Richard Frankensteen, the UAW's 'other guy'

Three Ford security men approach UAW organizers just before the Battle of the Overpass in 1937. The union men are, from left, Robert Kanter, Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen and J.J. Kennedy.

He’s the “other guy” in the world famous 1937 photograph “Battle of the Overpass.” Beefy, young and confident, he stands grinning, flanked by three other UAW organizers including Walter P. Reuther, a young zealot Frankensteen recently had hired. In the background three Ford servicemen advance menacingly toward them atop the Miller Road overpass near Gate Four of Ford’s gigantic Rouge complex.

The battle marked the turning point for organized labor in winning recognition for auto workers.

On that steamy May morning, Frankensteen had felt secure directing the organizing drive despite the fact they were trespassing on the battlements of Henry Ford’s industrial fortress in Dearborn.

After all, Frankensteen reasoned, they weren’t there to storm the gates or even distribute pamphlets. Others would handle that. This would be a reconnaissance mission. Perhaps more importantly, there were newsmen and photographers crawling all over, sniffing for blood.

Other union organizers had warned of danger, and an anonymous telegram to Frankensteen predicted trouble.

Ford goons pulled Frankensteen’s coat over his head and began beating him.

      “They won’t dare,” countered Reuther, “Not with all the photographers and reporters who’ll be at the scene.”

“The very most we anticipated,” Frankensteen later recalled, “was that Harry Bennett, then head of Ford security, might order the firehoses turned on us. But we miscalculated.”

Within minutes, Ford goons pulled Frankensteen’s coat over his head as several men punched and kicked him. Ford men attacked Reuther and his companions, beating, kicking,and throwing them down the stairs of the overpass. The security force then determined to destroy evidence of the fight.

“Get them goddamn cameras!” someone yelled. “Smash ’em!”

Out of the dozens of camermen on the bridge, only a few escaped with their cameras undamaged and their plates intact. Detroit News photographer Scotty Kilpatrick was one of those. He slipped his glass photo plates recording the fight under the cushion in the rear seat of his car. Before Kilpatrick arrived back at the office, Henry Ford called Managing Editor Fred Gaertner, insisting that any pictures would show that loyal Ford workers, not Bennett’s security men, beat the unionizers.

But the smuggled photos showed that the attackers were clearly Ford security and Dearborn police, who had been summoned to protect the plant. One detective’s handcuffs showed as he lunged at Frankensteen.

“Print it!” Gaertner ordered. Then to City Editor Arthur Hataway he barked: “Tell the boys to write it as they saw it.”

Pictures and stories about the brutal assault made the newspapers throughout the world.

Reuther and Frankensteen after the battle.

      “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 labor organizing,” Frankensteen said later. It certainly had a profound effect on Frankensteen’s career as well as Reuther’s.

Overnight, both men, eager and ambitious, became the idols of auto workers everwhere. They enjoyed a meteoric rise within the union hierarchy.

Richard “Dick” Frankensteen was born in Detroit on March 6, 1907. Brought up in a Republican and Episcopalian household, he attended Central High School. “Big Dick” made all-city and all-state high school football teams. A large man who weighed more than 250 pounds, Frankensteen became a football standout at the University of Dayton, earning All-American honors in his senior year.

He worked summers at Chrysler’s Dodge plant for more than six years, beginning at the age of 15.

When he graduated from college in 1932, he was voted the most likely to succeed. Promised a teaching and coaching job, he had to look elsewhere when the school board could not to hire him due to contract negotiations. He went back to Dodge. Jobs were hard to get during those Depression years.

While working at Dodge he studied law at night at the University of Detroit.

He told reporters during an interview about his career path: “There are lots of lawyers and lots of school teachers, but there is a need for leaders among the laboring men. I feel I should do all I can.”

He rose to the bargaining council of the company union at the Dodge plant, and later became leader of the movement that reorganized it into an independent union in 1935 called the Automotive Industrial Workers Association. Frankensteen was elected its first president.

Frankensteen is shown standing at left with his arm on the shoulder of a seated striker during labor strife at the Kesley-Hayes plant in Detroit.

      He was an early opponent of outsourcing. During negotiations at the Dodge Main complex in Hamtramck he criticized Chrysler for buying parts from other companies when Chrysler workers could produce those components. Such a policy could put Chrysler employees out of work, he argued.

Chrysler countered that other companies had lower labor costs and could make the parts cheaper. By buying less expensive parts, the company could hold down prices and compete more effectively with other car makers. The debate continues today.

Frankensteen led the Automotive Industrial Workers Association on the first major organized industrial strike in the “open shop” city of Detroit in 1935.

The action met with violence chararcteristic of the period — fights between union and anti-union forces, tear-gas, clubs, bricks, blackjacks, and even the bombing of his residence. From thousands of strikers, Frankensteen selected a few hundred as his “flying squadron” to meet the challenge.

When his union amalgamated with the young United Auto Workers of America later in 1935, Frankensteen was elected to the international exective board and assigned to direct organizing efforts in Detroit. At the time the UAW had a few thousand members in Detroit plants, but by the end of 1937, membership hit 250,000.

Companies including Briggs, Packard, Murray Chevrolet and Midland Steel recognized the union as the bargaining agent for their workers. But the union had bigger fish to fry — namely Ford.

Photos and newsreels after the May 1937 Battle of the Overpass show Frankensteen and Reuther, battered and blood spattered, beaming in triumph. But the spirit of camaraderie was shortlived, dissolving quickly in a factional fight for control of the union.

Labor leaders march to Cadillac Square in Detroit in 1937. From left, UAW officials Richard Frankensteen, Wyndham Mortimer and Ed Hall and Leo Krzycki of the CIO.

      When the National Labor Relations Board opened hearings on the brutality of the Ford incident, Reuther and Frankensteen were called as key witnesses. Reuther used the opportunity to schedule another mass distribution of union literature at the Rouge plant to send a message that the UAW had not been frightened off. It also put a clear Reuther imprint on the Ford organizing drive. Reuther skipped a meeting of the union’s executive board to work the crowds at the Rouge complex and received an irate phone call from Frankensteen, who was cooped up at the meeting, demanding that he show up.

“Go to hell,” Reuther shouted into the phone. The battle for control of the UAW was on.

Backed by UAW President Homer Martin, Frankensteen won the vice-presidency of the international union in 1937. But in 1939 Martin was ousted as president by R.J. Thomas, and Frankensteen lost as well.

During World War II he was appointed to the National War Labor Board and the National War Production Board by President Franklin Roosevelt. He was appointed by Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) President Philip Murray in 1941 as national director of efforts to organize workers in the expanding aviation industry during the war years. He retained the post when the UAW was given jurisdiction over the industry in 1942.

The power struggle turned ugly at the UAW’s convention in 1943 in Buffalo when Reuther delegates attacked Frankensteen and George F. Addes, secretary-treasurer of the UAW, for their support of piecework and incentive pay in auto plants. The Reuther faction circulated a campaign ditty to the tune of an old ballad, “Reuben and Rachel,” that suggested Frankensteen and Addes were taking orders from Joseph Stalin.

The verse went:

“Who are the boys who take their orders
Straight from the office of Joe Sta-leen?
No one else but the gruesome twosome,
George F. Addes and Frankensteen.
Who are the boys who fight for piecework,
To make the worker a machine?
No one else but the gruesome twosome,
George F. Addes and Frankensteen.”

Other verses, some unprintable, added spice to the doggerel.

In the end, the convention endorsed a Reuther resolution opposing piecework and incentive pay and Reuther defeated Frankensteen in a race for first vice-president. Addes narrowly kept his office.

Frankensteen addresses sit-down strikers at the Murray Body Plant in 1937.

      In 1945, Frankensteen withdrew from union activities to make an unsuccessful run for mayor of Detroit. A year later, at the UAW’s convention in Atlantic City, Reuther finally won the union presidency in a suspenseful roll call vote that took more than four hours.

Frankensteen opened his own tool-and-die shop in 1946 but remained active in politics and labor issues. Invited to address the National Association of Broadcasters, he charged that radio had completely ignored its legal obligations to permit unbiased presentation of controversial issues, accusing them of flagrantly and conspicuously favoring employers.

On his relations with Reuther, he told The Detroit News in a 1975 interview that “in my judgement the factionalism never could have ended until Walter Reuther became president of the UAW. He wouldn’t let the fight die,” said Frankensteen. “I don’t say that as crticism of Walter. He was a very capable man who had a seething ambition which would not have ended until he got what he wanted.”

Frankensteen said he wasn’t bitter that the Reuther faction had tarred him and Addes as communists.

“That was politics,” said Frankensteen. “I never had any political ideology.”

In later years Frankensteen became a successful management consultant. In an interview with Detroit News reporter Jack Crellin in 1975, Frankensteen stressed that through the years he had maintained good rapport with his former union associates and had never become anti-union.

“In accepting clients I have never veered from my basic philosophy that I will not accept a client who is out to smash the union or refuses to accept the concept of collective bargaining.”

In 1977, at age 70, Richard Frankensteen died. Local newspapers made little notice of his passing.

Frankesteen speaks at a June, 1937, meeting called to protest the beatings at the Battle of the Overpass at the Ford Rouge Plant.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of The Detroit News.)

By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News