Number 30 Night Editor: Steve Koppman
Sunday September 20, 1970
By STUDS TERKEL
Justin McCarthy quit college in 1933.
He was'working at a Ford assembly plant
in an industrial suburb, near Chicago.
"I sandpapeted all the right - hand
fenders. I was paid $5 a day. The parts
were brought in from the River Rouge
plant in Detroit. When I went to work in
January, we were turning out 232 cars a
day. When I was fired, four months later,
we were turning out 535. Without any
extra help and no increase in pay. It was
the famous Ford Speed-up.
"The gates were locked when you came
in at eight o'clock in the morning. They
weren't opened again until five o'clock in
the evening. People brought their own
lunch. No commissary wagons were per-
mitted on the grounds. Nobody bothered to
tell me. So I didn't eat that first day. You
were supposed to buy your own gloves.
.tt e of
isn't paying people to go to college. You're
A long-time associate of John L. Lewis,
Mike Wildman was appointed director of
the campaign to organize theFord Motor
Company, the automobile industry's last
holdout against the UAWU.
WE STARTED OUT on the sixteenth day of
October, 1940. The three plants in Detroit,
Hamtramck and Dearborn ha about a hun-
dred thousand men. We immediately zoned
the town and located the Ford workers. The
milkmen helped. There were about seven hun-
dred of them, members of the CIO. They told
us who their Ford worker customers were. But
we had to shake the bushes to get them. There
was great fear in the hearts of these men.
This was three years after Reuther and
Frankensteen were beaten up by the service
department. (Shortly after GM had signed
with the UAWU, Walter Reuther and Dick
Frankensteen were assaulted at the overpass,
near Detroit's River Rouge plant, while in the
act of passing out union handbills. The La
Follette Civil Liberties Committee confirmed
the charge that the assailants were members
of Ford's service department.) This depart-
ment was made up of men who served time in
prison. They could be paroled to someone who
insured them employment. Ford readily gave
them jobs. It made him a fine espionage sys-
tem. Harry Bennett, chief of the service de-
partment, built it.
As fast as the men signed application
blanks, they were fired. We couldn't figure how
the company found out so fast. So we tighten-
ed our security. I kept the cards in my safe
until it got too small for all the cards coming
in. There were hundreds of John Doe appli-
cations. They were just scared to death.
They'd come into our office when it first
opened, they'd walk three, four times around
the vestibule, look in all directions. Finally,
they'd jump in the door and ask you to take
them in the back room.
The life of a Ford worker was quite miser-
able. These service men were everywhere. The
way they'd throw Then out . .. today, anybody
that wore a blue shirt got laid off. Tomorrow,
if you had brown hair, black hair, anything.
If they caught some of our people on the
street, they slapped 'em around. When some
of our boys first wore union buttons or UAW
baseball caps, they were given the works.
Some of our boys got fed up, and next thing
a couple of service men were slightly hurt.
That ended their parading in public. But this
Within sixty days after the c a m p a i g n
started, we challenged Ford, through Bennett,
to have an election. Bennett refused to meet
any "outsider," but he agreed to meet with
employees on grievances. Bennett and I ex-
changed blasts through Jim Dewey, the fed-
eral conciliator, who acted as go-between. We
blasted each other in newspapers. The more
stories got in, the more cards we signed. It
was $1 initiation fee and $1 dues. In February,
we took in $88,000 plus.
The first meeting I addressed, some thirty
days after my arrival, had a grand total of
twenty-three in the audience. Now we were
having meetings of more than thirty thousand
at the fairgrounds. We had broken down this
We had forty organizers on the outside.
Those were the men Ford had fired, so we put
'em on the staff. But the real secret of our
success were the ones Ford paid for himself-
the six thousand volunteers inside the plant.
We bought an old abandoned school build-
ing. This was lined up as our soup kitchen. We
didn't want any strike, but we knew sooner or
later, Ford would force us into one. We were
prepared just in case.
On April 1, it happened. The five men on
our grievance committee had permission from
the foreman to leave their job and see the
division superintendent. He said, "Talk to the
employment office." At the employment office,
they were told, "You left your jobs. You're
We asked the company, through the con-
ciliator, to arbitrate this matter. The answer
was: They're fired, and we don't care what
you do. The word spread in the plant like
We called the strike for 12:15, just after
midnight. The boys on the day shift stayed
in the plant until four o'clock. Now both shifts
were inside. We were stll trying to get the five
men reinstated. Again the company refused.
So we let the midnight shift come in. Ford
had about eighty-nine thousand workers in
that plant all at the same- time. What every-
body said was impossible was about to happen.
We had organized a band. The boys came
marching out to the sound of music. We had
surveyed the fourteen highways that led into
the plant. It would take at least two thousand
cars on each of 'em as atpicket line to tie
things up. One of the boys got the idea: We'll
pull the trolley pole off the first streetcar
coming in from Detroit. So we had the street-
cars clear downtown for about six miles all
stopped: The boys stacked up rubbish and cars
any anything they could find. Everything was
Word came from the Governor. He wanted
the highways opened up. We agreed, if Ford
would keep the plant shut down while media-
tion was going on. At the insistence of the
Governor, Ford agreed. We had fourteen picket
lines, and I made fourteen s p e e c h e s that
morning. I explained what was happening.
We opened up the highways and set up skelton
All the workers were out, except about five
thousand Negroes. Ford was lenient in hiring
Negroes at that time. ("I think he brought
them in to show a philanthropic attitude. He
also brought in a lot of deaf and dumb people
and other handicapped. I signed up a good
number of them. We had somebody who could
talk on his fingers to them.") This was their
first chance to work in the industry, and they
were fearful of losing their jobs. They weren't
really scabbing. It was just fear. They weren't
doing any work. They were sitting there mak-
ing all kinds of homemade weapons, short
pieces of iron and rubber pipe. They were
afraid somebody was gonna come in and get
'em. But we weren't trying to get them out.
Ford was keeping them in there twenty-four
hours a day. They never went home. Keeping
them around the clock for five or six days was
costing him a pretty penny.
Bennett went to the conciliator and said,
"We want those fellows out of the plant." I
called my pickets over to the east side. Dewey,
the conciliator, had arranged with Bennett to
get the Negroes on city buses, on the west side
of the plant, So that's how it worked. There
was no trouble.
Then comes the A F of L sticking their nose
in, at Ford's insistence. I happened to meet
their director, a teamster from Boston. I said,
"Where the hell are you goin'?" He said, "I'm
goin' to compete with you." I said, "You're
too damn late. I've got the barn door locked."
He said, "I've been ordered to do it."
Do you think Ford made a deal with
the A F of L to keep the CIO out?
exactly. They had never touched this place
before. They weren't interested. They opened
up six, offices: One for white workers, who
numbered more than seventy thousand; and
five in Negro areas with less than ten thou-
sand workers. With one p u r p o s e: If they
couldn't win, they'd create a race riot or dam-
age the CIO. Among our militants were many
southern white workers, who were incensed.
But they were disciplined.
The strike continued until the eleventh of
April. It lasted about nine or ten days. When
the company consented to the election, the
boys all went back, without discrimination.
But Ford wouldn't put those five men back.
Rather than delay the return of the workers,
T nut 'em on my staff.
Reuther and Frankensteen after battle of the Ford overpass
Last week, Richard T. Frankensteen, (the UAW's chief organizer in Detroit) invited a corps
ofa ergymen. educators and noted liberals to witness a forthcoming tableau at the River Rouge
Plant. Some declined; others attended and bore out the union's story of what followed.
Just before an afternoon change of shift Frankensteen, Walter Reuther, and other members
of the UAW's Ford Organizing Committee mounted a company-owned overpass leading to Gate
4. Below, others carried leaflets attacking Ford; behind them trailed invited observers, news-
paper men, and a squad of photographers.
Felt-hatted men advanced from two sides. Fraankensteen and his comrades smiled.
"Get the hell off here, this is Ford property."
As Frankensteen turned to go, a Ford man clipped him on the neck; Frankensteen, a
onetime football player, wheeled and swung. Expert sluggers seized him; two caught his arms;
one jerked his coat over his head; a fourth knocked him flat with an uppercut. Some beat his
face and head; others spread his legs and kicked him in the groin, then heeled his abdomen.
Reuther - doubled up for protection - ran toward the steps leading from the overpass.
Pitched headlong, he. broke his fall by clutching a handrail at the bottom. Frankensteen's at-
tackers followed, bouncing their victim down step by step.
In fifteen minutes Ford's fighters cleared the field of all outsiders .
-NEWSWEEK,'June 5, 1937
Nobody bothered to tell me that, either.
Imagine my hands at five o'clock that first
"I was aware of men in plain clothes
being around the plant, and the constant
surveillance. I didn't learn till later there
were the men of Ford's service department.
Many of them, ex-cons.
"If you wanted to go to the toilet, you
had to have permission of the foreman.
He had to find a substitute for you on the
assembly line, who could sandpaper those
two right fenders as they went by. If he
couldn't right away, you held it. (Laughs.)
"If you didn't punch that clock at 8:00,
if you came in at 8:02, you were docked
one hour's pay. There wasn't any excuse.
If you did this two or three times, you got
"I made the mistake of telling the fore-
man I had enrolled at Northwestern Uni-
versity night school. He said, 'Mr. Ford
I was dumbfounded when Capizzi said, "Mr.
Ford doesn't want any dues collection in the
plant. Would you accept the check-off?" We
said, "That could be arranged." (Laughs.) He
asked if we'd take in, without recrimination,
the twenty percent who voted against us. We
said, of course. They'll be treated alike. He
asked, "Do you have a union label you could
put on the cars?'' We offered to get one de-
signed. For a while we put 'em on, but didn't
keep it up.
Bennett surprised me by going completely
overboard. He gave workers the right to vote
on who they wanted as their foreman.
(Laughs.) When I found this out, I hit the
roof. "What the hell are you doing?" He said,
"Your boys are gonna work for the foreman
they like and won't work for the one they
won't like." This was his reasoning. I said,
"Do you think we'd let you appoint our com-
mitteemen? Appoint your own damn fore-
men." There'd be no stability. If the foreman
says, "Hey, you're not performing your end
of the work," the guy could say, "We'll vote
you out at noon."
My union experience taught me that the
direction of the working force is vested in
management. The union- shall not abridge the-
right, so long as there is no discrimination or
unfairness. Ford was abridging his own right.
How do you explain the 180-degree turn
in the attitude of Ford and Bennett?
I think Bennett was a realist. He saw he
couldn't fight us any more. He told me: "I
want to see this thing work out, and Mr. Ford
wants me to make it work." I've a hunch Ford
put him on trial: make this work or get out.
And that was the end of the Ford service
It was a little tough for some of the fellows
to accept at first. They were suspicious. There
was a rash of wildcat strikes. I think-it came
out of this newborn f r e e d Poim. Each little
thing, they'd pull the pin in that department
until the grievance was settled. I got a call..
Bennett offered to send over a chauffeured
car for me. That's all I needed was a car with
a chauffeur, provided by the Ford Motor Com-
pany. (Laughs.) For a while, I handled each
of the grievances.
From a very tough anti-union position, the
company now tries to get along. In the old
days, every time we saw a Ford go by, we'd
say, "There's another tin lizzie." After the
strike, we said, "Doggone, isn't that a' nice
Copyright t1970 Studs Terkel, from Hard Times-An
Oral History of the Great Depression. Reprinted by per-
mission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House,