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The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management


The Battle of the Overpass (1937)

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

Famous for...

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 bargaining.

The four injured men wanted Ford to recognize the UAW in this way.


The four men were...

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

Walter Reuther 

(who became leader of the UAW in 1946, pictured right).


Richard Merriweather 

(who had his back broken).

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

Richard Frankensteen

(pictured right).


Ralph Dunham


Their opponents were...

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

Henry Ford (pictured right)

Ford’s strongly anti-union founder and boss.



Harry Bennett (pictured right)The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

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

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

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.


2. Power

Henry Ford and his managers believed in:


a) anti-unionism

Ford didn’t want the UAW:

  • interfering in his company.
  • having negotiating rights over pay and working conditions.

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

b) F.W. Taylor’s (pictured right) scientific management

This is based upon:

  • strict worker control and supervision.
  • mass production.

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?

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

1. Assembly line (pictured right in 1913)

Workers had to do boring, repetitive, noisy jobs on the line very quickly (famously caricatured by Charlie Chaplin in his 1936 film, Modern Times).

Worst of all, they couldn’t control the line’s speed.



Ford hired spies to discover:

  • union organizers.
  • 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”).


4. Pay

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.


5. Management

Ford’s managers were:

  • ruthless.
  • strict.
  • violently anti-union.

Falling sales of Ford’s Model T led to:

  • mass redundancies.
  • price cuts (resulting in extra pressure on workers to produce more cars).


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 Pennsylvania

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.
  • attacked by police.



1894 Pullman strike

Two month unsuccessful strike by Pullman railway workers, ended by:The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

  • government troops.
  • 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:

  • 10% pay rise.
  • nine hour day.


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 submission.


1914 The Ludlow Massacre

Striking miners in Ludlow, Colorado, are machine gunned, killing:

  • five men.
  • two women.
  • 12 children.


1919-20 Steel workers’ strike

Unsuccessful strike to win union recognition.


1922 National railway strike

Also unsuccessful.


Key union events before the Battle of the Overpass

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

1932 Ford Hunger March (pictured right)

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 Act)

Requires employers to negotiate with unions supported by employees.


The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

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

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

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). The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management
  • wife, Clara (pictured right).



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... 
  • 12.3% (in 2009).

Because of a higher proportion of government union employees, the fall is even more dramatic for businesses - from a third to 7.2%. Why?


1. Globalization

Cheap foreign competition that encourages businesses to:

  • cut costs (particularly highly paid American union workers).
  • produce overseas.


2. Management

American companies make unions less attractive by:

  • anti-unionism.
  • 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.


4. Prosperity

People felt they were doing well enough without unions.


5. Automation

Machines replacing people.


6. Mafia connections

The unions’ image was tarnished by Mafia involvement (particularly in the Teamsters’ Union in the 1950’s).


Key quotes


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 the Overpass.


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 weak,

- Walter Reuther.

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

Don’t mourn – organize!

- Joe Hill, pictured right (American union organizer, just before he was executed in 1915).


The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

In the name of my murdered brother, I call upon you to organize and fight. Long live the workers of the world.

- Ben Bussell (brother of Joe Bussell, pictured right, killed at the Ford Hunger March in 1932).


Ford and unions in films

The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management 

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936)

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.


How Green Was My Valley (1941)

About life in a Welsh mining village, dominated by the coal mine and the miners’ union.

 The Battle of the Overpass - Unions and Management

On the Waterfront (1954)

Stars Marlon Brando (pictured right), who stands up to the Mafia union thugs in the New York docks.


Billy Elliot (2000)

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:

  • god is “Our Ford”.
  • symbol is T (a cross without the top bit), referring to Ford’s Model T car.


John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – see above.

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