Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis (26 May 1937, Newspaper Account)

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FORD MEN BEAT AND ROUT LEWIS (26 May 1937, Newspaper Account)

The automobile industry was the leading industry in the American economy in the 1920s and 1930s, with about ten percent of Americans' annual income going to car-related items, including gasoline. As such, the industry took a great hit during the Great Depression and large numbers of employees were laid off. Believing their only chance for job security lay in unionization, automobile workers began to organize in the late 1930s. All major auto manufacturers at the time (General Motors, Chevrolet, and Ford) were opposed to unionization and employed violence and spies in an effort to resist, but the Ford Service Department, headed by Harry Bennett, was most notorious for its ill treatment. On May 26, 1937, United Automobile Workers (UAW) union organizers Dick Frankensteen and Walter Reuther and their supporters were viciously attacked as they attempted to distribute pamphlets to Ford employees. Though Ford claimed the organizers had set up the incident to gain sympathy, the attack solidified support for the UAW, which eventually won the right to unionize Ford plants in 1941.

Leah R.Shafer,
Cornell University

See also American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Automobile Industry ; Ford Motor Company ; Trade Unions ; United Automobile Workers of America .

16 Hurt in Battle

C. I. O. Leader, 7 Women Are Among Injured at Dearborn Plant

Ford Property Cleared

Fight Blocks Distribution of Leaflets—Union and Company Blame Each Other

NLRB Investigation Begun

County Prosecutor Also Taker Action—U. A. W. A. Asks National Demonstrations

Day's Strike Developments

Ford workers beat union organizers and chased them from the Ford Company property in the first battle of the C. I. O. drive at the Rouge plant. Sixteen were reported injured, including seven women. National Labor Board and Wayne County prosecutor began investigations as the company charged a "frame-up" by the union.…

Strikes in twenty-seven plants of Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube and Inland Steel, employing nearly 80,000 men, and called by S. W. O. C., began at 11 o'clock last night.…

The A. F. of L. decided to organize a new maritime department to combat the C. I. O. in shipping centers and offered an industrial union charter to a Chevrolet group in Indianapolis.…

The Ford plant at Richmond, Calif., was closed by a strike called by the U. A. W. A. Pickets barred company officials and office workers from the factory and 1,800 workers were made idle.…

Battle at Ford Plant

Special to The New York Times.

DETROIT, May 26.—An outburst of violence, in which union representatives were beaten, kicked and driven away, marked today the first attempt of the United Automobile Workers of America to organize the employees of the Ford Motor Company.

Richard T. Frankensteen, directing the membership drive in behalf of the auto affiliate of the Committee for Industrial Organization, and Walter Reuther, president of the West Side local of the automobile workers' union, were set upon by a group of employees at No. 4 gate of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn. With two other men who had accompanied them to oversee the distribution of union handbills, they were knocked down repeatedly, kicked, and finally forced away from the gate, despite efforts of Frankensteen to fight off his assailants.

Subsequent fighting, in which employees routed union representatives who had come to distribute leaflets, resulted in the injury of twelve more persons, seven of them women, the union stated.

"It was the worst licking I've ever taken," Frankensteen declared. "They bounced us down the concrete steps of an overpass we had climbed. Then they would knock us down, stand us up, and knock us down again."

Both Frankensteen and Reuther, together with several of the other victims, were treated by physicians.

Accuses Ford Service Men

Members of the Ford service department participated in the attack in an effort to block any union contact with the workers, the union charged in a statement issued later. Spokesmen for the Ford Company denied this, however, and said that the attack had been provoked when the union representatives shouted "scabs" at Ford workmen, in an effort, the company said, to provoke a clash that could be brought to the attention of the Senate's La Follette civil liberties investigation.

Two investigations of the outbreak were under way tonight, one by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board; the other by Duncan C. McCrea, Wayne County prosecutor.

In addition, the union, at headquarters guarded by a watchman with a shotgun, was endeavoring to get an inquiry on charges that the Ford company has violated the Wagner act.

Investigators for the Senate Civil Liberties subcommittee, reported at the scene to watch distribution of the union leaflets, were said to have witnessed the fighting. Frankensteen stated that he had telephoned a report of the outbreak to Governor Murphy of Michigan.

Michigan House Urged to Act

A resolution calling for an investigation by the Michigan House of Representatives was introduced in that body by Representative John F. Hamilton of Detroit.

Clergymen and other persons interested in labor problems had also been invited to be present as observers, but it was not learned how many of these had attended. One of this number, the Rev. Raymond Prior Sanford of Chicago, said that he had witnessed the fighting and had noted one incident in which policemen told workers who had surrounded a group of women union representatives not to molest the women.

The police, however, made no attempt to interfere with the workers, Mr. Sanford stated. While at the scene, the clergyman had declined to comment on the melee, replying, "Ask me somewhere else."

The drive to unionize the plants of the Ford company will not be halted, Frankensteen asserted. As part of the campaign, an appeal went out from union headquarters for support in a plan to organize demonstrations at all Ford service stations throughout the country as a protest, the leader said, against the attack on the union members.

Frankensteen declared:

"If Mr. Ford thinks this will stop us, he's got another think coming. We'll go back there with enough men to lick him at his own game."

Photographers With the Group

With two organizers, Robert Cantor and J. J. Kennedy, Frankensteen and Reuther had climbed on the overpass of the Rouge plant at Gate 4, with a group of newspaper photographers following near them. Frankensteen explained that he thought the spot a good one from which to observe the work of distributing leaflets by other representatives of the union, including women, who had come by auto and by street car.

As the fighting started, some fifty employes, many of them in work clothes, rushed forward and began beating Frankensteen and his party before the four had left the overpass. Frankensteen, 30 years old, of strong build and a former football player, sought for a moment to stand up against his nearest assailants but went down under the weight of numbers.

After he had been driven from the overpass, he attempted several times to fight back. For this reason, witness said, he apparently was more severely pummeled than the others.

Women Forced Back Into Cars

Meanwhile, others of the workmen rushed out and blocked the persons who had arrived to distribute leaflets, entitled "Unionism, Not Fordism." The women of the union party, distinguished by the green berets and arm bands of the U. A. W. A. "emergency brigade," had arrived by street car just as the fighting started.

Parties of workmen surrounded them, forcing them back into the cars, which took them from the scene. The seven women injured, according to the union, were kicked in some cases, stepped on in others, and in others, beaten.

Most of the women, however, alighted from the street cars at near-by stops, stood in the safety islands and distributed their leaflets by throwing them into the automobiles of Ford workers who passed on their way from the plant. The men who had come in automobiles to distribute handbills were unceremoniously bundled into their cars, after some allegedly were beaten, and were forced to drive away.

One organizer received a traffic summons because he left the area with his car so crowded with union men who had been forced into it by the Ford employes, the union said, that police decided he was driving improperly.

Otherwise, Dearborn police who were in the vicinity appeared only to have watched the fighting and to have kept crowds from collecting.

There were no reports of injuries among the Ford employees. So far as could be learned, the only victims of the fighting besides the unionists were several of the photographers at the scene, some of whom were halted by employees and forced to give up their exposed plates.

The outbreak occurred at 2 P. M., at the hour of changing shifts in the great plant, which employs 90,000 men, and was over in fifteen minutes. A half hour later, however, four more union members, evidently tardy, drove up in a sedan, parked on Ford property, and the driver, getting out, asked:

"Now, just where do we have to stand to pass out these handbills, boys?"

One of a group of Ford employees standing at the spot struck the driver in the face. The driver climbed back into the car and drove away.

Harry H. Bennett, head of the Ford company's personnel department, issued this statement after he had made an investigation of the disturbance:

"The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials. They feel, with or without justification, the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee sympathizes with their aims and they simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality that they could take down to Washington and flaunt before the Senatorial committee.

Charges Taunts by Union Men

"I know definitely no Ford service men or plant police were involved in any way in the fight. As a matter of fact, the service men had issued instructions the union people could come and distribute their pamphlets at the gates so long as they didn't interfere with employees at work.

"The union men were beaten by regular Ford employees who were on their way to work on the afternoon shift. The union men called them scabs and cursed and taunted them. A Negro who works in the foundry was goaded and cursed so viciously by one union organizer that he turned and struck him. That was the first blow struck, and then the workmen and the union men milled around a few minutes, punching at each other and the union men withdrew.

"I would be glad to testify before any official investigating committee and I would have no trouble convincing them that the union cold-bloodedly framed and planned today's disturbance."

Besides Frankensteen, Reuther, Kennedy and Cantor, the names of some of the injured were made public by the union as follows:

Tony Marinovich, kicked, choked and beaten: Estelle Michalek, kicked in the stomach; Catherine Gelles, kicked in the stomach; Marion Bascom, knocked down; Tillie Kaptn, arms wrenched; Julia Swierk, knocked down and kicked.

Maurice Sugar, attorney for the union, announced that a complaint had been filed with the National Labor Relations Board to bring about an investigation of the labor practices of the Ford Company, if possible. The union also made known that it had sent a telegram to all members of Congress, urging that immediate action be taken as a result of the beatings of the organizers. The leaflet which the organizers sought to distribute outlined the union program for the Ford plants as follows:

"Higher wages and better working conditions; stop speed-up by union supervision; 6-hour day, $8 minimum pay; job security through seniority rights; end the Ford service system; union recognition."

Permission to distribute the leaflets had been obtained previously from the Dearborn City Council. Mr. Bennett had said earlier today that the Ford Company would make no effort to halt the distributions, but had added that he did not know "what our men will do about it."

A group of employees, known as the Knights of Dearborn, and described as a social organization, had previously protested to the council against the granting of a permit to the union to distribute the handbills.

SOURCE: New York Times, 26 May 1937.