Labor History for Labor Day: How the UAW Learned Racism Was the Bosses’ Tool

by Carl Proper

river rouge image

By 1941, the United Auto Workers Union / UAW had already won historic first contracts at General Motors and Chrysler Corporation. But Ford Motors, where old man Henry Ford still presided, was holding out.  He was damned if he’d ever allow a union in his company.

The U.A.W. chose the huge, 75, 00-employee River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, as its strike target.  River Rouge was also the site of Henry Ford’s office.  The strike began with a series of brutal confrontations between union members and company toughs, including a “Battle of the Overpass” where both sides gave and suffered beatings.  The union held its ground, and the plant ground to a halt – with a significant exception.

Since this story is well told in “A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941: Turbulent Years,” by Irving Bernstein[i], I’ll use his words (and the language of 1970), with a few clarifications:

“[T]he problem that worried the union most” concerned the Negroes.  A group of colored workers, variously estimated as between 800 and 2,500, many recent imports from the South, did not walk out [on strike, with the white, pro-union workers]. Inside the plant [Ford manager Harry] Bennett preyed upon their fears.  On the outside [union organizers] Marshall and [UAW President] Homer Martin [finally] did what they had to do.  They went into Detroit’s Negro sections to urge [an end to] the [black workers’] back-to-work movement…The union…mobilized a group of Negro leaders headed by Walter F White, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and including local pastors, editors, teachers, and social workers, who urged the Negro community to support the strike. The back-to-work movement [promoted by Ford management] collapsed.” …. 

…“By April 3…it was plain that the UAW strike was totally effective and that the Ford Motor Company would be compelled to deal with it alone”

.Henry Ford still refused to deal with the union.  Instead he finally retired, and his second-in-command signed the contract

But what was happening here?  Why were African-American workers helping to break the strike?

Well, reason enough. Up to the time of the strike, the UAW and some other unions had not accepted black members.  Many blacks had instead found jobs in anti-union industries, or as strikebreakers.

So, for the UAW and labor movement, River Rouge was a double victory.

Ford, and the auto industry were now organized. And, the UAW and labor movement were greatly strengthened by this belated step to bringing the “races” together.

For the  union, and the labor movement, the opening to African Americans was a firmly rooted strategic decision.  Here are the memes (the oldest memes in labor history):

UNITED WE STAND is how we win.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER is the boss’s game.  For organized workers, or workers seeking to organize, racism is especially dumb and self-defeating.

[i] “A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN WORKER, 1933-1941: THE TURBULENT YEARS”, Irving Bernstein, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1970; pp 734-751







One Response

  1. Reblogged this on John Oliver Mason and commented:
    Let us remember this, brothers and sisters, racism does us NO good, except it is a tool for the bosses to divide worse from each other. Black and White workers are not enemies but allies against a common enemy, the bosses who enslave us.

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