They tried to warn us

May 21, 2003 at 12:00 am

Unions are a ubiquitous component of metropolitan Detroit’s fabric. And while Detroit is indisputably a union town, unions, for the most part, have become such a part of the status quo that it may be hard to fathom today the depths of radicalism into which unionism once plunged its advocates.

In 1951, United Auto Workers Local 600 attempted one of the most daring undertakings in union history. The local broke ranks with its UAW leadership and sued Ford Motor Co. in an attempt to halt the decentralization of operations that Ford was beginning to implement.

Although ultimately unsuccessful, this brave act was spurred by Local 600’s eerily accurate prediction that the decentralization of Ford operations would prove devastating to Detroit. That this all went down in the early 1950s, which are often fondly remembered as a period of national prosperity, makes Local 600’s prescience all the more remarkable.

Local 600 was born from the epic Ford Rouge Plant, which, as depicted in the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, might have been the most awesome conglomeration of man and machine ever realized in the Industrial Age. At the Rouge, which went online in 1920, every tiny part of an automobile could be produced, integrated and assembled. This single “megaplant” employed an astonishing 85,000 workers at its peak in the early 1940s.

The Rouge was notoriously difficult to unionize, in part because its sprawling size and numerous disparate divisions made it difficult to organize. According to Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlan’s Talking Union (University of Illinois Press, 1996), an oral history of Local 600, 53 nationalities were represented at the Rouge. Politics were equally diverse.

In considering the difficulties organizers found unionizing the Rouge, one must also take into account Ford’s infamous Labor Relations Department, which, according to Stepan-Norris and Zeitlan, basically existed to keep out “radicals, agitators, trouble-makers, and — above all — the union.” Furthermore, Henry Ford’s paternalism kept many workers fiercely loyal to their boss, which slowed the organizing process. Lastly, the Rouge plant was one of the few major industrial employers of blacks before World War II, causing many black workers to shy away from stirring up trouble by joining an insurgent labor organization.

It took years of underground efforts to organize the Rouge. Such upheavals as the bloody Hunger March of 1932, the violent Battle of the Overpass of 1937 and a 1941 plant-paralyzing strike occurred before Local 600 was officially recognized by Henry Ford on June 20, 1941.

Just a decade after its inception, Local 600 began a legal battle that might have saved Detroit from many of the agonizing economic and social effects that industrial decentralization wrought.

Idealistic? Maybe. But the writing was on the walls, and Local 600 chose not just to read it, but strongly act upon it.

Decentralization, also called “capital mobility” in Thomas Sugrue’s seminal urban study, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton University Press, 1996), was a golden panacea to industrial giants. It became the market strategy of choice due to advances in communication, transportation and industrial technology (particularly automation), acceleration in economic competition, and an ability to shift industry to low-wage (i.e., nonunionized) regions such as the South. “Runaway” plants, as they were spitefully called, sprung up all over the United States.

In 1949, Ford began to radically accelerate demands on employee production; when workers were unable to keep pace with the new demands, they were summarily laid off. Meanwhile, Ford officials began laying off hundreds of employees without announcing formal plans for decentralization. Local 600 began to pay serious attention to the issue of decentralization in 1950. Its leadership believed that plants opening in unorganized locations hurt both Northern workers, who lost their jobs, and Southern workers, who would be paid less for the same job. Local 600 viewed the steady employment of Rouge workers as a corporate responsibility to both the workers and the greater Detroit community.

Workers were called to a “Protest Meeting Against Job-Moving” on March 31, 1951. One outcome was creation of a Committee on Decentralization. A poster calling workers to the meeting stated that three-quarters of the 14,000 motor machinist positions once housed at the Rouge were now found in Ohio plants. With the alarming figure of nearly 1,000 jobs being lost each month at the Rouge plant, fear was in the air.

In a June 22, 1951 letter to John S. Bugas, vice president and director of industrial relations for Ford, Ken Bannon, director of the UAW-CIO’s National Ford Department, clearly demonstrated that the international union, of which Local 600 was but a branch, was more concerned with Ford’s overall employment numbers than those at individual plants such as the Rouge.

After citing Ford’s obligation to Rouge workers and requesting that the corporation discontinue plans to move jobs from the Rouge to Cleveland, Bannon concluded the letter by stating, “However, in the event the Company does not see fit to live up to its responsibility to its employees, then it is our request that our Union be granted recognition in the Cleveland Plant immediately.”

A July 10 letter from Bannon to Bugas questions Ford’s assertions that 10,000 hourly employees would be laid off due to curtailments in government orders. Ford Local 600’s Motor Plant News of August 1951 reported that Bugas walked out of a meeting with the union after stating that Ford had every right to remove jobs from the Rouge. An article titled “Bugas Mum — But We Will Win” also noted with alarm that Ford was moving machines out of the Rouge under the cover of darkness.

By August, Local 600 began to view the International Union as being less than supportive of its goal to save as many Rouge jobs as possible. Telegrams were sent to Ford officials as well as to UAW president Walter Reuther, Bannon and other UAW-CIO executive board members protesting the loss of jobs and movement of Rouge machinery. A flier signed by Local 600 board members asked UAW officials “to give the Union (i.e., Local 600) guidance on the movement of machines.”

By late October, Local 600 consulted legal counsel and took a bold move. It drafted a lawsuit built on the premise that Ford had breached its five-year contract with Local 600, signed in 1950. Among other things, the lawsuit argued:

• The right to work — represented by wages, vacations, holidays, pension, insurance and benefits — inherently embedded in the contract was endangered by worker layoffs.

• In favor of narrowing of the nearly limitless freedom employers had in choosing to lay off and fire employees.

• The idea that workers and unions deserved a role in corporate economic planning, a notion that challenged the basic tenets of labor law.

The complaint also spoke to issues of economic equality and justice, as well as to the public good of greater Detroit. Basically, Local 600 aimed to force corporate responsibility beyond the bounds of corporate law.

Local 600 president Frank Stellato invited the participation of the International UAW-CIO in the suit in a letter to Reuther dated Oct. 31, 1951. Reuther consulted the UAW’s legal counsel, Harold A. Cranefield, who found merits in the lawsuit and stated, “It is undeniable that if the courts could possibly be persuaded to move even an inch in the direction of the theory of this complaint it would be a great gain for labor.”

Some 2,500 Rouge employees unanimously voted on Nov. 12 to proceed with the lawsuit. It appears that Reuther struggled with his decision, for Stellato wrote him to implore the International UAW to join the suit on both Nov. 12 and 13. On Nov. 15, The Detroit News reported that the International UAW-CIO had declined to join the suit. Neither Reuther, nor any official of the UAW International, ever spoke publicly about the issues raised by the suit.

Local 600 vs. Ford Motor Co. was ultimately dismissed by Judge Thomas P. Thornton of United States District Court. As Sugrue so succinctly puts it, “In Thornton’s chambers, Rouge workers lost their last possible redress against the runaway shop.”

So why didn’t UAW International join in an effort to halt massive job losses in the city? Sugrue proposes a few reasons. First, as was alluded to in Ken Bannon’s June 22, 1951, letter quoted above, the UAW focused on organizing every runaway plant, which would keep overall union membership stable, as well as approximate Detroit working conditions in any new plant. The UAW also ensured that any Ford plant in Michigan would honor the seniority of Rouge workers.

Sugrue also posits that UAW officials might have welcomed the weakening of Local 600, consistently the largest oppositional local in their ranks. This theory is certainly backed up by the fact that UAW International took Local 600 into trusteeship in February 1952. Local 600’s oppositional tactics, and because five of its officials were suspected Communist Party members, prompted this move.

Local 600 had a clear vision of Detroit’s future. Some may look at its lawsuit as naive, but I view it as amazing in its foresight. If many policymakers had had such a clear crystal ball throughout the 1950s, who knows what the past 50 years would have held for Detroit?


Thanks to William LeFevre from the Walter J. Reuther Library and Gilbert Rodriguez of Local 600 for their help in gathering information for this article. Newspapers courtesy Reuther Library.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh covers the history of Detroit for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]