The Battle of the Overpass: How the Ford Motor Company recruited gangsters to fight the UAW

For years, the United Auto Workers union resisted the infiltration of organised crime. Instead, local syndicates hired themselves out as muscle to employers. Most notably, the Ford Motor Company’s “Service Department” enlisted an army of headbreakers under the direction of Harry Bennett, an ex-boxer turned corporate executive. The UAW weathered the resulting onslaught however, emerging as a defiantly left-wing and anti-racist force in the labour movement.

Founded in 1935, the UAW was a project of the Committee for Industrial Organization, founded by unions within the American Federation of Labour. The country’s foremost body for organised labour, the AFL pushed a strict policy of craft unionism, grouping workers narrowly by their specific occupation. In contrast, industrial unions were based on entire sectors of the economy, such as automobile manufacturing, with the CIO soon expelled from the AFL for their work. Renaming themselves the Congress of Industrial Organizations, they pushed ahead, chartering several entities which would go on to play a key role in American labour history.

Within a couple of years, the UAW succeeded in winning a contract from General Motors and Chrysler, turning their attention to the final of the the big three, Ford. Established by fascist sympathiser Henry Ford, the company combined a paternalistic attitude to its workers with a violent opposition to unions. As the story goes, Harry Bennett’s relationship with Detroit’s syndicates are believed to date back to the 1920s, with the former boxer using his contacts in the underworld to recruit for the Service Department. A particularly close associate was Chet Lemare, who was granted an official concession to sell fruit on the grounds of the company’s largest plant in River Rouge. Another was Anthony D’Anna, who won the contract to haul away cars from the same factory complex, with both men provided Ford dealerships to further cement the ties.

Outside of Detroit, New York’s Joe Adonis also received a sweetheart deal from the Ford Motor Company, whose direct engagement with organised crime to fight working-class radicalism stands as the exception for the time. Across the country, racketeers were flooding into the union movement, working with employers and the state to fight the militancy which had swept America during the Great Depression. Already, more rudimentary “labor slugging” operations were in existence, with street gangs renting themselves out to all sides of an industrial dispute. By the 1930s however, these relatively chaotic system, which thrived on conflict, was largely being replaced with a more orderly state of affairs that was based on keeping the peace, with Detroit being a notable exception.

At the heart of the matter was the differences between the United Auto Workers and their more corrupt counterparts in the organised labour, such as the International Longshoreman’s (?) Association, a highly conservative craft union which retained membership in the AFL. With the UAW firmly on the side of the CIO, their industrial structure made it harder to incorporate the small paper locals which allowed racketeers to rig the internal democracy of a union. As a result, the UAW rank and file had a far greater say in who represented them, electing officials who espoused Marxist ideas, including members of the Communist Party.

Back in 1932, the Communist Party’s Unemployed Councils had marched on River Rouge, where local police and the Ford Service Department met them with a hail of bullets. In total, five demonstrators died as a result of the violence, while dozens more were injured along with them. Harry Bennett is believed to have been present on the scene, directing his men in their bloody suppression of the Ford Hunger March. Five years later, with the UAW now banging on their door, Bennett’s goons would again shock the nation with their brutality against American workers.

As part of their organising efforts, the UAW had been leafleting on an overpass outside the River Rouge complex. Organisers Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen were present on the scene, and were being photographed by local journalists. Then, Bennett’s Service Department arrived on the scene, attacking the UAW members and attempting to seize the camera’s of the reporters. For the most part, they were successful. Fortunately for the union, James R. Kilpatrick of the Detroit News was able to smuggle out his photos, which were published in a propaganda defeat for Ford. Still, it would take three more years before the UAW finally secured recognition from the company.

UAW organiser Richard Frankensteen is attacked by several members of Ford’s Service Department while leafleting outside of the company’s factory at River Rouge.

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Independent documentaries about the politics of the modern era

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