Ford Long Beach Assembly Plant Organizing Labor
Few industrial workers belonged to unions in the 1920s, and the total automobile Industry remained free of unions till the 1930s. Henry Ford, as is well known, felt unions an intrusion upon his private property. He treated labor well, and he would have none of their unions. New Deal legislation and the organization of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) would change all this. The Wagner Act, passed in 1935, created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), reasserted labor's right to organize and to bargain collectively and outlawed blacklisting. The NLRB had the power to certify a properly elected bargaining unit and made the federal government a regulator. After its passage the United Automobile Workers (UAW) triumphed in all the major automobile plants. Ford was the last to hold out.
Hating the unions, Ford pulled back from being the benevolent protector of his labor force, and met their union challenge with violence. At the time gangster activity thrived in Detroit, and Ford and his family had kidnap threats and worse. A former pugilist, Harry Bennett became Henry Ford's friend and protector. By 1930 he was one of the four most powerful men at the factory, closer and closer to Henry Ford in factory decisions than his son, Edsel. As pressure to talk to the unions rose, Ford turned the matter over to Bennett, over the head of Edsel who with others in the family had counseled talking to the union leaders. In April, 1937 Chrysler signed a union contract; so in May, 1937 Walter Reuther and two other labor leaders came to the Ford plant legally protected by the NLRB and holding a city permit to distribute hand bills. Bennett's thugs beat and maimed them, thus setting off four years of legal maneuvering, rioting and casualties, and bad press. When pressure from his wife and son rose to the place where his wife threatened to leave him, Henry finally signed a closed shop union contract in 1941. Accordingly, for most positions one could only get a job if he belonged to the UAW.
The sources for constructing a history of union recognition at the Long Beach plant are indeed limited at this date. Newspaper reports provide some understanding, and the following is taken largely from them. Following the passage of the Wagner Act, the government set up regional offices. Dr. Towne Nylander was the Director of the National Labor Relations Board governing the Long Beach area. At the same time the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW), a CIO affiliate, expanded its operations and in 1937 attended to the affairs of Local Union No. 406 at a Hail in Lynwood, about ten miles north of Long Beach. D.J. Carse was president of the Local.
Following the Walter Reuther beating and in December, 1937 pressure built for The Ford Motor Company to comply with the NLRB and to deal with the UAW. A mass meeting was called of members of Local Union No. 406 at the Hall in Lynwood. Dick Coleman, Pacific Coast representative of the UAW, and other union speakers exhorted the approximately 800 employees of the Long Beach Ford plant to give approval to a possible nation-wide strike. No plans for a local strike existed; the vote involved only local support of a national walk- out. President Carse encouraged the assembled workers to stand together and they did approving the walkout with an acclamation vote which climaxed the gathering.
The following year the UAW did call a local strike at Long Beach. The country was still suffering from the Depression, cars were not selling well, and based on potential sales the Long Beach plant predicted it would only be assembling 60 cars a day and need from 300 to 350 men. This meant layoffs, so the union requested that the company meet with its bargaining committee to discuss seniority provisions in general, working conditions, and the proposed layoffs. At that time there were 636 employees in the appropriate bargaining unit, and 436 of these were UAW members in good standing. Thus, the CIO union had a clear majority of the company's workers. Meanwhile, the Ford Company had recognized an unaffiliated company union called the Independent Auto Workers and workers complained it was discriminating against UAW employees and discouraging membership in that union. When the company refused to meet with the CIO affiliated UAW, and thus refused to bargain collectively with a union of the employees choice in accordance with Wagner Act requirements, a local strike was called for April 15, 1938.
The plant was employing well over 600 men at the time, and at about 1 P.M. 110 men employed in the trim department left their work and took up places on the picket line. Thus began the 24-hour a day picket line which would be in place until August. Police officers from Long Beach and from Los Angeles patrolled (the plant was in the jurisdiction of both since the city line crossed over the plant), and they reported the picketing peaceful. Dr. Towne Nylander, NLRB regional director, called in George McKay, field examiner for the Labor Board, and they held conferences with the local Ford officials. These did not include Ira B. Groves, plant manager, as he was meeting with Ford Motor Company people from Detroit in downtown Los Angeles. Production at the Ford plant carried on as usual.
Upon calling the strike the UAW filed charges with the NLRB against the Ford Motor Company for violating the Wagner Act. Nylander wired Ford officials to meet with the board and the workers so as to resolve the difficulties surrounding the strike. At the meeting Irwin Cary, regional director of the UAW, offered a three-point proposal for ending the strike: set up a negotiating committee, all strikers return to work without prejudice, and the company agree to discuss other issues at a later date.
The Ford company also came with a peace plan. It expressed a willingness to meet with a group of workmen to consider complaints, but recognition of the union at the Long Beach plant was not included in the offer. W.F. Williamson, San Francisco attorney and direct agent for the Ford Company in Detroit announced,
"We are powerless to grant recognition of the local union because the main plant at Detroit has never done so, and we cannot assume such power in the case of a branch,"
The company would put men back to work as they were normally needed. In rejecting the union's terms Williamson offered to reinstate only 77 of the several hundred workers who had struck. He then told them that the branch plant was governed by the market place. Even should the union halt its strike, less than 400 of the 680 workers who were employed when the strike was called a week before would be taken back. He also pointed to large numbers of men at the gates desiring to return to work. He claimed that in the layoffs union men were not discriminated against and that there were no reasons for charges to be brought up against Ford through the NLRB.
The Union, represented by Irvin Carey, rejected the Ford peace offer, said the re- employment of the 77 men was unsatisfactory, and peace negotiations collapsed. A hearing was set for May 19, and the striking workers dug in for a long siege. Their spokesmen declared that they would continue peaceful picketing but would not attempt to gain any points through picketing. Over half the workers at the plant had walked out; but with the curtailed production, Ford managers said they had all the men they needed. Don Carse, President of the UAW local pointed out that Harry Bridges, longshoremen leader, had appeared at the automobile union meeting that week and promised his full support. All hopes rested on the May 19th hearing.
The hearing took place before Trial Examiner R.N. Denham of Washington D.C., and the CIO/UAW charged Ford with fostering a company union and refusing to bargain with the CIO. On June 7 the hearing focused on the origin of "protest cards" which assertedly were passed out by foremen at the Long Beach plant, signed by many of the employees, and mailed to 411 West Seventh Street, Los Angeles, the address of a local capitalist and sportsman, Frank A. Garbutt. The cards read,
"We, the undersigned, are willing to return to work without affiliation to any national chartered union. We believe that the way to induce employers to hire us is by giving them good service and loyalty that we expect in return."
It might be well to recall that before the union contract it was the foremen who decided who would get to work and who would not during layoffs.
While picketing at the plant remained peaceful, by April 27 twenty-four cases of assault or intimidation of workers occurred in the county associated with the strike. Incidents included attacks on two men in Compton wherein striking men dragged workers from-cars and gave them a beating. In one case several carloads of strike sympathizers pursued two carloads of men en route to Redondo Beach and besieged them at a farm near Dominguez where a farmer lent a gun to the workers to hold off the besiegers. A Ford company official driving by saw the disturbance and obtained the aid of a motorcycle officer who led the workmen out of the farm and toward their homes. Charges of simple assault were filed in several cases, and the sentences passed out were light, the worker usually placed on probation.
The so-called 'goon squad' case attracted most attention. As first reported by Foreman Louis M, Field, he, a non-striker, was set upon in a vacant lot next to his home on April 22, as he repaired his car, by two striking employees, Frank M. Ryan and Bert L, Lytal. Field claimed that Ryan picked up a hammer and started beating him while Lytal joined in with his fists. "I grabbed Lytal," he told police, "and held him until help arrived, but Ryan fled." Field's injuries were not serious. It was the first violence connected with the strike within Long Beach City limits and much celebrated. Lytal was charged with attempting to force a worker at the Ford plant to leave his employment and join the strikers, but this was soon changed to a felony charge of assault with intent to do great bodily injury. He was held in jail in default of $5,000 bail. Ryan was named on the warrant, and returned to face the charges. The jury trial took place in August, and Field to his regret had no neighbors to testify to any blows. Ryan, when he took the stand, denied that either he or Lytal had struck a blow but asserted that Field was enraged when he and Lytal came to Field's home to discuss possibilities of settling the strike and that Field was the aggressor. Field had picked up a hammer and as he moved as if to strike Ryan, Lytal grabbed him. Ryan said he then disarmed Field and fled, leaving the city on advice of counsel. The jury acquitted the pair after five hours deliberation.
Returning to the hearing at the NLRB, we find that a verdict was handed down via Washington D.C. on August 22. The trial examiner R.N. Denham ruled that the company had violated the Wagner Act by refusing on three different occasions to bargain with theUAW, which, he judged, represented a majority of the company's employees. He recommended that the company be required to withdraw all recognition from the unaffiliated Independent Auto Workers as a collective bargaining agency of its workers and to completely disestablish the organization as such representative, either in its present form or in any other form identified with or traceable to its present organization, management or administration. Denham said the company had dominated and interfered with the Independent Union in its Long Beach plant and had discouraged membership in the UAW.
Further, Denham's report ordered the company to "post immediately in conspicuous places" in its Long Beach plant notice to employees that the company would not interfere with their right to join a union of their own choosing and would dissolve the company union.
The NLRB ordered reinstatement of approximately 450 employees and was instructed to drop present workers if necessary to do this. The company was instructed to mail notices to each of the striking employees offering reinstatement, the offer to remain open ten days. In event of failure of the company to offer such reinstatement, the employee would be entitled to full pay for the time lost. The reinstatement had to be made without prejudice to the seniority of the employees. Ira Groves, Plant Manager, claimed he had no official information regarding the Board's action and met with Ford executives in Los Angeles.
Denham's report marked the fifth Ford case in which either the board itself or one of its examiners had found the company guilty of violating the Wagner Act. The company appealed the case to a federal court, and a ruling came down in December, 1939 ordering back pay and reinstatement of strikers. The Ford company did not comply. In May, 1941, with the country already at war union pickets marched again at the Long Beach assembly plant, but withdrew in anticipation of a decision which would make the CIO/UAW bargaining agent for the Ford employees. In Detroit Henry Ford had finally given in, and an election at Dearborn on May 24 made the CIO the bargaining agent there. Paul Harvey, secretary of Local 406, announced that a majority of Long Beach employees would vote the same preference.
In March, 1942, an NLRB hearing was held in Los Angeles at the joint request of the Ford Company and the union to reach agreement over certain differences affecting computation of back pay associated with the 1938 strike. Attorney George Shibley, counsel for the union, said that his witnesses would establish that the company flagrantly repudiated and refused to comply with the ruling of the NLRB. The back pay amounted to $2,500,000. The company objected claiming that many of the strikers never returned to work in the plant and therefore were not entitled to the back pay. After several hearings in Long Beach in early 1942 a settlement was reached and the figure of $220,000 agreed upon. Nearly a third of the 230 men involved were by then in the armed forces. Attorney Shibley acted as paymaster on July 1, 1942, handing out the checks which ranged from $2,276 to $36 in his offices at the Heartwell Building in Long Beach. The Long Beach plant was now a union shop.