Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ford, Dearborn, River Rouge, 1941

Striking America

By Richard E. Noble

It is difficult to believe, but 1941 was one of the highest years ever for strikes in America. Only 1919 and 1937 held more labor disturbances. One in every twelve workers went on strike that year. Strikes were so prevalent that the War Department put out bulletins showing man-days lost and critical items affected at various industries. It was not just consumer goods that were involved; it was planes, ammunition, blankets, wheels, tanks etc.
So much for those who chant about the good old days, when Patriotism bloomed and America was "one." It seems quite clear that America was never “one” at any point in its history, whether during peace or war. Presuming that all workers are Americans and believe in their own self-preservation and undoubtedly in time of war would be working towards victory, we see the magnitude of these Labor/management conflicts. It seems quite clear to me that this issue (labor/management conflict) has been probably the most important issue in America for the last one hundred and fifty years. This certainly makes one wonder why it has not gotten more serious historical, literary attention and analysis. Possible explanations could be guilt, shame, repression, denial, or suppression by those who would gain from the absence of truth and exposure on this matter. Most likely, it is a bit of all of the above.
In World War I we saw the enactment of the Sedition and Espionage acts to handle such outrageous behavior, but in 1941 a new voice was emerging. Eleanor Roosevelt in her column asked why it was always Labor who was asked to make sacrifices in extended hours and wages while nothing was expected of Management in terms of prices, profits and excessive, executive salaries.
Well, well? There is a strange voice in the wilderness. How "unpatriotic" of Eleanor. Was this new attitude due to the simple evolution of time and years? Or, was it a result of the leadership? It seems that management was using the War and its natural upsurge in patriotism to intensify its century old campaign against labor. And why not? It had worked in previous wars and conflicts.
The Ford employees in Dearborn, Michigan at the River Rouge plant, the largest automotive plant in the world at the time, began to walk off the night shift on April 1, 1941. Eleven union workers had been fired. By 3 A.M. nearly eight thousand workers were out in the streets in protest. Service department head, Harry Bennett, had been building a goon squad at the Dearborn plant for years. He had filled the plant with ex prize-fighters, jailbirds, small time gangsters and fired policeman. Their job was to spy on the employees and keep union membership at a minimum. Two huge production contracts had been awarded to Ford. The Auto Unions considered this to be a slap in the face. The Ford Motor Company had miserable relations with Labor. Ford was considered by many to be the country’s biggest violator of the Wagner Act of 1935 which guaranteed Collective Bargaining. For years Ford had also hired Negroes as a part of his anti-union, anti-strike vanguard. The blacks were ready to fight for Henry. They were up on the roof of the plant throwing metal buckets down onto the strikers below, and they were rushing picket lines with clubs and metal bars in the streets below. A race riot was in the making. The Republicans accused the Unions of taking up with Hitler. This is certainly strange talk when it was Henry Ford who held the German Cross and even refused to give it up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; when it was Henry Ford who inspired Hitler with his anti-Jew rhetoric printed in his Dearborn newspaper originated for that purpose and then circulated about the world at his personal expense under the title “The International Jew”; when it was Henry Ford who hired Charles Lindbergh who was also awarded a German Cross by Hitler and Herman Georing for help in modernizing the German Airforce. He also refused to give up his German Cross after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; when it was Henry Ford who refused in 1940 to manufacture Rolls-Royce engines because they would be used in British Spitfires; when it was Adolf who busted the unions in his own country and confiscated their treasuries immediately after taking power. If there were any Nazis in the Ford Motor Company, they were certainly not in the labor rank and file. One can certainly not make the same claim for that possibility with regards to the owner and management.
At the advice of his son Edsel, Henry capitulated with the union demands.
The Unions were happy but the general public was not. Most people were not happy with the idea of workers striking during war time. Some states wanted laws against striking initiated. Georgia wanted workers who struck during war time to be tried for treason. They, of course, didn't have those same patriotic inclinations after they had seceded from the Union and were in truth - traitors.
Shortly thereafter in Inglewood, California the workers went on strike at the North American Aviation plant. F.D.R. sent in twenty-five hundred federal troops. The strike was over. So much for F.D.R. and his bonding with the American Labor Movement. It would also be interesting at this point to have an intellectual investigation into the Morganthau files. Morganthau was supposedly in charge of keeping records on war profiteering and businesses who were trading with the enemy during World War II. Roosevelt wanted to hold such an investigation until after the war for fear that exposing such prominent businesses and champions of American industry during the war would destroy the morale of the fighting man.
I think that it is also interesting to point out that in a strike situation, it takes two to tango. Who is the greater traitor in time of War? The worker who walks off his job or the boss who refuses to negotiate? If the boss were to merely break even during a war and a worker merely to sustain his life and provide for his family's basic needs, would this not be patriotic? When the bosses refuse to negotiate during war time, is that because they fear that they will go out of business? I would hardly think so. I would like to see the profit and loss statements. I have a strong suspicion that you all know what will be found in an examination of such records.

"No Ordinary Time", Doris Kearns Goodwin.
“No Ordinary Time”, Doris Kearns Goodwin, pages 225-231.
“The Arms of Krupp”, William Manchester.