From the vault: 'The Rouge'

DEARBORN, Mich. – The Rouge revolutionized the world's manufacturing capabilities, but it also revolutionized labor rights.

Detroit is known most as the city who has popularized the automobile. In 1998, when this special aired, little of that history still stood. Dodge Main had already been leveled replaced by GM's Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly and Clark Street Assembly was in the process of transforming into the Clark Street Technology Park.

Ford Rouge River Complex still stood. The only thing that could be more iconic than the automobiles that came off the assembly line were the Detroit icons that have graced its floors; Joe Lewis, Henry Ford, Albert Kahn, Coleman Young, all had put time in at the historic factory.

Innovation and early growth

In the early 1900's, Ford Motor Company's $5-a day salary helped realize the American dream for thousands of people. Italians escaping the growing fascist power of Benito Mussolini, Russian fleeing czars, Southern blacks seeking equality; different people separated by languages and cultures, working together for a better life for themselves and their families. 

Detroit was a city whose growth seemed endless. With new jobs being created every day, it became a sanctuary for people across the world to create a better life.

"My father had left Italy under threat of death" Paul Boatin said of his family's reason for coming to Detroit. Born Pio Athena, Boatin had changed his name to something he felt would make it easier for him to assimilate in his new country. "Italian workers with large families, Polish workers with large families; Ford liked large families." 

"We were happy!" Italian immigrant Guido Valli said "We were amazed at the way people lived in this country."

Cathedral of Industry

The very first automotive plant to introduce assembly line manufacturing was the Highland Park Ford Plant in 1913. This new method cut production times down to almost 90 minutes, and the price of the finished product in half. Over 15 million Model Ts were built in the plant over 14 years. Inspired by its success, Ford imagined a factory that could produce every part of an automobile.

The Ford River Rouge Complex started construction in 1917 and would build Eagle Boats, anti-submarine patrol boats that the US Navy used in World War I. 

The plant was built from the ground up with the goal to have every step of the manufacturing done in-house. On completion, it had successfully met that goal and was the only factory on the planet that could turn raw materials into a car. 

After dwindling sales, Model T assembly came to an end in the spring of 1927, shifting Ford's production from Highland Park to new Rouge plant.

The most significant public monument in America

The public's enthusiasm for the state-of-the-art plant was taking the planet by storm. It was a unifying element that spread over every neighborhood in Metro Detroit. Everyone who wanted to work in Detroit wanted to work at the Rouge.

"What they did was line up at two o'clock in the morning --in the winter time-- when word went out that they were hiring," said former Union Auto Worker leader Doug Fraser "Thousands of workers used to line up."

The parking lots and streets flooded with hopeful workers, which became a bonding experience for the hopefuls.

"We didn't feel alone anymore!" 

In 1926, Ford Motor Company had employed 10,000 black workers at the Rouge, more than any other car manufacturer combined. 

"Blacks came in from the South looking to the industrial north" Rudy Nelson said "Looking for great opportunities."

Nelson's father was a World War I veteran who brought his family from North Carolina to Michigan in search of a more welcoming space. Ford eagerly welcomed them in, promoting Inkster for his people of color workers.

"Ford said he was going to build up Inkster and he did!" said Dave Moore. "He built new homes".

NAACP praised the Ford Motor Company's hiring policies, the Rouge being a model of integration. 

Detroit's growing minority population had pushed it to become the fourth largest city in the country. It was a time of prosperity for Detroit, filled with what appeared to be unlimited opportunity.

"The Model A introduction was a phenomenon"

The first car to roll off the assembly line at the Rouge was the new Model-A. The introduction of this new car was a national celebration, making the factory become a famous landmark in its own right. When tourists visited American for the first time, the Rouge was something they wanted to get a glimpse at.

Ford's iconic stature continued to grow. On Oct. 21, 1929, Ford's Greenfield village was dedicated in an elaborate ceremony that included the current president Herbert Hoover and famous Port Huron inventor, Thomas Edison. Things were looking up, but that wasn't for long.

"Hunger made no distinction on nationality or color"

It took over a year for The Great Depression to hit Detroit, and by 1931, automobile production had dropped to a third of what it once was. Thousands of children stood in bread lines. Workers at the Rouge were literally selling their jobs. 

"You'd go down there and pay them different prices, $25, $50." said Walter Warren "They'd give you a letter and the Rouge would honor it."

Slums began to populate the city. Ford naively believed that by ignoring the Great Depression, the country could power through it by continuing to work hard. Laborers were losing patience.

The Ford Hunger March

Seventy five percent of the Rouge workers were out of work. With plummeting sales, Ford attempted to turn things around his own way, lending the city of Detroit $5 million and opening soup kitchens in Dearborn and Inkster. The food wasn't free, however, as the citizens were made to pay the debt back when they were employed again. Tempers continued to grow.

On March 7, 1932. an estimated 3,000 gathered on the Ford Street bridge with a list of demands to present directly to Ford. They weren't given the chance to speak their case, as police and Ford security opened fire unprovoked. The demonstrators were pelted with teargas and occasional gunfire.

"They couldn't be human," said Warren "to shoot men, women, and children down like flies."

Dozens were injured and five were killed in the demonstration, including 16-year-old Joe Bussell. Sixty protestors were arrested, some being chained to their hospital beds.

Five days after the shootings, a funeral procession drove down Woodward Avenue. Thirty thousand people gathered to express their sympathy and outrage for event.

"All this talk of foreign agitators came to nothing!" said Boatin. "It was local people, people of Detroit!"

"Detroit Industry"

In 1932, DIA director Wilhelm Valentiner invited Mexican artist Diego Rivera to Detroit. There, he was commissioned by Edsel Ford to create a mural that captured the industrial heart of the city. Rivera set his sights on the Rouge.

"He was fascinated by power and the strength and the design of the machines." said Linda Downs, a Rivera expert "He was so taken by the whole Rouge complex in Dearborn and Edsel Ford opened it up for him."

Rivera started on the mural in July 1932, immediately drawing attraction from the workers and newspapers. His work reflected a diverse community of many nationalities, body types, ages; all working together. Upon completing "Detroit Industry" in 1933, controversies arose, as some viewed the work as having communist and sacrilegious themes. The City Council threatened to paint over the paintings, but was ultimately overruled by Edsel Ford, who had stated the murals would stand as is.

The economy started to grow again and Rouge's production grew with it. People were being hired again. However, new workers were given unrealistic production quotas that they were required to meet under threat of being replaced. 

Spies were placed inside the workforce by Ford Motor Company's head of security, Henry Bennett. The Ford Service Department was the largest private security on the planet, hiring from local gangs and Michigan prisons. The spies were tasked with keeping a look out for any potential future labor disputes or talk of unionizing. Well dressed servicemen overseeing workers had even appeared in Rivera's "Detroit Industry". 

Battle of the Overpass

In 1937, after a series of strikes in Flint and Detroit, the workers had won the right to unionize. Henry Ford could not ignore the victories, saying "Labor organizers are the worst thing that have ever struck the Earth".

He continued to naively believe that his workers didn't need unions and that they were paid fairly. Desperately, Ford decided to go down an illegal path to stop union growth. 

Union leader Walter Reuther, with several union organizers, and a Detroit News photographer, went to the Rouge plant to hand out pamphlets. The Ford Service Department confronted the men with violence, outnumbering them several times over. They failed to destroy the camera's photographic plates, although they tried. Once the photos were developed and published, the public's perception of Ford Motor Company's work practices began to sour.

The fifty thousand worker strike

On Sept. 6, 1937, Ford workers marched in the Labor Day parade for the first time in 20 years. Many wore masks to hide their identities, fearing consequences from their employer.

After a series of conflicts, the Rouge workers went on strike again in 1941. Fifty thousand workers walked off the plant, forming one of history's earliest picket-lines, using their numbers to blockade the plant --boats, cars, and people could not get in. After a rocky start, the workers stood their ground together. The workforce showed the spectrum of American diversity, unable to be manipulated against each other for any of their differences.

After 11 days of violent clashes with Ford Servicemen, it was Ford's own wife, Clara, who finally swayed his opinion on the situation. He agreed to sign an agreement with the union representatives, bringing worker's rights into the Rouge. 

Later that year, many of the workers who had successful fought for their coworkers would travel overseas to successfully fight for their country in World War II. 

Sign up for ClickOnDetroit Email Newsletters (click here) for more stories like this.