Fifty years ago today, UAW president Walter P. Reuther, his wife and four others died in a mysterious plane crash while on their way to a union recreation and educational center at Black Lake in the northern portion of Michigan’s lower peninsula. I’ve always been fascinated by Reuther. He was a fearless leader from an era when just being a member of the UAW, let alone being an organizer, could mean your death.
Much of my fascination started with the above photo. It’s one of those rare images that captures a moment in time when the world really began to change. It shows the opening volley of a momentous occasion: The Battle of the Overpass, which would eventually lead to the UAW cracking the Ford Motor Company.
You probably know Henry Ford was fanatically anti-union. His factories were some of the last to be unionized. Ford’s “Service Department,” was a private police forced filled with ex-cons, goons and mobsters meant to intimidate workers who might unionize. Ford’ right-hand man, Harry Bennett, ran the service department and ruled the Rouge River complex in Dearborn, MI, the largest factory in the world at the time, with an iron fist. Ford declared his factories would never be unionized. Reuther aimed to prove him wrong.
Still high off of the success of unionizing the largest manufacturer in the world, General Motors, the UAW turned its sights on the next big fish. The plan was to get together on May 26, 1937 and drop leaflets on workers from the Miller road overpass just outside of the factory doors during shift change while the women’s auxiliary handed them out as well. Some 9,000 workers would be flowing under the overpass, and the UAW would rain leaflets down on them, promoting raises and a six-hour work day. Though the overpass and Miller road are public thoroughfares, everyone knew that Ford owned Dearborn, and the Dearborn police. The UAW might as well have been standing on Ford’s lawn.
A photographer for the Detroit News named James Kilpatrick who tagged along asked the group to pose in front of the Ford sign just as the Service Department was rolling up. What happened next would be known as the “Battle of the Overpass” The Detroit News has a good run down of what happened next:
Facing the photographers, Reuther and his partners had their backs to the thugs that were approaching them. The newsmen’s warnings were too late. They were attacked brutally: punched and kicked repeatedly. Frankensteen recounted how two men held his legs apart while another kicked him repeatedly in the groin. One man placed his heel in his abdomen, grinding it, then put his full weight on it. Reuther was punched in the face, abdomen and back and kicked down the stairs. Kanter was pushed off the bridge and fell 30 feet.
The women who were to hand out the leaflets were arriving on trolley cars and were brutally shoved back into the cars, or pulled out and beaten. A lone police officer, appalled at the scene, pleaded with the “service” men to stop beating one woman: “You’ll kill her...” The Dearborn police did nothing else. They stood by and said the Ford men were protecting their private property.
Reuther described some of the treatment he received:
“Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms . . . and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more. . . “
A union man walking on the street two blocks away was so badly beaten he spent months in the hospital with a broken back.
Bennett’s crew went after the reporters and photographers next, ripping out notebook pages, and destroying photographic plates. The News’ Kilpatrick hid his plates in the back seat and gave up useless ones that were sitting on his front seat.
As you can see, the attack was truly brutal, but Reuther was no dummy. He knew going into the lion’s den was dangerous and likely to end with injuries or even fatalities. After all, it had happened before: Just a few years earlier, Ford’s goons had injured 60 workers and killed five during the Ford Hunger March. Bennett was seen personally shooting at workers from his car. So Reuther brought journalists, civil rights leaders and fellow UAW members along with him to act as witnesses. He also wore a three-piece suit for the occasion. I know people back then put on 10 pounds of clothes just to get the morning paper, but he looks so dapper with his vest and pocket watch chain. I just can’t help but love a guy who dresses up for his own ass beating. Here’s what Ford’s boy did to the unarmed men:
Thanks to journalists being along to document fray, the story was widely reported and Ford quickly lost much of the good will he and his company built up over the decades and the company was found guilty of violating the Wagner Act. Labor candidates began winning more and more elections in southeast Michigan. Ford held out for another three years, but by 1941 the old industrialist relented and signed the first UAW contract with Ford Motor Company. Reuther would go on to be the longest serving president in the UAW. He worked closely with U.S. presidents and civil rights leaders and helped grow the labor movement into an incredibly influential force in American politics.
The cause of Reuther’s death was pegged to pilot error, but considering the mysterious disappearance of teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa just five years later, many have wondered if foul play could have been involved. Reuther had several attempts on his life before, after all, including a shotgun blast directed at his kitchen window, but no conclusive evidence has ever pointed to anything other than a heartbreaking accident.
An interesting side note: When the Battle of the Overpass photo was taken, members of Ford’s Service Department demanded the film from Kilpatrick’s camera. He gave them the blank plates instead and the picture ran in newspapers around the world. At the time, there was no Pulitzer prize for photography. It was James Kilpatrick’s image, a picture that was almost lost to history, that inspired the creation of a photography committee. In 1942 the first Pulitzer for photography was awarded to a Detroit News photographer for images taken at a Ford picket line. Some things never change.