May Days

Whatever you think of unions, this one can't go unacknowledged.

The UAW turns 75 this month.

It's true. The United Auto Workers union was founded in Detroit in May 1935. It was first born under the auspices of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

Seems that the AFL's focus was primarily on craft unions at the time, and some within were getting restless. Then union leader John L. Lewis, at the AFL's 1935 convention, created a splinter group of industrial unions and called it the Committee for Industrial Organization---the original CIO.

After just one year, the AFL suspended the unions within the CIO, so Lewis and his people---including the new UAW---formed the "new" CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

It wouldn't be until 1955 when the CIO would rejoin with the AFL, forming the aptly named AFL-CIO.

But back to the UAW.

The UAW was one of the first major unions that was willing to organize African-American workers, which is no surprise when you consider that one of its early stalwarts became a Civil Rights leader.

Walter P. Reuther was his name, and he died 40 years ago this month in a small plane crash near Pellston, Michigan.

May is a big month in UAW history, because it doesn't end with the formation of the UAW and the death of Reuther, the former union president who put the UAW on the map politically.

May is also the anniversary month of "The Battle of the Overpass."

Haven't heard of it? Well, let me tell you a little story...

It's 1937. There's an issue at Ford Motor Company between the UAW and management. The union wants an $8/hour, six-hour workday. Ford prefers the existing $6/hour, eight-hour day.

The UAW wanted its $48 per day in quicker fashion.

Reuther, along with fellow union leaders Bob Kanter, Richard Frankensteen and J.J. Kennedy, gathered on the pedestrian overpass over Dearborn's Miller Road at Gate 4 of the Rouge Complex.

They were going to pass out leaflets pumping their idea of what a workday should be.

The distribution was to take place around 2:00---at shift change time, so as to maximize the number of passersby.

Ford management didn't like this.

So along came some goons from Ford's Service Department, an internal security force---and they took the word "force" literally.

As photographers snapped pictures of Reuther et al, the Service Department goons advanced. Disregarding the photogs, the goons attacked the labor leaders, beating them brutally.

Frankensteen got the worst of it. His jacket was pulled over his head and he was kicked and punched incessantly. Reuther was tossed down the steps of the overpass.

Big mistake---for the Ford people.

One of the photographers who didn't have his plates broken or confiscated was Scotty Kilpatrick, from the Detroit News.

Kilpatrick snapped several pics of Reuther and the boys getting their butts kicked. And he had the wherewithall to hide them under the backseat of his car after being chased to the vehicle. He handed over useless other plates from his front seat to the Ford goons.

The results?

Kilpatrick's photos were splashed all over the country, even finding their way on the pages of the New York Times.

(From left): Bob Kanter, Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, and J.J. Kennedy prepare to pass out leaflets on the pedestrian overpass near Gate 4

Moments later, Frankensteen fights for his life against goons from Ford's internal security force (both photos: Scotty Kilpatrick, Detroit News)

The images of Ford's security people beating up union leaders didn't do the automaker any favors. Though not photographed, some of the beating victims were even women, who had arrived thinking they were going to help pass out leaflets. Instead, the goons beat them up, too. Nice guys.

The other result was that Kilpatrick's photos were so compelling that it was deemed that a Pulitzer Prize should now be awarded for photography---and Scotty Kilpatrick was the first winner.

Despite Henry Ford's assertion that the UAW would organize his company "over my dead body," the fallout from Battle of the Overpass would lead to Ford Motor Company bedgrudgingly signing a contract with the UAW within three years.

It all happened on May 26, 1937.

Now you know.


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