Organizing Ford; the 1941 River Rouge strike

Ford Motor Company was the last American automaker to hold the line against unionization. In April of 1941 a violent strike closed the enormous River Rouge plant and after a ten day siege Henry Ford capitulated to demands for a union contract. The strike at River Rouge has long been regarded at a great victory for the workers over the oppressive management at Ford Motor Company.

Oddly enough Henry Ford had been criticized by some of his competitors for paying excessively high wages and for actively recruiting members of the black community. Ford's practice of tying compensation to productivity was one of the keys to creating a highly efficient work force. All things considered there was very little (if anything) to be gained from unionization for the average worker at Ford.

According to former Communist party leader Benjamin Gitlow, the pressure to organize Ford came from outside the company. Despite the fact that Henry Ford had helped to train Russian technicians and engineers in the science of modern mass production, had provided equipment and helped to set up a modern automobile plant in the Soviet Union, the Comintern despised him as an American capitalist. Plans were made in Moscow and perfected in Detroit that would force Ford to unionize (1).

The first assault against Ford came in 1927 with the infamous "hunger march." Although the marchers were said to be unemployed Ford workers, Gitlow tells that the march was dominated by "goon squads, defense corps and the gangsters from the unions" controlled by the Communist party. The marchers fought with the police and hit Ford's personnel manager Harry Bennett in the head with a brick, knocking him unconscious. Pressing forward the mob provoked the police until shots were fired, leaving four marchers dead. Dubbed as the "Detroit Massacre," the staged incident fell short of its goal which was to seize control of the plant, but it still resulted in a P.R. victory for the union and their party backers (2).

From 1927 until 1941 the Communist party infiltrated the Rouge River plant until they had nearly "700 communists and close sympathizers" among the workers. Plans were drawn up and detailed blueprints of the plant were obtained. Gitlow writes that the party's army of a thousand battle hardened "mobile guards" made up of gunmen, thugs and saboteurs were ready to attack as soon as the signal was given (3).

A Communist party decision directed that the strike should be called at the zero hour just as the midnight shift leaves and the day shift enters. This created the impression that all the midnight workers had joined the strike. At the same time, all plans were made to prevent the workers from the day shift from entering the plant. On the night the strike was to be called, hundreds of communist mobile guards, wearing Ford Company badges, which the communists procured, entered the plant as regular workers of the midnight shift. Many of them carried baseball bats and other weapons under their jackets.


An ugly mood prevailed inside the huge Rouge River plant. The Negroes in the plant who were sympathetic to Ford, because the Company gave them an equal opportunity with the white workers, resented the union's attack on Ford. They armed and barricaded themselves in the plant. They were going to protect the Company which gave them well-paid, skilled jobs. They were going to show their appreciation of the welfare work which Ford had supported in the Negro community.

So they waited, as the dark hours of the morning passed, to give blow for blow. Had not the Company interfered and induced the Negroes to desist from fighting, that situation would have ended in a bloody battle inside the plant that would have spread out in the city and broken into a frightful race war (4).

Everything went according to plan. The mobile guards swept through the plant terrorizing uncooperative workers, shutting off the power and sabotaging equipment. Outside the plant dayshift workers found the entrances blocked and those few who were able to make their way inside were surrounded and beaten. Traffic was at a standstill as party members from all around the Midwest had created an automobile blockade.

Unlike the 1927 "hunger march," the police did not confront the strikers and according to Gitlow "they went out of their way to serve C.I.O. interests." More than a decade of planning and cultivating political allies paid dividends in the 1941 strike as the Communist party was able to control the strike without interference. Gitlow concluded that.

What happened in Detroit shows how deep the roots of communism go, how its poisonous vines creep over a great American city and obtain a stranglehold on its political, social and industrial life. Detroit proved that in dealing with the Communist party, the country deals not with a legally constituted political Party, but with an intricate, complicated conspiracy, based on a web of domestic and international entanglements, difficult to trace, from which it derives its directives and power. Once the communists can duplicate nationally that which they succeeded in doing in Detroit, American liberty will hang in the balance, for the communists will be in a position to strike successfully at the foundation of the American way of life (5).

Of course the unions and revisionist historians would have us believe that the strike was a grass roots movement which freed the Ford workers from virtual slavery.` 69 years have passed since the River Rouge strike and we can see how well Detroit and the American automobile industry have fared. What would Benjamin Gitlow think if he were alive today?

(1) Benjamin Gitlow, The Whole of Their Lives (Charles Scribner's Sons. 1948) p. 224

(2) Ibid. pp. 224-5
(3) Ibid. pp. 320-1
(4) Ibid. pp. 321-2
(5) Ibid. p. 323

September 6th 2010

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