Friday, July 15, 2016

The UAW Local 879, 75 years ago: Ford, FDR, and the hard-fought battles behind the launch of this legendary labor leader.

Local 879, seen in this solidarity march in St. Paul, was a national leader
during the 1980s and 1990s in promoting workers' rights and fair trade.
Image from the author's collection.


Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, vowed on many occasions that he would never allow a labor union. When workers at a plant in Buffalo, New York, walked out in a wildcat strike in 1912, he shut the facility down. No one ever doubted his resolve.

So how did the United Automobile Workers (UAW) manage to organize the Ford Motor Company seventy-five years ago? It took the concerted efforts of tens of thousands of workers, the determination of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Walter Reuther of the UAW—and most importantly, an ultimatum from Ford’s wife, Clara, who was desperately trying to save the company for their son, Edsel.

On July 18, 1941, UAW Local 879 received a charter to represent workers at Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant. Various organizations, including the UAW, had been struggling for decades to improve working conditions at the Ford Motor Company—and paying a high price for their efforts. At the Ford Hunger March in 1932, which started in Detroit and ended in Dearborn, Michigan, four workers protesting unemployment during the Depression were shot and killed by police and Ford service agents. Dozens more were injured.

This Newsweek Magazine cover from June 5, 1937,
has the caption "Dearborn: No Trespass!"
Image from the author's collection.

FDR’s New Deal programs brought hope to the workers of America but apprehension to Henry Ford, who suspected a plot to unionize his workforce. He refused to go along with the National Industrial Recovery Act, setting up a confrontation with Roosevelt—the first of many. Ford was disqualified from bidding on federal projects in 1934. The following year, Roosevelt secured passage of the National Labor Relations Act, which made it easier for unions to organize. In 1937 the UAW introduced a new tactic, the sit-down strike, and organized General Motors and Chrysler. Buoyed by that success, Reuther led a march in Dearborn to distribute flyers at the Ford River Rouge plant, which had about 85,000 workers. The marchers were met by a contingent of Ford agents in what became known as the Battle of the Overpass. Reuther and other union organizers were severely beaten, and many bystanders were hurt. Newspapers and magazines published a number of iconic photographs of the mayhem, including one that received a Pulitzer. These images showed a shocked nation what the Ford service department had become: a gang of thugs. Henry Ford was oblivious to the harsh criticism and continued to oppose virtually all of Roosevelt’s programs. David Halberstam wrote in The Reckoning of Ford’s bizarre behavior: “No one could reach the old man anymore. It was a spectacular self-destruction, one that would never again be matched in a giant American corporation. It was as if the old man, having made the company, felt he had a right to destroy it.”

Occasionally it would be standing-room-only at Local 879 Hall, with some
workers outside looking through the window (at rear). The building
is now owned by Erik's Bike Shop.
Image courtesy UAW Local 879.

As a result of the Battle of the Overpass and other egregious labor violations, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered Ford to stop interfering with the right of workers to organize. Ford refused and challenged the legitimacy of the NLRB in court. Even after the case was rejected by the Supreme Court on February 10, 1941, Ford still refused to comply. Fed-up workers at the Rouge plant walked out on April 1, eventually shutting down all Ford operations throughout the country, including the Twin Cities Assembly Plant. As the labor battles were ongoing, Roosevelt was preparing for a different kind of battle: war in Europe. American manufacturers were generally cooperative with the military preparedness effort but Ford was characteristically defiant, in part because of his pacifist beliefs. Roosevelt and the military made it clear that the country needed the industrial might of the Ford Motor Company. In August 1940, Ford was awarded a contract to build airplane engines, followed by orders for armored cars and trucks. This was strongly opposed by the UAW, which had still not organized Ford three years after GM and Chrysler. They claimed that Ford was anti-labor, unpatriotic, and a Nazi sympathizer. There was a perception that an increasingly senile Henry Ford was dragging his feet on fulfilling the military contracts. Roosevelt threatened to take over the company. In an effort to tame the “rugged individualist,” Roosevelt had employed federal procurement policies, labor regulations, and a threat to nationalize the company—all without much success. Ford finally capitulated after receiving an ultimatum from Clara to sign a labor contract or she would leave him.

A union election was held on May 22, 1941, which the UAW-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) won in a landslide. A broken Ford agreed to a contract that was signed on June 20. “The company granted the union everything it asked and threw in the union shop and check-off [dues collection] gratis,” the New York Times reported. The national contract would also apply to all branch plants after local ratification.

Labor activists in the Twin Cities were fortunate that they were not subjected to the violence that often accompanied organizing campaigns in Detroit. Several retired auto workers who participated in an oral history program in the late 1990s described the brutal working conditions at the Twin Cities plant in the 1930s, which were comparable to those at ten other Ford branch plants that had filed complaints with the NLRB. The CIO had sent an organizer to lead the local campaign. Clandestine meetings were held in living rooms, and at a Plymouth garage on Lake Street, Minneapolis, which was under surveillance by Ford agents. Workers knew there were company spies at the plant and that they risked termination if they were seen at any union meetings. The Twin Cities Assembly Plant reopened several weeks after the national labor agreement was signed in Detroit. On June 27, more than 1,200 workers attended an evening meeting in St. Paul and 900 signed union membership cards, giving it the needed majority. On July 18, 1941, the Twin Cities plant was issued charter No. 879 by the UAW-CIO. Local 879 opened an office at 444 Rice Street in St. Paul. Several weeks later a delegation from Local 879 met with Ford representatives in Chicago to learn the details of the union contract negotiated in Detroit.

UAW President Walter Reuther (shaking hands at right) presided
at the opening of the new Local 879 Union Hall on Ford Parkway,
St. Paul, in 1955.
Image courtesy UAW Local 879.

After many years of struggle to win the right to represent workers, the UAW had to abruptly redefine its mission. The first priority was to protect its members, as the plant was being converted from civilian production under Ford to military production under the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). As car production was being phased out, labor leaders at the local, state, and federal levels lobbied to keep auto workers employed in defense industries. On December 7, 1941, five months after the formation of UAW Local 879, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war.

Ford closed the Twin Cities Assembly Plant in 2011. The charter of UAW Local 879 was terminated two years later after it sold its union hall and transferred responsibilities for retirees to another UAW local in Minneapolis.


Brian McMahon is author of The Ford Century in Minnesota, forthcoming later this year from University of Minnesota Press. A trained architect, McMahon has lectured and written extensively on industry, urban history, and architecture and has developed and designed several exhibits for museums and galleries in New York and Minnesota.

"Brian McMahon has done an outstanding job of showing how the top and bottom layers of the industrial hierarchy viewed reality—and how they saw and influenced each other."
—Peter Rachleff, Macalester College

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