People in the Road: Early United Auto Workers Take Action


One of the most significant events in union history started out as a normal day on May 26, l937. Walter Reuther, who was the President of United Automobile Workers for the Local 174 went up a public footbridge over Miller Road with three other UAW members, including Richard Frankensteen. Their plans were to hand out leaflets about unions to the worker’s a Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge industrial complex in Dearborn. But what was planned as a peaceful demonstration quickly turned ugly and Reuther and others were beaten, kicked and eventually tossed down the steel steps that led to the overpass. The incident is known as the “Battle of the Overpass.”

No Unions

In 1936, Ford Motor Company was the only one of the big three automakers that did no allow unions. Henry Ford, the company’s founder, said no union was needed because he made sure the needs of his workers were met. He felt like the best way to take care of his workers was to maintain personal controls and management. In Dearborn, Ford was very well connected. His cousin was mayor and the chief of police was a former security officer for the automaker.

The Ford Service Department

Ford maintained control of the company with the Ford Service Department. Harry Bennett, a Navy veteran and former boxer, ran the department. Many considered him the most powerful man at Ford Motor Company besides Ford. Bennett lacked education and management experience, which were assets to Ford, who distrusted formal education and thought it was not needed to be an effective manager. He was known to intimidate employees using physical force and by spying on them if they attended union meetings.

The Battle Begins

Reuther and his friends were told to leave by a large group of Ford “Servicemen” when they arrived at Miller Road and the overpass, even though both were considered public areas. But before they could leave, the “Servicemen” began to attack them. They were kicked, punched, slammed to the ground and tossed down the stairs. The union members were caught by surprise and overwhelmed by the attack. They managed to get to their car and leave.

The Aftermath

Had the Ford “Servicemen” not attempted to intimidate the reporters and photographers at the scene, the incident may have been overlooked in history. While the “Servicemen” did manage to seize some cameras and film, James “Scotty” Kilpatrick of the Detroit News was able to conceal some of the film. The images published showed the story from the beginning of the attack to its end. This coverage cast Ford in a bad light and three years later, Ford signed a contract with the unions.

Unions today

Today, autoworker unions and other unions remain strong despite recent challenges in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Wilson and the Republican controlled legislature passed a bill that stripped workers of their collective bargaining rights in 2011 leading to some of the most extensive news coverage of unions in recent years. The UAW, in a press release, came out in support of peaceful protests. A judge has struck down the law and the debate continued in March 2011.