Battle of River Rouge: Reuther's Struggle


(Crimson editor E.J. Dionne is discovering America this summer.)

DEARBORN, Mich.--In the late 1930's, Walter Reuther and a couple of other organizers from the CIO came to this city to organize the Ford Motor Company.

Henry Ford, the man who is known in the history books for introducing the assembly line and decent factory wages--on the theory that well-paid workers could buy a mass-produced product--didn't much like the idea of outsiders telling him how to run his company. Nor did he like the idea of his own workers organizing into a union.

So like many anti-union employers in earlier and later years, Ford hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency, known for its ability to destroy unions. The Pinkertons weren't afraid to use fists, guns or clubs to break the bodies and spirits of union organizers and striking workers. You paid your money, and they broke the union. Ford did, and Pinkerton didn't.

Reuther and his two union buddies found out what they were up against the first day they tried to enter Ford's gigantic River Rouge operation to pass out leaflets. They were walking over an overpass that led from a parking lot to Gate Four of the plant. When they reached the middle of the bridge, they noticed that Pinkerton detectives were climbing up stairs at the plant end of the overpass to stop them. They quickly turned around, only to discover that Pinkertons were also ready to meet them at the parking lot stairway. The union busting detectives rushed the organizers, pulled their coats over their heads, and worked them over as only Pinkertons could.


When it was over, Reuther had been thrown off the bridge(about a twenty-foot fall), and all three were left with broken ribs and bones. There was a lot more of this in ensuing years, but Ford finally caved in and his plants were unionized.

A couple of friends and I went to the Rouge plant determined to see the famous overpass where the Battle of River Rouge (so the scuffle is called) took place. We also wanted to see how cars are made. (A provincial New Englander, I had seen textile factories and shoe factories, but hadn't seen the heavy industry in the Pittsburg-to-Chicago belt.)

Ford does have a better idea when it comes to plant tours. They load people on busses every half-hour, and give them an hour-and-a-half run through the entire facility, plus a look at Dearborn--a town which tourguides lead one to believe, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company. If you're lucky enough to arrive before 2 p.m., you get to see the assembly line. If you get there after two (we arrived at 2:03) you only get to see the Ford steel-making operations.

When you drive into Detroit from the South on Interstate 75, the whole city seems to belong to Ford. You do, of course, see other things--there's G.M.'s Fisher Body plant, and a big General Tire sign which informs you that 5,187,640 cars have rolled off the assembly lines of the Motor City, and informs you every second or so that another car has come off. Still, it's Ford that hits you hardest, and the biggest Ford area of all is River Rouge.

The tour starts from Ford's corporate headquarters, a collection of parking lots and glass-and-steel buildings which also house the Ford Credit Company. You are directed by signs to an information desk in the main building. There, we filled out an information card for the tour ("How did you find out about the tour?") and then tried to figure out where we could find the footbridge.

"Do you know where we can find the footbridge..."

"...that Walter Reuther got thrown on his head off of?" interrupted the mid-twentyish man behind the desk. We nodded, and he pulled out a map and sketched out the route to the bridge.

We asked him if he was a member of the United Auto Workers. He said no, that he was on salary. An older man at the end of the desk began talking with us about work conditions.

"You'll find that Ford has great benefits," he said. "We get medical benefits, sick leave, 11 paid holidays, and paid vacations." The vacation plan goes by seniority. It takes a year-and-a-half to build up two days vacation. Eventually, an auto worker gets four weeks off. It takes a while to get that much, but our man noted that "once you've put in a couple of years, the benefits jump very quickly." He was also on salary, and not a member of UAW.

The tourguide was a senior at Michigan State. On the way to the Rouge complex, he explained how Henry Ford and some associates had founded the company, how much money Ford paid in salaries, how much land Ford owned, and how much of that land Ford had contributed to Dearborn for schools, parks, libraries and the like. Later, we saw Dearborn's new Henry Ford Centennial Library which was built on land contributed by Ford with some financial help from the Ford Foundation. We were also shown a collection of housing developments financed by Ford.