|ONLINE VERSION||MAY 2001|
|May 26, 1937 — The Battle of the Overpass|
|by Steve Babson
"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 ..."
Walter Reuther, the union organizer who suffered this beating, later rose to the presidency of the United Auto Workers (UAW) and became an internationally recognized leader of American labor. But in the spring of 1937, he was just another punching bag to the Ford Motor Company's hired goons, one of the many victims who took a beating in the "Battle of the Overpass."
The event took its name from the pedestrian overpass that linked the Ford Motor Company's giant plant in Dearborn, Michigan, with the nearby trolley lines and parking lots for its 80,000 workers. In the spring of that year, the UAW had just launched an organizing drive at Ford, hoping to build on its recent victories at General Motors and Chrysler.
But Henry Ford Sr. was determined to end the union's winning streak. "We'll never recognize the United Automobile Workers union or any other union," he said that April when the Supreme Court upheld the legal protections for union organizing embodied in the National Labor Relations Act.
There was ample evidence that he would back these fighting words. The Ford Motor Company had successfully repelled union organizing efforts since 1913, when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), first tried to mobilize Ford workers. At that time, Henry Ford Sr. deflected the union drive by doubling wages to five dollars a day, winning world-wide acclaim for his high wage strategy.
Twenty-five years later, Ford relied on the stick rather than the carrot. His weapon was the Ford Service Department, a security force of 3,000 armed men led by Harry Bennett. To staff his private army, Bennett recruited ex-police officers, prize fighters, former athletes, bouncers, and members of organized crime families in the Detroit area. Any public expression of union support invited a beating at the hands of these muscle men.
UAW Goes Underground
The strong-armed tactics had driven the UAW's organizers underground by 1937. As the National Labor Relations Board described it, the Dearborn plant had taken on "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."
It was in this atmosphere that the UAW decided to take its campaign above ground and directly confront the company's goon squad. The afternoon of May 26, some 60 UAW members and officers set out from Detroit to leaflet the Dearborn plant two miles away.
Most of the group went by trolley, but Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen and several others went ahead with the sound truck to survey the scene at Gate 4, the plant's principal entrance. While waiting for the main group of leafleters, they walked onto the overpass across Miller Road and posed for photographers.
They were immediately set upon by a group of 35 Service Department men. Without warning, they clubbed and punched the handful of organizers to their knees. "Finally, Reuther recalled, "they threw me down the stairs...[and] drove me outside the fence, about a block of slugging and beating and hurling before me."
"When we arrived at Gate 4," recalled Bebe Gelles, head of UAW Local 174's Women's Auxiliary, "we could see...Brothers Reuther and Frankensteen being severely beaten." When Gelles ran to pull three Service Department men off of a UAW man, "the three turned on me, knocking me to the ground and kicking me in the stomach, and then pushing me to the streetcar."
Beaten to Death
Dozens of UAW members were treated for lacerations and multiple bruises. Richard Merriweather's back was broken and J.J. Kennedy was also hospitalized—his death four months later was blamed on the severe beating he received at the "Battle of the Overpass."
Remarkably, Harry Bennett insisted his Service Department played no role in the battle. When Time Magazine ran a story and pictures contradicting Bennett's claim, the Ford Motor Company withdrew its advertising.
But Ford could not avoid the headline news and the father of the Five Dollar Day had become the tyrant of Dearborn. Four years later, following numerous NLRB rulings against the company and an eight-day strike, the company agreed to a representation election. The UAW won in a landslide.
Steve Babson teaches Labor Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and is the author of several books about the history of the Auto Workers.