71 years ago today: Henry Ford's thugs gunned down homeless workers in the streets
On March 7, 1932, several thousand unemployed workers marched toward Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Upon reaching the complex, the city police and Ford’s armed guards, very similar entities, opened fire on the marchers, killing five and wounding more than 60.
Henry Ford still has an international reputation for good labor management. This is based entirely upon his 1914 decision to pay his workers $5 a day, the equivalent of about $113 today. That was indeed pretty impressive, doubling his workers’ wages. Here’s the problem though–he didn’t raise that wage for well over a decade. Moreover, Ford was a small-minded mind and demanded nearly complete control over his workers’ lives through his Social Department and its 50 investigators that detailed workers’ everyday lives to make sure they lived up to Ford’s moral standards. Ford also hated unions. He hired Harry Bennett, a former boxer, to bust unions and beat organizers, which Bennett and his men did with extreme prejudice, most famously at the Battle of the Overpass in 1937, when Bennett’s men brutally beat United Auto Workers leaders including Walter Reuther. So when the Great Depression began in 1929, Ford had no patience for those who would argue he had a responsibility for his workers.
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As the Depression deepened, the auto companies laid off thousands of workers. Between 1929 and 1932, automobile production fell by 75%. For those still working, wages dropped by 37%. The resulting unemployment led to depression and suicide. There were 113 suicides in Detroit in 1927, 568 in 1931. By 1932, there were 400,000 unemployed people in Michigan, most of them in the Detroit area. Dave Moore remembered life in Detroit at the time:
I hope you never will witness what people went through. People would go down to the old Eastern Market and pick up half-rotten white potatoes or sweet potatoes, lettuce and cabbage, whatever the farmers were throwing away. That was the source of food for many people, picking up a half-rotten banana or a half-rotten potato, any kind of half-rotten vegetables, to bring home so your mama could make a meal out of it. I came from a family of seven boys and two girls, and the older boys had to leave home. Whatever food there was, was left for the younger ones. David Moore, and a lot of other David Moore’s went very hungry at that time. But we tried to make it possible for our moms and dads and brothers and sisters to eat. We’d go out and try to salvage whatever we could from the stores and street corners, wherever different kinds of food – discarded vegetables and meat – had been thrown out because they couldn’t sell it. That’s how we got together a meal for ourselves.
The unemployed began organizing, with help of the Communist Party that was organizing the unemployed across the United States. Two communist-led groups, the Detroit Unemployed Council and the Auto, Aircraft, and Vehicle Workers of America decided on a march of the unemployed from Detroit to the River Rouge complex in Dearborn to present petitions demanding jobs. Focusing attention on the Ford Motor Company seemed an ideal way to galvanize support for unemployment relief at one of the worst times in American history.