Battle of the Overpass

Coordinates: 42°18′27″N 83°09′21″W / 42.3076°N 83.1558°W / 42.3076; -83.1558
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Battle of the Overpass
Initial confrontation between Ford Service Department (left) and UAW organizers (right) on the overpass
DateMay 26, 1937 (1937-05-26)
42°18′27″N 83°09′21″W / 42.3076°N 83.1558°W / 42.3076; -83.1558
Lead figures
Casualties and losses
16 injured
The incident was at the pedestrian overpass at the River Rouge Plant.
Frankensteen was attacked by Ford Service Department members.

The Battle of the Overpass was an incident on May 26, 1937, in which Walter Reuther and members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) clashed with Ford Motor Company security guards at the River Rouge Plant complex in Dearborn, Michigan, United States. Photographs of the incident were publicized, so support for Henry Ford and his company greatly decreased.[1]


The United Auto Workers was founded in 1935, and by 1937 it had attracted significant support. Strikes in the 1930s extracted major concessions from employers in multiple industries, although they often resulted violence against strikers.

While strikes resulted in major victories against employers nationally, the Ford Motor Company proved difficult to organize. The company's Service Department spied on and policed its workers inside and outside the plants, under the direction of Harry Bennett, former boxer and personal associate of Henry Ford. At its peak, the Ford Service Department numbered 3,000, and was described by The New York Times as "the largest private quasi-military organization in existence."[2] The most extreme example of Ford's repression was the Ford Hunger March of 1932, which ended with four marchers dead and dozens injured by machine gun fire.[3]

Ford's history of brutality against union organizers was accompanied by an understanding of the power of its workforce. UAW Local 174 organized a sit-down strike against the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company in early December 1936, which impacted production at the Rouge plant.[4] Local 174 gained members rapidly after its success at Kelsey-Hayes, and set its sights on the Rouge plant itself. Tactics developed at Kelsey-Hayes were used at the Flint sit-down strike later that month, which resulted in major gains in membership and national recognition for the UAW.[5]


UAW Local 174 planned a leaflet campaign titled, "Unionism, Not Fordism", at the pedestrian overpass above Miller Road at Gate 4 of the River Rouge Plant complex. The leaflet campaign was planned for the shift change, when many of the plant's 90,000 workers would be present.[6] Miller Road and the overpass were both considered public property, and Reuther held a permit for the leaflet campaign from the city of Dearborn.[7]

The union demanded a work day plan of six hours for US$8 (equivalent to $163 in 2022), in contrast to the eight-hour day for $6 (equivalent to $122 in 2022) then in place. The leaflets cited the success of the organizers at General Motors, Chrysler, and Briggs Manufacturing Company, and promised that the UAW would "End the Ford Service System."[8][6]

At approximately 2 p.m., several of the leading UAW union organizers, including Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen, were asked by a Detroit News photographer, James R. "Scotty" Kilpatrick, to pose for a picture on the overpass, with the Ford sign in the background. While they were posing, men from Ford's Service Department came from behind and began to beat them.[9][10] The number of attackers is disputed, but may have been 40.[11]

Frankensteen had his jacket pulled over his head and was kicked and punched. Reuther described some of the treatment he received:

Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms ... and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more...

One union organizer, Richard Merriweather, suffered a broken back from the beating.[9]


The security forces mob also attempted to destroy photographic plates, but the Detroit News photographer James R. Kilpatrick hid the photographic plates under the back seat of his car, and surrendered useless plates he had on his front seat. News and photos of the brutal attack made headlines in newspapers across the country.

In spite of the photographs, and many witnesses who had heard his men specifically seek out Frankensteen and Reuther, security director Bennett claimed — "The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials. ... They simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality. ... I know definitely no Ford service man or plant police were involved in any way in the fight."

The incident greatly increased support for the UAW and hurt Ford's reputation.[1] Bennett and Ford were chastised by the National Labor Relations Board for their actions. Three years later, Ford signed a contract with the UAW.

A partially fictitious account of these events appear in Upton Sinclair's book, The Flivver King.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lewis, David L. (1976). The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  2. ^ Bates, Beth Tompkins (2012). "Henry Ford at a Crossroads: Inkster and the Ford Hunger March". The making of Black Detroit in the age of Henry Ford. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-3564-7.
  3. ^ Sugar, Maurice (1980). "Depression in Detroit". The Ford Hunger March. Berkeley, CA: Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute. pp. 29–38. ISBN 978-0-913876-15-2.
  4. ^ Bernstein, Irving (1970). Turbulent years; a history of the American worker, 1933-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 523.
  5. ^ Fine, Sidney (1969). Sit-down: the General Motors Strike of 1936-1937. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 131–132. ISBN 978-0-472-32948-9.
  6. ^ a b King, Gilbert (April 30, 2013). "How the Ford Motor Company Won a Battle and Lost Ground". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved September 29, 2023.
  7. ^ Hansen, Curtis (2005). "The Battle of the Overpass". Walter P. Reuther Library. Archived from the original on February 1, 2016. Retrieved October 1, 2023.
  8. ^ "(30587) UAW Organizing, Flyer, Battle of the Overpass, 1937". Walter P. Reuther Library. June 14, 2013. Retrieved October 1, 2023.
  9. ^ a b Nolan, Jenny (August 7, 1997). "The Battle of the Overpass". The Detroit News. Archived from the original on January 21, 2013. Retrieved June 12, 2011.
  10. ^ Norwood, Stephen H. (2002). Strikebreaking & Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 184. ISBN 9780807853733.
  11. ^ Chinery, Kristen (May 19, 2011). "Battle of the Overpass". Walter P. Reuther Library. Retrieved September 30, 2023.

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