The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management
The Battle of the Overpass (1937)
Four men being beaten up and badly injured on 26th May 1937 (pictured right) by around 40
of the Ford Motor Company’s security men.
Where did it happen?
On a pedestrian overpass (or bridge) outside Ford's River Rouge factory, near Detroit, USA.
What were the four victims doing?
Distributing to Ford’s workers labour (or trade) union recruitment leaflets (for the car
workers’ union, the United Automobile Workers, UAW)
A labour (or trade) union is...
An organization that promotes the interests of its members.
So its main aim is recognition, the power to negotiate (or jointly
decide) its members’ pay and working conditions with employers in a process called collective
The four injured men wanted Ford to recognize the UAW in this way.
The four men were...
(who became leader of the UAW in 1946, pictured right).
(who had his back broken).
Their opponents were...
Ford (pictured right)
Ford’s strongly anti-union founder and boss.
Harry Bennett (pictured right)
Ford’s labour relations boss
- hired thugs to beat up union organizers.
- had links with the Mafia (one of them was in the Battle of the Overpass).
Why the battle was important
1. Bad publicity
Photographs of the battle were published nationally and lost Ford public support.
Scotty Kilpatrick (pictured right) won the Pulitzer Prize for the photographs.
Henry Ford and his managers believed in:
Ford didn’t want the UAW:
- interfering in his company.
- having negotiating rights over pay and working conditions.
b) F.W. Taylor’s (pictured right) scientific management
This is based upon:
- strict worker control and supervision.
This is sometimes called Fordism,
c) autocratic management
Telling workers what to do without union interference.
3. Workers’ welfare
Ford workers were badly treated – see next section.
Why was work at Ford so bad?
1. Assembly line (pictured right in
Workers had to do boring, repetitive, noisy jobs on the line very quickly (famously caricatured by Charlie
Chaplin in his 1936 film, Modern
Worst of all, they couldn’t control the line’s speed.
Ford hired spies to discover:
- talking on the job (which was banned).
- time wasting (there were even TV cameras in the toilets!).
Strain and anxiety gave workers stomach trouble (called the “Ford Stomach”).
In 1914 Henry Ford gave his workers a huge $5 a day.
But by 1937 other car manufacturers (like his big rival, General Motors) had caught up.
Ford’s managers were:
Falling sales of Ford’s Model T led to:
- price cuts (resulting in extra pressure on workers to produce more
Key events in American labour union history 1806-1922
1806 Commonwealth v. Pullis
Court case declaring that unions were illegal (a decision reversed by Commonwealth v.
Hunt in 1842).
1877 Railway strike
Ended with the help of government troops.
1877 Hanging of ten Irish American coal mining activists in
They were members of the “Molly Maguires”, a secret worker organization.
1886 The Haymarket Bombing
Strikers (protesting for an eight hour day) were:
- bombed in Haymarket Square, Chicago.
1894 Pullman strike
Two month unsuccessful strike by Pullman railway workers, ended by:
- imprisonment of the strike leaders (including Eugene Debs, pictured
right, who helped found America’s first industrial union, the American Railway Union in 1893).
1902 Coal strike
Gains miners a:
1912 Lawrence textile strike
Successful strike (largely by women) in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
1913 Paterson strike
A strike by silk industry workers in Paterson, New Jersey, who are starved into
1914 The Ludlow Massacre
Striking miners in Ludlow, Colorado, are machine gunned, killing:
1919-20 Steel workers’ strike
Unsuccessful strike to win union recognition.
1922 National railway strike
Key union events before the Battle of the Overpass
1932 Ford Hunger March (pictured
3,000 hungry protesters (mainly unemployed) attacked by police and Ford’s security guards, near Ford’s River
Rouge factory in Detroit .
Five were killed and over 60 injured.
1935 The United Automobile Workers union (UAW) founded
1935 The National Labour Relations Act (often called the Wagner
Requires employers to negotiate with unions supported by employees.
1936-7 Sit-down strikes at General Motors (pictured right) and Chrysler
Forced Ford's two main competitors to negotiate pay and working conditions with the UAW.
What happened after the Battle of the Overpass
1941 A strike at Ford
Forces Henry Ford (whose reputation was badly damaged by the battle) to accept and negotiate with the UAW.
He was encouraged to do so by his:
- son, Edsel (pictured right above).
1946 Walter Reuther elected as leader of the UAW
1947 Taft-Hartley Act
An anti-union law that banned:
- closed shops (which had forced employers to hire only union members).
- mass picketing (that prevented non-union members going to work).
- secondary picketing (of companies not directly involved in a dispute).
- some forms of strike action (e.g. political strikes).
1948 Walter Reuther's assassination attempt
Reuther was seriously wounded.
1955 AFL-CIO merger
Merger of America’s two largest union organizations - the:
- AFL (American Federation of Labour).
- CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).
1979 UAW membership peaks at 1.5 million
2009 UAW membership at 355,000
Membership drops after the bankruptcies of:
- General Motors (saved by a government bailout).
- Chrysler (sold to the Italian car maker, Fiat).
American unions today
The percentage of all American employees in unions dropped from
- nearly 36% (in 1945) to...
Because of a higher proportion of government union employees, the fall is even more dramatic for businesses -
from a third to 7.2%. Why?
Cheap foreign competition that encourages businesses to:
- cut costs (particularly highly paid American union workers).
American companies make unions less attractive by:
- providing good wages and working conditions.
3. Decline of manufacturing
The old industries where the unions were strong (like rail, steel,
coal and cars) have declined.
New, expanding industries (e.g. computers and services) are much less unionized.
People felt they were doing well enough without unions.
Machines replacing people.
6. Mafia connections
The unions’ image was tarnished by Mafia involvement (particularly in the Teamsters’ Union in the 1950’s).
It was hell in there.
- Dave Jones (on working at Ford in the 1930’s).
Unionism, not Fordism
- the title of the union leaflet distributed by the four injured men during the Battle of
We expect the men to do what they are told.
- Henry Ford.
There is no greater calling to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the
- Walter Reuther.
Don’t mourn – organize!
- Joe Hill, pictured right (American union organizer, just before he was executed in 1915).
In the name of my murdered brother, I call upon you to organize and fight. Long live the workers of the
- Ben Bussell (brother of Joe Bussell, pictured right, killed at the Ford
Hunger March in 1932).
Ford and unions in films
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern
Based on Ford’s assembly line (pictured right with Chaplin on the left).
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Based on John Steinbeck’s book about migrant workers' struggle for survival and union
recognition in 1930’s California.
Green Was My Valley (1941)
About life in a Welsh mining village, dominated by the coal mine and the miners’ union.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Stars Marlon Brando (pictured right), who stands up to the Mafia union thugs in the New York docks.
The story of a miner’s son, who becomes a great ballet dancer, is set during the British 1984-5 miners’ strike.
Ford and unions in books
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
Ford’s philosophy of autocratic management becomes a religion whose:
- symbol is T (a cross without the top bit), referring to Ford’s Model T car.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – see above.