Black Workers, Fordism and the UAW
Book Review of Bates's "The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford"
Publisher: Against the Current
Date Written: 01/01/2014
Year Published: 2014
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX20350
A book review of Beth Tompkins Bates's analysis of how the automotive industry provided an opportunity for African Americans to fight for equal working rights, unionize, and forge an alliance with white workers.
The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford attempts to map the transition from the Detroit Black community's idolization of Henry Ford to its support of the UAW's successful 1941 campaign to represent the workers at Ford. While General Motors, Chrysler, Packard, Briggs and other auto companies were unionized in the 1936-'37 strike wave, Ford maintained its anti-union stance until the eve of World War II through the use of the carrot and the stick.
Beth Tompkins Bates weaves her story of Ford's success in revolutionizing and dominating auto production with the story of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to Detroit. By 1920 Detroit was the fourth largest U.S. city -- with almost 1.2 million people, half a million more than today -- as well as its fourth most important manufacturing center.
The thesis of The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford is that the experience Black Detroit gained through their fight for social justice and their decisions about which politicians would be trustworthy allies gave them valuable experience in coalition work with whites.
In 1930 there were 24 national and international unions, 10 of which were affiliated with the AFL, with a "whites only" policy. How would FDRs National Recovery Administration operate to put millions back to work at a living wage? While FDR insisted that the wage code outlined in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was colorblind, the Black community debated the problem: If there was no wage differential, wouldn't employers simply replace African Americans with white workers?
But by 1933 National Urban League Convention concluded that the "cause of the Negro worker" could not be considered "without recognizing the importance of collective bargaining."
That same year, the Civic Rights Committee was founded, headed up by the dynamic and militant postal worker Snow Grigsby. Initially CRC's goal was to put pressure on city officials to hire more African Americans.
Bates sees the CRC as introducing "a new style of protest politics," spurring on other organizations and taking a lead when necessary for "the betterment of black Detroit." These discussions and actions moved Detroit's African Americans from the Black nationalist approach of the 1920s to a united front against discrimination approach during the Depression.