Business | Events

The Battle of the Overpass, at 75

By Bryce Hoffman / The Detroit News

Saturday, May 26, 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Overpass, the infamous encounter between leaders of a young United Auto Workers and Ford Motor Co. security men on a footbridge over Miller Road outside the company’s River Rouge complex. It would prove a defining moment in the history of Detroit and American labor.

The UAW had won its first major victory in the fight to organize American automakers with its famous Sit-Down Strike against General Motors’ operations in Flint that ended in February 1937.

By May of that year, all the big car companies had capitulated, except for one. A defiant Henry Ford still vowed that his company would never recognize the union or its right to bargain on behalf of his employees.

“Labor unions are the worst things that ever struck the earth,” he declared.

Ford treated his employees better than his rivals, and many were devoutly loyal to the man and his company. But times were changing, and Ford’s Old World paternalism was rejected by a growing number of labor militants.

Ford resented what he saw as ingratitude and ordered his private police force, the notorious Ford Service Department, to do whatever was necessary to keep the UAW out of his factories.

But the union was undeterred. It redoubled its efforts to organize Ford under the leadership of the young, charismatic labor activist Walter Reuther.

Billboards went up near the Rouge declaring “Fordism is Fascism; Unionism is Americanism,” and secret meetings were held inside the sprawling factory complex.

On May 26, Reuther and other union leaders decided to make what they characterized as a reconnaissance trip to the factory. If it was, it was a reconnaissance in force. They were accompanied by a large group of clergymen, reporters, photographers and even staffers from the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties. Scores of women from the UAW Local 174 auxiliary were on hand to pass out leaflets to workers as they filed out via the Miller Road Overpass outside Gate 4.

The footbridge had already been the scene of a bloody battle five years before that had left five workers dead and dozens more wounded. Reuther and the other UAW men knew there could be trouble this time, too. And they were not disappointed: Dozens of Ford Service men were waiting in cars outside the plant.

Detroit News photographer James “Scotty” Kilpatrick was one of the news media on hand to record the event. Just before the 2 p.m. shift change, he asked Reuther and three other UAW leaders to mount the staircase to the overpass so that he could snap a picture with the Ford logo behind them.

As the men turned to face Kilpatrick, a group of thugs rushed them from behind. Kilpatrick shouted a warning, but it was too late. The Ford Service men set upon the four union activists and began beating them savagely as the photographer’s camera snapped picture after picture.

Reuther later described the beating he received.

“Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms … and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more,” he recalled.

His companion, Robert Kanter, was pushed off the bridge and fell to the ground 30 feet below. The jacket worn by Richard Frankensteen, who headed the UAW’s Ford organizing drive, was pulled over his head, and two men held his legs apart while a third kicked him repeatedly in the groin.

Ford’s thugs then took the fight to the crowd that had gathered to support the union leaders.

One man’s back was broken, and several of the women from Local 174 auxiliary were also beaten, according to eyewitnesses.

The Dearborn police refused to intervene.

“The very most we anticipated was that Harry Bennett, then head of Ford security, might order the fire hoses turned on us,” Frankensteen told the Associated Press in a 1975 interview. “But we miscalculated.”

So did Ford.

When The Detroit News’ photographs went out on the wires, they turned the public against Henry Ford and galvanized support for the UAW.

Washington began pressuring Ford to negotiate with the union.

“That one incident — the sheer stupidity on the part of Bennett and his men — did more to build the UAW in the auto industry than any other incident in the history of organized labor,” Frankensteen said.

Four years later, the UAW finally struck the Rouge and forced Ford to recognize the union. And Reuther would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in U.S. labor history.

“The Battle of the Overpass was one of the defining moments of the UAW,” says Harley Shaiken, professor of labor studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It was comparable to the role of Lexington and Concord in the American Revolution. It was an unexpected moment that underscored a young leader and an emerging union. It was a defeat at the time, but it led to a major victory four years later.”

UAW Local 600, which represents workers at the Rouge today, will commemorate the anniversary with a breakfast on Friday and will hang a banner off the overpass paying tribute to those who fought and bled for the union.

“It means a lot. To us, it was the beginning of the unionization of Ford,” said local president Bernie Ricke.

“Things were bad at Ford then. We started out with the worst relationship and I believe we have the best relationship now.”

In fact, Ricke said the banner will read: “Working from a dark beginning towards a bright future.”

bhoffman@detnews.com  (313) 222-2443