On this day… “the battle of the overpass”

On May 26, 1937 United Auto Workers organizers were attacked by Ford Service Department men on the Miller Road Overpass outside Gate 4 of the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. It became known as “The Battle of the Overpass.”

It was one example of Ford’s attempt to keep out the union.  Henry Ford announced: “We’ll never recognize the United Automobile Workers Union or any other union.” He created “the Ford Service Department” to maintain control over the company’s assembly line workers and to keep unions out of the plants.

Walter Reuther, President of United Automobile Workers Local and three fellow UAW organizers-Richard Frankensteen, J.J. Kennedy and Robert Kantor-climbed the stairs of a footbridge overpass at Miller Road.

The overpass led to the primary entrance to the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex, where the men anticipated peaceful distribution of union literature, which they had a city permit to distribute.

Within moments they were in the midst of the “Battle of the Overpass.” According to http://info.detnews.com/redesign/history/

“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.”

Police stood by and did nothing saying the Ford service men were protecting private property.

When it ended Reuther and his comrades found themselves at the bottom of the steel steps leading to the overpass. They had been thrown down the stairs by members of Ford’s Service Department.

Meanwhile, down on Miller Road, Katherine Gelles of the Ladies Auxiliary of UAW and her associates received similar treatment. As the women attempted to pass out their leaflets entitled “Unionism not Fordism,” they were harassed, punched, kicked and forced back onto buses by another group of Servicemen.  Many were injured, some seriously.

Luckily, at Reuther’s request, several neutral observers were also present, including members of the clergy, reporters and photographers.  Photos of the attacks ran in the Detroit news and those photos coupled with the eyewitness accounts and testimony of the medical personnel who treated the injured began to turn the tide of public opinion. Three years later Ford signed an agreement with the union.





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