Battle of the Overpass

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The Battle of the Overpass was an incident on 26 May, 1937, in which labor organizers clashed with Ford Motor Company security guards.

The United Auto Workers had planned a leaflet campaign entitled, "Unionism, Not Fordism," at the pedestrian overpass over Miller Road at Gate 4 of the Rouge complex. Demanding an $8 six-hour day for workers, in contrast to the $6 eight-hour day then in place, the campaign was planned for shift change time, with an expected 9,000 workers both entering and leaving the plant.

At approximately 2 p.m., several of the leading UAW union organizers, including Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen, were asked by a Detroit News photographer, James E. (Scotty) Kilpatrick, to pose for a picture on the overpass, with the Ford sign in the background.[1] While they were posing, men from Ford's Service Department, an internal security force under the direction of Harry Bennett, came from behind and began to beat them. The number of attackers is disputed, but may have been as many as forty.[2]

Frankensteen had his jacket pulled over his head and was kicked and punched. Reuther described some of the treatment he received: "Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms . . . and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more. . . " One union organizer Richard Merriweather suffered a broken back as the result of the beating he received.[1]

The group then beat some of the beret-wearing women arriving to pass out leaflets, along with some reporters and photographers, while Dearborn police at the scene largely ignored the violence.

The mob also attempted to destroy photographic plates, but the Detroit News photographer hid the photographic plates under the back seat of his car, and surrendered useless plates he had on his front seat. News and photos of the brutal attack made headlines in newspapers across the country. Kilpatrick's photographs inspired the Pulitzer committee to institute a prize for photography.

In spite of the many witnesses who had heard his men specifically seek out Frankensteen and Reuther, Bennett claimed, "The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials. . . . They simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality. ... I know definitely no Ford service man or plant police were involved in any way in the fight."

The incident greatly increased support for the UAW and hurt Ford's reputation. Bennett and Ford were chastised by the National Labor Relations Board for their actions. Three years later Ford signed a contract with the UAW.

A partially fictitious account of these events appear in Upton Sinclair's book, The Flivver King.

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