One worker shouted out, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work beside a nigger on the assembly line!”
I just finished reading The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War.
It's a superb book (with too many details for casual reading) about how the American auto industry converted to the production of vehicles and equipment for WW2 -- everything from bombers to bullets.
One big surprise in the book: Edsel Ford, who provided the name for one of the most notorious failures in business, was not a bumbling idiot. He was actually competent and creative, but restrained by his dictatorial, unappreciative father--company founder Henry Ford.
For many reasons, the transition from making cars to instruments of war did not go smoothly.
Because so many men were fighting overseas, the factories sought non-traditional employees: women, southerners and blacks.
The prejudice was overwhelming. Blacks were denied promotions and there were frequent "hate strikes" over such issues as integrated lavatories. White women thought they'd catch venereal diseases if they used the same toilets as black women.
The racial hate of the 1940s is a sad precursor of 21st-century Detroit.
>>In 1940, African Americans made up 4 percent of the workers in the automobile industry and only 0.2 percent of the workers in the aircraft industry. Roughly 70 percent of black automobile workers were employed in the metropolitan Detroit area and worked primarily for a handful companies: Ford, Chrysler (Dodge), General Motors, and Briggs Manufacturing, which made automobile bodies.
The Ford Motor Company averaged 11,000 black employees between 1937 and 1941, roughly 10 percent of its workforce. Ford towered above the other automakers in the Detroit area in this regard, employing about two-thirds of all blacks working in the auto industry. In 1941, Chrysler employed 1,978 African Americans, 2.4 percent of its workforce, almost entirely at its Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck, a small city surrounded by Detroit. GM’s 2,800 black employees, scattered among plants in Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit, constituted roughly 3 percent of its workforce. Briggs Manufacturing had nearly 1,300 black employees, roughly 10 percent of its payroll.
The history of black workers in the Detroit auto industry before World War II is worth recounting. The Packard Motor Car Company, heavily committed to war work in World War I (Liberty airplane engines), employed 1,100 blacks in May 1917, the first automaker to hire African Americans in substantial numbers. Ford had only 50 black workers in January 1916 but employed 2,500 in 1920, still only 4 percent of Ford’s enormous workforce. By 1926, Ford employed 10,000 blacks, roughly 10 percent of its labor force, a share that remained fairly steady through 1941.
Dodge Brothers was one of the earliest Detroit automakers to hire black workers. John Dodge met with John Dancy, the head of the Detroit Urban League, in November 1919 to discuss the possibility of Dodge Brothers hiring African Americans. John Dodge hired black workers over the next year, but there is no record of the numbers involved. By the late 1920s, Dodge was the second largest employer of blacks among the automakers, with about 850 African American employees, but a distant second to Ford.
Many large employers such as the Fisher Body Corporation steadfastly refused to hire blacks. Fisher Body had 12,000 employees in Detroit in 1926, but only sixty black workers, all serving as janitors. The company’s hiring practices remained largely unchanged over the next two decades.
The automakers who hired black workers, including Ford, initially placed these workers in the most in difficult, dirty, unpleasant, and dangerous jobs in their plants, which helped minimize white workers’ objections to their presence. African American workers were rarely found in the mainstream production departments, which meant that they were segregated from white workers. Typically black workers labored in the foundries, paint-spraying operations, heat treatment plants, and sanding operations. They typically were employed as general laborers, hand truck operators, or sweepers, the lowest-paying jobs in the factory, without regard to education or talent.
Black workers at Ford had more opportunities than at the other automakers. While more than half of Ford’s black employees worked in the foundries, they also worked in assembly operations and in skilled trades, including tool and die making, and were admitted into Ford’s apprentice school.
The labor shortages brought by the expansion of war production coupled with the manpower demands of the military service eventually forced all defense producers including the automobile companies to hire blacks in large numbers. Nationally, the share of jobs in the defense industry held by blacks increased from 4.2 percent in July 1942 to 8.6 percent in July 1945. In early 1941 the Detroit-area labor force included 70,000 blacks, about 7 percent of the total, but only 30,000 of them (42 percent) were employed and only half of those employed, roughly 15,000 (21 percent), worked in manufacturing. The employment opportunities for African Americans had changed dramatically by 1945. Blacks made up 14 percent of a much larger Detroit labor force and held 95,000 defense industry jobs (21 percent of the total).
Most automakers-turned-defense-contractors, with a few exceptions like Fisher Body, experienced substantial changes in the mix of their workers in terms of race and by gender. The Chrysler Corporation was a typical example. Chrysler’s prewar workforce of 82,243 increased by more than 50 percent to 125,481 employees at the wartime peak level in March 1945. Chrysler employed 1,978 black workers in 1940 (2.4 percent of its workforce), but in March 1945 had 18,148 African Americans (14 percent of the total) on its payroll.
African Americans faced exclusion from work in many parts of the defense industry in the early years of the war and, once employed, experienced severe discrimination in terms of jobs, training, and promotions.
President Roosevelt, faced with heavy lobbying by black leaders, especially A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, issued Executive Order 8802 on 25 June 1941 banning employment discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin by defense contractors, labor unions, and civilian departments within the federal government.
Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) to enforce his executive order. The FEPC received 12,000 complaints of discrimination during the war and settled about 5,000 of them. The commission launched educational campaigns against racial discrimination in the workplace and exposed numerous cases of prejudice. With fewer than 120 employees trying to serve all of wartime industry, its influence was at best marginal. The FEPC had some success in integrating workplaces and reducing discrimination in northern and western states but made very little progress in southern and border states.
There were significant advances made against racial discrimination in war industries, but not by the FEPC or other federal civilian agencies. Progress came as a result of policies followed by some labor unions, particularly the UAW, from the actions taken by employers independent of government mandates, and through the intervention of the military services.
In the automobile industry, black workers faced serious hurdles to job equality even after they were initially employed in foundries, paint shops, sanding operations, or in other dangerous, unskilled work. When employers moved black workers into previously all-white departments though promotions or transfers from other plants, white workers in the affected department and throughout the plant frequently would go on strike until the transfers were rescinded.
The UAW international union never authorized or supported these “wildcat strikes,” routinely referred to as “hate strikes” by the press, but UAW local unions nevertheless often supported these actions. These racially motivated strikes disrupted war production and at least temporarily slowed racial integration in the plants. There were periodic hate strikes in 1941 and 1942, substantially more in 1943, but then they stopped entirely the following year.
White hostility toward black workers was usually the result of deep-seated racism. Several Detroit-area automobile factories had disproportionate shares of recent white immigrants from Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Deep South. Their racism was part of the baggage they brought with them, and the plants in which they worked in large numbers were also the sites of most of the “hate strikes” early in the war. Frequently white workers refused to share bathroom facilities with blacks, and female workers were especially reluctant to share bathrooms with black women because they believed that black women were dirty and carried venereal diseases white women could contract by using the same bathrooms.
This issue produced a strike of more than 2,000 white women workers at the U.S. Rubber Company plant in Detroit in March 1943 after the company hired black female machinists. In spring 1944, when the Chevrolet plant in Flint failed to rehire seven white female workers who had refused to work alongside four black women assigned to their department, 1,500 UAW workers walked out. 18 The fear of sharing bathrooms was not limited to white women. A similar dispute arose at the Point Breeze plant of the Western Electric Company in Baltimore, which produced combat communications equipment for the U.S. Army.
When Western Electric eliminated segregated bathrooms in early October 1943, the union— the Point Breeze Employees Association— went on strike. Western Electric’s personnel manager also argued that blacks carried much more venereal disease than whites, so sharing common toilets subjected white workers to unnecessary risk.
With the strike still in effect after ten weeks, President Roosevelt ordered the army to seize the plant, which it did on 19 December 1943. Western Electric enlarged its bathroom facilities but kept them segregated, left the dining facilities integrated, and offered venereal disease testing to all. The army returned control of the plant on 23 March 1944, ending the dispute.
There were dozens of hate strikes documented in the greater Detroit area alone and probably many more that were so short-lived or involved so few workers that they went unnoticed. The well-documented hate strikes took place primarily at mid-sized automakers, at plants operated by Packard, Hudson, and Timken Axle, or at suppliers’ factories.
Chrysler experienced several of these disturbances at its plants, but Ford and General Motors had few. The outcome of these strikes was determined by a combination of factors: the attitudes of white and black workers, the positions taken by the UAW local union and the international union, the approach taken by company management to resolve the disputes, and the willingness of the military services to intervene.
The Packard Motor Car Company plant in Detroit was the scene of several of the largest hate strikes in the early years of the war. The plant had all the elements to produce an explosive environment: a workforce made up mostly of Polish Americans and southern whites, both very hostile toward blacks; local union leadership that allegedly had connections with the KKK; and an openly racist personnel manager.
The leadership of the Packard UAW Local 190 had pushed Packard management to promote blacks within the plant, but when the company transferred two black metal polishers from automobile production to defense work in October 1941, about 250 white metal polishers protested and staged a sit-down strike. The shop steward returned the men to their old jobs, and their fate touched off a divisive struggle involving the leaders of Local 190, the UAW’s national leadership, C. E. Weiss (Packard’s personnel manager), and federal officials. Weiss insisted that the local union leadership promise in writing to discipline any of its members who tried to prevent the transfers.
The local union leaders eventually agreed, and in mid-March 1942, six months after the controversy first developed, Packard transferred the two black metal polishers to their new jobs. 20 A similar dispute arose in January 1942 when the management of the U.S. Naval Arsenal in Center Line, Michigan, operated by the Hudson Motor Car Company, promoted two black janitors, who were trained as machinists, to new jobs. Two hundred white workers walked off their jobs in protest and the company returned the black workers to their previous jobs.
UAW Local 154 claimed it was powerless to enforce its own international union’s constitution or federal law regarding job discrimination. Hudson’s Local 154 elected several black workers to its executive board in April and the company, the navy, and the UAW agreed to upgrade blacks to better jobs. Hudson was desperate to find machine operators. On 18 June 1942, the transfer of a handful of blacks to machine jobs touched off a walkout of ten thousand white workers.
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox threatened the striking workers with wholesale firings and blacklisting at other defense plants, while the UAW threatened to discipline the hate strike leaders by expelling them from the union. The white workers returned to their jobs within a day, as did the black machine operators, and Hudson fired four of the ringleaders with the UAW’s support. A unified stance against such strikes seemed to end them quickly.
Chrysler experienced two hate strikes in 1942 at several of its Detroit-area plants over the issue of transferring black workers from one plant to another. In early February 1942, Chrysler transferred black dock workers (boxers and loaders) from the Dodge Main plant to the Highland Park plant, which touched off three sit-down strikes at the latter plant. Richard Frankensteen, a UAW vice president in charge of the Chrysler plants, gave the strikers an ultimatum: return to work or be fired. They went back to work.
On 2 June 1942, when Chrysler transferred twenty-six black workers to its Dodge truck plant, about 350 white workers walked out and forced the closing of the plant, which employed 3,000. Chrysler, the UAW, and the WPB stood their ground and fired two ringleaders of the walkout. The plant returned to normal the following day, with the black workers at their new jobs.
Timken-Detroit, a large manufacturer of axles, promoted a single black hammerman helper to hammerman on 7 July 1942, touching off a strike of the white workers. Traditionally blacks had worked as helpers in this plant but never as hammermen, a more skilled and higher-paid job. The company withdrew this single promotion and the men returned to work. The UAW international union, the company, and the U.S. government combined to force the UAW local to agree “that all Negroes who were eligible should be upgraded” and that the first black man who had been promoted could remain as a hammerman.
Colonel George E. Strong, the Army Air Force contract compliance officer based in Detroit, informed the local union that he intended to enforce Executive Order 8802. The upgrading of a second black worker to the hammerman’s position touched off a very brief walkout by a handful of workers.
The most serious hate strikes of the war, but not the last, took place at the Packard plant in Detroit in May and June 1943. Some 2,500 black workers were employed at Packard at the time, mostly in the foundry. On 24 May, Packard upgraded three black men to jobs on the aircraft engine assembly line, which caused several hundred workers to immediately walk off their jobs. UAW Local 190 agreed to withdraw the three men and hold a conference to resolve the issue. In a heated meeting of the union Packard in November 1944 to protest the UAW local union’s caving in to its white members and returning black workers who had been promoted back to their lower-level jobs.
Among those seeking work in the defense plants during the war, black females faced the most pervasive, virulent, and persistent discrimination, far worse than that faced by black men. They are treated here as African Americans rather than as women because they faced hostility based on their race rather than gender. Automobile companies that hired thousands of white women by 1943 simply refused to hire any black women.
White female members of the UAW were as strongly opposed to the introduction of black women into the workplace as anyone. At a UAW Women’s Conference held in February 1942, Evelyn Scanlon, representing the women of UAW Local 3 (Dodge Main) but reflecting the views of most women workers, objected to a motion supporting desegregation of the shop floor. Scanlon proclaimed, “I don’t think we should consider bringing them (black women) into the shops— if we bring them in even in this crisis we’d always have them to contend with. And you know what that means— we’d be working right beside them, we’d be using the same rest rooms, etc. . . . I’m against it.”
A spate of incidents in the first half of 1943 likely reflected an increase in the hiring of black women by defense contractors. In late January 1943, the Hudson Naval Arsenal hired two black women to work in the cafeteria but fired them after white women workers threatened to quit. Sixteen busboys and cafeteria porters, all black, walked out in protest. The personnel manager claimed he fired the women because they “distracted” the other black cafeteria workers from doing their work. On 12 February 1943, Packard promoted three black women to jobs as drill press operators after they completed a training program. White women holding the same jobs walked out and the local union returned the black women to their training school.
The UAW brought in the FEPC and the U.S. Army in the person of Colonel Strong to pressure the company to return the black women to their new jobs and Packard obliged. The company, however, forced these women to use a segregated bathroom. The white women then returned to work, but when Packard added four additional black female drill press operators on 18 March 1943, about three thousand white Packard workers walked off their jobs in two different wildcat strikes.
The company, the union, and the government refused to cave in to these hate strikes and Packard remained racially tense for much of the rest of the year.
Even when black women found jobs at defense plants, they typically faced severe discrimination in terms of their job assignments and general working conditions. Black women employed at Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit found that they were to clean men’s bathrooms or were required to move barrels of metal shavings weighing two hundred pounds or more. They had been trained to work as elevator operators, but the male elevator operators refused to give up their jobs.<<