Ta-Nehisi Coates is reading and blogging about Robert Conot’s American Odyssey, a 1974 history of Detroit that bears the subtitle “A Unique History of America Told Through the Life of a Great City.” Today he offers Conot’s account of Henry Ford’s efforts to quite literally beat back unionization in the 1930s, led by Ford executive Harry Bennett. Walter Reuther and a handful of others led the UAW. Things came to a head in “the Battle of the Overpass”:
Seventy-four years old, [Ford] was descending into senility, and was soon to suffer a stroke. Yet the grip he and Bennett held on the company was as iron as ever. In the plant nothing the men did escaped the eyes of the ubiquitous service men, who made up one fifth of the workforce. Outside the plant, Bennett, liberally sprinkling money about, extended tentacles into every facet of the area’s life. Many of the Negro ministers were beholden to him. The mayor of Dearborn of a concessionaire. The Wayne County Republican organization was under his influence. So thoroughly had he infiltrated the UAW that servicemen were spending much of their time reporting on each other. The Knights of Dearborn were injected with new life, and the assigned the task of fighting of labor organizers and communists.
With the sit-down at GM, Bennett increased the size of his force even further. No pirate ship ever had a more motley crew. They consisted of gangsters, discharged police officers, and athletes who had gone astray. There was Eddie Cicotte, banned from baseball in the Black Sox scandal; Norman Selby, alias Kid Mcoy, a battered ex-fighter who would have married eleven times but reduced his total by one when he murdered one of his sweethearts…Angelo Caruso, the former head of the Down River Gang; Sam Cuva, who had shot his mother-in-law; “Legs” Laman a kidnapper and rum-runner…
Flushed with their victories over GM and Chrysler, the UAW obtained permission from the Dearborn city council to pass out handbills. It was a brisk spring day as the quartet of UAW leaders, Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, Richard Merriweather, and Ralph Dunham climbed the flights of stairs leading to the overpass across Miller road to the plant. Behind them, mostly on streetcars, came other proselytizers, many of them women…
Reuther, natty, a gold chain across the front of his vest, a fountain-pen and pencil sticking out of his pocket, was in the lead….From the direction of the plant came a group of men there hats pulled low over their eyes. Among them were a professional wrestler, a boxer, an ex-convict with twenty-one arrests, Caruso and Sam Tyler, a Ford foreman and the president of the Knights of Dearborn. One had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Another coatless, exhibited a colorful vest. And the lead was a sparrow of a man, not more than five feet four inches tall. As Reuther expecting a verbal barrage, watched their approach, they so resembled the stereotype of the hood in gangster movies that he smiled.
In the next instant, he was cracked across the back of the head, and went down. Picked up, he was pummeled and then thrown to the concrete again and again. Frakensteen’s coat was whipped over his head so that it formed a stratjacket. As he stood helpless, he was slugged repeatedly. Dunham and Merriweather were beaten and kicked. All four were pushed, rolled, and knocked down the several flights of stairs of the overpast. When other UAW member tried to get off the streetcars, the leaflets were ripped from their hands. The women were manhandled back on to the cars….
After extensive hearings, the National Labor relations Board accused the company of violating the Wagner Act. Ford retorted: “The things the Board charged never happened and could not happen here.” Asked if he knew the facts, he snapped: “I don’t want to know the facts.”
TNC thrills at Conot’s language and storytelling, but he’s pretty good himself: “Harry Bennett is Wee-Bay to Ford’s Barksdale.” And: “When you read something like this, it puts the Tea Parties in perspective. There’s never been one America. There’s always been civil war.”