Eighty years ago this week, the Ford Motor Company won a battle but lost a war. Here we revisit the infamous story of the Battle of the Overpass.
An earlier version of this article was published at Mac’s Motor City Garage in 2015. To mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Overpass, we present a revised and expanded edition. -mcg
At the top of this page is one of the most familiar photos in Motor City history, taken on Wednesday, May 26, 1937 at the giant Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn. The scene is the pedestrian footbridge over Miller Road at Gate 4, which connected the plant entrance on the West side of the street to the employee parking lot and the Detroit Street Railway on the East side. To Ford workers, the structure was known simply as “the Overpass.”
To the right in the photograph are four representatives from the United Automobile Workers, from left: Robert Kanter, West Side Local 174 president Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, and J.J. Kennedy. On the left, moving toward them, are trained thugs from the Ford Service Department. Led by Henry Ford’s right-hand man, Harry Bennett, the Service Department controlled the Rouge plant through spying, intimidation, and muscle. Even Ford’s top executives feared the devious and violent security chief, who cultivated local politicians and mob bosses as his allies.
Reuther and his associates were on the overpass that day leading a handbill campaign to unionize the plant’s workers. And at this instant, famously frozen in time by Detroit News photographer Scotty Fitzpatrick, Bennett’s professional toughs were about to give the organizers an expert physical beating.
Moments later, Reuther was picked up and repeatedly thrown down the stairs, while Frankensteen had his suit coat pulled over his arms and head, in classic street-hood fashion, and was beaten within an inch of his life. While the confrontation is known today as the Battle of the Overpass, in truth it wasn’t much of a fight, with more than a dozen of Bennett’s paid hoodlums bum-rushing the four union men.
When Henry Ford created the five-dollar day in 1914 (read the Mac’s Motor City Garage story here) he was a progressive and an idealist, but by 1937 he had become a bitter reactionary who displayed little regard for his workers. The UAW won recognition at Chrysler and General Motors early in 1937, but Ford dug in his heels, relying on Harry Bennett and his Service Department to fight off the union organizers.
But in the end, the methods of Bennett (shown above left with Henry Ford) proved to be as ineffective as they were inhumane. Legal decisions and public opinion steadily turned against the automaker and Ford’s loyal wife Clara, horrified by the constant disruptions and violence, urged him to settle the dispute. Ford was forced to recognize the union and accept a bargaining agreement with the workers on June 20, 1941. Combative to the end, Ford made Bennett sign the recognition agreement.
Above is the Gate 4 pedestrian bridge as it looks today, seldom used by current Ford workers but preserved and maintained by the company as an important piece of Motor City history. Below is one of the thousands of handbills passed out by the UAW that day in 1937—most of them by the UAW Women’s Auxiliary Brigade, who were also attacked by Bennett’s Service Department goons. While it’s not often noted in the historical narratives, dozens of organizers were assaulted in the incident, not just the four union leaders on the overpass.
Hours before the assault on the overpass, Reuther (above) passed out packs of the handbills to the Womens’ Auxiliary Brigade. Women played key roles in the demonstrations and organizing campaign even in these dangerous times for organized labor. The Memorial Day Massacre, in which 10 Chicago steel workers were gunned down by police, came four days later. Reuther, who was elected national president of the UAW in 1946, would survive several more physical attacks, including an assassination attempt in 1948 that left him with a permanently crippled right arm. Period photos above are from the collections of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.