When Walter Reuther Was Beaten For His Unionizing Efforts

By | October 11, 2022

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Walter Reuther, third from the right, with his colleagues, before Reuther was beaten. Source: (Wikipedia).

This photo was taken on May 26, 1937, when Walter Reuther and his colleagues agreed to have their photo taken as they tried to distribute pamphlets to encourage Ford workers to unionize. The thugs tried to confiscate journalists’ cameras, but when they failed to take one camera, pictures of the incident emerged and changed history.

Reuther Was Instrumental In The UAW From The Start

Reuther got his start at 19 as an expert tool and die maker at Ford Motor Company in Detroit. The job itself required 25 years’ experience, but because he was able to read blueprints and dies, he became one of the highest paid mechanics in the factory. Reuther became the president of Local 174 on Detroit’s west side, and with his brother Victor, led the first successful strike against Kelsey Hayes, the supplier of brake drums and wheels to Ford. The focus of the strike was on the speed of the assembly line, as workers were losing limbs, and even their lives, to keep up with it. During this strike, the workers sat down and refused to lead until management negotiated with Reuther. Before the strike, the United Auto Workers (UAW) had 200 members. After, it had 35,000 in the following year.

GM Joined the UAW After A Sit-down Strike

In 1936, to get GM to recognize workers’ rights, and Reuther’s brother Roy organized a sit-down strike in Flint, and in support, strikes were also called in other plants as autoworkers across the country rallied behind the Flint plant. After 44 days, GM was forced to allow the workers to unionize, and they signed the first collective bargaining agreement. The next auto company to join the UAW was Chrysler, but Ford held out.

Ford Hired Union Busters

Henry Ford was adamant that his workers would never be allowed to unionize. One of his employees, Harry Bennett, was at the head of the 3,000 man Security Department. His role was to intimidate, beat, and fire workers who appeared to favor unionizing. In 1932, Bennett’s men attacked workers who walked out to protest the speed-up of the assembly line, shooting five dead and injuring hundreds. 

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Reuther with Truman. Source: (Wikipedia).

The Beating Became National News

Reuther got permission from the City of Dearborn to distribute flyers titled “Unionism, not Fordism” on public property outside of the Ford River Rouge River Complex. While on the pedestrian bridge, Bennett’s “enforcers” attacked Reuther and his men. At least a dozen men knocked Reuther to the ground, kicked him and punched him in the head and body. They lifted him at least four feet in the air, and slammed him to the concrete repeatedly before throwing him down three flights of stairs. They didn’t stop there, though, as they continued to beat him, not stopping until union women arrived on a streetcar to hand out leaflets. The thugs then focused their attention elsewhere, and also attacked press photographers. They confiscated all of their cameras except one. That camera was tossed into a convertible, and thus, what was called the “Battle of the Overpass” became national news. National sentiment turned against Ford, and after four more years, Ford finally signed his first agreement with the UAW.

Reuther Became A Force For Social Change

He didn’t stop with getting Ford to sign an agreement with the UAW, and he served as the president of the UAW from 1946 until his death in 1970. In 1950, Reuther negotiated what was called the Treaty of Detroit. This contract with the GM CEO guaranteed better wages, health care, and pensions, and according to Fortune Magazine, it elevated the autoworkers to be “a middle class member of a middle class society.” Reuther’s belief that unions should act as “an instrument for social change” led to his other accomplishments. He was instrumental in helping to get a supply of planes to the Allies in World War II, allied himself with Martin Luther King Jr. and marched with him, and helped to provide support for the first Earth Day in 1970. A proponent of nonviolent civil disobedience and Swedish style social democracy, he used his power to advocate for workers’ rights, public education, affordable housing, universal healthcare, women’s rights, civil rights, and environmental stewardship