Labor History in 2:00

April 8 -John L. Lewis Takes on Henry Ford

April 8, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1937.

That was the day sparring between Henry Ford and John L. Lewis spilled over into the press.

The CIO formally declared their organizing drive of some 150,000 workers at Ford Motor Company.

John L. Lewis addressed a crowd of 25,000 the night before at the Detroit State Fair Grounds Coliseum, celebrating the recent organizing victory at Chrysler.

Lewis thundered, “Henry Ford will change his mind.”

He added that victories at Chrysler and General Motors came as a result of workers dissatisfaction with their conditions.

Lewis also noted that Ford Motor Company prevented workers from joining unions through a system of intimidation and coercion.

Ford insisted he would never recognize the UAW or any other union in response to sit-downs at Ford plants in Kansas City and St. Louis.

Notoriously anti-Semitic, he then alleged that international banking interests financed CIO organizing drives.

Ford maintained workers had no reason to celebrate organizing victories, claiming workers had lost through joining unions. 

“They’ve had their freedom taken away. They pay money to the unions and get nothing in return.”

But Ford was also one of the few industrial employers that hired blacks. Organizing at Ford meant organizing black workers.

It meant bringing black workers on as organizers and staffers in the UAW.

The UAW waged a pointed campaign to attract black workers at Ford and concentrated efforts at the massive River Rouge Complex.

UAW leaders Homer Martin and Wyndham Mortimer urged black workers to join up with them.

“We must solve together, not pitted against one another, all discrimination.”

It would take more than four years to finally organize at Ford, but black workers were at the forefront of that struggle.

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