Notwithstanding the virtual impunity with which Ford continued to violate the Wagner Labor Act, a serious challenge had arisen to the auto magnate’s despotic rule over the workers in his factories. The challenge came from the United Automobile Workers Union.
Following the victorious sit-down strikes of 1937, the UAW had grown with phenomenal rapidity. As some 400,000 auto workers poured into its ranks within a matter of months, the UAW became the third largest union in the CIO.
Aware of the wage increases and improved working conditions won in auto plants organized by the UAW, Ford workers began growing increasingly restive . . .
Harry Bennett was quick to recognize the gravity of the situation. When it came to handling an adversary as powerful as the UAW had suddenly become, Bennett’s past methods were clearly outdated. Effective as violence, terror and intimidation had previously been, their future value had obvious limitations . . .
As Bennett saw it, since the UAW had apparently come to stay and since the union would undoubtedly make inroads among Ford employees, certain basic revisions were necessary in Ford’s labor policy. Bennett decided not only to permit but to encourage the formation of a union at River Rouge— with this single qualification: the leaders of the union would be secret agents of Bennett’s Service Department and the union itself would be completely under his domination . . .
Well aware that his own overt sponsorship of any union would be a sure way to keep Ford workers from joining, Bennett enlisted the assistance of an old friend, with unusual promotional facilities at his disposal. The friend was Father Charles E. Coughlin.*
* The relationship between Harry Bennett and Father Coughlin was only one instance of a close alliance that had existed for many years between the Ford Motor Company and fascist elements not only in the United States but throughout the world.
Shortly after World War I, Henry Ford’s name had been connected with the rapidly growing Nazi movement in Europe. According to the February 8, 1923, edition of the New York Times, Vice-President Auer of the Bavarian Diet had publicly declared, “The Bavarian Diet has long had information that the Hitler movement was partly financed by an American anti-Semitic chief, who is Henry Ford. . . . Herr Hitler openly boasts of Mr. Ford’s support and praises Mr. Ford not as a great individualist but as a great anti-Semite.”
In March 1923 Adolf Hitler declared: “We look on Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing Fascisti movement in America. We admire particularly his anti-Jewish policy which is the Bavarian Fascisti platform. We have just had his anti-Jewish articles translated and published. The book is being currently circulated to millions throughout Germany.”
A number of German agents who came to America during the 1920’s and 1930’s to build a Nazi fifth column in the United States were in close touch with the Ford Motor Company. Heinz Spanknoebel, the Nazi agent who founded the Friends of New Germany, and Fritz Kuhn, the Nazi agent who organized the German-American Bund, were both on the payroll of the Ford Motor Company while they were openly carrying on their Nazi organizational activity.
Up to, and even after, the outbreak of the World War II, Ford plants throughout the world were centres of fascist intrigue. The managers and officials of Ford’s factories in Germany, Austria and Hungary cooperated closely with the Nazi Party. Gaston Bergery, Ford’s personal and business representative in Paris, was one of the key Nazi agents in France and was described by the New York Sunday Times of August 11, 1940, as the “coming man” in Hitler’s schemes for the Nazification of France. Julio Brunet, General Manager of the Ford Motor Company in Mexico City, was associated with the Nazi-supported General Nicholas Rodriguez, organizer of the Fascist Gold Shirts, who sought to overthrow the Cardenas Government m 1936. Lord Perry, head of the Ford Motor Company, Ltd., of England, which until 1934 controlled Fordwerke, A.G., in Germany, was on intimate terms with members of the notorious pro-Nazi Link organization.
In August 1938 Henry Ford became the first American to be awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle by the Government of Nazi Germany”…
Pro-fascist groups and individuals in the United States were in constant touch with the Ford Motor Company.
John Koos, a close associate of Harry Bennett’s at the Ford River Rouge Plant, was a leading spokesman for the American branch of the fascist Ukrainian Hetman Society, which had its headquarters in Berlin. On September 30, 1938, Koos sent a congratulatory cable to Adolf Hider praising him for his “history-making efforts in the adjustment of minority rights.”
Parker Sage, the head of the fascist National Workers League in Detroit, which was partly financed with funds received from the Nazi spy Dr. Fred Thomas, held meetings on Dearborn property, was permitted to recruit members for his organization in the River Rouge Plant, and referred to Henry Ford as “the greatest living American” who “knows that the Jews got us into this war.”
The top man in the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, Charles E. Spare, worked for a “detective agency” which subsisted by providing labor spies for the Ford Service Department.
Harry Bennett periodically made sizeable financial contributions to Gerald L. K. Smith, ex-Silver Shirter No. 3223 and head of the fascist America First Party. Smith’s confidential adviser William E. Nowell, was a Ford man. . . .
Late in 1943, the author of this book wrote an article disclosing these and other facts about the relationship existing between the Ford Motor Company and fifth column elements in the United States. The author sent documentation of this material to the Attorney General and suggested he verify these facts by sending an agent of the Department of Justice to interview Harry Bennett.
Shortly afterwards, John S. Bugas, director of FBI operations in the Michigan area, went to the River Rouge Plant— although not exactly in the manner this author had recommended. Bugas resigned from his job with the FBI and went onto the Ford payroll as an assistant to Harry Bennett. In 1946, Bugas became Ford vice-president in charge of labor relations.
Late in 1937, the formation of the Workers Council for Social Justice, Inc., an “independent body” to “organize and benefit” Ford employees, was publicly announced. A series of articles, urging Ford workers to join the Council, started appearing in CoughUn’s Social Justice, and the publication was distributed in mass quantities throughout the River Rouge Plant by Ford foremen and Service Department agents. “Bennett bought about 30,000 copies a week,” the Service Department agent, Ralph Rimar, subsequently related. “This sort of helped Coughlin in a financial way too.”
Even so, only a handful of Ford workers joined the Council. The vast majority wanted nothing to do with any movement with which Coughlin’s name was connected.
After Uvo more abortive attempts to estabHsh an effective company union among the workers at River Rouge, Bennett embarked upon his boldest and most ambitious undertaking in the field of trade unionism. The grandiose aim of Bennett’s new scheme was to capture control of the United Automobile Workers Union.
Since 1936, the UAW president had been an egoistic, youthful former college track star and ex-Baptist minister named Homer Martin. An impassioned orator of the revivalist school, who had won a large mass following during the chaotic days of the sit-down strikes, Martin deeply resented any questioning of his autocratic decisions and accused critical UAW officials of being “Reds” secretly plotting against his leadership.
Bennett arranged for a private conference with Homer Martin. Henry Ford, Bennett told the union chief, was now willing to have his workers organized but he still had one serious objection against Martin’s union— Ford wanted all “Commies” out of the union leadership . . .
The head of the Ford Service Department and the UAW president began meeting with increasing frequency. Describing these negotiations, the Service Department agent Ralph Rimar subsequently related:
. . . Bennett handled Martin with kid gloves. Martin was having a tough time with the union. The bunch opposing him was getting stronger. He needed dough. Bennett said he’d like to help— for the “good of the union.” Homer swallowed the bait. The money was to be considered as a loan. It was to be paid back as soon as Martin got things straightened out in the union … I don’t know how much he got in all, but I was told that an account was opened in Martin’s name on a New York bank and that the first two checks drawn were for $10,000 and $15,000 . . .
Meanwhile, Bennett’s agents in the UAW were instructed to use the rift in the leadership as means of promoting dissension throughout the union. “We were told to split the union into two camps,” Ralph Rimar later revealed. “We were also told to spread the word that the bunch opposing Martin were Reds . . .”
By the fall of 1938 the UAW was torn by bitter factional strife. Acrimonious charges and counter-charges filled the pages of UAW publications. Violent arguments, and not infrequently fistfights, disrupted one union meeting after another.
“Here these guys have been talking about organizing Ford, and now they’re knocking one another off!” Bennett exultantly told one of his Service Department aides. “The whole damn union’s falling apart! Is that a hot one?”
But Bennett’s elation was premature. Resentment against Martin’s dictatorial conduct was rapidly mounting among the UAW rankand-file. When Martin summarily suspended five members of the UAW Executive Board, widespread indignation within the union forced him to reinstate them. Soon afterwards, Martin suspended fifteen Board members. The fifteen union officials, who comprised the majority of the Board, promptly issued a statement to the effect that Martin no longer represented the union membership and that they were suspending him from the presidency of the union . . .
Alarmed at this unexpected turn of events, Bennett hurriedly called a press conference and announced that the Ford Company was entering into union negotiations with Martin. Following a widely publicized meeting between Bennett and Martin, newspapers proclaimed that complete agreement had been reached between the Ford Motor Company and “Homer Martin, President of the United Automobile Workers Union,”
But far from being favorably impressed by the hasty agreement, the vast majority of the UAW membership regarded it as conclusive proof of collusion between Martin and the hated chief of the Ford Service Department. An angry demand for the expulsion of Martin swept through the UAW.
In January 1939, the UAW Executive Board expelled Martin from membership in the union.
It was the end of Homer Martin’s brief, stormy career as a trade union leader. Not long afterwards, the former UAW president moved his headquarters to the River Rouge Plant*
6. Final Drive
With Homer Martin’s disruptive influence eliminated, and with R. J. Thomas as the new UAW president, the union began intensive preparations for an all-out drive to organize the River Rouge Plant. A special Ford Organizing Committee was set up. The Executive Board of the CIO and the UAW each allocated $50,000 to the campaign fund.
By the fall of 1940, the drive was well under way.
So enthusiastic was the response of the Ford workers to the campaign that Bennett himself soon admitted in a newspaper interview that an NLRB election at River Rouge would proba’bly result in a victory for the UAW. If this occurred, added Bennett, he would meet with representatives of the union and “bargain until hell freezes over and give the union nothing.”
Using every possible device to forestall the NLRB election Bennett ordered the wholesale firing of UAW members at the River Rouge Plant; but this measure only served to intensify the rebelUous spirit mounting among Ford workers . . .
On April i, 1941, the revolt in the Ford empire reached its climax. Late in the afternoon, in protest against the dismissal of the members of their UAW bargaining committee, 10,000 workers in the rolling mill at the River Rouge Plant left their machines. As word of the work-stoppage spread through the great plant, workers poured out of the pressed steel, tool and die, open hearth, and motor buildings. In a great tide, tens of thousands of workers streamed through the plant gates. By midnight, every building at River Rouge had ceased to operate.
Daybreak found an extraordiary spectacle at River Rouge. All roads leading to the plant were being picketed, and blockades of cars backed up the picket Hnes. Thousands of Ford workers on the morning shift, who had not yet been informed of the strike, were arriving by streetcar, bus and automobile. For miles, the highways were clogged with densely packed vehicles.
Within a few hours, there was an enormous picket line reaching all the way around the huge plant. Marching four abreast, waving hastily constructed placards, singing and shouting slogans, the pickets soon numbered more than 10,000 men.
For the first time in its thirty-five years of existence, the Ford Motor Company was shut down by a strike.
In a statement to the press, Harry Bennett declared that under no circumstances would he or any other Ford executive meet to discuss terms with representatives of the UAW. “It’s all a Communist plot,” he said, “and is a move to create a revolutionary situation so that the Communists can have the conditions necessary for the setting up of a dictatorship of the proletariat.”
During the next twenty-four hours, Bennett embarked on a desperate scheme to break the strike. With the aim of fomenting race riots at the River Rouge Plant and discrediting the strike in the eyes of the public, Bennett began smuggling Negro strikebreakers into the plant. They were encouraged to manufacture knives and other murderous weapons in the shops of the plant. Then, Service Department agents began agitating the strikebreakers to attack white workers on the picket lines.
A tragic catastrophe was averted only by quick, far-sighted action on the part of the UAW leadership and the Negro community in Detroit. Instructions were issued to all pickets not to be provoked into fighting with the strikebreakers. Prominent Negro citizens hurried to River Rouge and, addressing the strikebreakers through loudspeakers in UAW sound cars, exhorted them to leave the plant. Thousands of Negro workers marching on the picket lines urged the strikebreakers to come out and join them.
Gradually, the strikebreakers straggled out . . .
The River Rouge Plant was like a deserted city. Its huge buildings stood silent and empty. Not a railroad car moved on the miles of track. Ford ships lay idle at their docks.
Hourly, the gigantic human chain encircling the six square miles of the River Rouge Plant grew in numbers. Workers from General Motors, Chrysler and other auto plants in the Detroit area came, after working hours, to take their places on the picket lines. By the third day of the strike, a total of 35,000 men and women, operating in three shifts, were picketing the plant.
On April 4, the Ford Company announced it was closing down its sixteen assembly plants throughout the country, because of parts shortages caused by the strike at the River Rouge Plant. Eighteen other Ford plants simultaneously ceased operations.
On April 8, with all hope of breaking the strike ended, Harry Bennett entered into negotiations with CIO President Philip Murray and the UAW leaders.
Three days later, after lengthy parleys between Ford executives and union officials, the Ford Motor Company agreed to bring its wages into line with those of other major automobile manufacturers, to recognize the UAW as the spokesman for its members in Ford employ, and to permit the holding of an NLRB election.
On June 21, after the union had won a resounding victory in an NLRB election at the River Rouge Plant, the Ford Motor Company signed a contract with the United Auto Workers.
The settlement of the prolonged and bitter conflict at America’s largest defence plant came none too soon. Five and a half months later, the United States was at war.