Battle of the Overpass

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Battle of the Overpass

United States 1937


Henry Ford, the noted automaker and founder of Ford Motor Company, remained adamant in his antiunion opinion from the first unionizing attempts at his company in 1913. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had attempted to unionize Ford workers; Ford upped wages to $5 a day to appease them. As unions continued trying to get a toehold in the plant, Ford fought back increasingly harder. He went as far as to establish a faux union called the Knights of Dearborn, which was both antiunion and anti-Semitic.

Ford Motor Company was the only one of the so-called Big Three automakers that was not yet unionized by the late 1930s. As a result, employees were being paid about 5 cents less per hour than other industry workers and 10 cents less than Chrysler or General Motors (GM) workers who were represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW). Ford's biggest property was the River Rouge facility in Dearborn, Michigan, which housed some 85,000 to 100,000 workers. It was commonly referred to as either the "Sweat Shop" or "Butcher House" by employees.

The UAW's attempt to organize Ford employees involved in a bloody confrontation with Ford Motor Company henchmen occurred in May 1937. The Battle of the Overpass, as this bloody skirmish became known, precipitated the UAW's focused efforts to organize the River Rouge plant. The incident remains among the most enduring events in the United States' labor movement. The widely publicized accounts and images of the event also served to turn public opinion in favor of the union and made public Ford's brutal reign of fear.


  • 1922: Publication of James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land—works that will transform literature and inaugurate the era of modernism.
  • 1927: American inventor Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrates a working model of the television, and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître proposes the Big Bang Theory.
  • 1932: In German elections, Nazis gain a 37 percent plurality of Reichstag seats, raising tensions between the far right and the far left. On a "bloody Sunday" in July, communists in Hamburg attack Nazis with guns, and a fierce battle ensues.
  • 1937: Italy signs the Anti-Comintern Pact, signed by Germany and Japan the preceding year. Like the two others before it, Italy now withdraws from the League of Nations.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 1937: Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
  • 1937: In the middle of an around-the-world flight, Amelia Earhart and her plane disappear somewhere in the Pacific.
  • 1937: Crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, kills 36 and ends the brief era when rigid airships promised to be the ocean liners of the skies.
  • 1937: Pablo Picasso paints his famous Guernica mural dramatizing the Nationalist bombing of a town in Spain. Thanks to artists and intellectuals such as Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, the Loyalists are winning the battle of hearts and minds, even if they are weaker militarily, and idealistic young men flock from America to join the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." Yet as George Orwell later reveals in Homage to Catalonia, the lines between good and evil are not clear: with its Soviet backing, the Loyalist cause serves as proxy for a totalitarianism every bit as frightening as that of the Nationalists and their German and Italian supporters.
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circle to the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1947: Establishment of the Marshall Plan assists European nations in recovering from the war.
  • 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Event and Its Context

Working in Fear

During the 1930s, fierce battles raged between employers and workers who were trying to unionize. Thuggery seemed endemic to big industry. GM reportedly spent an estimated $1 million during an 18-month period on private detective services specifically to subvert labor activity. In 1935 Carnegie Steel was giving an added $25 per month to its company finks, those employees who informed on employees who were "talking union." Third-party companies such as Pinkerton National Detective Agency supplied private security to corporations throughout the country and thrived in these conditions. Pinkerton is said to have made $1.7 million between 1933 and 1936 for providing these types of services.

Among the most blatant employers of these tactics was Ford Motor Company. At its River Rouge facility, there were some 9,000 paid informants on the payroll; hidden microphones placed throughout the plant facilitated eavesdropping on union organizing. "We'll never recognize the United Automobile Workers union," said Henry Ford in 1937.

John Bruggemann, writing in Social Problems, described the huge plant as "an incomparable triumph of industrialization … a highly refined, scientifically managed model of manufacturing production." In 1937 there were more than 84,100 workers at the River Rouge facility, although some sources give the number as high as 100,000. Henry Ford was seen as a paternalistic employer who adopted an extreme antiunion position, as exemplified by his establishment of the Service Department, the intimidating corporate security force. The environment was compared to a "gigantic concentration camp founded on fear and physical assault." Ford had previously purged the plant of union members or suspected sympathizers.

The UAW had, prior to this particular organizing drive, typically distributed materials to workers in their native languages of Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, and Italian. They also purchased prounion advertising on Polish-language radio and billboards throughout the area. Organizers also had support from union members at Chrysler and GM. With the benefit of the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Wagner Act in April 1937, the union decided to accelerate its attempts to organize at Ford Motor Company.

A Wary UAW Plans to Leaflet Ford

Organizers for the UAW carefully conducted strategy meetings well away from the shadow of River Rouge. They decided to select a day on which they would distribute union literature outside the plant. Well before the event, leaders scouted areas around the plant, including a pedestrian bridge, at least twice. This pedestrian overpass adjoined the Rouge River plant with streetcar lines used by employees. It had been constructed to keep traffic on Miller Road flowing at shift changes. This was also the entry to Gate 4 of the Ford Motor Company River Rouge complex, the busiest gate at the plant.

Typically, any literature distribution was governed by city ordinance. The union leaders obtained from the City of Dearborn a permit to distribute literature. The leaflets read "Unionism, Not Fordism." The content was primarily reprinted information from the Wagner Act, which in part provides workers with the legal right to organize without employer interference. About 100 members of the UAW women's auxiliary were also mobilized for this event. The simple plan was to distribute literature at the shift change.

The union leafleteers planned to spread out around the plant perimeter on 26 May 1937, just before the 2 P.M. shift change, making sure they remained on public property. The overpass gave leaders a vantage point from which to observe events. Walter P. Reuther, a union organizer, reportedly had expected some confrontation and had planned accordingly. He "put on his Sunday suit, complete with vest, gold watch and chain." Reuther had invited newspapermen, priests, and local officials to attend as neutral observers.

Reuther's instincts were correct. Someone within the Dearborn Police Department tipped off Henry Ford. Reuther, Richard T. Frankensteen, J. J. Kennedy, and Robert Kantor, all union leaders, went to the overpass a little early to take photos and wait for the leafleteers to arrive. One of the local news photographers had an early deadline and asked to take photos prior to the event.

There to meet the group of four union officials were 35 to 40 members of Ford's Service Department, the company's private police force headed by Harry Bennett. They yelled "This is private property, get the hell out of here!" and immediately began pummeling the union members. The union representatives were not given time to leave or to show their permit. "The men picked me up about eight different times and threw me down on my back on the concrete, kicking me in the face, head, and other parts of my body," Reuther said. "Finally, they threw me down the stairs … [and] drove me outside the fence."

Photos document how Frankensteen was attacked, clearly showing how his coat was pulled over his head to prevent him from defending himself. He was reportedly kicked in the head, kidneys, and groin and was kicked repeatedly while on the ground. After being thrown down the stairs, three of the union leaders were able to flag down a reporter's car and were taken to a doctor. Leafleteers in other areas around the plant, and even some who were blocks away from the plant, were beaten.

Ford and African Americans

Henry Ford, by all accounts, was hard to decipher. Unlike his industrial counterparts, Ford was the first to institute a fiveday work week and the $5 day. He also hired African Americans well before other automotive companies in Dearborn followed suit. Almost half of all African American autoworkers were employed by Ford; they constituted 12 percent of its workforce and made Ford the largest employer of African Americans in the city.

Although Ford employed African Americans, they had few possible working alternatives compared to white autoworkers given the prejudices of the day. He also made connections with leaders in the community to cement a favorable position. "Thus, it is clear that whatever sense of racial fairness motivated Ford," summarized Bruggemann, "it was secondary to maintaining a cheap, docile and non-unionized labor force. Whether by design or as a convenient by-product, Ford's paternalistic relationship with black Detroit was crucial to his unrivaled leverage against autoworkers."

White employees held the highest paying jobs at the plant, including supervisory positions. Although nonmanagerial jobs were open, there were a disproportionate number of African Americans working in the most difficult and dangerous positions, such as working in the foundry. UAW organizers articulated their intent to erase any race restrictions from union membership. The union's Negro Committee was key in assuring African American participation in unionization of Ford. Photos from the Battle of the Overpass hurt these efforts. These showed African American servicemen involved in the violence, which served to escalate racial tensions among Ford workers.

Bennett and the Service Department

Ford himself was not at the crux of this altercation. Instead that position was occupied by a man who had a reputation as Ford's henchman and enforcer, Harry Bennett, who headed the so-called Service Department. This Ford Motor Company security force had some 3,000 employees, including expolicemen, convicts, and bouncers. They were also generally responsible for ensuring employee order and productivity. Bennett was undoubtedly the most powerful man at Ford Motor Company other than Ford himself. He ruled by intimidation and violence. Bennett had a network of informers within the various facilities to alert him to problems, including any union talk. These spies also commonly eavesdropped on conversations in public gathering places outside the plant as well.

"At River Rouge he has his own private underworld to terrorize the workers," wrote Benjamin Stolberg in a 1937 article in The Nation. "Ford brought into River Rouge the underworld gangs of Detroit and their leaders, who now control the plant. And the man who did this job is the notorious Harry Bennett." Stolberg boldly painted an unflattering picture of the Service Department, calling it an "industrial mafia."

Among the gangsters operating in and around Ford were Angelo Caruso, who was affiliated with the Down River Detroit gang and was present at the Battle of the Overpass, and Chester La Mare, who had a fresh fruit concession at the Rouge. "The fact is that the gangsters are in control of River Rouge today," Stolberg said in that same 1937 article. "And the leading authority on the Michigan vigilante movement among the newspapermen in Detroit told me that even Ford himself is afraid—fantastic as it may sound—of the gangster organization he has reared."

Among those within the company who were opposed to Bennett's reign of terror were Charles Sorenson, Ford production manager, and Edsel Ford, Henry Ford's son. The problem was the depth to which Bennett had insinuated himself with Henry Ford.

Although most attention has been paid to the situation that transpired outside Gate 4, farther down the road the women who were distributing union leaflets were being subjected to similar treatment. Katherine Gelles, commander of the Ladies Auxiliary of UAW Local 174, was among them. As the Service Department beat the women, the Dearborn Police looked on and never intervened. One of the clergy-member observers reported hearing the Ford employees insulting the women by yelling "all manner of vile names usually attributed to women of the streets."

The injuries to union members included skull fractures, broken backs, and internal injuries. The police reportedly impeded ambulances that were attempting to tend to the injured. J. J. Kennedy, one of the union leaders with Reuther and Frankensteen, was beaten badly and died four months later. His death was attributed to his beating.

The treatment of the third-party observers, including those reporters and photographers who documented the event, is also noteworthy. They were subjected to similar treatment at the fists of the Service Department, especially as the Ford thugs tried to take cameras and film from photographers. James "Scotty" Kilpatrick, a photographer with the Detroit News, captured the famous sequence of the attack. Kilpatrick secreted his film. When one of the Service Department intimidators demanded his undeveloped film, Kilpatrick handed them blank film. Those photographs that survived the event were distributed throughout the country. The press was filled with accounts of the event, including Time magazine, which stated, "Men with queasy stomachs had no place one afternoon last week on the overpass at the No. 4 gate of Henry Ford's great River Rouge plant." The photographs and media accounts contributed to the shift in public opinion to the union's favor.

Bennett was adamant that the Ford Service Department was not involved. He quickly issued a statement insisting the union had instigated the incident by shouting insults at passing workers. The evidence was entirely to the contrary. Time was among the publications that refuted Bennett's claims by publishing the photos and an article. In retaliation, Ford pulled all of its advertising from the publication and its sister publication for 70 weeks.

The Battle of the Overpass remains among the most enduring events in the U.S. labor movement. Crain's Detroit Business called the event "one of the most compelling moments in labor history." This particular organizing effort, however, failed. The national attention to the event and a hearing about the violence exacted against union organizers at Ford and other antiunion companies stimulated a change in public opinion. Ford remained the only one of the major automakers not to be unionized.

In the four years that followed the Battle of the Overpass, family members and others pressed Ford to halt these sorts of actions. His wife, Clara, threatened to leave him if there was any more bloodshed. After relenting on his antiunion position, Ford said, "Don't ever discredit the power of a woman."

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearings in July found Ford in violation of the Wagner Act. The NLRB described conditions at the River Rouge plant as having "many aspects of a community in which martial law has been declared, and in which a huge military organization … has been superimposed upon the regular civil authorities." The NRLB ordered Ford to stop interfering in union organizing efforts. After a major eight-day strike and election, Ford Motor Company recognized the union in May 1941.

Key Players

Bennett, Harry (1892-1979): What little factual information exists about Bennett is no doubt hyperbole. He fought hard to maintain a tough image, but many existing accounts of his personal life are contradictory. He was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father was supposedly killed in a bar fight when Bennett was a child. His stepfather was an engineering professor. Bennett ran away from home and joined the navy at 16. He was reportedly a boxer and had been a diver. He had, however, studied art, and his first job at Ford in 1917 was in the art department. Henry Ford II fired Bennett in 1945. The younger Ford made it his first order of business when he was appointed to run the company.

Ford, Henry (1863-1947): The founder of Ford Motor Company, Ford was against unionization throughout his life. He is often credited for the advent of the $5 work day, as well as for creating the eight-hour work day. He did not relent on his union stance until his wife, Clara, intervened.

Frankensteen, Richard Truman (1907-1977): Born in Detroit, Frankensteen started his career as an assembly line worker at Dodge. He first became a union representative with the Automotive Industrial Workers Association. Frankensteen was among the union leaders injured in the fighting at the Battle of the Overpass. He was the vice president of the United Auto Workers in 1937.

Reuther, Walter P. (1907-1970): Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, Reuther was an autoworker and labor organizer, the son of German immigrants. His first job was working in a Ford Motor Company plant. He was a founder of both the United Auto Workers and CIO. He participated in the first major Detroit auto strike in 1936. Reuther's ascent to prominence in the union started with the Battle of the Overpass. In the 1950s Reuther served as president of the CIO and was among those in leadership when the union merged with its former rival, the AFL. He continued to be active in union causes and the civil rights movement and tirelessly worked to revive the labor movement throughout the 1960s. Reuther died in an airplane crash.

Sorensen, Charles (1881-1968): Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Sorensen immigrated to the United States with his family in 1884. He graduated from high school in Buffalo, New York in 1896. He was an apprentice patternmaker and continued his education, taking correspondence courses in drafting and mathematics. He became a Ford Motor Company employee in 1904 as a patternmaker and foundryman. Although Henry Ford did not use formal titles in his plants, Sorensen was in charge of production between 1925 and 1944.

See also: Industrial Workers of the World; United Automobile Workers; Wagner Act.



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—Linda Dailey Paulson

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Battle of the Overpass

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