Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Organized Labor in the Auto Industry

Ford workers at the Richmond branch formed union organizing committees in January 1937. Their efforts to seek recognition of their union took place in the context of a wave of labor organizing throughout California and the nation in the 1930s. Much of this activity took place because for the first time in U.S. history, with the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, workers who wanted to organize themselves for the purpose of collective bargaining with their employers had the explicit protection of the U.S. government. The Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with which workers could register their complaints and seek redress when employers engaged in unfair labor practices. The NLRB defined as unfair such practices as union espionage, supporting company-affiliated unions, imposing sanctions on union members, and refusing to recognize and negotiate with workers' unions. Franklin Roosevelt's re-election in 1936 appeared to be an endorsement of his New Deal programs, including the Wagner Act, which further emboldened workers to organize themselves and the NLRB to protect them. One union that took bold action after the 1936 election was the United Auto Workers (UAW), formed only a year earlier. Early in 1937, 1500 workers in two General Motors (GM) plants in Flint, Michigan, enacted a sit-down strike, borrowing a tactic that had worked successfully for meatpackers in Austin, Minnesota, and rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, earlier in the 1930s. The GM workers barricaded themselves in the factories for more than six weeks before GM finally agreed in February to recognize the workers' UAW local and begin negotiations with the UAW for contracts covering workers and locals at GM plants elsewhere in the U.S. as well.

The GM workers' success had energized others in Detroit and industrial workers elsewhere in the country to use the sit-down to gain recognition of their unions. Within a week of the UAW victory in Flint, 5000 cigar makers in Detroit occupied five plants. A few weeks later, 17,000 strikers occupied all nine of Chrysler's Detroit facilities. In 1937, there were almost 500 strikes in the U.S. that featured sit-downs lasting one day or more. That year, the nation saw a record 4,760 strikes, most of which were aimed at gaining union recognition. Some large corporations recognized unions without a strike. For example, U.S. Steel recognized the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in March 1937 without a strike, agreeing to establish a formal grievance procedure. Later that year, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters gained recognition from the Pullman company, becoming the first African-American union to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. California workers in many industries joined this upsurge in efforts to gain recognition. In northern California, for example, cannery workers continued to mount strikes at numerous facilities. It was in this context that UAW Local No. 76, which had recently gained recognition by GM in Oakland, turned its attention to assisting workers at the Ford plant in Richmond in organizing.

Another important facet of the context in which Richmond's UAW local arose was the growing rift between the old American Federal of Labor (AFL) and the new Committee for Industrial Organization (soon to become the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO). The unions that comprised the AFL were old trade unions, each of which represented a particular craft, skill, or trade, like carpenters, machinists, railway conductors, and cigar makers. Each union prided itself in the skills its members possessed, and they often demonstrated little concern for workers who had other skills or for unskilled workers. Therefore, many large industrial enterprises had several groups of workers represented by different unions, often with competing interests, and those enterprises often had another large group of unskilled workers who were not represented by a union at all. Employers had long been able to exploit this lack of unity in the American labor movement, so for decades some labor organizers had advocated industrial unions, which were labor organizations that represented all the workers at a particular plant or in a particular industry regardless of craft, skill, or trade. Early in the twentieth century, the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had advocated such an approach to organizing workers, gaining some local footholds among, for example, miners and seasonal construction and agricultural workers. Although most American labor organizations remained trade unions, some, such as the United Mine Workers (UMW) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW) arose as industrial unions, and locals within the industrial unions, represented all workers at facilities where they were organized.

By the early 1930s, many American industrial corporations had become gigantic, employing tens or hundreds of thousands of workers. Despite the hardships of the Great Depression, workers in some industries refused to withstand the hardships placed on them by employers any longer, staging industry-wide strikes to demand recognition of their unions. In 1934, there were strikes among truckers in Minneapolis, cannery workers in California, and dock workers on the San Francisco Bay. The largest such strike involved 350,000 textile workers along the Atlantic seaboard. President Roosevelt and his New Deal allies in Congress, like Sen. Robert Wagner, for whom the Wagner Act was named, recognized that workers had to be enabled to democratically create new representative institutions to counter the power of the giant corporations and thus achieve some balance, in keeping with the republican ideals of the nation. At the same time, some union leaders began to realize that the values of the old AFL were inhibiting the formation of such institutions. Therefore, individuals like John L. Lewis of the UMW and Sidney Hillman of the ACW formed the Committee for Industrial Organization in 1935 to foster a mass organizing drive among industrial workers. The CIO formally broke with the AFL in 1937. With that break, CIO and AFL unions often competed with each other for the loyalty of workers being organized at large industrial operations, such as Ford's Richmond branch, as will be described below. In Contra Costa County, the Central Trades Labor Council, affiliated with the AFL, sought to force every union affiliated with both the AFL and the CIO to withdraw from the CIO.

Meanwhile, Henry Ford and his top managers, like Harry Bennett and Charles Sorensen, remained the most recalcitrant of the U.S. auto makers. During the spring of 1937, after the UAW had won recognition by GM and was pushing to gain recognition from Chrysler and Hudson, Homer Martin, president of the UAW international, announced that the union would launch a drive to get Ford's recognition as well. Ford's lieutenant Harry Bennett responded that, "Organized labor is not going to run the Ford Motor Company." Bennett was so adamantly opposed to dealing with unions that he sent orders to Richmond that Bulwinkel should respond to the sit-down strike in April 1937 (described here) by calling in the sheriffs department. Bulwinkel wanted to avoid the bloodshed that had ensued at other auto industry strikes, so he counseled against using the police. Despite Bennett's insistence, Bulwinkel avoided the call to the sheriff. Meanwhile, rumors circulated that Ford would close his plants for three years to prevent their being organized. He denied the rumor, but he constantly harangued his workers that they should stay out of unions. The rise in union strength, however, brought dissension to the Ford family. Henry continued to refuse to have anything to do with them, while his son Edsel advocated that the company should try to negotiate an agreement with the unions. Undaunted, the elder Ford vowed to do everything in his power to resist the unions and even work to rescind the Wagner Act. His company began to employ strong-armed tactics in opposing organizing efforts at its plants in Dearborn, Kansas City, and Dallas, leading to a new term, "the Ford Terror.”