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Between 1937 and 1941, several thousand workers were fired from Ford plants on suspicion of being union activists or even sympathizers. Ford’s black officials along with black ministers and Urban League officials spoke to black workers at Ford and to their families arguing that the UAW would only get black workers fired from the best jobs they would ever find.
Nonetheless, the workers’ organization was increasing. By the beginning of 1941, union membership was growing by leaps and bounds. And the atmosphere in the plants was becoming heated.
On March 13, 3,000 workers in one division at Rouge sat down on the job to protest the firings of union members. On March 18, 6,000 more workers in the axle building sat down until 12 fired unionists were rehired. On March 19, another building struck and the company once again gave in. On March 21, Ford agreed to return more than 1,000 fired unionists.
But on April 1, management refused to talk with a delegation from the rolling mill about the firing of union committeemen in that building. On April 2, the rolling mill workers stopped work, then quickly spread their strike to other departments and buildings. Within 9 hours, the whole massive Rouge complex had been shut down.
Tens of thousands of the 85,000 workers at Rouge ringed the plant in huge picket lines, 27 in all, at all the different gates. The workers positioned parked cars to form huge barricades to shut down all the roads leading to the plant. In addition to the daily strike bulletin issued in several languages, there were regular radio broadcasts and sound trucks circling the plant. When cars were removed, workers began to form moving picket lines of cars four and five abreast all around the Rouge. They were joined by other workers on the picket lines and at rallies. Workers all over the area knew that Ford was the final test. And they joined in, often over attempts by the UAW leadership to keep the struggle restricted to Ford workers.
To get some idea what was going on, here is a radio address, carried by CBS from March 7, 1941 with UAW President R.J. Thomas laying out the issue.