LABOR SINCE THE OVERPASS

Dearborn, Mich.--A suitable venue for contemplating organized labor's current disarray is here, at the footbridge over Miller Road. In 1937 it led to the main entrance of the foremost example of America's manufacturing might--the Ford Motor Co.'s River Rouge plant, then the world's most fully integrated car-manufacturing facility, from blast furnaces to assembly line. Five years later the plant would exemplify America as the "arsenal of democracy." It made jeeps, tanks, trucks and engines for B-24 bombers. But on May 26 the footbridge to the plant made history.

"The Battle of the Overpass," a heroic event in American labor history, began when Walter Reuther, president of UAW Local 174, and three colleagues started across the footbridge to distribute leaflets as part of their campaign to unionize the plant. They were savagely beaten by perhaps 40 Ford thugs and thrown down the overpass stairs. The thugs confiscated most photographers' film, but James (Scotty) Kilpatrick of The Detroit News surrendered only blank film. His pictures made Reuther a national figure and aroused American opinion against tactics then used to thwart unionization.

Ford came to terms with the UAW in May 1941, seven months before American industry was conscripted into war. Even though women flooded into factories (Rose Will Monroe, who as "Rosie the Riveter" symbolized this social transformation, worked in Ford's Willow Run plant), labor was scarce and wage controls limited companies' means of competing for workers. So companies offered medical and pension benefits as untaxed compensation not covered by wage controls. Today whole industries are buckling beneath the weight of these "legacy costs."

By 1955, 33 percent of the nation's non-farm work force was unionized. But few government employees were. As Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute writes in his book "The New New Left: How American Politics Works Today," the assumption was that because there is no competition in the delivery of government services, strikes could cripple cities. That was then.

Now, Bentonville, Ark. (population: 28,000, up 40 percent in four years), has supplanted Detroit as the home of the nation's largest company. Intense and protracted efforts by organized labor have failed to unionize a single one of Wal-Mart's 3,190 North American stores. General Motors, the largest corporation in 1955, is unionized. Two credit-rating agencies have reduced its debt, and one has reduced Ford's to junk-bond status as both companies struggle to finance medical and pension benefits for current and--even more numerous--retired workers. Such costs also are major reasons for the parlous condition of all the older airlines.

In 1955, when Japan was still struggling to recover from the damage done by B-24s with their Ford-built engines, the American automobile industry was riding high and the UAW was riding along. With negligible foreign competition--their market share was 95 percent--American car companies could pass along to consumers the costs of labor contracts. Today, while domestic carmakers are planning to shed jobs by the thousands, employment is surging in the nonunionized plants, most in the South, where foreign automakers build one quarter of all the cars and trucks made in America.

In the 1930s American workers were literally fighting to get into unions. Today unions are fighting with themselves about the appropriate tactics to adopt in response to the fact that just 7.9 percent of private-sector workers are union members. But at the apogee of the American labor movement in the 1950s, the transformation of the movement began.

In 1958 the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees won collective-bargaining rights from New York Mayor Robert Wagner--son of Sen. Robert Wagner, author of the Wagner Act, a.k.a. the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the most important federal action enabling private-sector unionization. AFSCME's members rose from 100,000 in 1955 to 1 million in 1985. It has 1.4 million members today and is just one of many government employees' unions.

The River Rouge complex, which is still humming, is a National Historic Landmark, and "The Battle of the Overpass" and the UAW's successes are commemorated at a plaza--built by Ford--on Miller Road, by the footbridge. In the auto industry, where labor and management used to fight over the allocation of abundance, the coming showdown will be over the reduction of benefits won in palmier days.

Soon, perhaps, a majority of organized labor will be government employees. The labor movement will be primarily government organized as an interest group to lobby and pressure itself. Already New York City, which has about the same size population it had 40 years ago, has 30 percent more city employees. Antonio Villaraigosa, the new mayor of Los Angeles, is a former organizer for that city's teachers union. The footbridge over Miller Road led to this. The heroic era of organized labor is long gone.

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