Ford-UAW Contract

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Ford-UAW Contract

United States 1941


By 1941 the United Automobile Workers (UAW) had been successful in establishing union representation at all automotive plants in the United States except for the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford, the company's founder, was vehemently antiunion, and his position appeared firmly entrenched. Newly enacted federal labor legislation, the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) of 1935, ran counter to Ford's modus operandi. Between 1937 and 1941 almost every plant Ford operated had been brought up on charges before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the body charged with enforcing the 1935 law. The situation came to a head in 1941 after years of litigation and clear signs the company could be in financial peril if it did not submit to collective bargaining. The NLRB called an election for 21 May 1941 at all the Ford plants in Dearborn, Michigan, in which the UAW-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) had won the right to represent workers. This election paved the way for successful labor negotiations between the parties and an excellent contract for Ford union members.


  • 1921: Washington Disarmament Conference limits the tonnage of world navies.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1941: German troops march into the Balkans, conquering Yugoslavia and Greece. (Bulgaria and Romania, along with Hungary, are aligned with the Nazis.)
  • 1941: In a move that takes Stalin by surprise, Hitler sends his troops into the Soviet Union on 22 June. Like his hero Napoleon, Hitler believes that by stunning Russia with a lightning series of brilliant maneuvers, it is possible to gain a quick and relatively painless victory. Early successes seem to prove him right, and he is so confident of victory that he refuses to equip his soldiers with winter clothing.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1941: The United States initiates the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb and signs the Lend-Lease Act, whereby it provides aid to Great Britain and, later, the Soviet Union.
  • 1941: Great films of the year include The Maltese Falcon, Sullivan's Travels, Meet John Doe, How Green Was My Valley, and a work often cited as one of the greatest films of all time: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1951: Color television is introduced.
  • 1956: First aerial test of the hydrogen bomb takes place at Bikini Atoll. The blast is so powerful—the equivalent of 10 million tons of TNT—that it actually results in the infusion of protons to atomic nuclei to create two new elements, einsteinium and fermium, which have atomic numbers of 99 and 100, respectively.

Event and Its Context

Henry Ford's Antiunion Stance

By 1941 the United Automobile Workers (UAW) had been successful in establishing unions at all automotive plants in the United States except for one, the Ford Motor Company. Major manufacturers like Chrysler and General Motors had union contracts, as did others in the industry. The union and its members had struggled through hard-fought battles, including violent strikes, to organize these blue-collar workers. Only Ford had no contract with the UAW.

Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, had remained entrenched and unapologetic in his antiunion opinions ever since the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) tried to organize the company in 1913. Ford had a lengthy, well-documented history of antipathy toward labor organizations. He went so far as to establish a faux union called the Knights of Dearborn, an organization that was both antiunion and anti-Semitic. Ford was keen on pointing out that the wages of his employees were higher than wages provided by unionized plants, which was a fallacy. The company claimed its hourly wage as 90 cents per hour, yet Chrysler and General Motors were paying $1 per hour on average.

The Battle of the Overpass

No other event embodies Ford's antiunion stance more clearly than the Battle of the Overpass, a bloody confrontation between UAW leaders and Ford Motor Company henchmen in May 1937. The event occurred in Dearborn, the location of Ford's vast River Rouge industrial complex. The overpass spanned Miller Road and was a public thoroughfare. Ford henchmen approached four union leaders who had a permit to distribute literature. Taken by surprise and greatly outnumbered, the four men—Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, J. J. Kennedy, and Robert Kantor—were severely beaten and then thrown down the stairs to the pavement below. Members of the union's women's auxiliary were verbally harassed and physically attacked while Dearborn police officers stood idly by. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but many people were injured.

Ford's Service Department

The widely publicized accounts and images of the event turned public opinion in favor of the union and shed the glare of publicity on Ford's brutal reign of fear, the overseer of which was Harry Bennett. Bennett developed a reputation as Ford's henchman and headed the so-called Service Department. This Ford Motor Company security force had some 3,000 employees, including ex-policemen, convicts, and bouncers. They were also generally responsible for ensuring employee order and productivity, which they achieved through threats, fear, and intimidation.

Bennett was undoubtedly the most powerful man at Ford Motor Company besides Ford himself. He ruled through intimidation and violence. His opinions regarding unionism were firmly in line with those of his employer. 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 conversation in public gathering places outside the plant.

The Battle of the Overpass was perhaps the most flagrant violation of the Wagner Act that the manufacturer had in its lengthy, conspicuous, antilabor record.

Problems Within the UAW

For their part, the unions were beset by internal factionalism. Bennett decided to capitalize on this and take a different tack with the union. He found the perfect patsy in Homer Martin, a preacher who was viewed as a moderate within the UAW's Detroit local. Since 1938 there had been division within the local leadership with the moderate Martin on one side and fiery young unionists such as Reuther and Frankensteen on the other. Bennett shepherded Martin to a private meeting with him and Ford at the plant. They convinced Martin to engage in secret negotiations designed to force the union to retreat.

These negotiations led to a pact in December 1938, and an announcement was made about the agreements in the pact, none of which were in writing. The keystone of the pact was that the UAW consented to drop all legal actions against Ford. These actions were pivotal to developing any meaningful labor contracts with Ford, whether present or future. Not only would negating the legal actions save Ford from participating in labor negotiations, but the company also stood to save a great deal of money. Reuther was incensed and openly called Martin a traitor. From this point forward, Reuther and other leaders in the UAW distrusted Martin and Ford alike.

Some thought Martin wanted to destroy the UAW, though in retrospect, other observers note that Martin was attempting to do his best for the union. "His long career shows that he was honest and highminded, and though he was much too confiding, he tried hard to assure himself of Ford's good faith," writes Allan Nevins. Moreover, both Martin and Ford "… hoped that a settlement would prevent further violence like that of the Rouge overpass."

Martin's handling of the negotiations with Ford served only to split the union further, however. Labor leaders who agreed with Reuther's position affiliated with the CIO, while those sympathetic to Martin formed a new UAW that affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Martin placed union negotiations with Ford in even further peril.

Bennett knew the UAW-AFL was short of cash. He had already been successful in plying Martin superficially; now he felt it was time to get out the checkbook. He offered Martin two generous accounts and a completely furnished home. Martin not only took the payoff but also wrote an effusive letter of thanks to Bennett. Now Ford Motor Company had the UAWAFL under its control, complete with evidence of all that had transpired.

The AFL-affiliated union did gain some rank-and-file support, but the UAW-CIO was keen to organize the company and eliminate forever all Ford-endorsed violence. In early 1940 the union gained additional assistance from the CIO in its continuing efforts to organize Ford employees. The United States Supreme Court further helped organizing efforts at the Rouge. The justices refused to review an NLRB decision ordering 22 workers who had been fired to be reinstated with back pay. These men reportedly returned to work wearing union buttons. Sporadic sit-down strikes occurred after this, but there was no clear management direction on how to handle the union.

The head of the local organization was Michael F. Widman, a staff member of the CIO. By December 1940 there were 14,000 union members. In 1941 the pressure asserted by the UAW-CIO intensified. Leafleting outside the plant was common, and workers were openly wearing union badges. Religious leaders sympathetic to the UAW provided support to the workers, as did personnel in other local organizations. By mid-February 1941 Rouge workers were joining the union. The motor building, for example, was 95 percent union. Local leaders were optimistic at the prospects.

The Strike

The UAW-CIO asked the NLRB to hold an election at Ford to determine which union would represent workers at the plant. The company stalled. The entire UAW grievance committee, consisting of eight men, was fired 1 April 1941. Immediately the workers decided to strike, though there was no endorsement or call from the union to initiate the work stoppage. An estimated 1,500 steelworkers in the Rouge rolling mill shut down their operations, and other workers quickly followed suit. Work was halted instantly in three buildings in the complex. Soon the entire plant, with the exception of the foundry, was closed. The union ultimately endorsed the action.

Strikers 50,000 strong picketed and blockaded the Rouge. One organizer describes the moment as heady, with workers singing and cheering, "a wonderful experience, to walk out along with all those men determined on one thing, through Gate Four [the main entrance]." The observer continued, "No supervisor, no officer of the Ford Motor Company, neither Harry Bennett nor any service man, dared say us nay."

Unfortunately, Ford's Service Department was still inside the plant, as were an estimated 1,000 to 2,500 African American workers recruited to assist the thuggish security force. Although the strikebreakers were promised safety, these recruits engaged in questionable conduct, according to author Robert Lacey. Some of them reportedly "smuggled in alcohol and started drunken races through the plant machinery, driving new cars. Valuable drafting-room blueprints were used by the strikebreakers as mattresses." Other accounts confirm this and other damage to the plant at the hands of the scabs. Some African Americans left the plant at the insistence of the NAACP, but many company loyalists stayed to oppose the strikers.

Ford wanted Bennett to handle the situation alone, but Bennett was not even talking to the UAW-CIO. Both Henry Ford and his only son, Edsel, were in poor health at the time of the crisis. Edsel had been on vacation but returned early when he heard that Bennett was mobilizing the Service Department. Edsel refused to assist and insisted that his father assume full responsibility for the negotiations.

Fistfights broke out in the plant, and some of the men started using iron shafts as weapons. An estimated 150 people were injured in fights on 2-3 April. A local radio station aired encouragement for the strikers and broadcast regular updates. Ford wanted any means used to extract the striking workers. The company appealed to the state and federal governments for assistance. Michigan governor Murray Van Wagoner managed to keep negotiations active for 10 days. The strike was settled on 11 April, and work resumed on 13 April. Ford agreed to reinstate five of the eight men fired and to begin grievance proceedings; any disputes that could not be resolved would be sent to mediation. Additionally, the newest NLRB hearings against Ford were suspended, and Ford agreed to an election.

The Election and Its Aftermath

Ford had little choice but to agree to these terms. The company had been involved in the courts on a variety of labor issues for years. Clearly, if the company did not submit to collective bargaining with the union, it was sure to be deluged with even more unflattering publicity. Ford's market share had plummeted, thanks in no small part to a UAW boycott. (This drop has also been attributed to Ford's political views, including his involvement with Adolf Hitler.) The company stood to lose valuable defense contracts as labor continued to pressure the government to punish the company for its failures to adhere to national labor laws and policies. Ford had lost a $10 million contract for this very reason in early 1941. The company had no option but to acquiesce.

The NLRB called the election for 21 May 1941 at all of Ford's Dearborn plants. An estimated 78,000 ballots were cast at the Rouge alone. The UAW-CIO won the election at the Rouge with 70 percent of the vote and won just as decisively at the company's Lincoln manufacturing plant. Only 2.5 percent (1,958) of all the workers who cast ballots voted "no union." Another 34 ballots were left blank. When the results were announced, Bennett is said to have quipped that it was "a great victory for the Communist Party, Governor Murray Van Wagoner and the NLRB." In a statement issued by I. A. Capizzi, Ford's general counsel, he said it was unfortunate that Ford would have to deal with communists. "The NLRB is … [like] the so-called courts by which the Communist, Nazi, and Fascist partners purge the men who resist their tyrannies. It is a dictatorial concept imported from Europe."

Negotiations commenced on 1 June 1941 in Detroit; they were moved to Pittsburgh and then to Washington, D.C. Capizzi was the lead negotiator for the company, while Philip Murray, president of the CIO, led the UAW delegation. By 18 June 1941 Ford was being pressed to come to some agreement, but he obstinately refused to sign. He was railing, saying he would close the plant if he had to. His wife, Clara, was upset about the years of violence and bloodshed and was particularly concerned about the influence Bennett had exerted over her husband and son. That night Clara gave Henry Ford an ultimatum, threatening to leave their marriage if he didn't agree to the contract.

The UAW was ultimately able to secure better contractual terms with Ford than had been possible with other employers. Wages were increased as promised, with increased pay for night shift workers and time-and-a-half provided for overtime pay. An estimated 4,000 workers who had been dismissed for union activity were rehired with back pay. Notably, all members of the Service Department were now required to wear uniforms on the job. The union was also provided with a closed shop and a checkoff. Ford also agreed to affix the union label to its cars. The contract was considered a model and the most liberal of its day. Ford ordered Bennett to sign the contract, which he did on 20 June 1941.

After relenting on his antiunion position, Ford gave the entire credit for his change of heart to his wife. "Mrs. Ford was horrified. … She insisted that I sign what she called a peace agreement. … I felt her vision and judgement were betterthan mine," he said. "Don't ever discredit the power of a woman."

Nevins, however, says there were other tangible concerns weighing heavily on Ford. "He realized that if he let labor troubles paralyze his great plant just as it flung itself into the defense effort, the people [of the United States] would condemn him." Moreover, he knew that the more deeply the NLRB delved into the many complaints against his company, the more customer distrust, damaging evidence, and compromising headlines he would have to face.

Key Players

Bennett, Harry (1892-1979): Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Bennett was the head of the Ford Service Department, a covert group of employees whose tasks included suppressing union activity. Bennett cultivated a tough reputation that he relished. He ran away from home and joined the navy at age 16. He was reportedly a boxer and had been a diver. He had also, however, studied art, and his first job at Ford in 1917 was in the art department. He continually was at odds with the union, particularly the UAW. Henry Ford II, Edsel's son, fired Bennett in 1945. The younger Ford made it his first order of business when he was appointed to run the company.

Ford, Edsel (1893-1943): The heir apparent to Ford Motor Company, Edsel was Henry Ford's only son and the president of Ford Motor Company. His father's control was palpable, as he was majority stockholder. The father-son relationship was fraught with difficulty. Edsel finally stood up to his father during the strike that precipitated the NLRB election, demanding that the union be negotiated with immediately. He died of stomach cancer.

Ford, Henry (1863-1947): The founder of Ford Motor Company, Ford fought unionization throughout his life. He did not relent on his antiunion stance until his wife, Clara, intervened during the 1941 negotiations with the UAW. Ford is often credited for his contributions to American labor and manufacturing, as well as for creating the eight-hour work-day.

Frankensteen, Richard Truman (1907-1977): Born in Detroit, Michigan, 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 UAW in 1937.

Martin, Warren Homer (1901-1968): A preacher who was also a UAW leader in the AFL-affiliated union, Martin placed union negotiations with Ford in peril. He was considered a moderate but quickly succumbed to Harry Bennett's wiles and Ford's gifts. Martin continued to lead the UAW-AFL until he was forced from office in April 1940.

Murray, Philip (1886-1952): Born in Scotland, Murray was a leader within the United Mine Workers of America and was a founding member of the CIO. Murray became the head of the CIO in 1940. He was the chief negotiator for the UAW in its contract with Ford.

Reuther, Walter P. (1907-1970): Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, and the son of German immigrants, Reuther was an autoworker and labor organizer. His first job was working in a Ford Motor Company plant. He was a founder of both the UAW and the 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.

Sorensen, Charles (1881-1968): Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Sorensen immigrated to the United States with his family in 1884. He was in charge of production at the Ford Motor Company between 1925 and 1944. Sorensen and Bennett were locked in a power struggle throughout most of the 1930s. They agreed with their employer's view of unions, however. He was able to keep Bennett at bay until Henry Ford II assumed control of the company.

Van Wagoner, Murray Delos (1898-1986): Born in Michigan, Van Wagoner was educated at the University of Michigan. He was trained as a civil engineer but entered politics. He served as state highway commissioner (1933-1940) and was Michigan governor at the time of the union-organizing drive and elections at Ford Motor Company. He is credited with mediating the strike that ultimately laid the groundwork for the NLRB elections to be held at Ford's Dearborn plants.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Battle of the Overpass; Congress of Industrial Organizations; United Automobile Workers; Wagner Act.



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Galenson, Walter. The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Lacey, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1986.

Murray, R. Emmet. The Lexicon of Labor. New York: The New Press, 1998.

Nevins, Allan, and Frank Ernest Hill. Ford. 3 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.

Reuther, Victor G. The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW: A Memoir. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

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Hansen, Curtis. "The Battle of the Overpass." Walter P.Reuther Library, Wayne State University [cited 4 November 2002]. <>.

Stolberg, Benjamin. "Vigilantism, 1937-Part II." The Nation(21 August 1937) [cited 4 November 2002]. <>

—Linda Dailey Paulson

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