Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Richmond Sit-Down Strike of 1937

United Autoworkers of America Local 76 had formed in October 1935 at Oakland, representing workers at three General Motors plants there. Frank Slaby had been one of the principal organizers, and the members of the local elected him president. Local No. 76 began recruiting members who worked in the automobile, aircraft, and farm implement industries in the Bay Area. Organizers from the local began distributing union literature outside the Ford Motor Company's Richmond branch in November 1936. By January 1937, enough Richmond employees had joined the union that the local formed organizing committees for the Richmond plant. One of the committees met with Ford managers of the Ford plant to register complaints that two union members, A. Gonsolves and A.L. Gullickson, had been fired for joining the union. Although those grievances were resolved informally, conflict continued to simmer as union members began to select shop stewards. Ford management demoted some of the shop stewards when it learned of their identities. When a committee of the local met with Ford managers to complain of the demotions, the company responded that it would recognize the union committee and try to resolve the grievances. Meanwhile, foremen in the plant began to harass shop stewards, accusing them of being radicals, "Red," and communists. They referred to the president of the local as "Red" Slaby. Foremen tried to convince union members that their allegiance would hurt them, not help.

It became clear to the union that Ford was not going to recognize the shop stewards the workers at Richmond had selected. Meanwhile, working conditions grew worse in April as Richmond managers rushed to meet deadlines in Ford's contract to produce trucks for the Japanese. Shop stewards tried to file complaints with Ford management, but to no avail. Similar tensions were brewing at Ford's Long Beach plant, where the workers staged a sit-down strike in mid-April. A week later, at midday on Friday, 23 April 1937, while plant manager Clarence Bulwinkel was at a Rotary Club lunch and just after Richmond production workers had returned to work from their lunch break, shop stewards, acting on behalf of Local 76, called for a sit-down strike of workers at the Richmond plant to gain Ford's formal recognition of the union. That afternoon, Slaby drove from Oakland to Richmond to take charge of the strike. At 11:00 pm, he announced that Ford had promised to negotiate with union officials. In celebration, workers organized an impromptu midnight parade, said to be 5 miles long, that wove through the streets of Richmond before processing through Berkeley to Local 76 headquarters in Oakland. Believing they had an agreement in hand, union members agreed to go back to work on Monday, which they did.

Two days after the April 1937 sit-down strike at Richmond, Ford officials met with a committee representing the UAW local, including UAW vice president Ed Hall from Detroit. The Ford officials introduced an individual named John Adams, who, the Ford people said, would begin representing the company in labor negotiations. Adams, whose real name was John Gillespie, made certain assurances to the union members. In response the workers ended the strike, believing the company had recognized their union. By late May, however, it became apparent to the workers that the Ford company had not recognized their union and was not trying to attend to grievances, so the union called a walk-out. At subsequent meetings, the UAW's negotiating committee proposed written agreements under which Ford would recognize the union as the sole bargaining representative of workers at the Richmond plant, but Ford officials refused to sign. During this second strike, the International Association of Machinists also made a brief effort to organize workers at the Richmond branch. At a June 4 meeting between the Local 560 and Ford management, the union informed the company that of the total 1,316 production workers at the Richmond branch, 1,120 of them wanted Local 76 to represent them when bargaining such issues as wages and working conditions. Adams, claiming to represent the Ford Motor Company, agreed to certain of the union's demands concerning grievances and seniority, but he said that Ford would not agree to formally recognize the union. He called the other agreements he had made with the union a kind of back-door recognition. With those assurances, the union ended the strike.

Meanwhile, the Ford company continued its anti-union campaign. The company formed an organization called the American Auto Workers Union and urged its employees to join it rather than the UAW. Officials distributed literature, including a booklet titled "Ford Almanac for July 1937," designed to discourage workers from joining the union. A Ford foremen parked his car outside a union meeting and observed workers arriving and leaving.

It had been Ford's practice to close the Richmond plant each year in September to modify the assembly line for the coming year's model cars. The company suspended the employment of most workers but retained others to make the changes in the plant. Then, when the company was ready to resume production it would call old workers back. In 1937, when the Richmond plant closed for the season on September 3, there were about 1,260 employees, of whom the UAW claimed 939 as members. The 1937 closure lasted longer than usual, causing the Richmond City Council to adopt a resolution urging Ford to open the plant as soon as possible. At the end of the year. Ford shipped cars assembled elsewhere in Richmond's territory, apparently to forestall the re-opening of the Richmond branch. In early December, Adams met with laid-off employees who were still members of the union. He informed them that Ford would soon resume operations at Richmond and that all the previous employees would be rehired, but that they would have to disband their grievance committee, eliminate their shop stewards, and quit the union. He tried to assure them that Ford's Long Beach branch was doing well without shop stewards. The plant re-opened on December 9, and the company rehired about 680 workers. The union noticed that many shop stewards, union officers, and members of committees had not been rehired. The UAW therefore filed a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board NLRB in May 1938, claiming that 150 former Ford employees at Richmond had not been rehired because they had joined the union or had helped in the union organizing.

As it turned out, John Gillespie, the individual who had introduced himself as Adams, began appearing on Ford's behalf at other meetings in the Bay Area, such as a meeting with the NLRB in San Francisco and with officers of the union local in Oakland. At those meetings, however, he used other names, like J.H. Peterson, who was a Ford official in Detroit, and Moore. At the NLRB meeting in June 1937, for example, C.A. Bulwinkel (Richmond plant manager), R.S. Harrison (Richmond plant superintendent), and Pat Smith (Ford Motor Company personnel department, Detroit) accompanied Adams as he impersonated Peterson, and they did not reveal to the NLRB officials Adams' true identity. In December 1937, after Gillespie appeared as Adams at a meeting with the Richmond workers to urge them to abandon the union so that they could be rehired, he met in Oakland with UAW leaders, introducing himself as a man named Moore. Some Richmond workers happened to be at the Oakland meeting, and they recognized Moore as the man who had presented himself to them in Richmond as Adams, a representative of Ford. After the December 1937 meeting with the union, at which he had said Ford would rehire all the employees, "Adams" was not seen again representing Ford in labor negotiations.

In the midst of Ford's anti-union campaign and the autumn 1937 shutdown of the Richmond branch, the Richmond auto workers decided in early November by a vote of 113 to 42 to leave Local No. 76 and form their own local. This move was contrary to the advice of Local No. 76 president Frank Slaby and of Harry Bridges, the well-known leader of the Longshoremen's union in San Francisco. On 18 November 1937, the UAW issued a charter to Local 560 in Richmond. The initial officers of the new local were: Robert Phillips, president; Harry Morrison, vice president; Mike O'Donnell, secretary-treasure; Palmer Myhre, Stanley Schofield, and William Floor, trustees. Meanwhile, the new Richmond local sent a delegate to Detroit to participate with representatives from Long Beach and other Ford branch operations as well as from Ford's Michigan plants in launching a nationwide effort to gain Henry Ford's recognition of the union. The focus of the drive would be on organizing Ford's Dearborn and Detroit operations, and the UAW chose thirty-five organizers to work with employees there.

The law firm Williamson & Wallace of San Francisco represented Ford during the NLRB investigation of the Richmond workers' complaint. As soon as management at Richmond learned that the union had filed the complaint, W.F. Williamson met with NLRB regional director Alice M. Rosseter in an effort to learn the nature of the union's grievance. In addition to complaining that most of the strike committee and the union's shop stewards had not been rehired. Local 560 asserted that Adams had promised they would get their jobs back. The union also voiced suspicion, because they had begun to realize that Adams, whose real identity was Gillespie, was operating under several identities. It had led the workers to doubt that Ford was negotiating with them in good faith. Not knowing how the firm should represent the company with regard to this issue, Williamson & Wallace initially took the stance at meetings with Rosseter that the various people Gillespie claimed to have been were actually present at meetings. The firm, though, was in a difficult position: should it assert to the NLRB that Ford had negotiated with the union, even though the person representing the company used a false identity? or should it assert to the NLRB that Ford had not negotiated with the union because "Adams" was not a legitimate representative of the company, even though other Ford officials had been present at those meetings?

The firm also began investigating the current status of individuals who were named in the complaint, hoping to find that they had quit voluntarily or were working elsewhere. After a brief investigation, the firm assured Ford headquarters in Dearborn that the workers' complaints about not being reinstated were groundless and that the present condition among those employed at the Richmond branch was contentment. After a more thorough investigation, however, Williamson & Wallace found that several men with good work records and considerable seniority, some of whose employment at Ford went back to 1922, had not been rehired. It began to appear that the union had good grounds for its complaint. Yet, the firm recommended to the Richmond management that the company should try to avoid an NLRB-sanctioned election, because the workers would undoubtedly vote to have the UAW represent them. The question facing top management in Dearborn was whether to acknowledge that Ford, in the person of "John Adams," had recognized the union at 1937 meetings, or to deny that Ford had recognized the union. In the case of the latter, there almost certainly would be an NLRB-sanctioned election.

Ford's response notwithstanding, the UAW and workers at the Richmond branch petitioned to have Ford officially recognize Local 560 as the workers' representative in June 1938. The union claimed that a majority of the workers at Richmond had designated Local 560 as their representative and that Ford was not recognizing the local. Meanwhile, Williamson & Wallace had changed its opinion concerning the advisability of an election. The firm had been interviewing foremen at the plant, and they now believed that anti-union sentiment was quite high among the current workers. The NLRB hearing began on 20 June 1938. The union presented witnesses who testified that during all the recent periods that the Richmond plant was operating, both before the September 1937 closer and after the December 1937 re-opening, a majority of the production workers were either union members or had applied for membership. They also testified that, regardless of Gillespie's actual status as a representative of the company, Richmond managers like Bulwinkel and Harrison had assented to agreements Gillespie had made with the union. For these reasons, the union asserted that it should be recognized as the workers' bargaining agent.

The NLRB hearing in the Richmond matter began June 20th and ended after three weeks of testimony on July 9th. NLRB examiner Thomas Kennedy heard testimony from about half the individuals named in the complaint. Kennedy issued his preliminary report on September 2nd. The NLRB examiner determined from the hearings that the Ford Motor Company at Richmond had engaged in unfair labor practices. Although Kennedy dismissed a small number of the complaints, he found that the reason most of the men were not rehired was clearly their union activities. The examiner also made recommendations for men not interviewed during the hearing, determining that they, too, had more seniority than many of the men who had been rehired and that they would have been rehired had they not participated in union activities. At the conclusion of his report, Kennedy recommended that Ford reinstate the men who had been unfairly not rehired. Moreover, he recommended that Ford not discourage its employees from joining Local 560 and that Ford recognize Local 560 as its production workers' representative at the bargaining table. In October, Williamson & Wallace filed an exception to the report on Ford's behalf. The NLRB did not issue its final order in the case until February 1941, essentially upholding Kennedy's recommendations. As part of the ruling, the NLRB ordered that Ford rehire 143 men who had wrongfully not been rehired and that Ford compensate them with back pay. The NLRB, incidentally, had ruled in the union's favor in the Long Beach case as well.

At the national level, Ford management continued to refuse to recognize UAW locals at its Detroit, Dearborn, and branch plants, and labor continued to battle for recognition of its union. When organized labor learned that Ford had been awarded a contract for the experimental jeeps in late 1940, labor's voice on the National Defense Board, Sidney Hillman, protested to no avail that the government should not contract with Ford if the company refused to operate within the nation's labor laws. In early 1941, Ford submitted the low bid to make nearly 12,000 trucks for the War Department, but this time the government insisted on including a clause in the contract that Ford abide by the Wagner Act and the Wages and Hours Law. When Ford refused, the War Department awarded the contract to the next highest bidder. In Michigan's contentious climate of red-baiting by Ford managers and Ford attorney LA. Capizzi, and with former UAW president Homer Martin having been recruited by Ford to organize a competing auto workers union affiliated with the AFL, called the Federal Labor Union, the UAW was nevertheless able to implement a successful strike, when 85,000 workers in Detroit and Dearborn walked off the job in April 1941. After ten days, the strike finally induced Ford to meet the union's demands. Among them was an NLRB-sanctioned election, held on May 21. Of some 80,000 workers from Ford's River Rouge, Highland Park, and Lincoln plants casting ballots, 51,868 voted for the UAW and 26,132 voted for the AFL affiliate. Only about 2,000 workers voted against union representation. In the wake of the election. Ford agreed to sign a contract stating that the UAW would represent Ford's 120,000 production workers, including the 1,300 men working at Richmond.

Things were not quiet in Richmond as members of Local 560 watched events unfold in Detroit. The Labor Herald reported that on the Friday in February after the NLRB issued its order, the Ford service department at the Richmond plant warned the paperboy, who sold newspapers at the plant gate, not to shout any headlines about the decision. By 1941, operations at the Richmond branch had greatly expanded, as described in previous sections, and most of the union members against whom Ford had discriminated in 1937 and 1938 were now reportedly back at work. Therefore, when the NLRB issued its final order. Ford petitioned for a rehearing, claiming that the rehiring of employees subsequent to the controversy but prior to the NLRB order showed that Ford had not discriminated against the union members. The NLRB dismissed the appeal. Meanwhile, Ford tried to offer the aggrieved workers at the Richmond plant a settlement independent of the NLRB order, offering to pay 31.5 percent of the back pay and leave the other issues to litigation. Ford did not authorize the Richmond branch managers to negotiate with the union how the workers' back pay would be calculated, however, nor were the managers authorized to negotiate any other matters with the union. Ford's refusal to meet with local union representatives led to brief continuation of the controversy, but Ford eventually complied with the order to the union's and the NLRB's satisfaction late in the summer.

Although Ford reinstated workers following the NLRB's February order and posted notices around the Richmond plant assuring workers of their right to join unions, the company did not actually recognize the Richmond local of the UAW. In April, Ford foremen at Richmond urged their workers to join Local No. 22669 of the AFL entity, the Federal Labor Union. Then in May, while workers in Detroit and Dearborn were voting in the NLRB-sanctioned election, the AFL local in Richmond suggested that the Richmond workers vote to elect officers of Local 22669. Local 560 of the UAW cautioned Richmond workers that this was merely a ploy by the AFL to give Local 22669 some patina of official standing. Recognition of Local 560 finally came in June, when Ford signed contracts with the UAW nationally, but not before the union and its members had exerted considerable energy in getting Ford to negotiate. Although Local 560 had once boasted that a large percentage of the Richmond workers had joined the UAW, membership had dwindled to a small, active core after the initial organizing drive in 1937. Vince McKenna, president of Local 560, reported in June 1941 that, following the signing of the national contract between Ford and the UAW, there was a healthy rush to join the union by workers at the Richmond plant, both new members and former members who wished to re-establish their good standing with the local. Ford put the last of the aggrieved workers back on the payroll on July 21.