against the union. The UAW-CIO
received 70% of the more than
78,000 votes cast, a more
conservative union received 27% and
Henry Ford’s proposal for no union at
all received just 3%.
Workers Voting on the Union, 1941 (833.75664.E)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
Even after the union was recognized,
workers showed their strength and
support by gathering at Gate 4 on
June 1, 1941 to hear about the
ongoing contract negotiations.
Union Rally, 1941 (95.97.4)
Organizing the United Auto Workers Union at the Rouge, 1937-41
The “Battle of the Overpass” was just
one day in the five-year struggle to
unionize the Ford Motor Company.
Michigan Governor Murray Van
Wagoner congratulates U.A.W.
President R. J. Thomas for negotiating
a contract with Ford as Harry Bennett,
Head of the Ford Service Department,
looks on.
Union Negotiations Completed, 1941 (0.8927)

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