Henry Ford, a man of contradictions, had a bittersweet relationship with his employees. He stunned the world by paying his workers an incredible $5 a day in 1914 - and then created a company police force to spy on them and monitor their behavior. He set the price of his cars low so that his workers could afford them - and then ordered the most vicious anti-union campaign in automotive history.
And May 26, 1937, 66 years ago today, was the day he won the battle but lost his war against organized labor.
By early 1937, after sit-down strikes had paralyzed production, General Motors and Chrysler had recognized the UAW. Ford was the final prize for the fledgling union.
Henry Ford gave Harry Bennett, chief of Ford Motor's notorious Service Department, the task of stopping the UAW, and Bennett stocked his private police force with ex-convicts and gangsters.
"It was very, very evident that Henry Ford had made a decision that he would take them on, and he meant violence," says Irving Bluestone, a former UAW vice president.
On May 26, at the massive Rouge plant in Dearborn, union activists led by UAW Vice President Richard Frankensteen and Walter Reuther, an ex-Ford toolmaker and future UAW president, gathered at an overpass near Gate 4 of the Rouge to pass out leaflets.
Dozens joined them in demonstrating, and reporters and photographers were present. As the journalists watched, Bennett's men rushed in and beat the activists bloody.
Press coverage alerted the nation to Ford's union-busting tactics. The Battle of the Overpass, as it would be called, made the cover of Time magazine.
The incident led to National Labor Relations Board charges against Ford.
The company lost that challenge after appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still, it would be four years until Ford Motor was unionized. The firing of eight men at the Rouge on April 2, 1941, was the turning point. About 50,000 Rouge workers joined a wildcat strike.
After more than a week, Ford capitulated and agreed to put the union to a vote. Ninety-seven percent of the workers voted for union representation.
For the rest of the story, read Automotive News' Ford 100 commemorative edition on June 16. For information about the special issue, visit www.autonews.com/ford100/.