On this day in 1941: UAW levels strike against Ford Motor Co.

    Women support UAW workers at Ford Motor Company in 1941 | Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

    In 1941, Ford Motor Co. became the last Detroit Three automaker to recognize the United Automobile Workers (UAW) as a full contract partner. 

    On April 1 of that year, Harry Bennett, head of Ford’s Service Department, fired eight union members. His action set off a massive sit-down strike by workers at Ford’s Dearborn Rouge Plant. After a 10-day work stoppage, auto baron Henry Ford agreed to a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW.

    The first UAW-Ford negotiation effort concluded on June 20, 1941, when an agreement was signed. It came after more than 136,000 General Motors workers (GM) participated in a sit-down strike in Flint in 1936. GM and the UAW agreed to a contract in 1937. That same year, workers at Chrysler won a sit-down strike for union recognition.

    The UAW-Ford conflict was years in the making. On March 7, 1932, thousands marched from Detroit to the Rouge Plant. They were protesting austere measures carried out by the company against workers during the Great Depression. Five years later, on May 26, 1937, the Rouge Plant was the battleground for violence when labor organizers clashed with Ford security guards over a leafleting campaign called, “Unionism, Not Fordism.”

    “The strike of 1941 ended the struggle of auto workers at the Detroit Three once and for all. After firing eight union members and a massive sit-down strike, Clara Ford stood up to Henry Ford and ushered an end to Harry Bennett’s goon squad,” said UAW Vice President Gerald Kariem in an email to the Advance, referring to Henry Ford’s wife. 

    “The first UAW collective bargaining contract was signed shortly after on June 20, 1941 and ever since the Ford family has followed Clara’s example through 26 groundbreaking agreements over wages, pensions, health care, health and safety, profit sharing, civil and human rights, life and disability insurance and tuition reimbursement. And it all started with a sit-down strike in 1941.”

    Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.